“Hostages To India” by Herbert A Stark

From my last post on “Lachmi Bai, Rani of Jhansi” you will know that I am fond of history and old books. Having studied at The Lawrence School, Lovedale ( originally set up by Major-General Sir Henry Lawrence way back in 1858 for the children of soldiers in the British Army of those times) , it has been my good fortune to have had many Anglo-Indian friends over the decades.

It was with great delight therefore that I read, ” Hostages To India: The Life Story of the Anglo Indian Race” by Herbert Alick Stark. This book was first published in 1926 in Calcutta. The version I read was published thanks to the Internet Archive.

The moment most in my generation think of Anglo-Indians, images of guitars and dances; good athletes and sportsmen; engine crew, guards and Railway Colonies; and happy go lucky, hard drinking but hard working people come to mind.  Perhaps we were too influenced by Victoria Jones in “Bhowani Junction” by John Masters.

It must be said though that some had a distinct chip on their shoulder.  This book tells you why this community has often been misunderstood and may I say, taken advantage of by the British in the heydays of Empire. There aren’t too many of them left in present day India. Perhaps 200,000 out of the 500,000 Anglo-Indians all over the world.

The book begins with not with the English explorers but with Vasco da Game of Portugal who was the first European to set foot in India in May 1498. Many of his men married local women who were first converted to the Roman Catholic faith. Their off spring were the first Anglo-Indians or Eurasians as they were initially called. The Portuguese were followed by the Dutch. Much later came the British who entered India as traders. The East India Company was authorized by the Mughal Emperor Jehangir to set up a factory in Surat in Gujarat in 1612. During the period 1600-1775 the Anglo-Indians were by and large either merged with the British or with the Indian peoples.

The children of Spaniards in Haiti and San Domingo had revolted against their masters and this fear fashioned British policy towards the children from mixed marriages in India. They were scared, given the low numbers of the British, that the growing force of Anglo-Indians should not one day mutiny against them.

By the 19th century mixed marriages were far more common. Only well off English ladies could buy a passage to India and they being few in number married men in high positions. For the lowly  British soldier it was easier to marry a local woman and teach her his culture and language. Young Anglo-Indians proficient in various trades and in music, could join the East India Company’s Regiments but only as non-combatants. However, at the time of the Mutiny in 1857, many fought for the British, while others fought for local princes who hired them for their armies.

A new set of social norms and rules came into being during the Victorian Age. Compared to the past, the prestige of the Anglo Indians dipped considerably as mixed marriages were not encouraged unlike in past generations. Indeed a time came when they were frowned upon.  This book covers the period till the 1920s when Anglo-Indian were largely employed in lower and supervisory positions in the Railways, the Customs, in tea and indigo plantations and the like.

Mr Stark himself writes tellingly in his preface, ” …published in book form in the hope that the recital of the life-history of the Anglo-Indian Race will not only remove the uninformed prejudice which has subjected its members to unmerited disparagement, but also confirm in them a proper pride in the important part they have played in the building of the British Empire in India, and inspire them to live up to the traditions of their past. They are in truth the Hostages whom the British Nation has given to the peoples of India.”

A well-researched and informative book but you must remember it stops in the 1920s.!




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