Cargo Girls : Promoted Indian jewellery, luxury and indulgence to the globe

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By
Amitabha Sengupta
Indranil Halder

In 1904, Elise Caroline Thompson, a Melbourne stage actress arrived in the Indian city of Calcutta for her stage performance. Raji Kumar Gopal Saran Narain Singh, Maharaja of Tikari, India attend her play and married Elise in 1909. In 1917, Elise attended the patriotic ball in Sydney Town Hall, wearing $75,000 worth of Indian diamonds which turned heads in Sydney society.

This is undoubtedly interesting.

Rather true.

Just as American women went from North America to United Kingdom to marry aristocrats for titles. Lady Curzon was one perfect example of such arrangement. During the British Raj in India, groups of unmarried women came from European countries to court Indian Maharajas followed by other British colonies.They were not rich and seen as gold diggers. There was a specific term used to identify these beautiful women in India. It was the ‘Cargo Girls’.

At a particular point of time in Indian history, having ‘Cargo Girls’ was a fashion among the Indian royals. These women would escort and entertain the man who held their hands and bared all responsibilities Mainly beautiful dancers or ballerinas, opera singers and stage actresses. Aware of the wealth in Indian subcontinent. Some saw it, as a business , others wanted a taste of adventure and the rest just loved Indian men. Many such European women were married to Indian Maharajas (who themselves were even married with children) who were charming . Had wealthy status. Lived in opulence. Enjoyed royal privileges. Lived in pomp and grandeur. The ‘Cargo Girls’ fell for these Maharajas and then married them too. Wore extraordinary jewellery collection gifted by the Maharajas. Attended parties. Travelled round the world. Many even bared children from these Indian royals.

These ‘Cargo Girls’ were faced with many social challenges. They were not seen with respect in the Indian society. Upper crust Indian women envied their beauty. Treated like wives by Maharaja but seen by the Indian society as concubines or Maharaja’s Consort. Never did they receive the honor of Maharanis as far in most cases the Maharajas were either married or the families did not recognize the marriage of the monarchs to a Western Christian lady or any lady from other religion or culture. Many of their children were not even recognized or acknowledged. The icing on the cake was that British Raj denied the approval of marriage between Anglo or Western woman and Indian rulers. In 1880s, the last Nawab Nizam of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa who attended glamorous receptions with Queen Victoria ended up marrying an English chambermaid Sarah Vennell and settled in harsh Australian outback for the love of her life.

In 1893, Maharaja of Patiala wanted to marry Miss Florry Bryan(a music hall entertainer) and was denied by British Raj on the ground of wrong race. The ‘Cargo Girls’ were often left in separate accommodations, although some what royal. In 1915, certain English literature professor from Calcutta even wrote an English book named ‘Etiquette for Indian Gentlemen’ to help the relationship between the Cargo Girls and their Maharajas blossom further. Same year, Molly Fink from Australia married Raja of Pudukkottai after meeting him in a Melbourne bar and married him. Anita Delgado from Spain and Eugenie Grosupova from Czech married Maharajah Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala followed by Stella Mudge from Kent (United Kingdom) also married Paramjit Singh, another Maharajah of Kapurthala. Alexandra Mcbride from Scotland was the 2nd wife of Late.HRH Maharaja Sahib Hanwant Singh Ji, Jodhpur. She became Maharani Sundra Devi. They had a son.

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Not only the Maharajas, as far as Bengal is concerned all the Rajas here were basically Zamindars who won the “Raja” title benstwod from the British Crown. Yet they were wealthy, great philanthropists and loved all things western. In Bengal, they had several homes at different parts of City of Palace ( Kolkata) for Western ladies, who were not allowed entry to the main family house although every one knew. They attend Durga pujo, drank free flowing champagne and be with men they loved. These Western women were entertained by the Rajas in houses which were either called “Bagan Bati” or “Garden Houses” or ” Baar Bari”. The term “Baar” of course not meaning outside but comes from the term “Baarangana” or “Prostitutes” or “Keeps”. Bengali society never gave them respect. But those days even the “Keeps” enjoyed respectful treatments.They knew that they were like wives but not a real wife. For these Bengali men, it was like carrying a high end Western brands like LV or Cartier or Tiffany. Not just in Bengal but throughout India, these women indulged in opulence. rather there was a kind of competition to have western wives.That was the rather a new wave coming and those who had wealth cared a damn about society or criticisms.

