Review: ‘Ribbons Among The Rajahs’, by Patrick Wheeler

Ribbons Among the Rajahs
Published By: Pen & Sword History 
Published: 12th June 2017
ISBN: 9781473893276


From the mid-eighteenth century onward, British women started travelling in any numbers to the East Indies, mostly to accompany husbands, brothers or fathers. Very little about them is recorded from the earlier years, about the remarkable journeys that they made and what drove them to travel those huge distances. Some kept journals, others wrote letters, and for the first time Patrick Wheeler tells their story in this fascinating and colourful history, exploring the little-known lives of these women and their experiences of life in India before the Raj. With a perceptive approach, Ribbons Among the Rajahs considers all aspects of women’s lives in India, from the original discomfort of traversing the globe and the complexities of arrival through to creating a home in a tight-knit settlement community. It considers, too, the effects of the subservience of women to the needs of men and argues for the fusion of European and Indian cultures that existed before imperial times.

My Review

The letters and journals of the women who made the long journey to India to be with husbands, brothers and fathers in the 257 years between Queen Elizabeth I’s signing of the Honourable East India Company’s Charter in 1600 and the First Indian War of Independence (The Indian Mutiny) in 1857 provide an insight into a forgotten period of trading and cultural exchange, especially compared to the interest in the 90 years following,

The letters and journals chart the changing attitudes of British people in India, from the fascination and fusion of the earlier centuries to the slowly increasing prejudice against Indians and mixed-heritage people, until the crystallising of the separation between British and Indian in the years of the Raj. Many of the women travelled extensively in India, as part of their journey to meet the men they had arrived in India to be with, or because they wanted to travel and explore the country. Some, like Emily and Fanny Eden,  or Sophia Raffles, travelled with their male relatives across country as part of their duties. Very few, such as Nina d’Aubigny Von Englebrunner, had saleable skills that allowed them to travel in India for a few years before returning to Europe with an interesting collection of knick-knacks  and tales of their adventures.

The writings and paintings all these women left give us a picture of the country over a long period of time. Their lives, limited for the most part by social convention to home and family, are charted in the letters they wrote and sent back to family in Europe, and Wheeler has drawn extensively on the writings of Emily Eden, Elizabeth Gwillim, Maria Sykes, Fanny Parkes among several others to give a picture of their lives and attitudes over several decades from the mid-Eighteenth to mid-Nineteenth centuries. They describe their fears and hopes, prejudices and complaints, their day-to-day round and unusual adventures, in acerbic or florid terms depending on their characters.

The book is divided into nine chapters covering themes from the voyage to India, arrival, marriage, social conventions, and death. It’s clear the women tried to make British households in India as much like England as they could, growing familiar vegetables and carrying on with social conventions such as ‘visiting’, while adapting to an unfamiliar climate and culture. The low numbers of Europeans in India meant that socialising was limited to a few families who became too familiar, especially in the later decades of the period covered, when socialising with Indians and mixed-Heritage people was beginning to be frowned upon.

The writing is in-depth enough to interest those with some background knowledge but not so difficult as to put off casual readers. Themes, such as the changing attitudes to Indians, and the fears of life and death, run through each of the chapters and tie the book together. The bibliography is extensive and useful. There are some reproductions of images from the time, especially those painted by the women who’s journals and letters were used, included, which give us some idea of the clothes worn and environment they lived in.





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