Ayah’s, Opium and Crying Babies

There are several colonial books which talk about the Indian ayah or nanny, who would feed a crying baby opium to comfort the child and assist it to sleep. In addition, some stories suggest ayahs were dismissed when found to be hiding opium under finger nails to administer it to the baby. Conflicting reports suggest that ayahs were entirely trustworthy, whilst others claim ayahs were deceitful. The evidence suggests a lot of variation. Nonetheless, it was from ayahs that many children in British India learnt the facts of life.

One story, closer to home (home being the Anglo-Indian Project), supports the accounts of ayahs using opium to comfort a crying baby. A family member who spent the first years of his life in India recalls stories of being sedated with ‘cocaine on the palette’, given to him by his ayah. The amazement of the family at the ayahs apparent magical ability, was not overlooked by Edith Hassett who was curious as to how the ayah could calm the baby so well. Checking the mouth of the child revealed a small white tablet – most likely cocaine – which was promptly removed, as was the ayah soon after.

Did you have an ayah? what was your experience?

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