Invisible Indians – World Anglo-Indian Day: 2 August

Some of the first Indians to settle in Christchurch were Anglo-Indians. They arrived as domestic servants with John Cracroft Wilson in 1854 where they were employed on his estate which later became the suburb of Cashmere. They married into the local populace and some of their descendants still live in the Canterbury region.

It was a New Zealand Anglo-Indian who, in 2001 at the triennial World Anglo-Indian Reunion held in Auckland, selected 2 August to be a day of celebrating Anglo-Indian culture, culminating in World Anglo-Indian Day.

A pan-Indian community

Anglo-Indians (originally called ‘Eurasians’) are an Indian community who are the descendants of a historical union between a European father and an Indian mother.

The community often traces its initial origins to the arrival of the Portuguese merchants who settled in India in the 16th century. The British were the next major European power to arrive in the subcontinent, with the British East Indian Company gradually expanding their authority beyond the trading ports where they had initially settled. Originally the officials of the Company encouraged their men to marry Indian women. In the early days of the Company, it was common for British men to integrate themselves into Indian culture, with some converting to Islam, adopting Indian fashions and practices, and raising families with their Indian wives, essentially becoming what historian William Dalrymple has termed “White Mughals”.

Major William Palmer with his second wife, the Mughal princess Bibi Faiz Bakhsh, and family. Wikimedia Commons.

Yet by the end of the 18th century attitudes began to change. The loss of the American colonies made the British wary of allowing a community, whose loyalties were not always certain, the responsibility of administering their most prized colonial possession. Measures were taken to restrict Anglo-Indians to lower ranks of the civil service and military in order to prevent them from gaining positions of authority.

By the dawn of the nineteenth century, racism and religious intolerance by the Company board of directors in London also led to the cohabitation of British and Indians being actively discouraged. Relationships between British men and Indian women still continued in secret, but the children were often no longer publicly acknowledged by the father. British regulations meant the Indian mothers had no rights to their children, and many were taken off them and abandoned in orphanages where they were raised to become British and Christian.

During the era of the British Raj (1858-1947), Anglo-Indians often worked in roles where they could act as intermediaries between the British officials and Indian employees. One traditional form of employment reserved for them was the railway department. As such the railway came to play a central role in the identity of Anglo-Indians and even led to the development of certain dishes such as railway mutton curry.

Although they dressed in the manner of the British, had British names and were Christian, they were still not accepted as equals by the British who ruled in India. In order to escape the prejudice they faced, many assimilated into British society by covering up their Indian roots, often attributing their looks to a “Spanish ancestor”. Others, when immigrating to new countries, hid their origins and simply pretended that their family were “British who lived in India”. As a result of this, generations have grown up cut off from their roots and cultural identity.

Because of their identity as subjects of the British Empire, Anglo-Indians continued to arrive in New Zealand throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially in the decades leading up to the independence of India in 1947. Although the community in India is estimated to be between 300,000 to 1,000,000 strong, the diaspora following Independence led to many settling in former British colonies such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Today, many New Zealanders of Anglo-Indian heritage are now reconnecting with their culture and heritage, often in the form of making trips to India for the express purpose to research their family’s origins.

The subject of this ‘renaissance’ of Anglo-Indian identity in New Zealand is currently being researched by Dr. Robyn Andrews of Massey University. The oral histories of Anglo-Indians in New Zealand is also the subject of the book, Raj Days to Downunder by Christchurch based scholar, Dorothy McMenamin (an Anglo-Indian originally from Pakistan). Work has also been undertaken by Dr. Jane McCabe of Otago University who has examined the history of the ‘Kalimpong Kids’, Anglo-Indian children who were brought out to New Zealand in the early twentieth century to work in domestic duties.

Famous Anglo-Indians include writer, Virginia Woolf, comedians, Billy Connolly and Alistair McGowan, and musicians, Cliff Richard and Engelbert Humperdinck.

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Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World by Niall Ferguson

Cover of Empire: How Britain made the modern worldThe British Empire evokes all manner of contentions and sentiments.

Some have profoundly resentful feelings toward it, others take a more positive and apologetic position regarding its history and legacy.

It was the largest empire in history. Its size and magnitude equalled by no other – with territories, dominions, colonies, businesses, religious organisations, armies and navies spanning almost a quarter of the earth. With mixed results. Depending on what side of history you are on.

Therefore, any book which attempts to provide a detailed, fair and comprehensive exposition of the British behemoth could conceivably stretch out into several volumes, or one book featuring squillions of pages, all rigorously peer reviewed and counter argued.

In Empire: How Britain made the modern world Ferguson doesn’t do that. Who would?

But, he manages to cleverly consolidate almost 400 years of British Empire history into six relatively well rounded chapters.

He begins with his own brief and intimate family history, detailing how his impoverished Scottish ancestors fared under the Empire as settlers grinding out a better life in the North American plains. Something to be proud of, as the family sips port and gives historical accounts around the fire.

Beyond this we get mostly objective historical stuff, beginning in England, where the British population’s appetite for tea, sugar, fine linens and tobacco drove industrious and ambitious types to India and the Caribbean, in order to cash in on what was an insatiable consumerism for new treats on the streets of London. Quite a funny treatment actually.

This consumerism then lead to an entrepreneurialism fused with coercion – as England set up export platforms “protected” by armies and English merchant vessels chaperoned by navies, complete with the use of slaves until interestingly, Christian lobby groups lead by William Wilberforce finally lobbied parliament to end the slave trade – arguably making England the first to end the evil practice.

While many aspects of British doings and wrongdoings are left untouched, much of the Empire’s history is given a good going over featuring the Americas, Africa, India, Australia with lots of others in between (New Zealand is touched on a bit). All with quite a bit of depth.

The book is laced with intimate and honest accounts from various individuals who found themselves receiving the charity or inhumane treatment of the Empire (Slaves, Kipling, Livingston). This comes as Ferguson traces the lives and travels of various subjects and victims who found themselves in unfamiliar parts of the globe through slavery, indentured slavery, crime, commerce and political work.

The British Gentleman’s fascination with the exotic Indian women is revealed candidly in the musings of diaries. Quite hilarious – English men caught in the paradox of exclusivity, class and lust…..

These reports really bring the academic/historical work to life.

It’s certainly an apologetic piece, but rather than address the familiar question of whether or not the Empire was “good or bad”, rather, he attempts to vindicate England in a sense by mooting what otherwise would have been in England’s absence – one is left to make extrapolations in imagining various parts of the globe under the Japanese or Russians (among others) instead. He puts forward an interesting case.

I don’t think there will ever be an account of the British Empire which won’t be contested by commentators and academics. There’s just too much scope for that.

Ferguson tries to be unbiased though, highlighting the virtues and sins of England over the lengthy 400 year period.

As an economic historian, his particular angle is quite unique and insightful.

Recommended reading for anyone interested in history, economics and trade. The political, economic and philosophical legacy imparted to many peoples by the British is easily overlooked, as we’re immersed in it. For better or worse. You decide.

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