The British Empire Library

Britain's Anglo-Indians: The Invisibility of Assimilation

by Rochelle Almeida

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Rochelle Almeida, a professor at New York University, is the first to shine a spotlight on Britain's Anglo-Indian community, and in particular the 'First Wave' created between the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947 and the tightening of UK immigration rules in 1962. Her fascinating book is in many ways a sad reflection on the problems of identity. In British India, the census of 1911 and Act of 1935 defined Anglo-Indians as the descendants of a European father and Indian mother, and they have always been marked by their European names, western dress and use of English. They underpinned the Raj in their allocation of jobs in many areas such as the railways, posts and telegraphs, and the police. Yet they were fully accepted by neither the Indians nor the British, despite their feeling that distant Britain was 'Home'. That there were limitations on 'Home' came as an unwelcome shock when large numbers (some 25,000 by 1970) emigrated to Britain after Partition. Despite their sense of affinity with the British, many faced colour prejudice and a lack of awareness of their special relationship to the Raj.

The author looks at the strategies they adopted to make a place for themselves in their new home, where communities often lacked the warm intimacy and easy going relations of India. Few were able to bring much money with them, and lacked the servants and way of life they had previously enjoyed. Contact with other Anglo-Indians gave support: many settled in the peripheral circle of London where transport hubs provided employment. Otherwise job opportunities were limited and many drifted downwards, finding employment and friends in the working class. Interestingly it was often women who did better, trading on their office management or nursing skills to forge successful careers.

In negotiating their difficulties, Anglo-Indians often found it easier to play down their background and attempted to assimilate in their newfound home. While dancing and music, which had been such a feature of their lives, still drew many Anglo-Indians together, when confronting British society some abandoned their heritage, often claiming to come from countries bordering the Mediterranean. The second generation of children born in Britain merged even more successfully. The strict discipline of the Anglo-Indian home was often challenged by children of a more liberal age who intermarried and regarded Britain as their home. This was helped by the rise of multiculturalism and an increasing ethnic mix, in which Anglo-Indians were no longer singular exemplars.

But, ironically, the growing South Asian diaspora merely increased the tendency for Anglo-Indians to lose their identity. Muslims and Hindus were defined and often vociferous minorities. Anglo-Indians, neither quite Indian nor British, faded away as a grouping in public awareness. More recently, there have been attempts to redress this. Clubs in some parts of the country maintain the tradition of sociability and love of Indian food for which Anglo- Indians are renowned; others draw together the alumni of old Anglo- Indian schools in India. The South London Anglo-Indian Association, with other groups, raises money for charitable and philanthropic work, mainly among Anglo-Indians in India, but also for causes in the UK. Regular international gatherings of Anglo-Indians have also over the last years given the community a sense of its own world-wide identity, with Australian Anglo-Indians taking a leading part.

A growing interest in ethnicity has also drawn British Anglo-Indians out of the shadows. Tracing roots in the past, programmes such as TV's 'Who do you think you are?' discovered the Anglo-Indian antecedents of actor Alistair McGowan and comedian Billy Connolly, making the viewing public aware of a group which to a large extent has been assimilated beyond recognition. Academics such as the author also play their part. Questions of migration, settlement and ethnicity have now become part of the academic mainstream, and the history of groups such as the Anglo-Indians are now being increasingly examined. While her approach is within the theoretical structure of academic debate, the author has used oral history as a tool of investigation, and her book includes interviews with a wide range of Anglo-Indians. These make her study of interest to the general reader as well as the academic, and the work is recommended as a sympathetic investigation of a little known group in Britain.

British Empire Book
Rochelle Almeida
First Published
Lexington Books
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2017 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe