Chapter XI of “Anglo-Indian Revolutionaries” by Christine Weston
“The origin of the Anglo-Indians goes back many centuries to the earliest years of contact between Europe and India. Historically the community dates back nearly 400 years to the time when Vasco de Gama, the intrepid Portuguese Navigator, landed at Calicut on the West (Malabar) Coast of India in May, 1498. Within ten years of 1500 there was at Diu a Portuguese Governor – the great Alfonso d´Albuquerque. As a means of establishing the Portuguese authority in India he encouraged his countrymen to marry Indian women. `He did not however, give permission to marry except to men of approved character.´ The women whom they married were the daughters of the principal men of the land. The Portuguese failed to establish themselves permanently in India. One of the causes of the Portuguese failure was the arrival of the Dutch and the English in the opening years of the 17th century. The offspring of these mixed marriages between the Portuguese and Indians were known as Luso-Indians. When the Portuguese, under pressure, abandoned their Indian possessions the Luso-Indians rapidly sank in the social scale and within a space of two centuries the majority of them had reverted to Indian stocks, and are known today as Goanese, a very common community in Goa, Bombay and the West Coast. But in the larger cities of India like Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, the better type of Luso-Indians retained their European characteristics and many of them ultimately amalgamated with the newly-born mixed community, the Anglo-Indians.
The birth of the Anglo-Indian community in contradistinction to the Luso-Indian community dates back to the year 1600 when Queen Elizabeth granted a Charter to the East India Company to initiate trading operations with India. At first the English merely visited Indian ports as traders. By 1612 a factory had been established at Surat. By 1639 another factory was established at Madras. Bombay was a centre for trade purposes in 1668. In 1698 the East India Company purchased the Zemindary of three villages, one of which was called Calicutta, from which Calcutta derived its name. Very soon it was imperative to construct fortifications and employ soldiers to defend the factories against attacks from the Mahrattas and other marauders of those early days. Thus there gradually grew up colonies of English men only in all the trading factories along the shores of India, for the East India Company had prohibited women from accompanying their men folk to India.
Alfonso d´Albuquerque had encouraged his men to marry Indian women as a means to strengthening the Portuguese position in India. Owing to the fact that the English missed the companionship of their women, and suffered from the monotony and tedium of life in a strange and tropical land, many of them formed alliances (legitimate or otherwise) with the Luso-Indian and Indian women. Moreover the English who discovered that the offspring of mixed marriages, the Anglo-Indians, were of great service to them in many ways. The Court of Directors of the East India Company on 8th April, 1687, thus addressed their President at Madras: `The marriage of our soldiers to the native women of Fort St. George is a matter of such consequence to posterity that we shall be content to encourage it with some expense, and have been thinking for the future to appoint a pagoda (Rs. 5) to be paid to the mother of any child that shall hereafter be born of any such future marriage, upon the day the child is christened, if you think this small encouragement will increase the number of such marriages.´ The offer of the Directors was accepted and put into effect so that the British in this way became officially responsible for the birth of the Anglo-Indian Community. Gradually however, as the numbers of Anglo-Indians increased, the practice of Britishers marrying Indian women fell into disrepute, because the necessity for it had disappeared. `The new arrival could always wed a girl of mixed parentage, and it became customary for him to do so.´
From the earliest times the cause of England was the cause of her Anglo-Indian sons. They augmented the inadequate forces of the East India Company; they spilt their blood on many a battlefield, they rendered estimable services in reconnoitring and bringing information of the enemy.´ In the early days Anglo-Indians were not branded with the mark of inferiority. If their fathers could afford it, they were sent to England for their education, and returned to India in the covenanted services of the Company. Those who were not lucky enough to be sent to England were given the best education obtainable in India and occupied the majority of the positions in the uncovenanted Civil service, and in the warrant ranks of the Company´s army. `They fought under Clive at Arcot. They perished in the Black Hole of Calcutta. They were to be found in the front line of battle at Plassey.´ These were the years of their prosperity, their halcyon days. The days of turmoil and adversity were fast approaching.
