The British Empire Library

Race, Tea and Colonial Resettlement: Imperial Families, Interrupted

by Jane McCabe

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Dr Graham's Homes, a charity based in Kalimpong, provides support for disadvantaged Indian children. The charity was founded in 1900 with slightly different objects - to look after the illegitimate children of tea planters. Jane McCabe is a New Zealand historian and is concerned with one particular aspect of the charity - the very considerable efforts by Dr Graham to find work and a home for these children in New Zealand. Dr Graham believed that miscegenation between Europeans and Maori people in New Zealand would allow the Kalimpong children easily to blend into the general New Zealand racial mix. Dr Graham's somewhat naive understanding of New Zealand, and the success or lack of it of his plans are explored in considerable detail. Dr McCabe is herself a member of one of these families and much of the book is concerned with her personal discovery of this history.

The book is divided into three main sections: the Indian background, the New Zealand settlements; and the aftermath. Genealogists are likely to be most interested in the first of these and it has to be confessed this is the weakest part of the book. The author is not at home in Indian genealogical sources and it shows. On p18 she remarks that the children could never know who their mothers were as there were no birth certificates for the children. This is incorrect. The system in India was for baptism certificates not birth certificates (the 'Ecclesiastical Returns'), though they also contained information as to birth. Many of the children were baptized. Some 20 minutes of work on my computer uncovered baptism records for five of the families Dr McCabe writes about and in three of these we have mothers' names. I am sure further work would uncover more. Dr McCabe writes at length about the mothers of the children but has very little to say about the fathers. In view of the distances to be covered round the tea garden (Dr McCabe always uses the word 'plantation' which suggest slavery in the Southern US or Caribbean), it was essential that a planter could ride, which usually meant being of an upper middle class family. Some were packed off to India following youthful indiscretions. Pay at the tea garden was poor. Assistant Managers were discouraged or even forbidden from marrying, and were often many miles from any other European. It is hardly surprising the tea planters took bibis. It may also be the case that the women reckoned being the planter's bibi was preferable to picking tea all day. The book is a mixture of social history and a journalist reporting a personal journey. Like much modern journalism there is a heavy emphasis on the emotional, which gets in the way of the historical, and leads Dr McCabe to look at matters through 21st century eyes. An example is the disruption caused by uprooting the children from their parents and packing them off to Dr Graham's Homes. No doubt it was a shock to the children and some were bitterly unhappy. But if they had been born the right side of the blanket, something similar would still have happened. They would have been sent away to boarding school - possibly in India or more probably in England. It is fashionable to consider parents who sent their children to boarding school as sadistic tyrants and the children as permanently crippled emotionally. I don't think that was how either children or parents saw it during the Raj.

Another aspect is Dr Graham's determination that the children should have little to do with their mothers. This may seem like callous cultural arrogance. I suggest the main driver here was Dr Graham's devout Presbyterian faith. He would have seen his duty as keeping the children away from paganism. I am sure there were children who did not go to the Homes and when the planter left merged back into the family of their mother. It is easy for our godless age to underestimate the strength of religious feeling of people like Dr Graham. I hope I have not been too hard on the author in criticising the Indian section of her book. The New Zealand section is admirable. She is clearly fully conversant with her sources and has used them judiciously. She explains how Dr Graham got his young adults to New Zealand, the bureaucracy he had to contend with, and his strenuous effort to get his charges jobs - for the most part the boys in agriculture and the girls in domestic service. Ease of access to New Zealand deteriorated over the 20th century as protectionism, racism and the economic depression all came into play. Dr Graham never gave up. He cultivated a large number of well-wishers in New Zealand and was expert in dealing with obstacles. Finally there is the aftermath and again we are back with journalism and get a heavy emotional flavour. Nevertheless the closing chapters on the efforts of the New Zealand descendants to find their Indian (and British) heritage are moving.

Dr McCabe is to be congratulated on a fascinating piece of reportage. Other aspects of Dr Graham's Homes would merit investigation. Only about half the children got to New Zealand. What of those who stayed in India, or came to England, or even in one or two cases America? A new book awaits.

British Empire Book
Jane McCabe
First Published
Bloomsbury Publishing
Review Originally Published
Spring 2018 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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