Pathways in Intellectual History: A JHI Blog Forum

Colonial Knowledge, South Asian Historiography, and the Thought of the Eurasian Minority

by guest contributor Brent Howitt Otto

By Brent Howitt Otto

It is hard to overstate the contemporary and enduring impact of British colonialism on the Indian Subcontinent. Bernard Cohn compellingly argued that the British conquest of India was a conquest of knowledge, as much as it was of land, peoples and markets. By combining the disciplinary tools of history and anthropology, Cohn helped birth a generation of historiography that has examined how the discursive categories of religion, caste and community (approximate to ‘ethnicity’ in South Asian usage) were deeply molded and in some instances created by the bureaucratic attempts to rationalize and systematize the exercise of colonial power over diverse peoples (Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind). These colonial knowledge systems not only helped colonial officials to think about India and Indians but has subsequently affected how Indians of all classes, castes and religions came to think about themselves in relation to one another and to the state. The anti-colonial nationalism of the late British Raj, far from freeing India of colonial categories and divisions, demonstrated their enduring and deepening power.

When discontent with British rule began to ferment in various forms of nationalist organizing and mobilization in the late nineteenth century, a preoccupation among Indian minorities—Muslims, Untouchables, Sikhs, and even the relatively small community of Eurasians (later known as Anglo-Indians)—emerged, that swaraj (self-rule) or indeed Independence would ultimately create a tyranny of the majority. Would the British Raj simply be replaced by a Hindu Raj, in which minorities would lose their already tenuous position in politics and society?

B. D. Ambedkar

Fear ran deepest among Muslims, who had been scapegoated by the British as the group responsible for the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857. Their fears were not irrational, for the Indian National Congress, as the largest expression of the nationalist movement, struggled to appear as anything but a party of English-educated elite Hindus. Despite Gandhi’s exhortation of personal moral conversion to a universal regard for all people, his message came packaged in the iconic form and practice of a deeply religious Hindu ascetic. Gandhi famously disagreed with the desire of B. D. Ambedkar, a leader of the Untouchables, to abolish the caste ‘system’. Muslims and other minorities called for ‘separate electorates,’ protected seats and separate voting mechanisms to ensure minorities were represented.

In part to pacify the anxieties of minorities and in part to further a ‘divide and rule’ agenda to prolong colonial rule, the British responded with a series of Round Table Conferences from 1930-32 in which India’s minorities represented their views. This resulted in the Communal Award of separate electorates for Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, Europeans and Depressed Classes (Scheduled Castes). Gandhi’s opposition rested on the principle that Separate Electorates would only impede unity and sow greater division, both in the movement to end British rule and the hope of a unified nation thereafter. Yet in the Poona Pact of September 1932 Gandhi acquiesced to Separate Electorates while coercing Ambedkar through a fast unto death to renounce them for Dalits.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah

British colonial knowledge had constructed blunt categories of India’s minorities, which failed to acknowledge their internal diversity. Muslims included numerous sects, schools of jurisprudence, regions and languages. Eurasians were divided internally by region (north, south, Burma), occupation (railways, government services, private trade and industry), lineage (Portuguese, English, Dutch, French) and class. The same was true for other minorities, and yet the British insisted upon dealing with each group by recognizing an organization and its leader as the ‘sole spokesman’ for that ‘community’s’ interests. For Muslims it was Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League (Ayesha Jalal, The Sole Spokesman). For Eurasians (Anglo-Indians) it was the president of the All India Anglo-Indian Association, under the leadership of Sir Henry Gidney (1919-42) and Frank Anthony (1942 onward), which by no means could claim membership sufficient to represent the interests of a majority of Anglo-Indians.

Who is allowed to speak for the group? Which voices are suppressed or silenced? These are crucial questions for historians who seek to make an accurate reconstruction of the textures and contours of a group’s thinking over time, of their unity and disunity, internal dynamics, the ways they see themselves and others. Otherwise the scholar will only be able to conjure up an historical narrative that coheres with the sympathies of power, but gets no closer to representing the group on its own terms. The archive is often limited in what it can say, for it too is a construction of power: the editorial discretion of a newspaper, the policy and practice of record keeping and classification in an organization or a government, and the status and education implicit in any literary production. This has been a foremost concern and debate of Subaltern historiography in South Asia (see the journal Subaltern Studies and Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?“), and a motivating problem addressed by Anthro-History.

The scholarship on the mixed-race of colonial South Asia manifests some of these problems. Some histories have been written by important Anglo-Indian leaders and politicians, such as Herbert Alick Stark and Frank Anthony, constituting less an academic history than their own rhetorical attempt to shape Anglo-Indians’ view of themselves and of others’ views of Anglo-Indians. Indeed, these constitute primary sources that portray particular dominant, though not representative perspectives of the community. Even serious academic studies have erred by leaning too heavily on official sources to substantiate the community’s attitudes (e.g., Alison Blunt, Domicile and Diaspora) or by inordinate attachment to a social scientific theory such as “marginality” to explain the social position and self-consciousness of Anglo-Indians, at times entertaining untenable generalizations and ignorance of facts (See Noel P. Gist and Roy Dean Wright, Marginality and Identity, or Paul Fredrick Cressey, “The Anglo-Indians“). Other studies are too narrowly focused on Anglo-Indians of a particular place and time to include very much dialogue with the greater Anglo-Indian community or with other interlocutors such as the state (e.g., Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, In Search of a Homeland, or Robyn Andrews, Christmas in Calcutta).


