Wednesday, 25 May 2022

Women in the age of Empire

Kate Hickman
Henley town hall

RECEIVED wisdom might tell us that women who travelled to India during the age of empire were invariably part of “the fishing fleet” looking for husbands among the Crown’s soldiers and civil servants living on the other side of the world.

However, Kate Hickman knows differently and her talk was full of merchants, buccaneers and tales about women whose bravery possibly bordered on insanity.

She explained how the story of women in India started in the 1600s with the formation of the East India Company, which initially banned women from travelling.

And why would you want to make the journey when the boats were tiny, the conditions foul and the journey by sea took eight months?

Disease was rife and Hickman talked of boats arrived in India, full of the dead and dying.

Sailors didn’t want women on board but the first women went anyway — initially smuggling themselves on to the ships and later with the approval of the East India Company, who needed wives for their male workers.

India offered women opportunities and whether they were looking for social advancement and the chance to reinvent themselves or pure adventure, life was harsh.

Hickman said that the average life expectancy of someone arriving in Bombay was “two monsoons” and that was if you survived the hurricanes and near-sinking on the journey.

The author’s engaging and colourful interview was utterly brilliant. It challenged perceptions and shone new light on the she-merchants and gentlewomen who made India their home.

Tamryn Settle

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