Changing identities and migration: Disappearing Anglo-Indians

My academic interests have almost always stemmed from my own personal interests. Political and military geography grew from a variety of experiences from childhood, whether bouncing around Sudan, reading up on Temujin, or obsessing over the Napoleonic wars. An even earlier interest, which has started taking a back seat these days to political and military geography, was migration. Whereas the other two sub-disciplines are related to my experiences since birth, migration affected my life even before I was born. Intrinsically tied to the migration sub-discipline is the topic of identity, this has also been an enduring personal question that has fueled my academic interest in Geography. Whereas political and military geography are the domain of my adult interests, migration and identity are my real fundamental interests.

a symbol of Anglo-Indian identity? (via wikipedia)

Nothing strikes closer to home than news of the Anglo-Indian population group, of which I am a “member.” I use quotes because I say that I’m a member, but identity isn’t only based on self-ascription. The larger part is whether you are accepted by that group. Think about it, I could claim to be Catholic but I’m only Catholic if I follow the rules ascribed by the hierarchy and am acknowledged as a Catholic by other Catholics. It works the same way with ethnic groups, often people self-appoint themselves as the border guards of an identity, “you’re too white to be Indian” “you’re too dark to be white.” I’ve heard both of these comments within the last year.

A recent BBC article asks if the “culture is dying out,” presenting an interesting geographic question.

Here’s a one-paragraph introduction to Anglo-Indians. The community was an outgrowth of the (East India) Company Raj period of British imperialism in India (rather than the British Raj). Since a number of Indian states already existed in the subcontinent, as opposed to the “empty” (according to Europeans) land in North America, Company and Crown policy emphasized imperial domination of existing state infrastructure, rather than colonization and the organic growth of a new state. A North American analogy is the French presence in Louisiana and Canada. At first French policy emphasized trade (particularly beaver) but evolved by the mid-1600s to emphasize colonization, permanent settlement. Incidentally, with a preponderance of men working as soldiers, trappers, and merchants, King Louis XIV sent 700 single women to New France and encouraged intermarriage between French and Native Americans. During the Company Raj in India (1757-1858), the British presence was overwhelmingly male and spread among merchants and soldiers. To help solidify its rule and stability, the Company encouraged the taking of local wives and consorts by British men. Their children became the first Anglo-Indians, or Eurasians as they were then called.

There’s no quick answer to whether Anglo-Indian culture is “dying out,” I would argue that its not. Most often we associate “culture” with being something immutable and timeless, that’s wrong. But first, what is culture? Typically, most people refer to culture as being (like group membership) visible things: food, dancing, speech, clothing, names, or interpersonal relationships. But according to Dictionary.com, culture is “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group”. What is common, and generally accepted among academics, is that culture is a set of learned behaviors and beliefs. The emphasis is on learned, they are practices observed and internalized by experiences around you. In this way culture not only self-replicates with each new generation, but it evolves as cultures come into contact with one another or other external stimuli.

Anglo-Indian “culture” then is merely adapting to the changes in experienced by its people. Born out of British migration policies during the Company Raj, Anglo-Indian culture emphasized its Anglo-/British-ness, at the time of the Raj that was the quickest way to improve one’s life-chances. But when the Raj left in 1947 the seeds were sown to change Anglo-Indian “culture” to emphasize its Indian-ness. Of course years of perceived willing cooperation with the British earned Anglo-Indians the enmity of “Indians”, who characterized (and still do) Anglo-Indians as lazy, drunk, or sexually deviant. In the United Kingdom, where many Anglo-Indians migrated, the best way to improve life-chance was to continue to emphasize British-ness.

Besides the socially expedient nature of cultural change, there’s a natural aversion of people to “hyphenations.” While an increasingly inter-connected and globalized world has brought millions of migrants to new shores over the past two centuries, humanity has been slow to embrace the products of cultural mixing. This is to be expected, for the majority of human history we have lived in or very near the places we were born, perhaps going to the next village away. Inter-cultural contact was a minimum and mostly experienced by soldiers and merchants. Once immigration became more aggressive, especially form the 1840s humans were forced to adapt to cultural boundaries that were now right outside the doorstep or down the street, rather than in some borderland a thousand miles or an ocean away. Responses to this “predicament,” varied from integration of immigrant communities into the host culture with the mistaken belief that the original culture would remain unchanged to ghettoization (sometimes self-imposed) of immigrant communities, keeping them separate, again under a mistaken belief that the immigrant and host culture would remain unchanged.

While the world slowly becomes amenable to immigration and perceived difference in one’s neighbors, we have hardly made headway into accepting “hyphenations.” Some people believe that anyone could move in next door and it would be acceptable, different culture or not. But even fewer believe that they, or their children, would marry or raise children with a “confused” background. I interpret this as the continued persistence of racism and ethno-centricity, despite liberal arguments to the contrary (for even the most enlightened can balk at the idea of a “hyphenated” baby).

What this means is that hyphenated cultures are seen as temporary aberrations, rather than cultures in their own right. They’re viewed as halfway points, not fully English but not fully Indian either, with the border guards of the two cultures at odds whether to appropriate the “hyphenated” people or not. I think that as migration and inter-cultural contact deepens, and I mean beyond the racist facade of ethnic ghettos and “integration” jingoism, society will eventually realize that hyphenation cultures are cultures. Host country cultures must put less pressure on hyphenations to “choose” a side, but this will be difficult considering the persistence of the nation-state myth. But hyphenations should stop casting their own culture in reference to the two others. They should stop saying they are becoming “more British” or “more Indian.” Being Anglo-Indian is just evolving, as all cultures do.

This is also to say that Anglo-Indian culture is not “dying out.” The culture and the people were born at the beginning of new historical moment, where borders are routinely crossed, the number of immigrants mushroom, and cultures come into contact and change. Geography, with its emphasis on places and people, is uniquely positioned to anticipate and explain this phenomenon – more so than anthropologists and sociologists. Migration is an inherently place-based activity, we travel from one location to another for a variety of reasons and our experiences in each are different. Most importantly, our identities are changed by the experience making us neither of there or of here. I’m an Anglo-Indian because I’m neither British, nor Indian.

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One thought on “Changing identities and migration: Disappearing Anglo-Indians

  1. I think the Anglo-Indian culture that was established and maintained during 200 years of British rule and for a couple of decades of independent India is dying out. This is to be expected as the last of the Anglo-Indians born in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s are all facing mortality and with their demise the specific Anglo-Indian culture will also expire. The children of Anglo-Indians abroad have already adopted the culture of their adopted homelands. In Indian there is now a different Anglo-Indian culture and this is in keeping with the very astute and accurate observations made by dcgrapher
    Blair Williams USA

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