British Colonialism in India

Colonialism is a distinct form of imperialism in which a colonizing nation exerts direct controls over a colonized state by military, economic, and political means. The forceful widespread intrusion of a colonizing nation naturally causes an irreversible

The Children of Edward Holden Cruttenden with an Indian Ayah (1759-1762), by . Ayahs were commonly employed to take care of British children in India and often developed close bonds with them. The Cruttenden family's ayah reportedly saved the children's lives in an uprising, yet here she is pictured in the background, as if to emphasize her relationship of servitude to her lighterskinned charges. ©
Alinari/Art Resource
, NY. Museu de Arte, Sao Paulo, Brazil.

change in all dimensions of the colonized state, the lives of the people, and the social architecture. To achieve the primary objective of colonialism, creating wealth for the colonizing nation and its people, many different groups, including women and children acting synergistically, must contribute. India forms an excellent case study, beginning with the children of imperial officials themselves.

During the period between 1830 and 1880 a large number of British children either went to India with their parents or were born there. The exact number of British children in India at any given time during that period is unclear, as sources of information about British children in the Indian subcontinent are scanty. The accounts of children's lives are in parents' letters and diaries, and in contemporary domestic manuals. If all of these writings are read as a corpus, a picture emerges about British childhood in India. The available documents relate the experiences of children from British families ranging from lower-middle class to upper-middle-class.

Infant Mortality

A major anxiety for British families in colonized India was the high rate of INFANT MORTALITY. In the Bengal presidency between 1860 and 1869, the average death rate was about 148 per thousand British children under the age of five, while in England during the same period the mortality rate was about 67 per thousand. The grief of losing children was expressed time and again by British mothers. Maria Amelia Vansittart, wife of a Civil Session judge in northern India, noted in her diary on March 26, 1846, that between eight and nine in the evening a very little girl was born, and in the entry of April 13 she described her daughter's burial. Theon Wilkinson, who studied tombstones in India, documented the repeated misfortunes of some families. The rate of infant mortality decreased as the century progressed, but it was still high enough to create anxiety and perceived helplessness among British mothers.

Wet Nurses, Ayahs, and Bearers

In the subcontinent, British mothers generally depended on Indian wet nurses to nurse their children, as European wet nurses were not available and British physicians advised mothers not to breast-feed their own children since the climate was thought to be too debilitating. The wet nurses, commonly called ammahs, were low-caste Hindus or Muslims. Many memsahibs (British married women in India) hired an Indian wet nurse for the infants and Indian ayahs (nurses) for the other needs of their children, although many greatly disliked the idea. Besides having an ayah, many Anglo-Indian parents hired a male servant, or bearer, for their male children. Anglo-Indian children spent most of their waking hours with Indian servants. These domestics, serving frequently as playmates, taught the children Hindi words like bhaia (brother) and baba (infant), and often "papa" and "mama" as well. Children generally developed a close attachment to their ayahs and bearers and the close bond served to provide comfort to the children when the families were in transit. As the time came for the Anglo-Indian mothers to take their children to England, some took their children's ayahs or bearers with them.

Racial Barriers

The need to have help to raise infants forced memsahibs to hire Indian servants, but they were always apprehensive about the intimate bond between the ayah and the infant and attempted to maintain a distance between their children and the servants. Authors of prescriptive literature discouraged any closeness between British children and the Indian servants, fearing that the children would imitate "native" habits, mannerisms, and language. This fear clearly surfaced in the mind of Julia Thomas Maitland, wife of a district judge at Rajahmundry in Madras, when she emphasized in a letter that she did not want her daughter to learn Indian languages and grow up "like a little Hindu" (Jan. 9, 1839).

Mothers were not often successful in shielding their children from learning the local language. When little Eric Bailey's mother Florence wrote to her husband that Eric could say a few words in Hindi and imitated making chappatis (Indian bread), her husband became quite upset. To check the infusion of Indian influence on their children, many memsahibs employed English women in addition to ayahs as nurses for their babies. Some tried to assuage the problem by hiring Indian ayahs who could speak English. The British nurse and the Indian ayah were sometimes at odds with each other about their authority over the child; not surprisingly, the white nurse was usually the winner. The underlying reason for Anglo-Indian parents' fear of close bonds between their offspring and their native servants was undoubtedly tied to the attitude of racial exclusiveness that accompanied imperialism. While Anglo-Indian parents were maintaining a social distance from the Indians, however, their children, through their close relationships with the servants, were dismantling the barrier between the colonizers and the colonized. This cross current from the children ultimately acted to erode the foundations of the empire.


