The Unknown Women of India

Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives, and Daughters of the British Empire in India

by Margaret MacMillan
Random House, 334 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Sex and the Family in Colonial India: The Making of Empire

by Durba Ghosh
Cambridge University Press, 277 pp., $95.00; $32.99 (paper)

The baby arrived early one April morning, guided into the world by a Bengali midwife while the doctor waited in the next room. It was a boy: Sophia Elizabeth and Richard Plowden’s seventh child, born, like the others, in India. The infant drew his first milk from the breast of an Indian nurse, or dai, “mine not being come,” noted Sophia in her diary—though within a few days she “did not let the Dye suckle him…. Determined to do it entirely myself.” Toward the end of June 1787, the boy was baptized William, in the first ceremony ever performed at Calcutta’s newly consecrated St. John’s Church. Friends would compliment Sophia “upon the good looks of my little William and his rosey appearance which they attributed to my Nursing him.”

Married to a well-connected East India Company civil servant, Sophia Plowden lived in the thick of Anglo-Indian society. Her diary, kept between 1787 and 1789, helps us visualize that early colonial world. But what makes her diary especially valuable is the insight it gives into the intimacies of family life in colonial India. Few if any surviving journals of the period describe wet-nursing and infant care. Nor do contemporary travel accounts describe what it was like to travel with children in India, as the Plowdens did when they went to Lucknow in the fall of 1787.

Leaving two of the children in Calcutta with friends, the Plowdens brought with them their son Chicheley and baby William—and “a Dye in case I should find any difficulty in nursing my little Boy”—who became instant favorites with members of Lucknow’s cosmopolitan high society. The portraitist Johan Zoffany was so smitten with the Plowden boys that he “declared he would like to paint them both without any regard he was so taken with them.” At one dinner, Plowden recorded, the Nawab of Awadh himself “ask’d me a great many questions about my little ones and said William could not be flesh and blood, he was certainly form’d of Wax and Cotton.”

As a mother in India, Sophia Plowden had to confront the constant threats of disease and accident: familiar childhood hazards, such as measles and smallpox (against which the children were inoculated), and more unfamiliar dangers. She narrowly escaped being bitten by a viper coiled in her sewing drawer. There were also perennial anxieties about money, specifically whether the family had saved enough to return to Britain, and if so, in what style. And there was the urgent question of which would be best for the children: “home” in painfully distant Britain, or with her in India, with its perceived risks of contamination by climate, culture, and people—perhaps a factor in Sophia’s determination to breast-feed her child herself. Already by 1787 the Plowdens had sent their three eldest children back to Britain, to be raised by Sophia’s parents. Sophia expressed her worries and priorities when writing to her mother:

Beg’d her …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.