Even though, social acceptance was rare for these women, some of them grew emotional bonds with their Indian Maharajas or Rajas. Some waited in India for acceptance, some left India with their wealthy Maharaja husbands and others divorce and left for their own countries. But even then, many of these women fought for their rights and received financial assistance from India. Unknowingly what they did is to became brand ambassadors for Indian jewellery, luxury and indulgence across the globe.

In 1983, this unique group of Western women who fell for married Indian men and created a league of their own. Their story was portrayed by Merchant Ivory Production in British historical romantic drama film of “Heat and Dust”. In 2005, a book named, Wicked Women Of The Raj : European Women Who Broke Society Rules And Married Life highlighted many such women which included Annabella Parker(Bhagwat Singh, Maharana of Udaipur), Dolly Parnell (Prince Nasir Ali Khan of Rampur), Euphemia Crane (Yeshwant Rao Holkar, Maharajah of Indore), Marguerite Lawler(Yeshwant Rao Holkar, Maharajah of Indore), Morag Murray (Syed Abdullah of Koh Fort), Olive Monolescue (Ranbir Singh, Maharajah of Jind), Yvonne Martin (Nawabzada Mohamed Mubarak Abbasi of Bahawalpur) to name a few.

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In 1937, Australian women Joan Falkiner met Taley Muhammad Khan, Nawab of the Palanpur State (India) in German. At that time, he was receiving his treatment for a polo injury. They fell in love and married later. In 1947, Lord Mountbatten conferred the title of nobility on Joan for marrying Khan. On the other hand, Nancy Miller was born in Seattle, Washington and married Maharaja Tukoji Rao Holkar. She was from a well-educated American family too. She met her Indian prince in Switzerland. So was British model Georgina May Egan who married Jagaddipendra Narayan, the 22nd Maharajah of Cooch Behar. They were Western women but not of “lower class”.

Some of these Indian royals also lived overseas. In 1864, Bamba Muller and later on French woman Ada Douglas Wetherill married Maharajah Duleep Singh of the Punjab who lived in United Kingdom. It is said an English woman married his father Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab. As the trend continues , in 2006, a Perth receptionist Helen Simmons married Nizam of Hydrabad Mukhram Jha who lived in Western Australia. She wore exclusive jewellery, travel round the world and gave birth to two sons.

When not many Indian Maharanis would venture out into the Western world from their conservative society(accepting Maharani of Cooch Behar, Indira Devi) , these ‘Cargo Girls’ constantly changed India’s perceptions across the globe. They were so called ‘Ranis’ or Queens who lived a lavishly lifestyle in Europe or Australia or USA, wearing precious Golconda diamonds, Burmese rubies, Ceylon Blue Sapphires, Indian Ocean pearls. While others wore Basra pearls( the city of Basra, in modern-day Iraq), Colombian emerald and navaratn jewellery(representing the nine gods of the Hindu universe). These ‘Cargo Girls’ made India known for her opulence in the Western society, long before 2017 display of fabulous Al Thani Collection of Indian heritage jewels at the Grand Palais (Paris) or 2019 Christie’s Auction making over $100 Million from Indian-Themed Jewellery and Artefacts or reckless appearance of popular US YouTuber Emma Chamberlain’s at the 2022 MetGala wearing a stolen eye-popping Indian royal choker.

Love live the ‘Cargo Girls’ and their love affair to Indian Maharajas, jewellery and luxury.