Bibis and mistresses

IMPERIAL ENTERPRISE was a masculine affair. In the exotic realms of Hindustan, some of the traders and adventurers found outlets for their surplus emotional and sexual energy, somewhat suppressed in more inhibited and prudish Britain, where sex was regarded as a curse, stemming from the original sin and penalties for extramarital affairs and sexual deviations were severe.

Deterred by the dangers of a long and tortuous voyage, few British women ventured to come to India. The original charters of the East India Company forbade women on its posts. The Portuguese, who had preceded the British, used to send annually batches of women for marriage to their officials in Goa. British settlers, at first, married widows and daughters of Portuguese Catholics, which did not find favour with the East India Company. So, towards the end of the 17th Century, the Company copied the Portuguese practice and shipped batches of young women who were divided into "gentlewomen" and others for the marriage mart in India. As the demand for wives was far in excess of supply, some of the women took to prostitution as a more lucrative vocation than marriage. For this "scandalous" behaviour, they were warned to mind their morals; otherwise they were to be fed on bread and water and shipped back home. The experiment of importing women was abandoned by the Company in the 18th Century, leaving their servants to find women for themselves.

Towards the end of the 18th Century, there were only 250 European women in Calcutta, while there were 4,000 men. The civilians and soldiers were, therefore, encouraged and even subsidised by the Company to take native wives and mistresses. It was a common practice for the sahibs to set up Zenanas or keep Indian bibis. The bibi was an Indian mistress, a common law wife, or long term consort of the Englishman, who could afford to set up even a modest establishment. At times they got married but there were insuperable difficulties in the way of a Christian marriage with a pagan.

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Dr. John Shortt, Company surgeon at Madras during the latter half of the 19th Century, was charmed by the grace and beauty of Telugu girls. He recorded, "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". There was an army colonel who even consented to be circumcised in order to get possession of a beautiful Muslim woman who imposed this condition before becoming his bibi. It sounds amusing to find that an English Editor of a local paper advised sahibs in 1783, to sleep with Indian women to keep themselves cool in the beastly summer of Calcutta. In fact, the Portuguese obtained a firman from the Mughal emperor, Shahjahan, to keep Bengali women during summer to protect themselves from the heat of the Delta.

Resorting to bibis and mistresses was not only a piece of erotic expediency, but these, "sleeping dictionaries" helped the sahibs to learn about the lifestyle, customs and manners, besides languages, of India. The bibi identified herself with the interests of her protector. She was an efficient house-keeper and a devoted nurse to her man when he fell ill. There was no stigma attached to these liaisons. At times, their mutual love and respect was touching. The bibi of a sahib was highly respected in society. Emma Roberts writes that "Indian women, Hindu or Muslim, when they are attached to Englishmen confine themselves with singular dignity to the Zenana of their protectors as if the marriage had taken place according to their own customs and ceremonies. They never go out of their houses and behave like a lawful wife of Muslim or Hindu of rank". The bibikhana or "ladyhouse" in a corner of the compound, separate from the main house, was an accepted feature of many a European bungalow.

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There was no shame about these liaisons. Even the Governor General, Sir John Shore, and the Governor of Bombay and members of his Council, publicly had native women as their mistresses. These irregular unions attracted no censure. They were seldom a secret, as can be gathered from the account of the birth of Qui Hi's son, in the satiric poem "The Grand Master".

Poor Gulab was in that way,

That those who "love their lords"

should be;

And in a week, to Qui Hi's joy,

Produced our youth a chopping boy.

Our hero now, without pretence,

Thought himself of some conse


A child he had got, and what was


He knew the infant was not


For though Qui Hi was never tied

By licence to his Indian bride,

Yet he was confident that she

Had acted with fidelity.

