QUESTIONING THE STEREOTYPE: ANGLO-INDIAN COMMUNITIES IN NEW ZEALAND By Dorothy McMenamin Tutor in Religious Studies, History, and Anthropology at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand
The title of this conference - Who are the Anglo-Indians? – is very much a central question in my research. The question arose when I originally encountered academic works on British Indian society and discovered that the descriptions of Anglo-Indian lifestyles did not capture or reflect the sort of life my parents and family enjoyed during the period of the British Raj. In order to provide a wider window into this historical period, I began recording oral histories of elderly ‘Anglo-Indians’ now living in New Zealand. The participants in the project are of an age to clearly remember social life prior to independence and partition in August 1947. The period focussed on is the first half of the twentieth century in India, and then shifts with the migration and settlement of these people into New Zealand.
When referring to India, I include those countries now independent since the withdrawal of British rule, that is not only India, but Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) but excluding Portuguese Goa which was never part of British India. These regions play an important and defining role in determining the diverse identities that exist within the wide legal definition of who is an Anglo-Indian, which is the subject of this paper. The diversity that becomes evident supports my view that Anglo-Indians are NOT an easily identifiable homogeneous community, as stereotypically portrayed in contemporary academic works.
For those of you at the conference who belong to the Anglo-Indian community, much of the findings in this research will be quite self-evident and certainly not new; but my research seeks to contribute to historiography by delineating the different identities which are based on different regional and hereditary ties. As you would expect, the identification of these divisions within the wider Anglo-Indian community are the same as those apparent in Anglo-Indian societies around the world.
As a starting point, it is necessary to define the term Anglo-Indian. The original use of the term Anglo-Indian referred to the British in India. It was not until 1911, in line with changing contemporary usage and in marked contrast with the initial use, the Census of India extended the term to include people of mixed heritage. Subsequently a legal definition appeared in the Government of India Act 1935, Article 366(2), repeated in the 1950 Constitution of India, as follows:
An ‘Anglo-Indian’ means a person whose father or any
of whose other male progenitors in the male line is or was
of European descent but who is domiciled within the territory
of India and is or was born within such territory of parents
habitually resident therein and not established there for
temporary purposes only.
Note that this legal definition is much wider than the generally accepted idea that an Anglo-Indian is someone of mixed Anglo (British) and Indian (native) ancestry. But it is necessary to delve deeper into the implications and anomalies arising from this legal definition to realise the diversity and limitations imposed, which are as follows:
The reason the legal definition of an Anglo-Indian came into being in 1935 was twofold. Firstly, as mentioned above, it brought the term into line with common usage because since the end of 19th century, those of mixed descent referred to themselves as Anglo-Indians. Published works, such as Stephen Hawes’ Poor Relations and my article "Domiciled Europeans in Colonial India" have explored the reasons for the change, involving issues of race and prejudice, but these issues remain outside the scope of this paper.
The second reason for the change was to widen the definition to maintain employment eligibility. With the Indianisation reforms towards the end of the 19th century, employment was to be equally available to all ‘natives of India’, rather than the Anglo-Indians who had previously almost exclusively held the better jobs in the railways, telegraph and other civil and military positions. In these positions Anglo-Indians had considered themselves a segment of the British community, not ‘natives of India’ the latter being seen as comprising the manual labour force. To ensure that Anglo-Indians were not excluded from their original preserves, the new legislation classified Anglo-Indians as ‘natives of India’ which enabled them to apply for their old jobs, but now without privilege, on an equal basis with Indians.
All the participants in my oral history project fall within the umbrella legal definition. Interestingly, none of the interviewees knew of the legal definition, let alone what that was. During the course of my research it became clear that the participants had varying ideas as to who exactly was an Anglo-Indian! It must be remembered that the introduction of the legal definition occurred during the first half of the 20th century, that is, during the lifetime of the participants. It is therefore not surprising that there is a measure of confusion as to who was an Anglo-Indian. Some of the older interviewees believed their parents, who had no Indian blood, were Anglo-Indians because they were British residents in India, in line with the original use of the term. Alternatively, as the change in the use of the term was perceived to include those of mixed heritage, in order to distinguish themselves from the mixed community, sections of the community began to refer to themselves as Domiciled Europeans. Of course, many interviewees thought Anglo-Indians were the offspring of mixed marriages, that is, having some Indian blood somewhere in their ancestry. However, none of the interviewees considered that the term Anglo-Indian encompassed both mixed and unmixed groups, as defined by the legal definition.
