Monday, August 15, 2011

First Asians in Britain

Asians in Britain: Their Social, Cultural and Political Lives

Visitors, emissaries and teachers
Servants and sailors aside, other Indians of diverse backgrounds and social origins came to Britain. The reason for their coming also varied. In 1723, the Parsi Naorozji Rastamji, son of the factory broker Rastam Manak of Surat, came to present a claim to the EIC against their factory agent in Surat. His mission was successful. Some other early visitors were educated Muslims. Mirza Itesa Modeen came to the country in 1765 as an emissary of the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam on a political mission to get the support of King George III against the Company. Muhammed Husain came in 1776 to learn about Western advances in astronomy and anatomy. Munshi Ismail was brought to England in 1772 by Claud Russell, an employee of the EIC in Bengal, as his personal munshi (teacher). All these scholar-travellers have left written accounts that provide valuable information and rare insights into how educated Indians viewed British society of that time.

The British Library
The account of Mirza Itesa Modeen's travels, translated in Urdu and English in 1827.
Rammohun Roy (1772-1833), from a land-owning Bengali Brahmin family, was the first Hindu of 'intellectual consequence' to visit Britain in the nineteenth century. A linguist, social reformer and one of the pioneers of Indian journalism, Roy was selected by the Mughal Emperor Shah Akbar II as his unofficial emissary (and given the title of 'raja'). Accompanied by his son Rajaram and two servants, Rammohun Roy came to represent the Emperor's cause in London, appealing for a more generous rise in the Emperor's annual stipend. But Roy's visit in April 1831 was more than just a diplomatic mission. At a time when the EIC's Charter was due for renewal, he submitted a memorandum representing Indian views to the Parliamentary Committee on Indian Affairs. A campaigner against suttee, Roy successfully argued his case before the Privy Council for the retention of 1829 legislation abolishing the practice. That Roy was a man of wider concerns and interests is seen in his enthusiasm for the 1832 Reform Bill. He hailed its success as 'the salvation of the nation', proclaiming that he could 'now feel proud' of being a British subject. He was enthusiastically received in Britain. Presented to William IV, and seated among the foreign ambassadors, he witnessed the coronation in Westminster Abbey. London society lionised him. Lucy Aikin of Hampstead described him as a 'friend and champion of women'. In Manchester, 'the great unwashed' rushed in crowds to see 'the King of Ingee'. In early September 1833, Roy visited Bristol to meet his Unitarian friend Dr Lant Carpenter. He made a deep impression on Mary Carpenter, his daughter. This can be seen from her interest in Indian education and women. She visited India four times and in 1870 the Bristol Indian Association was founded. Roy died in Bristol in September 1833. The chattri in Arnos Vale cemetery marks the spot of his burial.
Thinking Points

