The British Empire Library

Anglo-India and the End of Empire

by Uther Charlton-Stevens

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
This is a valuable analysis of Anglo-Indian history for two reasons. Firstly, because it is too important a part of India’s history to have been so lightly covered in the past and, secondly, because the subject wouldn’t have existed at all if it weren’t for the presence of Europeans in India in the first place, most notably the British. The book itself is detailed, scholarly and comprehensive, having been extensively researched by an academic historian who has collected a bibliography that is huge, and beyond that of many a PhD thesis. Indeed at times the book reads like a published PhD, with a similar degree of density of detail and intensity of message. However, anyone researching this subject should embark on a study of it for its sheer wealth of information. The partly Anglo-Indian author has made a major analysis of the subject, albeit with a hint of bitterness at how these people have been treated over the years, being neither wholly Indian nor wholly British, and not entirely trusted by either; caught between Indian nationalism and British imperialism. Despite this, Anglo-Indians tended to be pro-British in a search for patronage and protection and, as stated in the Introduction, many felt deserted when the Raj left India.

In the early colonial years, when there was some degree of social interaction between the indigenous population and the colonisers, marriage between the two was common and, although slightly glossed over in the text, so also was concubinage. There was of course a paucity of British women. The inevitable mixed-race offspring were usually cared for, being educated in British-run orphanages, and being remembered in the Wills of their deceased British fathers.

The boys were recycled into the army, and the girls of better class groomed to marry officers or merchants, or ‘marry up’, and those lower down the scale to private soldiers. Girls of the former category were often educated in England, even the ‘natural’ or illegitimate ones. The boys rarely were, as they were seen as competition for scarce jobs. They were barred from employment in civil or military occupations. They tended to be shunned, in comparison to upmarket full-blooded Indians, by a type of demographic suspicion, and Indian society was equally patriarchal. The author suggests they were excluded as British subjects by a rigid interpretation of the law, and their Christianity barred them from any benefits of Indian law. Nevertheless British society gradually recognised their loyalty, stemming from their desire to be seen as British, and they became recognised as reliable quasi-Europeans, useful as employees in the railway, telegraph and customs worlds, so crucial to defence and security.

Subsequent chapters follow the fortunes of the Anglo-Indian community, eventually overturning of the prohibition on entering military service with the advent of the First World War. The loss of British personnel in this War, encouraged more Anglo-Indian employment in the railways. The politicisation of the community followed the development of a left wing faction but prejudice continued against their colour and educational background into the 20th century. They would have considered the security of an Anglo-Indian colony, or even offshore state, but HM government felt this to be impractical.

The formation of the Anglo-Indian Association to support their cause, was led by a prominent member of the community, Sir Henry Gidney. To ‘pass’ [as European] as it was called, was an inevitable strategy used by anyone wishing to elevate their status and acceptability in society, thus hoping to evade existing prejudice. Success depended greatly on inherited skin colour, and numerous individual examples are given. The final chapter of this book deals with independence, and the absence of any planned role or position for Anglo-Indians, who were then encouraged to regard themselves as Anglo-Indian by community, but Indian by nationality. This hugely detailed book must inevitably be regarded as a seminal work on their history.

British Empire Book
Uther Charlton-Stevens
C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd
Review Originally Published
Spring 2023 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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