Pushing against imperial cultural glorification of the empowerment of Indian ayahs (nursemaids) sailing to Britain, this article uses official and vernacular archives to chart a social history of the precarious predicament of ayahs denied wages, facing caste death, or abandoned in Britain without return passage. Precarity, rather than agency or victimhood, is a useful lens to examine the lives of colonial maidservants traveling to Britain. After the mid-nineteenth-century transition from East India Company rule to Crown rule, the British liberal state’s policy of nonregulation and formulation of the employer-ayah relationship as “private” increased the vulnerability of ayahs. Despite Indian anticolonial, nationalist critiques of British immoral exploitation, the class collusion of British and Indian employers provides a valuable framework to examine the lives of traveling ayahs. Instead of looking from employers’ perspectives—as studies of servants tend to do—this article foregrounds the experiences, anxieties, and struggles of ayahs themselves to lead moral, respectable lives by preserving their caste purity, chastity, and maternity. This article puts into conversation the life stories of individual ayahs with larger arguments about gender, caste, race, and empire.
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