The days of prosperity of the Anglo-Indian community may roughly extend from 1600 to 1785. On the 14th of March, 1786, the first of three repressive orders was promulgated against the community. By the first order of March 1786 the wards of the upper orphanage school at Calcutta, recently established under the auspices of the East India Company for the orphans of British Military officers, were prohibited from proceeding to England to complete their education, and thus qualifying for the covenanted services. A second order passed in April 1791 stated that `no person the son of a native Indian shall henceforth be appointed by the court in employment in the Civil and Military forces of the Company.´ The third Resolution passed in 1795 stated that all not descended from European parents on both sides were disqualified for service in the army except as fifers, drummers, bandsmen, and farriers. These repressive measures were due partly to a fear of mutinies such as had occurred in the English force under Clive in Bengal in 1776 and in the Madras army which revolted and imprisoned Lord Pigott, Governor of Madras, in the same year; partly to a panic in India and England caused by contemplating the possibilities of a rebellion in India led by the now numerous Anglo-Indians. This experience had happened about this time to the Spaniards in San Domingo; and partly to a desire on the part of shareholders of the East India Company for the patronage with regard to filling appointments in India which up to now was in the hands of the Indian Government, for the shareholders saw in the Company´s service attractive careers for their sons and other near relatives. Thus Anglo-Indians had been deprived of every honorable career in the military forces and the door was closed against them with regard to civil appointments. `Thus within the brief period of 10 years lying between 1786 and 1795, by the standing orders of the great East India Company, Anglo-Indians had been reduced to the status of a proscribed and down-trodden race.´
Immediate action was taken in order to give effect to these regulations, and these conditions with slight variations were in force till the outbreak of the Mutiny in 1857. Anglo-Indians in every branch of the army were discharged from the service without any compunction as to their future. Owing to the fact that heretofore they were regarded more like Englishmen, they had been debarred from acquiring land or residing further than 10 miles from the nearest Presidency town or Company´s settlement. Hence they could not turn to agriculture or trade. Thrown out of the soldiering, the only profession to which they had been reared, there was nothing for them to do but transfer their services to Indian chiefs, and they were received with open arms. Others of them formed their own groups of irregular infantry and cavalry; while hundreds of Anglo-Indian warriors won their spurs in the ranks of armies not belonging to the East India Company.´ Although they were not permitted to hold offices under the Company, many found employment as clerks in the various mercantile houses.
`The East India Company had hardly cast Anglo-Indians out of its army, when it found itself beset by foes.´ The Marquis of Wellesley had arrived in India in 1798 and had introduced his `Subsidiary System´ which initiated the Mysore and Mahratta wars. At this time too the English in Europe were at death-grips with the French and Napoleon in the Revolutionary Wars and could send very little help to India. So `A Proclamation was issued summoning all British and Anglo-Indian men and officers who were serving with the Mahratta army under Perron and in other Indian States, to return to the Company´s forces. The Proclamation concluded with a warning that those who failed to rejoin the British ranks would be treated as traitors.´ There was no need for the threat. The Anglo-Indians heard the `Call of the Blood´ and obeyed implicitly. The war against the Maharattas was concluded abruptly and inconclusively.
The Court of Directors had grown weary of Wellesley´s ceaseless and costly campaigns, and recalled him. A Non-Intervention policy was once again adopted and expenditure on the military side reduced to a minimum. The Company´s army was reduced and once again Anglo-Indians were thrown out of military service, for `in 1808 the Commander-in-Chief issued an order discharging them, as formerly, from the British Regiments in India.´
During the first half of the 19th century (1800-1850) the Anglo-Indian community made the first serious attempts to provide for the education of their children. Being shut out from the army they realized that a good education was needed for the various callings in civil life. In response to this urge, and with the help of influential men and societies La Martiniere College was established in 1836, St. Xavier´s College in 1834, and many other institutions too numerous to mention. `The spirit of self-help of this period is worth bearing in mind.´ In spite of improved educational facilities the prospects of the community during the first half of the 19th century were none too rosy. In fact for many the future was black. The political, social and economic, disabilities of their community was freely discussed in every Anglo-Indian home and ultimately it was resolved that `a petition´ should be presented to the British Parliament on their behalf. A suitable document was drawn and J.W. Ricketts was unanimously elected agent to present it to the Houses of Parliament. Ricketts arrived in London with this precious Document on 27th December 1829 and it was at length duly presented to Parliament. Owing to the political upheavals in England about this time the petition did not produce the results which were expected of it. The struggle for Catholic Emancipation and the Reform bill of 1832 was in progress. The people in England had too many of their own problems to cope with to find time for the petition of the Anglo-Indians. `The communal activities of the Anglo-Indians about the period 1820-1830 had a local but nevertheless important result. It called for the sympathy and good-will of influential friends in the country, who gave their moral support to the aspirations and reasonable demands of a patient and enduring section of the British inhabitants of India.´ It also brought into the limelight and had recorded some of their difficulties and problems.