The oral histories revealed that divisions existed even between those of mixed European and Indian ancestry, as follows:
In this research a total of thirty-two Anglo-Indians in New Zealand have been contacted to date. Thirty-two may not seem like a large sample, compared with numbers of Anglo-Indians in Australia and England, but there is only a small community in NZ, forming part of a proportionately small NZ population of just under four million. In fact the total number of New Zealand Anglo-Indians who attended the 2000 World Reunion in Auckland was forty, which indicates that my elderly research group of thirty-two is a fair sample of the Anglo-Indian community in New Zealand.
Of the thirty-two people interviewed, only half actually called themselves Anglo-Indians. The break-up of claimed identity is as follows:
Breakdown of Interviewees : Total number of contacts 32
Domiciled Europeans: 9 (including 2 British calling themselves AIs)
Goans: 1 (president of GoaNZ Association)
Refused to participate 2 (Contacts provided by their personal AI friends)
The two contacts who did not wish to participate or talk about their Indian connections represent a recognised section of the Anglo-Indian community who fear discrimination (perhaps because of their own or parents’ earlier experiences) or because of the perceived low status of Anglo-Indians and/or prejudices. Out of respect for their privacy, I did not pursue my enquiries.
The findings relating to the socio-economic status of Anglo-Indians in New Zealand showed that, except for a single mother, all owned their own homes. Some owned more than one property. All had been employed during their working lives, often from lowly beginnings, attaining at least middle class status, although several attained high status. Others of originally higher status in India, willingly took up menial jobs to survive economically during periods of hardship soon after arrival in New Zealand. However, NONE of the interviewees went on the dole or needed social security benefits, apart from receiving well earned pensions.
The following are a few apposite quotes from the interviewees which illustrate reasons for the diverse identities amongst Anglo-Indians.
The implication from the latter quote is that not all Goans but only those of Portuguese descent on the paternal side, who were born of parents resident in India, could legally fall under the category of Anglo-Indian.
British and Anglo-Indians
It is notable that although the interviewees had many friends who came from India, the majority did not to belong to any Anglo-Indian clubs or societies. This points to a trend towards integration and/or assimilation of identity with their chosen home country. Nevertheless all exhibit a strong bond retaining a nostalgic sense of identity with their family roots in Anglo-India.
To give a fuller picture of Anglo-Indians in New Zealand I will outline issues pertaining to the association, namely the New Zealand Eurasian Society Inc. which is affiliated to the International Anglo-Indian Federation. The name itself indicates that membership is not restricted to Anglo-Indians and anyone of mixed European and Asian ancestry can join. Incidentally, in this project no-one identified themselves as Eurasian, although Anglo-Indian was often recognised as a sub-group of that wider category. The New Zealand organisation was founded by David Leckey and friends, originally called the Anglo-Indian social club. The present president of the Eurasian Society, David’s brother Gene Leckey, changed the name so as not to exclude people such as Anglo-Burmese who might otherwise feel excluded. This reasoning lacks full appreciation of the legal definition as applicable to those born before 1947 in British India, whilst at the same time it reflects contemporary ideas of Anglo-Indian identity.
Total membership of NZ Eurasian Society is just under 400 at July 2002, about two-thirds comprise family groups and about one-third are mixed European-Asian members, namely Macau/Portuguese/Chinese, Iranian/European, and Korean/Kiwi. Gene Leckey fought for four years before the International Anglo-Indian Federation accepted membership of the Eurasian Association because of the name ‘Eurasian’. The term Eurasian is by no means readily accepted by all the interviewees, and membership is rejected by some because of the name. In fact another small informal Anglo-Indian group exists in Auckland and is run by Andrew Pigg whom I have been unable to contact. The Eurasian Society spent many years trying to get this group to join, or at least attend, the 2000 World Reunion, even issuing free invitations, but to no avail. I attended the Reunion and was told by an Anglo-Indian that the other group could not afford to attend the events. This points to division along the lines of socio-economic differences and expectations. The NZ Eurasian Society sought to also include Goans. An Anglo-Indian woman, married to a Goan, tried to persuade other Goans to join, but again in vain. The GoaNZ association formed by Rodrigues remains separate, although on friendly terms. So, even within the small NZ community, there is lack of a cohesive identity.
Gene Leckey’s outlook is that Anglo-Indians should look to the future and not be ‘purists’ because Anglo-Indians everywhere formed their own groups and choose their own names, irrespective of whether they wanted to be part of the Federation or not. Gene’s idea is that the Eurasian Society was an ‘NZ animal’, representative of democratic rights to choose freely. ‘Purist’ notions resided with the International Federation and Gene’s motto to resolve such differences was to: ‘Think Globally, Act Locally’.
