For generations until the mid-nineteenth century, English men serving in India often had a bibi - an Indian woman who was partner, lover and wife (though usually denied official recognition of that status). The bibis of colonial India were rarely memorialised - they found little mention in the official record - when their husband went back to England, they were usually left behind to bring up any children of the relationship as best they could.
These women and their European partners were the begetters of the distinct Anglo-Indian community in India, which still survives though much reduced in number and status.
I hadn't expected to find an imprint of the bibi in the oldest Anglican church in India, St Mary's - a late-seventeenth century church situated within Fort St George in Chennai. But it's surprising what you come across ...
St Mary's was consecrated in 1680 and rejoices in being the oldest Anglican church east of Suez. From the early 1800s, its status declined with the construction of much grander Anglican churches elsewhere in what was then Madras, near where the increasingly prosperous and numerous British community built their villas. St Mary's became mainly a garrison church. But it remains in use as part of the Church of South India and has a small but loyal congregation.
As you would expect, St Mary's has a wonderful array of statues, memorials and tablets commemorating the agents of Empire and its religion who served - and died - here.
One particularly tragic tablet reflects that the British in India were not settlers. After more than thirty years in India and his return 'having been deferred to too late a season', the unfortunate Colonel W.H. Atkinson died on his sea passage back to England at the age of fifty-two.
Britain always remained 'home' and the vast majority of the British in India returned there - or intended to.
There's a clear trace of the custom among the British elite in Madras of taking Indian wives. Pran Nevile, in his book on Indian women during the Raj, quotes the view of Dr John Shortt - East India Company surgeon in Madras in the mid-nineteenth century - of the Telugu women he came across.
"I have seen several of these girls in my professional capacity, while they lived as mistresses with European officers, and have been greatly surprised at their ladylike manner, modesty and gentleness. Such beautiful small hands and little taper fingers, the ankles neatly turned, as to meet the admiration of the greatest connoisseur ... This is not to be wondered at that these girls are preferred to their own country women".
The historian Sriram V has chronicled just how common liaisons once were in Madras between elite British men and Indian bibis.
And that sculpture of what appears to be an Indian woman, book in hand at the top of this post? Could this be a bibi mourning her partner?
It features in just about the least accessible of the memorials in St Mary's, high up on a wall where the inscription must always have been difficult to make out and is now impossible to decipher.
Even zooming in with a good camera, and then sharpening the contrast settings, only small parts of the inscription are legible. [SEE THE UPDATE AT THE END OF THIS POST]
One word that stands out is 'Archdeacon' - and given that those in holy orders would surely have been reluctant to advertise their transgressive relationships, the woman who adorns the memorial may not be a representation of a local wife. Who knows!
But the church bears other traces of the bibi. At the back, under glass in a display case, are a few of the parish archives, These include a baptism register open - apparently more-or-less at random - to a period in 1825. Take a look ...
Many, perhaps most, of the baptisms were of illegitimate children, and their birth out of wedlock was clearly stated in the register. Where mother and father were married, the mother's first name was given. Where the birth was outside marriage, no mother's name was recorded. It is overwhelmingly likely that the mothers of these illegitimate children were Indian.
Yet the father's name is given and presumably it was he who arranged the baptism - the mother and baby had clearly not been abandoned. So it seems the parents were in an enduring relationship - one which did not have the sanction of the church, but which the chaplain was willing to countenance by baptising the offspring of such unions.
These babies were brought into St Mary's and baptised in a centuries-old font which had served that purpose for the three daughters of Job Charnock, the 'founder' of Calcutta (whose wife was a Hindu - Charnock is said to have rescued her from immolation on her first husband's funeral pyre).
Were the babies' mothers present at the baptism? Did they nominally convert to Christianity? Were they provided for when their partners eventually sailed away?
There's much more to be said about Madras's bibis.
UPDATE: A bit of sleuthing has revealed some details of the memorial featuring the seated woman reading a book. It is the memorial of Archdeacon Richard Leslie, who died on 28 June 1804. He was the garrison chaplain at Madras for twenty-one years.
The memorial is the work of the London sculptor Flaxman and cost £100. One account of the memorial states: 'Piety is exhibited by a female figure with the Holy Bible in her hand which she is attentively studying ...'. Flaxman's work, it seems, often featured such figures. So ... not a bibi! Though I remain convinced that the mothers of the illegitimate children baptised at St Mary's almost certainly were.
This is a fascinating blog. I am researching my husband’s family tree. He is directly descended from an intriguing Prussian man, who joined the Honorable East India Company Major - John Christian Francke (His rare memoir can be found amongst the Wellesley papers in the British Library Africa and Asia collection) and one of his several bibis, a woman who is noted in the baptisms of two of her children, around 1813, as, “Paupiah Crooks, a native woman.” I would love to know more about her, but have no idea how to access archives that may reveal more. I would very much appreciate any advice from you, and would be grateful if you could e-mail me.
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