In 1833 the Charter of the East India Company was renewed. Influenced no doubt somewhat by the Anglo-Indians´ petition, Section 87 of the said Act stated that -`No native of the said territories, nor any natural born subject of His Majesty resident therein, shall, by reason of his religion, place of birth, descent, colour, or any of them, be disabled from holding any place, office, or employment under the said Company.´ In theory all posts were thrown open to people of any race in India, but in practice only the subordinate trades were bestowed upon Indians and Anglo-Indians, since higher services could be filled only by recruitment in England. Fortunately for Anglo-Indians, about this same time (1833), English took the place of Persian as the official language of the Courts and Government offices. In future English was to be the only medium of correspondence in commercial houses. English being their mother-tongue, the Anglo-Indians had an advantage in this direction and very soon many of the community found employment under Government and in commercial firms as clerks, though in subordinate positions. This advantage, however, was only temporary because Lord Bentinck, who was Governor-General from 1828 to 1836, with the cooperation of Lord Macaulay who drew up his famous Minute on Education in 1835, determined that `The linguistic disadvantage of Indians should be removed, and accordingly instruction in English was ordered to be imparted in Indian schools.´ Very soon the graduates from Indian Universities and educated young men from the Government High Schools were rapidly elbowing Anglo-Indians out of the clerical posts which they had filled efficiently.
Fortune once again came to the rescue of Anglo-Indians for soon new avenues of employment were opening up for them. In 1825 the first railway had run in England. In 1845 the East India Railway was projected in India. Simultaneously railway schemes were set on foot in Madras and Bombay. The first train in India ran from Bombay to Thana in 1853. In 1851 the Telegraph system was inaugurated. During the latter half of the 19th century (1850-1900)
Anglo-Indians found ample employment on the railways, and in the telegraph and custom services. These departments needed men of adventurous stock who were willing to endure the hardships, risks, and perils of pioneers. The Anglo-Indians had in them the spirit of their forefathers and so the community furnished – `The Navigation Companies with captains, second officers, engineers and mechanics. From them were recruited telegraph operators, artisans and electricians. They supplied the railways with station staffs, engine-drivers, permanent way-inspectors, guards, auditors – in fact every higher grade of railway servant.´ The Mutiny of 1857 too had proved beyond doubt the absolute loyalty of the Anglo-Indians and removed the suspicion which had been responsible for the repressive measures of the latter part of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. The latter part of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century were once again a period of prosperity and contentment for Anglo-Indians.
The modern period may be said to have begun in the year 1911. It was in this year that the modern term Anglo-Indians was substituted by Government for the old name Eurasians, by which the community was known. In the 20th century Indians have made rapid progress in every direction. The universities, colleges and schools, of India have turned out thousands of young men well-fitted to hold posts in all the departments of Government and in Civil capacities too. The Morely-Minto Reforms of 1909, the Montagu-Chelmsford of 1919, and the Indian Bill of 1935 have given Indians an increasing share in the Government of their country. As the Indians are fitting themselves more and more to undertake leadership in all phases of life in India, it is only in the natural order of affairs that Anglo-Indians should lose the near monopoly they once held and find in the struggle to secure employment more difficult. In my boyhood days a lad in the 6th Standard of about 14 years of age, with no more than a knowledge about the 3R´s was able to get employment easily on the railways or in the telegraph department, and unemployment was unheard of. Today young men of my community with a good high school education, and some with degrees, are roaming the streets in search of employment, and unemployment is rife. Hundreds of the community are to be found today in all the large towns begging for their daily bread. The community as a whole is demoralized and discouraged, and had not yet found a solution for its difficulties. In the words of Mary Pickford, I would again ask – `Why not try God?´ In many senses the community had faced more difficult problems and been through more trying circumstances in this modern age than ever before in its history. No one seems to be able to predict the future of the Anglo-Indians. This seems to be in the lap of the gods.”
