The ‘Incumberances’

The ‘Incumberances’: British Women in India, 1615–1856, by Joan Mickelson Gaughan. Published by Oxford University Press (India).


The British 'memsahib' has been stereotyped as a single, colourless group—bored, gossipy, and whiny, plagued with prickly heat, and sweating about in clothes completely incongruous with India's climate—blamed by some to be responsible for half the bitter feelings between races. This perception is as old as the East India Company, whose Court of Directors saw only two roles that British women might play in India—either they would be 'incumberances', getting in the way of the men engaged in generating profits for the Company, or they could be spiritual and emotional supports for their men. Contrary to this description we realize that the expressions of these women as they encountered India were immensely varied, highly individual, and unique, coloured by personal, social, religious, and cultural backgrounds.


Some women were religious; others a bit amoral. Some explored as much of India as they possibly could; others hated everything about her and withered. For some, India was a home; for others, it was an exile. Few changed India very much but very few left unchanged by her.

This volume is a fascinating study in social history based on records, journals, and diaries of the women themselves and their contemporaries in early British settlements in India.


In our Gender Studies and History sections, Rs. 895, in hardback, 296 pages, ISBN: 9780198092148

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