The classic case is that of Job Charnock, founder of the city of Calcutta, who married a beautiful Brahmin girl, Leela, after rescuing her from a funeral pyre where she was going to perform "Sati". Legend has it that Charnock was madly in love with her and she persuaded the great sahib to live almost like a Hindu. We come across another case of romantic and perilous adventure of an English army officer who rescued a young and beautiful Brahmin widow at Rajamundary and took her in as his bibi. Another illustrious company official, Francis Day, proved his deep attachment to his bibi by choosing a site for the fort in Madras in 1639 which was close to her place.

Contemporary paintings depict the intimacy and closeness between the sahib and his Indian bibi. William Hickey, a famous attorney and socialite of Calcutta, in 1780-90's has left a touching account of his attachment to his bibi, Jemdanee, which is as striking as the British artist, Thomas Hickey's aesthetic portrait of this charming and dignified lady. "Jemdanee", William Hickey wrote, "lived with me, respected and admired by all friends for her extraordinary sprightliness and great humour. Unlike the women in Asia, she never secluded herself from the sight of strangers; on the contrary, she delighted in joining my male parties, cordially joining in the mirth which prevailed though never touching wine or spirits of any kind". He also extols her "as gentle and affectionately attached a girl, as ever man was blessed with". Jemdanee was a great favourite with Hickey's friends who gave her presents and sent her affectionate messages. Two of them, Bob Pott and Col. Cooper, also had faithful bibis. Another distinguished sahib with Indian bibis was General William Palmer, who lived with an artistocratic Muslim lady, Begum Faiz Bakhsh, a member of the Delhi royal house, and a second bibi, a princess of Oudh. In his will, Palmer bequeathed his house to her and referred to her as "Bibi Faiz Bakhsh Saheba who has been my affectionate friend and companion during a period of more than 35 years (1781-1816)".

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Many of these irregular unions of the sahibs with bibis were considered respectable. The will of Henry Littleton, a company official, testifies to the virtues of his bibi, a Brahmin women, called Raja, whom he had willed all his property and possessions. Then we have the case of General John Pater who was so fond of his bibi, that he built a church over her grave when the chaplain refused to bury her in the cemetry.

Richard Burton, wrote in his autobiography that Indian mistresses were a regular feature of British military life. In 1840, there was hardly an officer in Baroda, who was not more or less, tied to a Hindu woman. These irregular unions were mostly temporary under an agreement and ceased when the regiment left the station. But in many cases the mistresses followed the regiment and lived with their protectors for many years and bore children to them. At times, it was stipulated that there were to be no children. This was complied with; the women had an almost infallible recipe to prevent pregnancy.

Bibis and mistresses were left behind when the sahibs returned home. It was a moving sight when they stood with their children on the river bank bidding farewell to their protectors as the vessel bore them away. The pathos of such a parting finds expression in a contemporary ballad sung by an Indian woman:

Tis thy will and I must leave thee,

O thou best beloved farewell

I forbear lest I should grieve thee,

Half my heart felt pangs to tell.

Soon a British fair will charm thee,

Thou alas her smiles must woo,

But tho 'she to rapture warm thee

Don't forget thy poor Hindoo.

Some women authors wrote about the jealousy of native women and warned young men going to India to keep away from them. Mrs. Mary Martha Sherwood, a prolific author of stories, with religious content, even claimed that "many an English wife lost her life from the jealousy of native favourites". On the other hand, it is also recorded that when a sahib married a White women, the erstwhile bibi or mistress, even after years of absence, showed respectful attachment to the memsahib and her children.

By the third decade of the 19th Century, with the introduction of the overland route as well as steamships, English girls started coming to India in large number to hunt for husbands. The practice of keeping bibis and native mistresses came to be frowned upon; Englishmen were advised to distance themselves from native connections. The memsahibs launched a full scale campaign against "bibidom". They spared no effort to abolish the bibi system, as they considered it, a threat to their position and scandalous for the ruling class. Thus, thousands of contented bibis, loving and good mothers, were driven out of their homes. After the mutiny of 1857 the institution of keeping Indian women as bibis nearly disappeared.

Beyond The Veil, Indian Women In The Raj, Pran Nevile, Nevile Books, New Delhi 2000, p.141.

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