Emma Roberts reported in 1837 that schools were established in every regiment for the children of European soldiers. Boys were educated to become noncommissioned officers, regimental clerks, and so on. The girls were trained to be wives for men of higher ranks. Information on Anglo-Indian children's education is often quite sketchy. The letters of Sarah Terry described the education of her eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son. During their first year in India, Sarah taught English and math to her children at home in the morning. In the second year, both of them went to school at the Bombay Fort at 7:30 in the morning and returned at 4:00 in the afternoon.

Transient Life of Anglo-Indian Children

During the summer it was quite common that British infants suffered from heat stroke, boils, and diarrhea. To protect children from heat-induced diseases they were taken to the hill stations by their mothers from March to October, while their fathers remained at their jobs in the plains. Most Anglo-Indian parents believed that if their children stayed in India for too long the Indian climate and environment would weaken their constitutions, perhaps for all their lives. Even an English nurse was not a sufficient protection from this danger, so British parents sent their children to England at a very early age. Boys usually left India by the time they were five years old, and girls normally went back at the age of seven or eight.

Colonialism influenced the texture of British family life in India. Anglo-Indian children lived in the Indian subcontinent without a lasting home base. Soon after their birth, many children had to be separated from their fathers for six to seven months to avoid the summer heat. Their daily routines were disrupted by their fathers' recurrent job transfers. By the time these children reached the age of seven, many of them returned to Britain without their parents. Thus, unlike their contemporaries in Britain, the Anglo-Indian children seldom had a stable home life with both parents around. Although it was common for upper- and upper-middle-class children in Victorian Britain to go away to boarding school for months at a time, the Anglo-Indian children were often not able to see their parents for periods extending over many years.

Sometimes it became difficult for parents to send their children back to England. Often Anglo-Indian men did not get the leave to take their families home or lacked the money to send them back. They frequently had difficulty finding someone to take their children home. For example, following the death of his wife in 1871, a Mr. Wonnacott sought to send his three-year-old daughter to Britain. He was not able to find her a woman escort until 1874. (Female children under age seven were not considered old enough to travel with unrelated and often unknown adults; boys could go home at the age of five with unrelated and often unknown army personnel.) Because of the great distance and high cost of the journey between India and England, parents and children could see each other only at lengthy intervals, sometimes as long as nine to ten years. At times children never saw their parents again. The Metcalfe children's mother died in India while they were in Britain. The Wonnacott children's father died on his way back to Britain and their mother died in India.

Victorians placed the need for a strong family at the center of their lives. The family disruptions caused by long separations between parents and their children commonly seen in Anglo-Indian families were not in tune with the Victorian emphasis on creating a stable home and family that would provide what historian Anthony Wohl called moral, ethical, religious, and social standards of good citizenship. Still, colonialism sometimes created a repetition in the pattern of parent–child relationships within Anglo-Indian families as the young men returned to India as civil servants or members of the armed services and the young women returned to marry and again create a family life in a colonial atmosphere.

Effects of Colonialism on Indian Children

Colonial governments generally did little to change the lives of local children, particularly in rural areas. There were some attempts to regulate what imperial authorities regarded as abuses. For example, colonial officials frowned on marriages that were contracted for young girls, though they did not usually press their concerns very vigorously. While colonial officials often criticized "natives" for working children too hard, the colonial economy usually depended on continued child labor, so there was little change here. Gradually, colonial administrations did introduce some new educational opportunities, supplemented often by missionary efforts. So some children were exposed to formal schooling, which in some cases pulled them away from family traditions and into new contact with Western values. Schools for girls might also influence socialization for women's roles, again pulling away from tradition. Educational opportunities were limited, however, so the impact of this aspect of colonialism was only gradually felt.


Bayley, Emily. 1980. The Golden Calm: An English Lady's Life in Moghul Delhi: Reminiscences by Emily, Lady Clive Bayley, and by Her Father, Sir Thomas Metcalfe, ed. Mary M. Kaye. Exeter, UK: Webb and Bower.

Chaudhuri, Nupur. 1988. "Memsahib and Motherhood in Nineteenth-Century India," Victorian Studies 31, no. 4: 517-535.

Fayrer, J. 1873. European Child-Life in India. OIOC Tract 820. London: J. A. Churchill.

Maitland, Julia. 1846. Letters from Madras: During the Years 1836-1839. London: J. Murray.

Roberts, Emma. 1837. Scenes and Characteristics of Hindostan, with Sketches of Anglo-Indian Society. London: W. H. Allen.

Wilkinson, Theon. 1976. Two Monsoons. London: Duckworth.