A new term “Eurasian”, The Fishing Fleet and the year 1786 – when the tide turned against the Anglo-Indians

I was quite excited to discover a new term ‘Eurasian’ which was quite novel to me in this context.  I came across the term Eurasian while reading The Fishing Fleet by Anne de Courcy which tells the story of British women sailing to India in the time of the Raj in search of a husband.  ‘But isn’t that from George Orwell’s 1984?’ said my husband, referring to the terms Eurasia.  Well, he is thinking of Eurasia – the combined landmass of Europe and Asia.

IMG_1735Relevant to our discussion here, the word Eurasian refers to people of mixed Asian and European ancestry. It was originally coined in nineteenth-century British India to refer to Anglo-Indians of mixed British and Indian descent. The term has also seen some use in anthropological literature from the 1960s. For me it’s a real relief to finally have a word which describes those with this particular blended ethnicity in a clearer and simpler way than the way in which Anglo-Indian did.  You see Anglo-Indian refers more to a social/political identity than an ethnic/racial identity – the former is comprised of national terms, remember, well, Indian is a national term anyway. Moreover, Anglo-Indians form a group which no longer exists in the same way in which it did in pre-Independence with Anglo-Indians tending to have assimilated either into the new India or into the countries they entered after Independence. They have not married much within their own community or generally maintained a sense of their own culture. Whereas Eurasian – well, that it is more a statement of fact.  Compare, for example my husband’s identity as a British Asian. This term refers to both his nationality (in the first part) and his ethnicity (in the second). Clear. The same with African American. This refers to nationality and ethnicity. I’ve come to feel that because things changed around the small and unique community that made up the Anglo-Indian community, that they ended up internalising a sense that their ethnicity itself was not valid, the sun tanned look of “European something with just slightly different” about them. That’s certainly what I feel, the sense of being an imperfect version of a European. I am torn between trying to cling to my European roots given they account for most of me and reduce my right to consider myself Asian, but at the same time feeling that Europe is not ultimately where I belong.

The Fishing Fleet gives unique insights into the Eurasian community over time, even though it is primarily the story of the British in India. The book was also little rambling and repetitive so I have, for your benefit, worked through it carefully to establish a clear historical time frame for what happened when in terms of Europeans intermarrying with Indians and how their offspring were treated over time.

In the earlier times up to the late c.18th it was considered perfectly acceptable and natural for European men, likely to spend their whole lives in India, to marry or cohabit with Indian women. The East India company would offer christening presents of 5 rupees to such children of their soldiers and their wives.  Many offspring were later sent back to England to be educated and sometimes marry English women, again this was acceptable. Lord Liverpool, British Prime Minister 1812-1827 had an Indian grandmother. (It’s worth noting at this point, that the Indian government still defines Anglo-Indians as the offspring of European men and Indian women. Perhaps patriarchy accounts for why such people are Anglo-Indians rather than Indian-Anglos)

However, the first evidence of the attempt to get European wives lined up for these European men stationed in Asia came  as early as 1691 when 20 girls were sent out to Bombay.  They were maintained for a year in which time they were expected to find a husband. If they misbehaved they would be fed on a diet of bread and water and sent back, being termed ‘returned empties.’ These young women would receive £300 a year if they made a company approved match and this would continue even after the death of their spouse. This trend continued over the decades, eventually with the women being charged to go on the ships. Marriage would often be agreed rapidly, the women fearing being sent back unsuccessful and the men concerned that another would take his prospective bride if he did not step in fast. There are even accounts of widows being proposed to on the steps of a church after their husbands’ funerals.  Nevertheless, many European men continued to marry and settle with Indian women as the number of European men in India exceeded the number of European women.

From 1786 all that was suddenly to change.  Lord Cornwallis became Governor-General of Bengal, a post with administrative powers over the  whole of India. He immediately began a programme of diktats, which would eventually result in the impassable barrier between British and Indians during the Raj.  Almost at once the children of British men and Indian wives were banned from jobs with the East India company. At the same time, it was forbidden to send such mixed race children home to be educated.  Five years later, an order was issued that no one with an Indian parent could be employed in the civil, military or marine branches of the Company though the light-skinned still slipped through.  Finally, by seven years later all jobs paying more than £500 a year were reserved for British men born and hired in Britain.  In 1800 Lord Wellesley, Cornwallis’ successor, continued the creation of this apartheid by banning Indians and British born in India from all Government social functions in Calcutta.

As these laws hit home, Indian wives and mistresses began to disappear. No man wanted to see his children penalised because their mother was the wrong colour. At the same time despite the difficulties more women began to travel to India. By the time the Raj was installed in 1858, the ‘us and them’ attitude  was part of the British mindset together with an unquestioning acceptance of the need to maintain purity of blood and links with the motherland. The Suez canal opening in 1869 made travel to India easier and even though the Fishing Fleet was not company run anymore it was still referred to by that name.

