“He’s a Eurasian, a mixture.”
“What’s the harm in a mixture, Sir?”
“None at all. But the Eurasian is a very bad mixture. He’s not a whole man... The only certainty about a Eurasian is his uncertainty.”
Two characters in Henry Bruce’s novel The Eurasian are enamoured with a new ‘breed’ of humans. These were the Eurasians, or Anglo-Indians, as they would later be called colloquially. Born out of a relationship between a white father and a native mother, the late 19th-century literature of the subcontinent brimmed with such critical descriptions of them as well as stereotypes. The “Hands of an Anglo-Indian are usually small-boned,” mentions one English novelist. One also senses a tinge of envy: “a beauty which was a mark of shame for its possessor,” writes another novelist, describing a physically attractive Anglo-Indian.
Celebrated author George Orwell also jumped on the bandwagon of portraying Anglo-Indians with disgust. In Orwell’s 1934 novel Burmese Days, a character laments about Eurasians, saying they are “awfully degenerate types, thin, weedy and cringing, and they haven’t got at all honest faces.” The English used a bunch of terms to describe Anglo-Indians: ‘half castes’, ‘blackie-whites’, ‘eight-annas’, ‘chattikais’ and ‘chee-chee’, none that portray the people in a good light.
By the 18th century, officials of the East India Company were in clover in Indian soil. Their colonial project had begun in the coastal cities, and they were slowly making inroads into the hinterland. They were trading, hanging out, having affairs, and procreating with Indians, and the procreation was yielding mixed-race children. Most of the mixed-race Anglo-Indians were embraced by their white fathers. They were sent to British schools and baptised as Christians, irrespective of their mother’s religion; some even served in the army. Moreover, they even made strides into British politics; centuries before Rishi Sunak took oath as the first Prime Minister of Indian origin of the UK, three British Prime Ministers in the past—William Pitt, William Pitt Jr. and Lord Liverpool—already had Anglo-Indian heritage.
However, by the 19th century, it all started to go downhill for Anglo-Indians. Not only did they start appearing as objectionable in literature of the time, but the treatment bestowed upon them also changed drastically. “They seem to possess the faculty of uniting the worst qualities of both races,” wrote English journalist Mary Frances Billington, describing the Anglo-Indians. By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they were banned from pursuing education in England and were also barred from induction into civil and military services of the East India Company.
Years before this hostility towards the Anglo-Indians began, the English were seeking ways to understand the cultural and social landscape of the subcontinent. Marriages with the natives helped them in blending with the Indian masses intimately. Besides, Englishmen mostly came unescorted as the long and horrendous sea route from Britain to India restricted British women from coming to the subcontinent, which made the union with natives a professional as well as a personal triumph.
But after the Battle of Plassey, boundaries were drawn between the Whites and the natives. The English were no longer merely friendly traders mingling with Indians for tea and indigo. They had climbed up in the hierarchy as rulers of a ‘downtrodden race’, thus calling for the natives to be segregated. But for the so-called superior race, the Anglo-Indians were an enigma. They were not entirely like them, nor were they entirely like the natives. How does one deal with them?
The English turned to history to understand how Europeans had tackled similar questions of mixed races in the past. The search stopped in medieval Europe. History had it that in Europe, a man had to serve as a serf—a landless labourer—if his mother’s side of the family were serfs. Similarly, in medieval France, mixed-race children ‘belonged’ to the mother, not father. There was enough justification in History’s pages to keep Anglo-Indians on the same pedestal as native Indians; in fact, at times the English even castigated Anglo-Indians as more ‘primitive’ than Indians. For instance, a census report published in 1891 claimed that ‘insanity’ was more prevalent in Anglo-Indian people than in any other class, including Europeans and native Indians.
When the British Empire took charge of the Indian subcontinent in 1857 and dissolved the East India Company, there was an overhauling of the societal norms for the English living in India. To maintain clear boundaries between natives and the colonisers, the Empire reprimanded officers of the British Raj for associating themselves with Indians in any capacity. Officers were asked to create a community consisting of British-style households with White wives and White children. It became easier to comply with this diktat with the opening up of the Suez Canal in 1869, which significantly decreased the travel time from Britain to India, facilitating the arrival of more and more Englishwomen to live with their husbands serving in India.
As the memsahibs— as British wives were known in India—flocked to the subcontinent, the interaction between British men and native women lessened. Many memsahibs in India picked up the pen to compile their experiences of the ‘Far East’. Almost all European women unanimously seemed to have had a negative perception of mixed-race children. Mary Martha Sherwood, a British writer who married an English soldier stationed in India, writes, in one of her short stories, that children born to Anglo-Indians are not worthy of being introduced to the world. Julia Maitland, a British writer and traveller who was considerably more sympathetic to the Indian cause, ran schools along with her husband in India. However, while penning her experience of interacting with Anglo-Indian girls, she writes, “those half-caste girls are in the depth of ignorance, indolence and worthlessness” and that “they have no (other) idea but of dress and making love.”
Flora Annie Steel, who wrote extensively on the Indian mutiny of 1857, went so far as to ridicule the names of Anglo-Indian children. “Lily as black as a hat,” scoffed Steel, opining that some Anglo-Indian kids had “grand names” that did not correspond to their personalities. Deriding the abilities of Anglo-Indian women, Billington writes that Eurasian women overcame their “backbonelessness” by studying medicine in order to alleviate their Anglo-Indian parents’ insecurities about their future, suggesting that pursuing a degree had nothing to do with a woman’s abilities or emancipation but was merely a tool to gain more acceptance amongst the British.
Despite the humiliating treatment, the Anglo-Indian community seemed to stay loyal to their White fathers’ race. Scholar M. K. Naik explains the rationale for such affinity towards ‘White identity,’ arguing that Anglo-Indians oscillated between two ideological standpoints as individuals: one, where they outrightly embraced and honoured their part-whiteness and another where they abandoned their White identity because of the ill-treatment they were subjected to.
Writer Beverley Nichols elaborates on this phenomenon in his 1944 book Verdict on India. While mentioning his interactions with an Anglo-Indian girl, Nichols notes that as the girl flipped the pages of a photo album, he could barely find any photo of her mother. Clarifying her absence, the girl tells Nichols that she had been in London for a very long time and had lost touch with her home (India). Nichols also mentions that some girls even tried to explain away their visible Indian features like black hair and dark complexion by claiming that they had ‘Spanish blood’ in their veins.
Some observant British authors have also exaggerated this loyalty to the paternal line in their books. In his 1952 novel Johnnie Sahib, Paul Scott has an Anglo-Indian character named John who has never been to London. But by interacting with natives of London and reading about the city in books, John convinces himself that he has indeed lived there. His perception is shattered when an Englishman confronts him, asking John nuanced questions about the place which John can’t answer. The revelation that his London origins were just a farcical state of mind hits him hard. So much so that when another native from London talks to him about the place, he listens to him desperately so that he can answer questions with conviction the next time somebody tries to confront him.
The tilt which was emulated in literature, sometimes hyperbolically, also transcended to real life. Most Anglo-Indians remained cut off from native Indians in the 20th century as well. Today, like other mixed communities, Anglo-Indians have assimilated themselves in culturally heterogeneous corners of the world, but the literature that derided, humiliated and stereotyped a community is testimony to the ludicrous and barbaric judgments of India’s colonisers.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Coloured Pages")
(Views expressed are personal)
Priyanshu Sinha is a multimedia journalist currently pursuing his master’s degree in filmmaking from Jamia Millia Islamia