White Mughals Fan and White Mughals Feminist: An Argument about the Position of Women in early 19th Century India

‘An Indian Girl with a Hookah’ by Francesco Renaldi, 1789

Critics wonder whether White Mughals romanticizes the sexual exploitation and objectification of Indian women by European men, in the name of ‘building bridges’. In this post, I try to look at both sides of the argument.


Wuzeerun, bazar woman, Sarahanpoor
Waziran, a Bazar Woman from Saharanpur

Recently I came across a well written and interesting article by Erica Wald  that questioned whether White Mughals presented an “idealised view of the empire in the 18th century” and had a “tendency to gloss over the inherent violence involved in the process of ’empire-building’.

The article also cites the historian Indrani Chatterjee:

Indrani Chatterjee has criticised historians for ‘romanticising’ the relationships which existed between European men and their native mistresses as either examples of racial harmony or female agency. In contrast to Oldenburg, who stressed the ‘agency’ possessed by courtesans, Chatterjee has insisted that many of these relationships should be more realistically seen as financial transactions in which the native women involved saw no benefit and instead, were exploited by the colonial state for their sexual and reproductive labour. She warns that the ‘metaphors for domesticity’ assigned to such women were an attempt to mask the violent nature of their entry into the household. Such terms as ‘my girl’, ‘housekeeper’ or ‘female friend’ which appear in the wills made by Europeans in the late 19th century to refer to their female companions were simply euphemisms which obscure the women’s position as household slaves.
nautch girls hyderabad
Photograph of nautch dancers at Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, taken by Hooper and Western in the 1860s, from the Archaeological Survey of India Collections.

I came across another article on the sexual objectification of  women titled ‘On Colonialism and Sexualities’ by Rishita Nandagiri:

“The colonial constructions of Indian women interweave her perceived sensuousness with that of her perceived passive, feminine behaviour. As experienced under most Empires across the world, women were seen as ‘sexed’ subjects: as objects of sexual gratification for their colonial masters or as bodies to bear children to add to the slave labour force. In India, the ‘native’ woman played ‘bibi’ (in this sense, concubine) to the White Sahib, or entertained on the erotic plane as part of cross-cultural social life as ‘nautch girls’ (dancing-girls). The Anglo-Indian gaze damned this ‘erotic dancing’ as typical of the unbridled, institutionalised sensuality indicative of ‘Eastern’ decadence.”

A British cadet watching a nautch during the Puja festival, Calcutta. Painting by Sir Charles D’oyly, c. 1810
A British cadet watching a nautch during the Puja festival, Calcutta. Painting by Sir Charles D’oyly, c. 1810

So, does White Mughals romanticize European colonialism? Does it glorify men who objectified Indian women in the name of “building bridges”?”

It seems unkind to glorify men like David Ochterlony (a man who had no less than thirteen Indian wives) and William Fraser for “their willingness to assimilate” and yet not spare a thought for the loneliness of their many wives and concubines. Surely they must also have had desires, like modern women, to be their husband’s exclusive wife? How much time did each one of them get to spend with her husband? I don’t know how many men would eagerly accept being one among a woman’s thirteen husbands, but here, it goes unquestioned.

Sir David Ochterlony, the British Resident at the Mughal court c. 1815.
Sir David Ochterlony, the British Resident at the Mughal court c. 1815

I sense a kind of fetishism and sexual objectification in Charles “Hindoo” Stuarts’ breathless description of Indian women’s wet saris. For all the Bollywood-style romance between Kirkpatrick and Khair-un-nissa, not all the sexual interactions between European men and Indian women were romantic. How many of the relationships were true love and how many were sexual exploitation?