By the late 1880s, Eurasian were expected to marry other Eurasians, considered as they were socially inferior by Europeans and casteless by Indians. The story of Grace Trotter, born in Calcutta in 1868, exemplifies where Eurasians found themselves at the end of the c.19th.  Grace was at least 1/8th Indian. Her great grandfather Alexander Trotter had had an Indian mistress who had been a princess and his son (Grace’s grandfather) married a woman who probably had some Indian blood, as Grace’s mother, Sarah probably did. De Coucy writes: ‘As a Eurasian she would have moved in a parallel world, alongside the English but never of them, alongside but despised by Indians.’ The sort of husband she could have married would never have risen to the top in the ICS or been an officer in the regular HEIC regiments.  Instead he would have held one of the vital but less eminent Anglo-Indian jobs – that of hospital steward, pilot on the Hooghly, non-commissioned personnel in the Army, on the railways, telegraphs or other jobs connected with the infrastructure.  Grace and her elder sister Mabel were light-skinned girls who could pass as English. Grace’s great grandson, Charles Arthur believes that Grace and Mabel teamed up to extricate themselves from the ghastly predicament into which the curse of mixed blood cast them in late-Victorian England. They cut themselves off from their other four sisters who presumably followed a Eurasian way of life.   When Grace was 19 she met William Vincent whom she married and from then her place in society was secure. William had a distinguished career, switching from the executive side of ICS to the judicial in 1900 and eventually becoming a judge in 1909.   Unusually then he switched back to the executive branch and joined the government of India in 1911. In 1916 he was selected by the new Viceroy for the Viceroy’s Executive Council and a year later promoted to the post of Home Member of the Government of India and President of the Viceroy’s Council: a position that was second in importance to that of the Viceroy. He was later Speaker in the Legislative Assembly. Age 56, he and Grace returned to England and the story had a painful ending. Grace left William and went to live in Cheltenham. De Courcy speculates that much of the marriage had been to escape what she refers to as the ‘curse’ of being Eurasian.

Move forward now from Grace’s youth to the early c.20th. where the book gives us another insight into how Anglo-Indians were viewed by the British.   By the early c.20th there were excellent boarding schools in India, but in English eyes they had one fatal flaw: the accent of their alumni.  Many of the pupils at these schools were Eurasian, the children of planters or of the railway community, who spoke with the sing-song Eurasian accent known derogatorily as ‘chi-chi’.  The fear that an English child might pick up the accent of – or become too friendly with – Eurasians was very real in the India of the Raj.  When Iris James attended All Saints College in India for a few months to complete her education, her mother was so anxious lest she ‘pick up the accent like some unpleasant disease’ that she was not allowed to join her schoolmates for curry lunches but had to sit on the hillside by herself eating hotel sandwiches.

So there we have it. My mother tends not to say she is Indian, sometimes she does, sometimes she does not.  Perhaps this is why; the Anglo-Indians were not properly British, nor properly Indian. But there again, given they suffered direct discrimination maybe, running the country as they did, they did possess power and therefore represented a threat to the British.   With concerns that India would some day gain its independence (as it eventually did) the fact that Anglo-Indians had been trained up in areas needed to run the country was a concern. For, as coloniser and colonised, foreigner and native they could have jumped ship and helped that struggle along if they had not been too busy trying to curry favour (pardon the pun) with the colonial power. Ultimately they represented a new future, a new tribe, proof that you cannot enter a country without it entering you (a truth which the British would not have liked).  You cannot be invaded without being altered (a truth which the Indians would not have liked).  Perhaps they do not need to feel lesser. The British mistrusted them – why?  Because they represented a weakening of British power, a symbol of change.  Indians mistrusted them – why? Their view of coming independence was not clear and their ethnicity was a living record of the presence of invading Europeans in their midst.  But who were they really? Where were they born?  I believe they were an ethnic minority who did not realise that they were Indian. And that is ultimately who I seek, my own community and the land where once upon a time, they belonged.

4 thoughts on “A new term “Eurasian”, The Fishing Fleet and the year 1786 – when the tide turned against the Anglo-Indians

  1. Have you read “The White Mughals” by William Dalrymple?
    Apparently between the 18th & 19th century as many as one in three British men in India was married to an Indian woman.

  2. Interesting.
    I must confess that i did read the rebecca ryman novels (rooomance swoon) as a teen which are set behind this backdrop, context and looks like she did her research well.
    But its more interesting reading the actual history.

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