The British Anglo-Indians in India - Soon Nothing but a Unique Memory

I have to thank Tissa Devendra who sent me a clipping from the International Herald Tribune with the note: “Happy New Year, Carl. This should interest you!” Oh, it did and it also amazed me to be told that before 1947, when the British left India, the Anglo-Indians – also called Half-Castes, and Blacky¬ Whites, and Eight Annas – formed a distinct community, estimated to have numbered between 30,000 and 500,000 people.
As the Herald Tribune writer said, most were employed in the railroads and other government services and many lived in railroad towns built for them by the British, where their distinct culture - neither wholly Indian nor wholly British ¬flourished.

You see what I’m getting at? Born in the Ceylon of old, I also claim to be a half ¬caste of sorts. Incidentally, “Eight Annas” is half of an Indian Rupee - thus labelling the holder as half of what he/she deserves to be where his/or her caste is concerned. I could call my father Dutch, German, British Huguenot but he would insist that he is Dutch with British something or another and he married my mother who was chock-a-bloc Irish but picked up from a Bambalapitiya convent. I gave up on all this rubbish long ago. What am I supposed to accept? I’m Ceylonese - and that’s exactly what I am!

No one is certain how many Anglo-Indians live in India today. The last census in 1941 counted a great many, but intermarriages and waves of emigration, following India emigration brought their numbers down to 150,000. What is more, as told by Robyn Andrews, a social anthropologist at Massey University, New Zealand, the children and grandchildren of those who stayed began to adopt local languages and married Indians who had no European ancestors.

Origins, I am told, date to the late 18th century, when British employees of the East India Company and Indian women began to marry in substantial numbers and have children. By the late 19th century, with more British women migrating to India, such marriages dwindled, but the Anglo-Indians had gained a privileged place in Indian life. Thought their lifestyle was more British than Indian, the Anglos rarely mixed with the British and the Brits generally looked down on the Anglos because of their mixed heritage, while the Anglos considered themselves superior to the Indians. Under the Indian Constitution, the term Anglo-Indian means an Indian Citizen whose paternal line can be traced back to Europe.
There is always some confusion about what it means to be British in an Anglo¬ Indian community. As Malcolm Booth, an 83-year-old honorary general secretary of the All-India Anglo-Indian Association says: “Anglo-Indians tend to be socially progressive. By the early 20th century, many Anglo-Indian women worked outside the home. That was at a time when very few middle-class Indian women did. These Anglo-Indian women also established an English-language education system and were traced by the British and a vast network of social clubs.”

As Booth said “All the Indians wanted to be Anglo-Indians.” He was a former railroad engineer, very proud of his British ancestry and his definition of Anglo -¬Indian is stricter than the Constitution’s. He calls the Goanese with Portuguese and French ancestry “a bunch of pretenders, with nothing Anglo-Indian about them!”
The Anglo-Indian community also enjoyed a preferential pay scale during British rule. In the 1940s a British railway driver earned around 300 rupees a month. The Anglo-Indian earned 200 and the Indian only 100. It was a shock when came the end of the British Raj. Many of the highly-skilled and better-off Anglos left for new life overseas, while those who stayed behind lost the privileges they were accustomed to. All government funding for separate Anglo-Indian schools were stopped in 1961.

This brings me to Sybil Martyr, a 96-year-old retired school teacher who now lives in the Laurence D’Souza Old Age Retirement home. Both of her grandfathers were Scots and like most Anglo-Indian women of her generation, lived all her life in India and never been to Britain. She converses only in English, but did learn a little Latin and French and some “Kitchen Bengali” to speak to servants, she says.
“We are museum pieces,” she jokes when describing her daily life with a dozen other women in the crumbling retirement home. “Breakfast - tea from a cup and saucer...’ Agatha Christie murder mysteries.... A weekly visit from the hairdresser who sets my hair in the 1940 style. A tailor also comes to copy the garments of the women who like to wear floral tea dresses. On Sundays we listen to jive but we don’t dance much now, and as for food, I must have English curries and cutlets but some Indian dhal as well.”

It was said that there was a period after Independence when Anglo-Indians did not make education a priority. The employment quotas were in place and jobs were easily obtained. But when the quotas were abolished, the community lacked the facility of learning the Hindi and other Indian languages. The result was poverty and isolation and, like Sybil Martyr, had to find a retirement home, paying Rs. 3,000 a month that was the best she could afford. “Our culture is fading fast,” she said. “Our generation is perhaps our last torchbearers.”

Yet, I am told that the President of India continues to appoint two Anglo-Indian members of Parliament to ensure that the tiny community has political representation. So the culture will live on, even if only in the Anglo dishes of the country – chicken and pepper water a thin sauce spread on rice with a side¬ portion of meat.
An Anglo-Indian lawyer, Barry O’Brien, is in West Bengal’s State assembly. He says most Anglo-Indians are Christians, but today there are no longer enough to fill their own churches. However, he says their English skills and “Western Bearing” makes them much wanted as multinational employees and in Indian outsourcing companies. “Their fluency in English helps them get positions in customer care call centres and multinational companies. As a result the Anglo-¬Indian fortunes will keep rising and they now even train Indians in the art of dealing with Europeans and Americans. It’s the very old who have little to look forward to and that is now so sad. For them it is all going to be gone ¬completely gone in a few years, and with it a unique memory of the British in India.”

Thank you, Tissa Devendra for your illuminating copy that has been used as you have wished me to use it. One thing also sits in my mind. The President of India continues to have two Anglo-Indian members of Parliament make sure that the tiny community has political representation. Thus will the culture go on, not forgotten? When can there be some sound Dutch/Portuguese/ British/Hanoverian/ Huguenot /Scot Aryan/Greek/Israeli/Out of the everywhere/Burghers to sort out the rotten mess of our own community that is carrying everything plus the world’s kitchen sinks to tell us why we are who!


The British East India Company that died a miserable death

In today’s modern City of London you will find no trace of the British East India Company – the world’s first multinational that swarmed over old Ceylon as well.
It’s been 400 years since it collapsed, but its chequered career serves as a lesson for today’s global business. The East India Company received its charter from Queen Elizabeth I as an importer of Asian spices and grew to be a dominant force in the East; but the scale of corruption was so blatant that even the British Crown could not ignore it.

One of its most unscrupulous executives was Robert Clive [pictured here] who deployed a private army and, with the most ingenious fraudulent tactics, defeated the Nawab of Bengal in 1757. Clive opened the doors to the region’s lucrative tax system as well as the opium fields. When the British saw the flow of Asian loot pouring in, brought by the nouveau¬riche Nabobs returning home, there was rampant speculation. These men had to deal with the import of spices, not plunder the countries they served in! Clive became known as “Lord Vulture” and the outcry in England led to the collapse, in 1769, of what was called the “Bengal Bubble.” He was ordered to return home and did so in disgrace, but escaped censure and died in mysterious circumstances.

His successor was Warren Hastings who saw no reason why he should not milk Asia for any and everything it had. He too was ordered back and impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanours” but was acquitted. However, the Company, tottering with the bad reputation and disgraceful conduct of its executives and staff, was also stripped of all its powers. It continued to stagger on until the Indian Mutiny of 1857 killed it off for good.
It only goes to show that being a Nabob is not all that good. Today, of course, we have no Nabobs. They are called CEOs!