Anglo-India and The End of Empire by Uther Charlton-Stevens
Book review by Rebecca Calderon
“Why is the grafted mango the most delicious? Why is the blended tea the most expensive? Because they are a fusion of two distinct species.”
Words of the Chakradharpur branch of the Anglo-Indian association, 1930.
Imperialism, Colonialism and Empire had many lasting consequences, not least that of the millions of mixed-race people who were born as a result of inter-racial union.
The Anglo-Indian (who was neither Anglo nor Indian) is a cultural and racial hybrid dating back to the very early days of the East India Company's rule in India.
During the Raj, British-Indian relationships faced stigma, which meant that the ethnicity of some Anglo-Indians was undocumented or identified incorrectly.
The ease at which many Anglo-Indians were able to ‘pass’ as white in order to further their careers (some very successfully in Hollywood) made this minority group sink further into obscurity.
The Anglo-Indian story, and their part in the wider drama of decolonisation have been consistently overlooked in both British and Indian accounts. This, in turn, has seen a lack of books about ‘Anglos’ which makes Anglo-India and The End of Empire by Uther Charlton-Stevens an important and necessary read.
This excellent and detailed study takes the reader back to the 1600s where, owing to an initial lack of British women, the men were encouraged to marry native Indian girls rather than the many Portuguese for fear of offspring being raised as Roman Catholics. Until 1741, a special payment was made to each soldier who had his child baptised Protestant.
Initially referred to as Eurasian but also Indo-Briton, Asiatic-Briton, Anglo-Asiatic, East Indian and even Half Caste, this new ethnic group formed a small yet significant portion of the population and became well represented, forming their own official associations.
In the early days, children born Eurasian would be taken from their Indian mothers and placed in class-segregated orphanages then sent to the army or married off to a soldier. This harsh practice helps explain why the bulk were so profoundly orientated towards Britain and deracinated from Indian society and culture.
To further cement the ‘British’ bond the group’s leaders vigorously campaigned to be referred to as Anglo-Indian, which was officially sanctioned in the 1911 census of India. In this sense they are one of the oldest, most politically developed and self-conscious mixed-race groups to have emerged from the colonial encounter.
Over generations, Anglo-Indians intermarried with other Anglo-Indians to form a community that developed a culture of its own. Their cuisine, dress, English language, and Christian religion all served to separate them from the Indian population, yet bound them together.
They formed social clubs and organisations and were specifically recruited into the railways, nursing and teaching professions; they served in the armed forces in both world wars. Yet, these mixed people, despite their fierce loyalty to the British had no guarantees or safeguards to protect them from a cruel fate.
Charlton-Stevens brings to light the struggle of the community leaders and how they tried to encourage pride in an Indian Motherland as opposed to a British so-called Fatherland that many, if not all, had never visited.
Faced with the question of India’s independence there was to be a very rude awakening.
This was an era of extreme turmoil including rising sartorial nationalism amid attacks in the streets for wearing topis and western-style suits and ties.
Even the politically engaged and well-informed found it difficult to anticipate the dramatic changes that were to come, or the decisiveness of the rupture.
In the midst of far weightier concerns, Anglo-Indians were hardly thought of in the run up to the disastrously hasty British ‘transfer of power’.
Through latter stages of decolonisation, and even following independence, there was a call for a new Israel-style mixed-race nation or collective settlement overseas to be dubbed Anglo-India, Britasia or Eurasia where Anglo-Indians, Anglo-Burmans and similar Eurasian peoples from Malaya and Hong Kong could resettle in another part of the Empire.
The Andaman Islands in particular were envisaged as a potential site, but the British dismissed the idea stating that the islands were too rural, that the Anglo-Indians were city dwellers and not suited to an agricultural life, and so this scheme was quashed.
Their position at this time was extremely difficult as their leaders attempted to negotiate terms with the incoming Indian government and integrate the community within the new India, getting them to seek pride in mixedness.
Seats in the Indian parliament were requested (and eventually granted), citing their historical exceptionalism as the only real racial-cum-linguistic minority in India over a period of 300 years to have evolved into a distinctive minority.
Charlton-Stevens shows us through documented evidence, how the Anglo-Indians argued amongst themselves as to what was best for them.
Britain was keen to wash its hands of post-colonial liabilities and discouraged Anglo-Indians from going to England to settle, tightening up their procedures for granting passports.
Despite the protestations and sensible arguments given by their leader Frank Anthony, many left for England or Christian countries of the wider Anglosphere; former ‘White Dominions’ where the colour prejudice was rife and where, to the ignorant settler colonials, Anglo-Indians were “nothing but black men”.
Adequate provision for the Anglo-Indians had not been made before handing over the reins of government; Britain could not and would not help them.
It was seen as a grievous act of ingratitude for all the loyal services which Britain had exacted from the Anglo-Indian community during the many crises of the preceding 300 years.
At the time of independence in 1947, there were roughly 300,000 Anglo-Indians compared to about 125,000–150,000 in modern day India.
Many adapted to local communities in Kolkata and Chennai or emigrated to London, Perth, Sydney, Toronto, the United States and New Zealand, where they form part of the worldwide diaspora.
My Anglo-Indian father was born in Tanjore, Tamil Nadu and migrated to England in 1956.
We can trace our ancestry back to Christopher Friis, a Norwegian who changed his name to Browne and settled in India in the mid-1800s; a family photo of ours appears in this book.
The first generation of the Friis-Browne family spread far-and-wide; USA, Canada and Australia, with our little branch now settled in Gibraltar.
About the Author
Uther Charlton-Stevens is a fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and the author of Anglo-Indians and Minority Politics in South Asia. He earned his doctorate in history from the University of Oxford. Uther spent his childhood in colonial Hong Kong. Born in Ferozepore, his Anglo-Indian father grew up in Bangalore before migrating to England.