*In this chapter, “Christine Weston quoted freely from `Hostages to India´ by the late Herbert A. Stark, the historian of the Anglo-Indian community.”
In 1510 the Portuguese Governor of India, Alfonso d´Albuquerque encouraged his countrymen to marry Indian women in order to establish Portuguese authority in India. The offspring of these mixed marriages between the Portuguese and Indians were known as Luso-Indians.
In its early days, the East India Company´s Board of Directors did not allow families or wives to travel along with its officials and soldiers to India. The English missed the companionship of their women and many of them had relationships with Luso-Indian and Indian women.
The offspring of these mixed marriages and relationships are known as the Anglo-Indians. In 1687, the EIC encouraged marriages between European soldiers and Indian women, and even paid the mother of mixed offspring five rupees on the day the child was christened.
Until 1911 Anglo-Indians were universally known as Eurasians. For occupational purposes and as a point of differentiation from the Europeans and the Indians, they were designated Statutory Natives of India; while for the defence of Empire purposes, they were called European British Subjects.
Lists of some births, marriages and deaths in India are given in the Anglo-Indian newspapers of the time; also (from 1808 to 1844) some appear in the East India Register, which is held at the British Library, Oriental and India Office collection.
Selected extracts from the India Presidencies of Bengal, Bombay and Madras Ecclesiastical Returns of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials, 1713-1948 include Anglo-Indian details as well, which are held at the British Library, Oriental and India Office Collection.
The relevant church record transcriptions and indexes have been microfilmed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
The Anglo-Indians: Britain’s Forgotten Grandchildren
If the British Empire was created in an uncoordinated and ad-hoc manner, even in fits of absent-mindedness, it is equally true that it was dissolved in the same way. The disintegration of empire sometimes led to tragic consequences on a vast scale, most notably when the post-war Labour administration hastily sliced up and abandoned the Indian subcontinent in 1947. The resulting orgy of sectarian slaughter witnessed hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Sometimes the end of Empire, with all its loose ends and unfinished business, left tragedy on a much less dramatic scale. The fate of the Anglo-Indians – the descendants of mixed race marriages during the period of the European and British presence in India – can be seen in this light. The fate of this community, described by one popular historian (Geoffrey Moorhouse) as “quite the saddest result of British imperialism”, is a little-known episode of our imperial history, a mere footnote (if mentioned at all) in standard texts. Yet it is a living issue: there still exists today in India a community of thousands of Anglo-Indians, of which most British people are completely unaware. Such knowledge that there is of the Anglo-Indians is probably restricted to rather hackneyed portrayals, in novels such as John Master’s Bhowani Junction (1954).
Down the centuries these people were more loyal to England than to India, but at Independence the British left the community largely to fend for itself. Most left India, fearing the retribution of a Hindu Raj: a retribution which didn’t happen. However, many others remained – some from choice, others from economic necessity – especially in their spiritual heartland of Calcutta.
This article takes an overview of the history of the Anglo-Indians, and of the attitudes of the British to their forgotten grandchildren. It suggests some reasons for the continuing British indifference towards the remaining Anglo-Indians in India.
Defining a community
Defining the Anglo-Indian community has always been a contentious and fraught issue. One general confusion is that “Anglo-Indian” used to refer to British people on tour of duty in imperial India. It is sometimes still used in this way. However, the term as used here refers to the mixed-race community of British India, a people originally referred to as Eurasian, countryborn, Indo-British – or often simply as half-caste. The term Anglo-Indian was officially recognised in British times in the 1911 census of India, and in the 1935 Government of India Act. The constitution of independent India later defined the Anglo-Indian as follows:
a person whose father or any of whose male progenitors in the male line is or was of European descent but who is domiciled within the territory of India and is or was born within such territory of parents habitually resident therein and not established for temporary purposes only.
