Ayah, Caregiver to Anglo-Indian Children, c. 1750–1947

  • Suzanne Conway
Part of the Palgrave Studies in the History of Childhood book series (PSHC)


The ayah, variously described as a nanny, a child-minder, or a nursemaid,1 was one of the most significant and distinctive figures in Anglo-Indian childhood from the eighteenth century until the end of British rule in India in 1947.2 The word itself has two sources: from the Portuguese, aia, and from Hindi and Urdu, aya, both meaning ‘nursemaid’.3 One of the features of colonial life most enjoyed by the British in India from the early days of their presence there was the ready availability of cheap workers. From within that enormous labour pool, specialization of servants’ activities soon emerged. An ayah was a natural employee wherever there were young British children to be cared for, employed cheaply as a round-the-clock caregiver and guardian. This practice continued unabated even after the official policy of racial separation was instituted in 1793. Not unique to Anglo-Indian culture, but pervasive within it, was the disjuncture between a belief in white racial superiority and the use of Indian servants in the intimate family circumstances of caring for, and raising, very young children.4 This racial double standard prevailed and grew more concrete during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, precipitating the harsh manner in which ayahs could be treated upon their arrival in England, where they were frequently abandoned.


Indian Culture British Child British Library British Woman East India Company 
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© Suzanne Conway 2016

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  • Suzanne Conway

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