The new monograph by Uther Charlton-Stevens, Anglo-Indians and Minority Politics in South Asia: Race, Boundary Making and Communal Nationalism (London: Routledge, 2018) is a deeply textured historical study of the Eurasian community over its lengthy history. Uninterested in presenting a uniform narrative, Charlton-Stevens digs deeply into diverse sources to show the various interlocutors that Anglo-Indians and their leaders had, and the often discordant opinions they took with respect to their own history, concepts of race, Indian nationalism, the colonial state, and plans for their post-colonial future. Anglo-Indians were neither univocal, nor insular. Views among Anglo-Indians were diverse and power over them was contested. Skillfully Charlton-Stevens traces these various crisscrossing strands that shows Anglo-Indians were embedded in a web of local, colonial and international discourses, and were interacting with and speaking about concepts as diverse and far reaching as notions of nation and national self-determination, Zionism, and eugenics. Although the community had a sole spokesman as far as government was concerned, the voices of dissenting and contesting positions were louder and clearer than prior scholarship has ever made out.

Charlton-Stevens refreshingly situates the question of Anglo-Indian identity in the crucial context of race and eugenical theories current from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. He explores in depth the writings of two Anglo-Indian figures who were not community leaders, yet had complex articulations of mixed race. Millicent Wilson of Bangalore wrote arguing that Anglo-Indians’ whiteness (and thus superiority) should be acknowledged on the supposed grounds of the dominance of white genes, and thus their predominance in mixed-race people. Wilson regarded Americans and Australians as exemplars of the success of whitening an admittedly hybrid race. In effect she argued against extreme theories of racial purity, while continuing to support a concept of a racial hierarchy that presumed the relative superiority of whiteness (Charlton-Stevens, 177–79, 194–96). Though seldom referenced in other studies on Anglo-Indians, Charlton-Stevens shows that Wilson’s work was read and responded to by Anglo-Indians, and that she engaged in disputes with Anglo-Indian leaders and critiqued those who promoted Anglo-Indians emigration from India. Though not conforming to the official positions of the Anglo-Indian Association, Wilson surely represents a strand of Anglo-Indian thinking on race.

Quite different from Wilson’s belief in a racial hierarchy into which she wanted to insinuate Anglo-Indians as ‘white,’ stand the writings of Anglo-Indian social scientist Cedric Dover. Contesting the alleged superiority of racial purity, Dover argued instead hybridization promoted genetic vigor. He predicted that mixed races would therefore define the future and spell the ultimate end of racial difference. He was a vocal opponent of the Nazi eugenics of racial purity, while himself promoting the eugenics of genetic mixing. As for his own community of Anglo-Indians, Dover believed they should identify as ‘Eurasians,’ a more expansive category than ‘Anglo-Indian,’ and forge a pan-Eurasian solidarity with other Eurasians outside of British India. This view was largely at odds with the stated aims and positions of official leaders of the Community. While Dover’s book, which was most explicitly directed at Anglo-Indians, is noted in the historiography, Charlton-Stevens goes further to demonstrate the effects and resonances of Dover’s ideas and other works on Anglo-Indian discourse about themselves and their future. At the same time, by drawing on the work of Nico Slate’s Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012) he shows how Dover saw through his academic work in the United States and the examples of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, a model of mixed-race success which supported his claims and which he recommended to Anglo-Indians (Charlton-Stevens, 191–96).

Then Charlton-Stevens carefully explores the numerous projects Anglo-Indians undertook as they prepared for a post-colonial future. Several schemes proposed for domestic colonial settlements—Abbott Mount (1920s), Whitefield (1882), McCluskigunge (1933) (Charlton-Stevens, 179–91). Others suggested overseas colonization—of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (in 1922–3 and 1946), or the creation of an “Eurasia” in the former German New Guinea with League of Nations support, an idea which surfaced in the 1930s and then again in the 1950s (196–206). The Anglo-Indian promoters of these projects envisioned a degree of self-sufficiency, “emancipation” from dependency and colonial oppression, a “national homeland”.  Through a close reading of correspondence, committee reports, organization records, and letters to the editor in Anglo-Indian and English-language church sponsored newspapers in India, Charlton-Stevens shows that these aims do not only have incidental resonance but direct connection with the larger international discourses on race, the post-World War I “balkanization” that came with ethnic or racial conceptions of nationality and national self-determination, and drew on foreign models such as the Zionist success in the Palestine Mandate. Finally, numerous other associations and individuals promoted emigration, contrary to the stated position of the All India Anglo-Indian Association to remain in India—especially in the two years between the end of World War II and Independence. This even included as unlikely a destination as Brazil: ideologically branded as “Mestizism,” its promoters believed that as a mixed-race Christian people they would be accepted in a largely mixed-race Christian country. Others mainly sought to settle elsewhere within the British Commonwealth.

These are but a few of the most significant contributions of Charlton-Stevens’ book, which I have selected because they break new ground by foregrounding that Anglo-Indians were diverse in their thought, despite being forced to accept a sole spokesman who at times was the target of considerable resistance. Moreover they engaged with broader Indian and international discourses. Charlton-Stevens achieved this textured treatment of the ideas of Anglo-Indians on their own terms by a close, broad and critical reading of the archive as well as (in parts not mentioned above) ethnographic work and oral history that highlights the value of non-textual sources to a thoroughgoing historic account that interrogates power, expects diversity, and eschews easy generalizations.

Brent Howitt Otto is a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Department of History.

Featured Image: Close-up of the book cover of Nicholas B. Dirks’ Castes of Mind.

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