Behind the legalese, three aspects of this definition are important. Firstly, it refers to a community whose normal country of residence is, or was, India. The Anglo-Indian is not merely the result of mixed British – Asian marriages, such as occur today in Britain. He is the product of a particular time and place, the historical circumstance of British India. Although most Anglo-Indians left India at Independence, and are scattered today throughout the Anglo-Saxon diaspora, their origins in India qualify them as members of the community in this sense. A second key element of the definition is that it does not require British, merely European ancestry: many Anglo-Indians are descended from the Portuguese and the French. Thirdly, this European element must normally be on the paternal side.
This definition, which still has constitutional and political force in modern India, is somewhat rigid and has often been contested. For example, those with European descent in the maternal line may see themselves as Anglo-Indian, notwithstanding the constitutional niceties. But those who cannot prove their European ancestry may find themselves “officially” excluded from the community, and consequently from the political benefits that this can bring.
Origins of the Anglo-Indians
The community came into being during the age of discovery. European men arriving in India for trade and evangelism took local lovers and wives. The British, of course, were not the first Europeans on the scene. They were preceded by the Portuguese, who were to remain in India for a longer period: their formal presence was ended only with the “liberation” of Goa in 1961. The Portuguese gave rise to a mixed community whose influence lives on in today’s Anglo-Indians through surnames such as D’Cruz, De Souza, and D’Rozario. The French also had a strong early presence in the subcontinent, and also intermarried with local women, creating dynasties. So too did a motley assortment of other Europeans who travelled to India, including Italian adventurers, Polish aristocrats and Greek merchants.
As the British gained dominion in India, the mixed race groups originating from various European paternal sources eventually coalesced into an English-speaking Eurasian community. On the British side, there was strong Irish and Scottish influence. As numbers grew, concerns were aroused that the Anglo-Indian community could become politically and militarily powerful, and eventually overthrow the British. Perhaps the fear pervading British officials came from a comparison with the events that had led to the loss of the American colonies. Indeed, Lord Cornwallis himself, who had earlier surrendered at Yorktown to rebellious American colonists, was twice Governor-General in India. The eighteenth-century “mulatto” rebellions in the Caribbean against French and Spanish rule must also have been a cause for concern to those who saw potential unrest in India.
The Anglo-Indians were therefore demilitarised, though periodically redrafted when needed in emergencies, only to be subsequently demilitarised again as threats receded. Apart from their use as convenient cannon fodder, Anglo-Indians saw their educational opportunities and land-owning rights restricted. The East India Company had thus sown the seeds of future dependency and impoverishment.
British fears were unfounded. The Anglo-Indians were ultra-loyalists, a classic case of a people who were more British than the British. They proved it in their continuous assistance both during the Company Raj and the later Empire. In the moment of greatest crisis, the 1857 sepoy Mutiny, they effectively saved British India. They weren’t Britain’s only allies in the sub-continent in 1857, but without them the British could have been swept out of the country altogether. Later, in the years leading to Independence, the Anglo-Indians were the backbone of the reserve Auxiliary Force, a paramilitary group that suppressed internal civil unrest and Gandhian agitation.
The British belatedly recognised Anglo-Indian loyalty after the Mutiny, granting preferred employment in various areas. Here too, however, Britain was again acting in her own interest, in using the community to secure the imperial framework. The Anglo-Indians were encouraged to keep the subcontinent’s infrastructure running, with the allocation of reserved places in such services as the railways, customs and telecommunications. The community was distanced from the levers of true political power, serving in an intermediate position between the British and the Indians, a link between the rulers and the ruled.
The community’s history books have tended to be quite polemical in tone, criticising Britain’s sorry treatment of their loyal allies. The emotive tone is indicated by the titles of the two most influential twentieth century histories, separated by a half-century but underscored by the same seething resentment: Herbert Stark’s Hostages to India (Calcutta, 1926) and Frank Anthony’s Britain’s Betrayal in India (Bombay, 1969).
