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Waiting on Empire: Travelling Ayahs in Britain

Centre for Public History Seminar on February 23 @ Seminar Room, 27 University Square

The expansion of the British Empire facilitated movement across the globe for both the colonizers and the colonized. This talk will focus on a largely forgotten group in this story of movement and migration: South Asian travelling ayahs (servants and nannies), who travelled between India and Britain and often found themselves destitute in Britain as they struggled to find their way home to South Asia. Delving into the stories of individual ayahs from a wide range of sources, the talk illuminates their brave struggle to assert their rights, showing how ayahs negotiated their precarious employment conditions, capitalized on social sympathy amongst some sections of the British population, and confronted or collaborated with various British institutions and individuals to demand justice and humane treatment.

Arunima Datta is an Assistant Professor at the Department of History, University of North Texas. She is the author of the multiple award-winning book Fleeting Agencies: A Social History of Indian Coolie Women in British Malaya (2021). Her earlier work on the history of travelling ayahs in Britain has also won the Carol Gold Award and honorable mention for the Walter D Love Prize. Her latest book, Waiting on Empire: A History of Indian Travelling Ayahs in Britain was published by Oxford University Press in 2023. She serves as an associate editor of Britain and the World, and as the Associate Review Editor of the American Historical Review. Her works have appeared in several scholarly journals, public history journals and magazines, and on BBC4.
Arunima Datta
Assistant Professor at the Department of History, University of North Texas