Another finding which indicates lack of cohesion or support for a united Anglo-Indian, or Eurasian society in NZ, is that of the thirty-two participants in this research, only eight are members of the Eurasian Society, and only six of these attended the World Reunion in Auckland. A conclusion in my earlier article on Domiciled Europeans, is that Anglo-Indians were essentially a non-political community, and the statistics in this research support that trait. However, leaders of the communities, such as Gene Leckey, inevitably are, or certainly become, as it were, ‘political animals’. Leckey’s role makes an interesting comparison with the former Anglo-Indian leader in India, Frank Anthony, who used the wide legal definition under scrutiny here, to define his community, despite common usage of the term which stereotyped Anglo-Indians as a mixed community. In fact Anthony criticised people such as the author of Bhowani Junction, John Masters, for calling himself a Domiciled European rather than an Anglo-Indian.
The essential point this highlights, is that calls for unification are not easily overcome because all those who fall under the legal definition Anglo-Indian, although having much in common with each other, do not see themselves as a united homogeneous society. The most obvious commonality between these groups is security for their family and opportunity to improve their status within their country of residence. Within the western Anglo-Indian diasporas, this security and opportunity has been found and utilized very successfully.
The interest in old Anglo-India roots, as expressed by the interviewees, is not so much to pass on Anglo-Indian identity to their children, but to preserve their family and historical past through genealogical family histories, and to enjoy personal reunions and nostalgic memories with friends from the past. Their early Indian connections are a proud part of their identity, just as much as their adopted New Zealand/Kiwi nationality. Both identities are adaptable as they are pluralist, allowing a mingling of individual identities. Importantly, the adopted New Zealand identity gives a sense of permanence, security for children (the main reason why most left the subcontinent), and excellent opportunity for education and employment. Additionally, the NZ passport better facilitates the ability to move through international boundaries to visit kin and old friends than its Indian equivalent. I suggest that these traits are the same motives attributed to the earlier Anglo-Indians who favoured their European origins over Indian roots, because the former offered better opportunities to improve education, status and mobility in a changing world.
The wide legal definition of Anglo-Indian, and the NZ Eurasian Society open-door policy of membership to anyone of mixed European and Asian origins, appear to be based on motives of expediency. In both British India and New Zealand, Anglo-Indians represent proportionally miniscule minority communities, therefore a wide membership criteria provides potentially larger support groups. In return for more subscriptions, the societies are able to offer wider assistance and, in New Zealand, it also allows greater support for international Anglo-Indian charitable causes.
My New Zealand research leads me to ask how and why these diverse identities embodied in the legal definition can or should be reconciled or resolved? Alternatively, do these differences need to be reconciled and resolved? However, clarification is needed as to whether the divisions lie in socio-economic differences, a fixed difference in identity, or perhaps both. These are questions, I suggest, that could be explored by other researchers.
Finally, I submit that the New Zealand position represents a microcosm of the global Anglo-Indian situation. The legislation in the early 20th century, rather than being definitive of identity, was adopted to alleviate employment problems raised by the implementation of inclusive British Indianisation policies. This research has refuted the stereotype that Anglo-Indians are a readily identifiable homogeneous group, as defined by the legal definition. In the circumstances and the current climate of debate regarding who is entitled to receive charitable Anglo-Indian funding in India, it seems necessary to consider whether the retention of the anachronistic definition is fitting in the 21st century?
Certainly, none of the terms ‘Anglo’, ‘Indian’ or ‘Eurasian’ denote racial ‘purity’ in any way! But then, neither do British, American, Canadian, Australian or New Zealander - each incorporate wide diversity. It is hoped that this research, by identifying the diversity and explaining the differences within the wider Anglo-Indian community, will help reconcile contemporary ideas of who is an Anglo-Indian with an appropriate definition.
Anthony, Frank Britain’s Betrayal in India New Delhi, 1969.
Charles, Geraldine "Anglo-Indian Ancestry" in Genealogists’ Magazine Vol.27, No.3, September 2001.
Ferdinands, Rodney Proud & Prejudiced: The story of the Burghers of Sri Lanka , F.R.L. Ferdinands, 5 Grenhilda Road, Rosanna, Victoria, Australia.
Hawes, Christopher Poor Relations: The Making of a Eurasian Community in British India 1773-1833 Surrey, Curzon Press, 1996.
McMenamin, Dorothy "Identifying Domiciled Europeans in Colonial India: Poor whites or privileged community?" in New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies, Vol.3, No.1. June 2001, pp. 106-127, a copy is placed on the AI website http://www.alphalink.com.au/~agilbert/cover11.html.