The criticisms in these books – neither of which are really histories, but rather polemical tracts – have filtered through into general Anglo-Indian consciousness. The few writings on the subject by non Anglo-Indian writers – in particular Christopher Hawes’ Poor Relations: The Making of a Eurasian Community in British India 1773-1833 (Richmond, 1996) – have perhaps contributed a more balanced assessment of the role of the British. For instance, one can take the frequent accusation in Anglo-Indian literature that the British consciously encouraged the development of the community it later abandoned. It is true that the East India Company endorsed marriage between its soldiers and local women, with a small payment to those whose children were baptised. But this arrangement was probably made a little reluctantly. It appears to have been less a way of consciously creating a mixed race community than of attempting to control the moral lives of soldiers. In a hot, exotic environment in which life expectancy was short, the satisfaction of what Clive’s great French adversary Dupleix called “la rage de la culotte” gave rise to serious headaches for the authorities. There is some truth in the old quip that the sun never set on the British Empire because the Almighty could not trust what the British got up to in the dark. The Company’s payment to children was therefore in all likelihood motivated by a desire to tame their soldiers’ wilder urges. (Another motive for the payments was a desire to avoid losing the children to the Catholic church.) However, despite occasional Anglo-Indian exaggeration of the extent of the shabbiness of their treatment by Britain, the basic charge against the British seems irrefutable: the best that can be said is that the treatment of their loyal supporters in India was less than honourable.
There has been something of an Anglo-Indian cultural renaissance in the late twentieth century. Histories and cultural studies, such as Gloria Jean Moore’s distinguished The Anglo-Indian Vision (Melbourne, 1986) and Melvyn Brown’s quirky and idiosyncratic Encyclopedia Anglo-Indian (Calcutta, 1995) claim for the community various twentieth-century celebrities, such as actress Merle Oberon, and popular singers Engelbert Humperdinck and Cliff Richard. They also point to the Anglo-Indian connections of noteworthy historical figures, including Lord Liverpool, Tory Prime Minister, and Lord Roberts, supreme commander during the Boer War. I am not in a position to comment on the accuracy of such claims. Apart from the general difficulty of defining Anglo-Indians, many did not welcome their identification with the community, preferring instead to assimilate into European society. Merle Oberon is said to have played down her Anglo-Indian heritage and Calcutta origins, though in her defence it may be that she was forced to do so by the attitudes of white society.
The changing Empire
The tone of British involvement in India evolved over time, from the swashbuckling days of Clive to the imperial majesty of Curzon’s viceroyalty. The earlier corrupt, fortune-seeking nabobs were replaced by civil servants with a high sense of responsibility to the peoples of India, seeing themselves as the spiritual heirs of the guardian class of Plato’s Republic.
Behind this positive development, there was a darker side. In the cultural journey from Clive to Curzon, from booty to duty, much of the spontaneity, warmth and humanity of British India was lost. Orwell has argued that the creativity of the Empire fizzled out as the improvisation of the pioneers gave way to the rigidities of imperial bureaucracy. The Anglo-Indians suffered from this cultural shift. The racial and cultural tolerance of the early adventurers in India, who had so readily turned to local women for wives and lovers, was squeezed out. After the opening of the Suez canal, British women increasingly came to settle in India, and interracial relationships – sanctioned by marriage or otherwise – became increasingly unacceptable to polite, white colonial society. It was not only that British men in India could now have British wives, it was that they were expected to.
Herbert Stark, whose 1926 polemical work has been referred to above, identified three “options” for the Anglo-Indians. All have had their advocates in the community. The first option was to integrate with British or European society. This course of action was always more viable for those of lighter skin colour, as they were often indistinguishable from Europeans. The second option was to assimilate into the Indian communities. This was generally less desirable to the Anglo-Indians during the Raj, as they identified more readily with Britain than India: their outlook was westernised, their first language was English, and they were Christians. Hindu caste taboos and racial prejudice also worked against their acceptance into mainstream Indian society. But perhaps the most important impediment was the Anglo-Indian desire to maintain their political status over most Indians under the Raj, through the prestige of their British connections. Today, of course, that power base has crumbled, and marriage into other Indian communities is increasingly common.