Nautch Girl Resting - Edwin Lord Weeks
Nautch Girl Resting by Edwin Lord Weeks (1849-1903) 

Stuart was an enthusiastic devotee of Hindu women and their dress sense. In the early years of the nineteenth century he wrote a series of improbable articles in the Calcutta Telegraph in which he tried to persuade the European women of the city to adopt the sari, on the grounds that it was so much more attractive than contemporary European fashions, and warning that otherwise, Englishwomen had no hope of competing with the beauty of the women of India:

‘The majority of Hindoo women are comparatively small, yet there is much voluptuousness of appearance: – a fullness that delights the eye; a firmness that enchants the senses; a sleekness and purity of skin; an expression of countenance, a grace, and a modesty of demeanour, that renders them universally attractive….The new-mown hay is not sweeter than their breath…I have seen ladies from the Gentoo cast, so exquisitely formed, with limbs so divinely tuned, and such expression in their eyes, that you must acknowledge them not inferior to the most celebrated beauties of Europe. For my own part, I already begin to think the dazzling brightness of a copper coloured face, infinitely preferable to the pallid and sickly hue of the European fair.’

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Mandakini in the famous ‘wet sari’ scene from the Bollywood movie ‘Ram Teri Ganga Maili’

Stuart was also perhaps the first recorded devotee of what the Bollywood film industry now knows as the wet-sari scene:

‘For the information of ladies recently arrived in this country, it may be necessary to state that the Hindoo female, modest as the rosebud, bathes completely dressed….and necessarily rises with wet drapery from the stream. Had I a despotic power, our British fair ones should soon follow the example; being fully persuaded that it would eminently persuade that it could eminently contribute to keep the bridal torch for ever in a blaze.’

Woman’s Bathing Place, Oodeypore, India by Edwin Lord Weeks

Stuart’s articles were anonymously reprinted in A Ladies’ Monitor Being a series of letters first published in Bengal on the subject of female apparel tending to favour a regulated adoption of Indian costume; and a rejection of superfluous vesture by the ladies of this country: with incidental remarks on Hindoo beauty, whalebone stays, iron busks; Indian corsets; man-milliners; idle bachelors; hair powder, side saddles, waiting maids, and footmen.

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A nautch girl sings to entertain memsahibs. Painting by Mrs C. Belnos, c. 1820

Unsuccessful members of the fishing fleet who failed to land their fish and had to return to England single were (rather cruelly) described as ‘returned empties’. This seems to have been the fate of many of the fleet of this period: ‘Hindoo Stuart’ in his extraordinary book A Ladies Monitor quotes a conversation he had at a Calcutta dinner party attended by a whole group of ‘returned empties’ who complained that Englishmen in India all preferred Indian women to Europeans, and that few were interested in marrying a white girl, everyone being more than happy with their bibis:

‘One of the ladies observed, that it were better they had stayed at home; that marriages were little in fashion now-a days; and that the bad taste of the men rendered unnecessary the introduction of any more foreign beauty; at least, until that desire for novelty, which scarcity ever produces, should induce gentlemen to incline to their own country-women, as an agreeable change, enhanced by the pleasure of variety.’

“A Nautch Girl or public female singer of India,” by Mrs. Belnos, London, c.1832

Stuart believed that half the problem was the unattractive busks and corsets worn by the English women at the period, and suggested they might have more chance of competing with the bibis if they all adopted the sari, which he clearly regarded as the sexiest garb imaginable, (and to promoting which he dedicates many thousands of words). The change in morality brought about by the rise of the Evangelicals in the 1830s and 1840s seems to have radically improved the fishing fleet’s chances of success, as it became increasingly unacceptable to take an Indian bibi.

The Fishing Fleet: Husband-hunting in the Raj

This shows that the power struggle in White Mughals is not just between the Brits & Indians, but also between males & females. It’s not just Indian women. British women who couldn’t “catch” a husband in India were labelled ‘returned empties’. Those British women who weren’t “rich enough” or “pretty enough” to snag a husband were condemned to a life of “spinsterhood”. I agree that it was incredibly unfair that a British man, however old or unattractive, could have his pick of both Indian and British women, while the women themselves had little choice. In British India, your value as a woman, whether you were British or Indian, was determined solely by the man you married.

“A Dancing Woman of Lucknow, Exhibiting Before a European Family.” by Charles Doyley, 1813

“It is the same the world over,” Fanny Parkes writes in the 1830’s, after hearing of the murder of an unfaithful wife. “The women, being the weaker, are the playthings, the drudges or the victims of the men; a woman is a slave from birth.”

