I had not imagined that my obsessive search for twenty years for a hundred-and-fifty-some-year-old grave would teach me something about the meaning of history. Few would have cared about the discovery of this grave. It was, after all, the grave of a low-class Indian woman who was practically a nobody in the grand annals of nineteenth-century colonial India. But that was precisely the question: was Anna Liberata de Souza a nobody?  

Anna Liberata de Souza was an ayah to Mary Eliza Isabella Frere, the daughter of Bartle Frere, the legendary governor of Bombay in the 1860s, who at one point in his career, had been tipped to be the governor-general of India. Bartle Frere came from a distinguished political family (his grandfathers had been MPs for Norwich and Arundel) and he had graduated with distinction from East India College, the East India Company’s recruitment-and-training school at Haileybury. Landing in Bombay in 1834 after an adventurous land passage through Egypt, Bartle Frere rapidly scaled colonial ranks—private secretary to the governor of Bombay, political resident of Satara, chief commissioner of Sind—to finally become governor of Bombay. His heavy footprint in India is visible in those things that colonialism congratulates itself for: irrigation canals, trade fairs, the Sind Railway, the Oriental Inland Steam Company, and even the first adhesive postage stamp in India. His role in suppressing the Indian Uprising of 1857–58 earned him a knighthood and a coveted appointment to the Viceroy’s Executive Council, a position in the cabinet of the British government in India. In 1864, Frere’s wife, Catherine and his eighteen-year-old daughter, Mary, the oldest of five siblings, joined him. When Catherine shortly returned to England to be with the younger children, Mary took charge of the domestic management of Government House in Bombay (or their monsoon residence in Ganeshkhind, Poona). Her sister Georgina credits Mary with performing the task ‘with a tact and power singular in so young a girl…owing to a very human interest in her fellow creatures, which took no narrow view of life and of its possibilities under all sorts of conditions, and she enjoyed the opportunities of meeting Native ladies in their Zenanas and Missionary workers at their Stations, as much as “Society” in its more usually accepted sense’.

One of these ‘fellow creatures’ was Anna, the ayah, who worked for the Frere household in Ganeshkhind for eighteen months. She started work in 1865, around the time when Government House began to be built. By the time it was finally completed in 1871, Government House, with its hundred-foot tower, had broken all budget and project timelines. It occupied the centre of a 512-acre colonial development where British-style bungalows for officers nestled amidst tree-lined roads and terraced gardens. The four-hundred-foot-long Government House itself stretched north-south and had two double-storied wings connected by a central portion. A durbar area, a formal dining room with an arched ceiling, a ballroom, and an arcade opening to a large conservatory hosted banquets, receptions, and ladies’ socials. One wing was reserved for guest bedrooms, the other for the governor’s office and his private residence. A 250-foot underground tunnel connected the main building to the kitchen, the store, and the servants’ quarter. In addition, four bungalows for the governor’s staff, a guardroom with an ornate clock tower, European-style barracks for the governor’s band, stables, and coach houses were placed around the main building. There was apparently no problem housing servants in these mansions, because, according to Edmund Hull’s vade mecum for Anglo-Indian domestic life, the great advantage with Indian servants is that ‘no provision has to be made with regard to their board or lodging’. Hull instructs that only one servant should sleep in the house at night—on a mat in the veranda. The cook could sleep on a shelf in the kitchen. The horse keepers should sleep with the horses in the stables, ‘always’. Anna would either have lived in one of the servant outbuildings or slept in the verandas of the north wing of Government House in Ganeshkhind, where Mary could have called her at will.

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