Sahibs and Bibis of Madras

In the early days of Chennai, liaisons between British traders and Indian women were common. SRIRAM V. looks at some of those matters of the heart.

Updated - August 24, 2016 12:15 am IST

Published - April 16, 2011 06:09 pm IST



Once I was a tannikarachi, living in a Cheri

Now I am a Dorasani, travelling in a Coach Vandi .

Thus goes a song of the Raj about a British Governor of Madras who falls in love with a water-carrier, marries her and takes her back to London. The story is apocryphal but till 1800 or so, European women were in short supply in Madras and liaisons between the Sahibs and Indian women were fairly common. Much has been written about such arrangements in North India and the Deccan but the history of Madras in such matters of the heart has not received much attention.

There is a strong rumour that Francis Day selected Madras as a suitable settlement despite it lacking a port and having the worst possible weather all year round only because he had lost his heart to a woman who lived in San Thome. Day's superior, Andrew Cogan who became the first Agent (Governor) of Madras definitely had what is spoken of as an “irregular union”. Records exist of Richard Cogan “whose father built Fort St. George” and who is “now chief gunner” at Masulipatnam, this being in 1675. The Italian traveller Nicolo Manucci met him in Golconda in the 1680s and records that he died in dire poverty.

In the 1640s, Andrew Trumball, Captain of the ship Hopewell, fell out with those in charge at Fort St. George and wrote a detailed indictment of their moral conduct. According to him, Day was particularly interested in the wife of a Danish captain and when the latter had gone from Tranquebar on business, Day had brought her over to Madras and built for her “a house equall to that shee lived in at Trinckumbar”. The Company paid for it. Thomas Winter, another factor (agent), had according to Trumball, “married his gentlewoman to a souldier” and yet had two children by her. Henry Greenhill who later became Governor had a “gentlewoman” too, and fathered two children by her. The news of the birth of the second child was greeted with a 300-gun salute at the Fort. Trumball in his statement added most helpfully that the woman in question was “formerly belonging to Mr. Day” and that Greenhill had built her a “very faire house, with orchard and garden, in which house hee himselfe lodgeth every night”.

With the English living in close proximity to each other within the narrow confines of the Fort, we read of liaisons among their own community. Thus we have Governor Yale (after whom the world-famous University is named) being smitten by a Mrs. Nick. Those were days when the Governor was expected to get a cut on anything and everything sold in the city, be it betel nuts or silk. Soon Mrs. Nick was making money at a galloping pace and even went so far as to have “invoices and accounts current in her own name”. Certainly she must have been the first woman entrepreneur in the city.

Observed in the breach

Company servants were strictly forbidden from indulging in trade but in reality everyone winked at it. To avoid any unpleasant investigations, most Company officials invited their relatives from England to come to Madras and become, with their tacit support, what were called Free Merchants. These were men who could ostensibly trade in commodities that were not under the Company's monopoly. But that was observed more in the breach, for, they soon embraced all forms of business. Two men who fell under this category were Thomas Parry and John Binny, both of whom went on to found businesses that became household names in Madras. And both had colourful personal lives.

Parry came to Madras in 1788 and by 1794 he was married to Mary Pearce, widow of a civil servant of the city. Parry's marriage was not a success, for, Mrs. Parry disliked Madras. In 1806 she took her two children and left for England where she lived for the remainder of a rather long life. Parry consoled himself with the local delights. He almost certainly fathered a Miss Eliza Harriett Wilson at whose marriage to Major George Gibson he and his business partner Dare officiated as witnesses. Her son was named George Parry Gibson. As business expanded and prospered, so did Parry's attachments. His chief companion in later years was Mary Ann Carr, by whom he had two sons – Thomas William Parry and Edward Moorat Parry, the latter's name giving a strong indication that Mary Ann was the daughter of Edward Moorat, a rich Armenian of Madras. Both sons died during Parry's lifetime and when he drew up his will in 1823, he still had hopes, for, he made provisions for any child born to her within nine months of his passing. There were to be none but Mary Ann outlived Parry, married and had children.

Strange fate

Another woman Parry mentions in his will is “Chilli, a native”. She drew Rs. 5 per month from Parry's estate till her death in 1873. Besides these, there was Weheedee in Tranquebar and Miss Bronickam in some other town… Strangely, all of Parry's women outlived him but he was unfortunate in living enough to bury all his children, including the legitimate ones.

John Binny was a bachelor. But he left behind at least two children for whose maintenance his company paid. The elder, Charles Binny was educated at the Madras Free School. By 1835, long after his father's death, he was in the employ of Binny & Co as clerk. He also had sufficient property in the city to qualify for juror duty. Binny's second child was Belmina, a daughter and she in time married Pierre Victor Genot, an employee of the company. During a year's holiday in England in 1816, Binny managed to father a third child there and a legacy of £3,000 was left behind for “John William Crouchley, aged five years, who at present boards with one under the charge of Mrs. Wicklow of Frederick Place on the Hampstead Road”. No wonder when Robert Powney, another free-merchant, died, it was recorded with some astonishment that he was survived by 16 legitimate children.

It is also worthy of note that unlike the water-carrier in the song, no Bibi went home with her Sahib. But they were all provided for by way of legacies and settlements. By the 1840s, with improved navigation, English women began coming to India in large numbers hoping to make a suitable match. This was the notorious “fishing fleet” that had begun as a trickle in the 1700s and had become a flood by the subsequent century. The Asiatic Journal wrote that “a batch of new arrivals is like the hams and cheeses imported by the same vessels. They will not keep to another season if they do not meet with a suitable match soon after they have lighted on Indian soil”. And with that Madras Society became more straight-laced. It was a far cry from the times of Day and Cogan when the Company looked on benevolently at reports about how some hot-heads from the Fort had gone to cool off with some women at San Thome.

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