However, if you read the book carefully, you’ll realise that sexual exploitation is something Dalrymple himself has written about extensively in White Mughals.  Much to his credit, he does not shy away from this rather difficult subject, which many other authors would have felt uncomfortable writing about. He has not tried to romanticize  the period but is showing the Indo-British interaction in all its aspects, good and bad.

Edwin Lord Weeks, “Two Nautch Girls” (sketch). Follow Arcadia Art on WordPress.
Two Nautch Girls by Edwin Lord Weeks (1849-1903)

Not all the relationships recorded in the wills of the period make for happy reading, and there are many in which Indian bibis are treated with a chilling carelessness:

Alexander Crawford, writing his will in Chittagong 1782, goes into extravagant details as to how he wants his executors to care for his dogs and horses. After several pages of this sort of thing, he adds, almost as an afterthought, ‘To my girl, I desire that two thousand rupees may be given for her care of my children, provided that she places them in your charge with no further trouble.’ Unlike the animals, no name is given for her, and there are certainly no endearments recorded. Judging by the wills they left, many Englishmen were serial monogamists, moving on from one partner to another, sometimes at speed, and a substantial number kept two bibis simultaneously.”


“Nautch girls, Bombay,” by Taurines, c.1880’s

Dalrymple is certainly not afraid of pointing out facts that might make his fellow Brits look bad, or of calling a spade a spade, as the following passage illustrates:

“A few indeed had large harems, even by contemporary Indian standards. Thomas Williamson writes of the case of one Company servant who kept no fewer than 16 concubines. When asked what he did with all of them, he merely muttered, “Oh, I just give them a little rice and let them run around.”

Venkatchellam – Women in a Golconda Garden c. 1790.
Venkatchellam – Women in a Golconda Garden c. 1790

In White Mughals, Dalrymple also mentions a letter written by Colonel Anthony Pohlmann to his friend, where Pohlmann describes Indian women as ‘acquisitions’ and ‘amusements’:

“I am inclined to volunteer to take service in the Cachmere country, where the best, and the handsomest ladies are….As soon as I get the order for returning, I shall be with you in a jiffy, as the cold nights are setting in and I dare say you will join my opinion that a beautiful Cashmereian woman would not be a bad acquisition. I really think it would be a very agreeable amusement.”’

William Dalrymple tackles several complex and difficult issues in his book, which many other authors would have glossed over or brushed under the carpet.

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Rai Venkatchellam’s Portrait of Henry Russell (1783-1852)

The cold-hearted Henry Russell’s treatment of his old mistress who had borne him two children, as well as his treatment of Khair, was a depiction of the more unpleasant side of Indo-British sexual relations. This extract from White Mughals gives us an idea of how Henry Russell thought of the mother of his children:

‘Charles informed Henry Russell by despatch that Henry’s bibi in Hyderabad had given birth to a baby girl prematurely, and that the child looked unlikely to survive. Russell’s reaction is chilling:

“I am sorry for the account you gave me of the probability of losing my little girl”, he writes “but it would be hypocrisy to pretend that it had afflicted me deeply. Even the loss of an infant that we have seen, we lament only in proportion to the love we bear its mother; and the death therefore of a child, whom not only have we never seen, but whose mother was never an object of attachment, cannot be regarded as a misfortune of very serious magnitude.”


File:AMH-6957-KB Conquest of Diu by the Portuguese in 1535.jpg
Conquest of Diu by the Portuguese in 1535

Perhaps most horrifying of all is the description in White Mughals of the Portuguese conquest of Goa:

“The Portuguese commander Afonso de Albuquerque made a point of ordering his men to marry the widows of the Muslim defenders they had massacred during the taking of the city. Albuquerque himself presided at the weddings of these ‘fair Mooresses of pleasing appearance’ and provided them with dowries. The fair Mooresses were then forcibly converted to Christianity, and after baptism, many were made to receive the rudiments of the Catholic faith.

