Decolonising Anglo-Indians


A review of Decolonising Anglo-Indians: Strategies for a Mixed Race Community in Late Colonial India during the First Half of the Twentieth Century, by Uther E. Charlton-Stevens.

Uther E. Charlton-Stevens’s dissertation is a thorough investigation of the position and politics of Anglo-Indians in late colonial India. The category of Anglo-Indian was a construction of the Census of India of 1911, referring to a community of racially mixed descent previously designated as Eurasians, East Indians, Indo-Britons, and half-castes (p. 28). It was “one of the several socially constructed categories by which transient (i.e. non-domiciled) Britons sought to demarcate racial difference within the Raj’s socio-racial hierarchy” (Long Abstract, not paginated). Charlton-Stevens is at pains to point out that despite their small numerical strength (less than half a million in 1947), Anglo-Indians, who were concentrated mainly in important urban centres across India, “form[ed] the basis of a significant multigenerational settled minority buttressing the British presence” (p. 331). Following historians Christopher Hawes and David Arnold, the dissertation “overturn[s] the historical and historiographical illusion” that obliterated the presence of mixed race groups in the political, military and administrative apparatus of British rule (p. 9).

The dissertation is organized in two sections titled “Locating Anglo-Indians in Late Colonial India” and “Anglo-Indian Strategies.” The first section defines Anglo-Indians, their social world, economic position, and reputation as loyal defenders of the Raj. It begins with a meticulously researched and fascinating account of the problems of enumerating and separating this group from others (such as Domiciled Europeans), of the politics of sociological taxonomy, and of the ingenuity of attempts at racial passing and hypergamy.

In Chapter 2, the “Social World of Anglo-India,” Charlton-Stevens shows that while the group was internally stratified in its racial make-up (pp. 66-69) and in its access to financial and educational opportunities (pp. 70-78), there was enough “commonality of experience” to constitute a “reluctant community,” based on their exclusion by transient Britons (pp. 78-80). Following geographer Alison Blunt (Domicile and Diaspora: Anglo-Indian Women and the Spatial Politics of Home. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), Charlton-Stevens explores the social lives of the community through their self-representations in community journals, thereby overcoming the colonial archive’s limiting characterisation of the community as part of the “Eurasian problem.”

Chapter 3 turns to the “Economic Position of Anglo-Indians”, and shows how they walked the tightrope between privilege and subordination. Anglo-Indians were placed in an intermediate position between British superiors and Domiciled Europeans on the one hand, and Indian subordinates on the other (p. 101). Charlton-Stevens provides a detailed history of Anglo-Indian efforts to secure lucrative employment opportunities through political lobbying (pp. 104-106), expensive schooling (pp. 110-111), and reservations (pp. 126-129). His painstakingly detailed reading of railway employment records is the greatest strength of this chapter.

Chapter 4 shows that Anglo-Indians also presented themselves as “loyal defenders of the Raj,” and were made to serve in auxiliary military forces to safeguard the internal security of the Raj, responding to strikes, civil disobedience, and international conflicts. They demonstrated their loyalty to the Raj during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, and were employed in strategically sensitive transport and communication positions (pp. 16-161).

The Indianisation of state and railway employment following the Government of India Act of 1919 undermined the economic base of domiciled employment, as positions hitherto reserved for the Anglo-Indian community were now open to competition from Indians. The second section of the dissertation details the three strategies employed by the community to cope with these changes in the last decades of colonial rule. These included increased politicization and lobbying, which secured them statutory reservations in state and railway employment through the Government of India Act of 1935 (Chapter 5); agricultural colonization schemes, such as McCluskiegunge in present day Jharkhand (Chapter 6); and the choice between leaving and making a home in India as individuals, families, or collectives (Chapter 7).

Chapter 5 maps the political landscape, comprised of local and (increasingly) national philanthropic organisations, rising political leaders such as Henry Gidney and Frank Anthony, and Anglo-Indian deputations to the British Government. However, as Charlton-Stevens points out himself, the dissertation is still largely focused on the high politics of the All India Anglo-Indian and Domiciled European Association, and not on provincial politicians or local branches of the Association.

Chapter 6 (“Colonization Strategies”) builds on the work of two geographers, Alison Blunt and Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt. Charlton-Stevens contextualises the project of the Colonisation Society of India through comparisons with other “colonisation efforts”, such as farming in Australia and New Zealand, Jewish settlement in Palestine, and the Italian colonisation of Abyssinia (p. 278). Faced with unemployment among educated men and excited about the prospects of co-operative cultivation, “the founders of McCluskiegunge were hoping … their colony could grow into the homeland of Anglo-India,” and expected financial support and land grants from the government to achieve that aim (pp. 235-236).

The final chapter, succinctly titled “Quit India or Make it Home?” lays out the difficult choices faced by the community in the lead-up to Indian independence from British rule. In the famous articulation of “Indian by nationality, Anglo-Indian by community,” Frank Anthony decoupled Anglo-Indian identity from its association with Britain, and encouraged the community to imagine a future within India (pp. 304-305). Through personal connections with leaders in the Congress Party, including Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru and Home Minister Vallabhai Patel, Anthony achieved minority status, safeguards for educational grants, nominated seats in provincial and national legislatures, and reserved posts for employment in railways (pp. 316-318). However, wealthier families continued to exercise the option of emigration to Britain and Australia, creating a large diaspora that continued to expand in the post-independence era.

Decolonising Anglo-Indians is a rare historical study on Anglo-Indians in the late colonial period. Charlton-Stevens alerts us to the paucity of historical work and hints, following Hawes (The Making of a Eurasian Community in British India, 1773-1833. Richmond: Curzon Press, 1996), that this historiographical neglect might be a consequence of the historical “disparaging and dismissive British colonial attitudes towards Eurasians as marginal and unimportant people” (Long Abstract, not paginated). Despite the limitations of the colonial archive, Charlton-Stevens has done valuable archival spadework with government materials in India and Britain, skillfully navigating challenges like the dual meaning of the term “Anglo-Indians,” the difficulty of identifying families of mixed race with British or European names, and the deliberate erasure of their Indian past by families engaging in racial passing, or emigrating to Britain and Australia (pp. 326-327). As Charlton-Stevens points out in the introduction, “British attitudes towards miscegenation and its offspring are powerful means by which to understand their evolving construction of racial ideologies of difference and rule” (p. 3). His study is a valuable case study that grounds recent theorizations on racial hybridity in historical reality (p. 8). In addition to its contributions to the historiographies of colonial South Asia and race relations under the British Empire, Charlton-Stevens’s work will also be valuable to global historians studying mixed race populations in the Americas and Africa.

Swati Chawla
Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia

Primary Sources
Private Archive of the All India Anglo-Indian Association, New Delhi (including monthly journal Anglo-Indian Review, 1929-present)
Private Collection of DeRozario Family, McCluskiegunge, Jharkhand
Anglo-Indian Journal (monthly journal of the Eurasian and Anglo-Indian Association of Western India, Bombay, 1897-1901)
Colonisation Observer (monthly journal of the Colonisation Society of India, 1934-1941)
British Parliamentary Papers (including reports of the Select Committee on Colonization and Settlement)

Dissertation Information
St. Edmund Hall, University of Oxford. 2012. 388 pp. Supervisor: Judith M. Brown and Francis Robinson.

Image: copyright Shirley Gifford-Pritchard, used by permission.

Leave a Reply