She-Merchants, Buccaneers and Gentlewomen: British Women in India 1600-1900

Written by Katie Hickman
Review by Chiara Prezzavento

Were the memsahibs (British women living in India) responsible for the deteriorating relationships between British and Indians in the Subcontinent over the 19th century? Katie Hickman sets out to disprove – or at least challenge – this widespread belief. She does so by telling a fascinating tale of women who traveled across half the world to settle in India, starting as far back as 1617, in the early days of the East India Company.

Drawing on letters, journals, and official records, Hickman brings vividly to life a gallery of reinvented courtesans, teachers, aristocrats, army wives, bluestockings, and nurses – just to list a few – who tackled the challenges of an alien world in a range of very different ways, as the British presence grew from a scattered handful of tiny commercial posts to a huge empire. While I’m not sure I was entirely convinced by the overall argument, this finely written book does a wonderful job detailing what changed (or didn’t) over three centuries, both in terms of daily life and big trials for Englishwomen “out there”, and showing how the memsahibs came in a far greater variety than the common assumption would suggest. Lively, captivating, thought-provoking – and recommended.