Besieging the Harem, 1799

White Mughals also has an account of the British siege of Seringapatam, where the Brits allowed their soldiers to rape local women and loot their houses quite freely.

With all these gory details, no one can truly accuse Dalrymple of romanticizing British colonialism in White Mughals. One has to respect him for dealing with this issue in all its complexities, and not reducing it to Far Pavilions style candyfloss.

palmer family
‘The Palmer Family’ by Johann Zoffany, 1785

And yet, for all its accounts of the sexual exploitation and objectification of Indian women, White Mughals has some genuinely heart-warming stories of true love between Indian women and British men, many of which lasted throughout their lifetimes. The love and loyalty expressed in many of the wills are palpable. Dalrymple describes wills containing clauses in which the British men ask their close friends and family to care for their Indian partners, referring to them as ‘well beloved’, ‘worthy friend’ or ‘this amiable and distinguished lady.’”

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William Linnæus Gardner (1770-1835)

My favourite love story, apart from James and Khair, is that of William Linnaeus Gardner:

William Linnaeus Gardner was married to Begum Mah Munzel Ul-Nissa, the daughter of the Nawab of Cambay, and Gardner seems to have converted to Islam to marry her. Gardner had glimpsed the princess while he was sitting through the interminable negotiations of a treaty:

During the negotiations, a purda (curtain) was gently moved aside, and I saw (I thought) the most beautiful black eyes in the world. It was impossible to think of the Treaty; those bright and piercing glances, those beautiful black eyes completely bewildered me.

I felt flattered that a creature so lovely as she of those deep, black, loving eyes must be should venture to gaze upon me…at the next Durbar, my agitation and anxiety were extreme again to behold the bright eyes that haunted my dreams by night and my thoughts by day. The parda was again gently moved, and my fate was decided.


Mohman Khaun, Nawab of Cambay & father-in-law of William Gardner


I asked for the Princess in marriage; her relations were at first indignant, and positively refused my proposal….however, on mature deliberation, the hand of the princess was promised. The preparations for the marriage were carried forward. “Remember,” said I, “It will be useless to attempt to deceive me, I shall know those eyes again, nor will I marry any other.”

On the day of the marriage, I raised the veil from the countenance of the bride, and in the mirror that was placed between us, beheld the bright eyes that had bewildered me; I smiled- and the young Begum smiled also.”

It was a happy and long lasting marriage. Years later, Gardner wrote to his cousin Edward, “At Khassgunge I anticipate very great happiness. I am fond of reading and am fond of my garden and have more relish in playing with the little brats than for the First Society in the World. The Begum and I, through 22 years constant contact, have smoothed off each other’s asperities and roll on peaceably and contentedly….Man must have a companion, and the older I get the more I am confirmed in this. An old age without something to love, and nourish and comfort you, must be old and uncomfortable. The house is filled with brats, and the very thinking of them, from blue eyes and fair hair to ebony and wool, makes me quite anxious to get back to them again.

He added, “Few men have more occasion to congratulate themselves on their domestic comfort.” Eight years later, he was able to joke how “My having been married some thirty years and never having taken another wife surprises the Musselmans very much, and the ladies all look upon me as a pattern: they do not admire having a system of three or four rivals, however well pleased the gentlemen may be with the custom.”

File:Mahadaji Sindhia entertaining a British naval officer and military officer with a nautch.jpg
Mahadaji Sindhia entertaining a British naval officer and military officer with a nautch

William Dalrymple himself has discussed this issue in an interview:

Interviewer: A friend of mine said feminists in India today would react strongly to the way Indian women are portrayed in “White Mughals”, as falling eagerly into the arms of the Englishmen as wives and concubines…

William Dalrymple: There has been a court tradition in India: in Mughal and Rajput society, women were made available to the rulers and local figures rose to power through marriage. The British were only behaving in accordance with the social mores of the time. Your friend’s is a knee jerk response as this situation may be incorrect in 20th Century eyes.


2 thoughts on “White Mughals Fan and White Mughals Feminist: An Argument about the Position of Women in early 19th Century India

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