A Brief History of the Anglo-Indians

A speech by Beverley Pearson at the Anglo Indian Association’s Dinner Dance in Sydney, 2005

I’m attempting to condense over 300 years of Anglo-Indian history into 10 minutes. The British Empire once held absolute power in over 52 countries covering about two-fifths of the world. But there was only one jewel in the crown – India. The first European settlers in India were the Portuguese in 1498 about 100 years before the British. The Dutch, French and the British followed.

They were all here for the duration. The inevitable happened and a new mixed race community emerged. Even though the British came in peacefully as merchants and traders they soon colonised the sub-continent of India. But the British needed allies to protect the jewel in the crown and so began a deliberate policy encouraging British males to marry Indian women to create the first Anglo-Indians.

The East India Company paid 15 silver rupees for each child born to an Indian mother and a European father, as family allowance. These children were amalgamated into the growing Anglo-Indian community, forming a defensive structure for the British Raj. This was a deliberate act of self preservation by the English.

This unique hybrid individual was ethnically engineered by the occupying British so much so that the Anglo-Indians were the only micro-minority community ever defined in a Constitution.  Article-366 of the Indian Constitution states. An Anglo-Indian means a person whose father or any of whose male ancestors 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 there-in and not established there for temporary purposes only.

So you can see we were intended to be a permanent micro-minority. In 1830 British Parliament described the Anglo-Indian as those who have been English educated, are entirely European in their habits and feelings, dress and language. They were more “Anglo” than “Indian”. Their mother-tongue was English, they were Catholic or Anglican and their customs and traditions were English. While most of them married within their own circle, many continued to marry expatriate Englishmen. Very few married Indians. Without Anglo-Indian support British rule would have collapsed.

RAILWAYS: We ran the railways, post and telegraph, police and customs, education, export and import, shipping, tea, coffee and tobacco plantations, the coal and gold fields. We became teachers, nurses, priests and doctors. If it had any value the British made sure we ran it. And when it came to secretarial duties no one could touch our Anglo-Indian girls – the best stenographers in the world and with beauty to match.

Were we favoured? Yes, the English trusted us. After all we were blood related. We worked hard. We became indispensable. We lived comfortably and were protected by the British raj. Like the British we had servants to do all our domestic work. The average Anglo-Indian home could afford at least three full time servants – a cook, a bearer and the indispensable nanny (ayah). Part time servants included a gardener, cleaner and laundry man (dhobi). Of course we learned to speak Hindi to be able to argue, give orders, bargain, accuse and terminate employment and throw in a dozen Hindi expletives.

Imagine our horror when we were later to migrate to England, Canada and Australia and we no longer had servants to do our domestic chores. Who can remember looking at our first toilet brush and asking ‘what do we do with this?’ We had to learn to cook, clean, garden, do the laundry and take the garbage out and look after the kids.

CHRISTMAS CAKE: The tradition of making your own Christmas cake was a sacred Anglo-Indian custom. Each family had a secret cake recipe, handed down from our grandparents. About a week before Christmas the local baker was contacted. He would turn up to your home with two very large terracotta bowls that looked more like satellite dishes. One for the egg whites and one for mixing. Mum would dish out the ingredients. This was all mixed together under her watchful eye and distributed in to about dozen or so cake tins and labelled with your name on it. This labelling was all important. We did not want him to return that evening with someone else’s cake recipe. Heaven forbid.

MUSIC &DANCE: Music, movies and socialising were high on the agenda. We loved a dance. Afternoon dance jam sessions were a magnet for the teenagers where we jived, jitterbugged, tango’d or just fox trotted. Many a lasting liaison was forged on the dance floor and today many of us are celebrating 40-year plus marriages. Our mums sat around gossiping and seldom took their eyes off their darling daughters. I know I speak from experience. I met my wife at one such event and now 44 years later I still fancy her.

The Anglo-Indian railway and cantonment towns that sprung up around the major cities cultivated a unique social and industrial blend with a heartbeat. Their dances were legendary. At the drop of a hat the city cousins would jump on a train and travel for anything up to six hours to get to that up-country dance.

Many of our lives revolved around the biggest and best railway system in the world. And the trains ran on time. Today the Indian Railways transports over 5 billion passengers each year employing more than 1.6 million personnel. Between 1853 and 1947 we built and managed 42 rail systems. This was a legacy we can be proud of.

During World War I about 8,000 Anglo-Indians fought in Mesopotamia, East Africa, and in the European theatre. Eleven Anglo-Indians were awarded Victoria Crosses.  In World War II they fought at Dunkirk and flew in the battle of Britain. Guy Gibson of the Dam Busters was one such Anglo-Indian who won a Victoria Cross, and we were in North Africa, Malaya and the fall of Singapore.

Merle Oberon, Juliet Prowse, Tony Brent, Engelbert Humperdinck, Cliff Richards are all Anglo-Indians

The Anglo-Indians took India to Olympic hockey glory. From 1928 India won five consecutive Olympic hockey gold medals and many of the players were Anglo-Indians. In fact, when India faced Australia in the semi-finals of the 1960 Olympics in Rome, it was a unique occasion: the captains who came face to face were both Anglo-Indians, Leslie Claudius and Kevin Carton.

EDUCATION: English education played a major role amongst the Anglo-Indians. Anglo-Indian schools numbered close to three hundred and were prized. They stretched from Bangalore in the south to the cooler northern hill stations of Darjeeling in the foothills of the Himalayas. Each was modelled on the posh English Public school system. We ran them as teachers and principals and to this day these schools are coveted across the sub-continent.

IDENTITY DILEMMA: The Anglo-Indian has always faced an identity dilemma because of our mixed origins. Europeans said they were Indians with some European blood; Indians said they were Europeans with some Indian blood. The world of Anglo-India vanished on August 15th 1947, when India became the largest independent democracy in the world.

The British packed and went home. Over 300,000 Anglo-Indians remained. We felt apprehensive and abandoned. So we too packed our bags and began to migrate to Australia, Britain, Canada, the U.S.A. and New Zealand. Many of you will remember the dreaded Income Tax Clearance document you need to leave the country and further faced the strict Indian foreign exchange regulations that allowed you only 10 pounds each. Imagine starting life in a new country with 10 quid in your pocket. Some had to leave behind their savings; others simply resorted to the risky black market losing 30% of their savings.

IDENTITY:  The Anglo-Indian identity is disappearing. We have found new lives and merged into the mainstream. Our generation, sitting here tonight, who were born in India, growing up in the 1940s through to the 60s, are possibly the last true Anglo-Indians.

Look around you. Where is the next generation? Most of our children were born abroad and their connection to Anglo-India is fragile. They have married Aussies, English, Canadian or other Anglo-Indians born outside India. They prefer to be regarded as English, Australian or Canadian. Our grandchildren will assimilate and forge a new identity based on their country of birth.

Putting aside history, I believe we can regard ourselves as an exotic cocktail that had its origins over 300 years ago. We have matured and become a unique aromatic spirit, generously flavoured and very stimulating.

We were a force to be reckoned with. We were the shakers and the stirrers. Please pick up your glasses and toast your State of Origin and New Horizons!


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