The third option was to remain as a separate community, through endogamous marriage. This option became almost inevitable as British social and racial attitudes hardened under the later Raj. The Anglo-Indians were sandwiched socially and politically between two cultures. From above, the British looked down with a mixture of pity and disdain on what one of Paul Scott’s characters in Staying On (1977) considered to be a “rather sad and self-contained and often pretentious mimic life.” From below, the Indian nationalist movement dismissed the Anglo-Indians as collaborators in the framework of British “repression” in India. As Independence approached, and it became clear than the Indian nationalists would replace the British as the power in the subcontinent, there was an Anglo-Indian flight from India. The Indians, to their credit, did not treat the Anglo-Indians badly; they even reserved seats for them in parliament. However, the power base of this tiny minority had crumbled, and within ten years of Independence, most of the community had moved to Britain and the Commonwealth.
In India today
It has always been difficult to gauge the size of the Anglo-Indian community. Estimates of their number in India in the years leading to Independence range from 200,000 to half a million. In India today, estimates of the community’s size vary from 30,000 to 150,000. Estimates are made difficult by continuing debates between fragmented and conflict-ridden Anglo-Indian social and political groups, who dispute the qualifications of a bona fide Anglo-Indian. Some Anglo-Indians accuse outsiders, in particular Indian Christians, of attaching themselves to the community for political and social prestige.
Many Anglo-Indians have been successful in post-Independence India. Politicians, lawyers, nurses, nuns, sportsmen and especially teachers have made significant contributions to Indian life. In all branches of the armed services, Anglo-Indians have served India and fought gallantly in her wars. Others, however, have been less successful, and the achievements of a minority should not disguise the socio-economic distress of the majority. One academic has described the community in post-Independence India in terms of a narrow band of well-educated professionals and politicians at the top, and a large, sagging base of ill-educated, semi-skilled and unskilled Anglo-Indians at the bottom. This is seen in the fact that many of India’s best schools today are still run by Anglo-Indians, yet a large part of this community remains an uneducated underclass.
The poverty of many Anglo-Indians is noticeable even by Indian standards, and linguistic disadvantage is often identified as a key factor in the community’s underachievement. Many Anglo-Indian children speak only English as a maternal tongue, and struggle through Hindi or Bengali classes at school. Without a formal command of an Indian language, higher education and employment prospects are diminished, and the resulting economic exclusion leads inexorably to poverty.
The British and the Anglo-Indians
The British have never recognised the historical importance of this community, and have been justly criticised by Anglo-Indian writers. Several factors may explain this attitude. Firstly, there is the traditional British dislike of nationalism when it is perceived to be a satellite jingoism, emanating from the fringes of mainstream “Britishness”. Closer to home, this can be seen in British ambivalence towards the Ulster Unionists.
A second reason may be a general British indifference to her empire in India. In contrast to the political classes, the average Briton had always seemed to be uninterested in the imperial project. When Indian Independence came, many commentators remarked on the widespread lack of interest in this momentous event.
But perhaps a more important explanation for continuing British indifference is that, in an era of post-colonial guilt, the left-liberal establishment that frames British public policy has no conceptual basis for understanding the Anglo-Indians. The Anglo-Indians had suffered during the Raj for not being British enough. Today, ironically, they are sidelined for being too British. The left-liberal establishment which sets the tone of modern British society has been nurtured on the sentimentalism of third-worldist ideology. Although relatively few people may have directly read the “classic” romanticism of Rousseau, or the writings of modern thinkers such as Fanon and Wallerstein, the anti-imperialist and third-wordlist dogma of the left has saturated popular consciousness. The British establishment today can perhaps only understand the former subjects of Empire when they adopt a militantly anti-British posture. The Anglo-Indians’ traditional love of both Britain and India, matched with a sophisticated cosmopolitanism, does not fit into these ideological frameworks. The Anglo-Indians can be viewed only with incomprehension by those who despise what the community represents, and who can only interpret it as a living anachronism, an imperial dinosaur.
A lot of rather tawdry Raj nostalgia has emerged in recent years, showing that the romance of some Britons with India has not yet finished. We should restore the Anglo-Indians to their rightful place in our history, to enhance understanding of imperial history, and to make it more three-dimensional. By doing so, we would also acknowledge our debt to this diverse, sensitive and remarkable community.
The author is a chartered accountant, and author of the book “Nine Months In Calcutta”