From the royal wet nurse (dāī) to the native nanny (āyā)

Vostok/Oriens '2018, №4

DOI: 10.31857/S086919080000455-7

The article highlights the role of female servants in pre-colonial and colonial India. The most significant transformation was experienced by wet nurses who for centuries were a privileged trade group among different categories of female servants. Maternal breastfeeding was not advocated healthful for mother, so wet nursing was supported as a reasonable alternative. The wet nursing practice indeed flourished in times and places of sharp class distinctions. In some lands there were customary or ritual methods of sequential feeding for future rulers whilst in others the wet nurses of the kings such as the Great Mughal might be consecrated. Milk interpreted as a different form of the mother's blood, was seen the transmission not only nourishment but also central traits of character. This had consequences for the choice of wet nurse. This type of ‘wet nursing’ indeed had an important function in strengthening kin ties. With the growth of the British presence, the role of wet nurse did change dramatically: she lost her high social status and privileges, moving into the category of ordinary domestic servants, often being an object of cruel exploitation. From the beginning of the nineteenth century onwards, British memsahibs, the wives of officials, military officers, and merchants, consistently expounded an image of Indians nurses to the female reading public in Britain through their letters and diaries. The servants’ dark skin and their religious, social, and linguistic differences contributed to the negative attitudes of the memsahibs towards them. The Indian rebellion of 1857 and the emergence of social Darwinism further heightened memsahibs’ beliefs that Indians were subhuman savages. Furthermore, by writing about their Indian servants, memsahibs identified themselves as active participants in Britain’s imperial venture in India.

Keywords: India, Great Mughals, categories of female servants, royal wet nurses, native nannies and their types, Rudyard Kipling

Pages: С. 70–76

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