  • Who were the first Asians to live and work where you live?
  • What sort of life did they lead?
Other Indians worked in a professional capacity during this period. There are references to musicians employed by the Company to perform at dignified gatherings at India House and as interpreters. After the death of Rammohun Roy, his son Rajaram worked as an 'extra clerk' at India House for three years. Then there were the Persian-language teachers. Claud Russell had engaged Munshi Ismail. In 1777 a London newspaper carried an advertisement from Moonshee [sic] Mahomet Saeed, 'teacher of the Persian and Arabick Languages'. Saeed had originally 'attended the Hon. Mr Frederick Stewart in that capacity'. For those aspiring to high office in India, knowledge of Persian was desirable, so employing personal teachers was not uncommon. Once the Company opened its college, Haileybury, at Hertford, munshis like Mirza Khaleel began to be employed on a regular basis as teachers of Oriental languages. Indian wives and children
Another group in Britain at that time were the Indian wives and children of Englishmen. The Indianisation of nabobs in India did not stop at mere adoption of Indian habits and an interest in Indian culture and languages. One or two even became converts to Islam and Hinduism. Many others married or lived with Indian women. This was particularly the case during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was said at the time that every one of the Company's factories was 'surrounded by a ring of native substitutes for English wives and a swarm of Eurasian children'. The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge put the annual number of births of Eurasian children in Madras and the Coromandel Coast at 700. European 'adventurers' like Reinhardt and de Boigne, who commanded armies in the service of independent Maharajahs, also took Indian wives.
Indian wives sometimes accompanied their husbands back to England. Mention is made of a 'black Portuguese', wife of a Mr Peacock, travelling on the same ship as Mirza Itesa Modeen. Colonel John Cockerell brought back his Indo-Portuguese wife, Estuarta. He may have initially planned to live with her at his estates in Sezincote, but this never came to pass and his will deprived her and her children of all claims to the Cockerell estate. But Estuarta remained under the guardianship of the family, sometimes staying with John Cockerell's sister Elizabeth and her husband, John Belli, in Southampton, where Colonel Cockerell often visited her. She was also, on occasion, seen as the guest of S.P. Cockerell in London. Then there was Hélène Benoît (Bennett), the wife of General Benoît de Boigne and the sister of Bibi Faiz Baksh, a Begum of Oudh and the 'dear companion' of William Palmer. In 1797 Benoît brought Hélène and their two children, Banu Jain (baptised Ann) and Ally Bux (Charles Alexander), to London. But before long he had deserted her for Adèle d'Osmond, the daughter of the French ambassador, and went to live in Savoy. Hélène Bennett continued to live in their house in Enfield, north London, where Abu Talib Khan visited her during 1801-2. After the death of her daughter, Hélène retreated to the country, at Lower Beeding in Sussex, and lived in a cottage called Great Ground House. Little is now remembered about her life except that she smoked long pipes, wore magnificent rings, was a devout Catholic and was 'exceedingly good' to the poor. Hélène Bennett is said to be the Indian woman the poet Shelley was referring to when he described the lady wandering the Forest of St Leonard. Another Indian wife of a European in London was Mrs Ducarel. The extent of her European lifestyle and acculturation is seen from Abu Talib Khan's comment that she was so 'accomplished in all English manners and language therefore I was sometime in her company before I could be convinced she was a native of India'. Her two children lived with her.
ions, usually regarded as part of the family, were often sent to England for their education. Jane Cumming Gordon, the natural child of George Cumming Gordon and his 15-year-old Indian mistress, was probably the first Anglo-Indian child in a Scottish school. Brought to Britain after the death of Gordon by his mother, Lady Helen Cumming Gordon, she was placed at a boarding school in Elgin in 1804. In 1809 the 14-year-old Jane, described as 'a dark-skinned girl, a native of India', was moved to a girls' school in Edinburgh, to be near her grandmother. Here, in company with other students, Jane achieved some notoriety when she became involved in a lengthy lawsuit accusing two teachers of having an indecent relationship. What happened to her after this brief moment of fame is unknown. John Campbell, the son of a Bengali mother and Scottish father, was educated at Tain and Aberdeen University. He returned to India as a missionary to the Bhowanipore Institution in Bengal run by the London Missionary Society. 'Mr Tommy', the son of Panna Begum and Colonel Pearse, was sent to England for his education after his father's death. Whether 'Mr Tommy' is the same as 'Muhammad' in the Harrow school register is not clear. Colonel Green of the Bengal Artillery had his two Indian sons educated at the Academy in Canterbury, while many other Anglo-Indian sons attended Tait's school in Bromley-by-Bow, East London.
How did eighteenth-century British society view such cross-cultural marriages and their children? One American visitor to London, describing the fact that one 'occasionally' met 'genteel' young ladies born in London walking with their 'half-brothers' or, 'more commonly', with their nephews born in India, wrote: 'These young men are received into society and take the rank of their fathers ... It would seem that prejudice against colour is less strong in England than in America.' To read into this observation that British society, at any rate compared to America, was free of colour prejudice would be to misread the Indian context and the complex attitude to colour in contemporary British society. This is evidenced by an exchange of letters between Hastings and William Palmer. Writing to Hastings, Palmer, who could mention the progress of his own 'natural children' without any embarrassment, commented that two children of 'Julius' (whose case Palmer was dealing with at the time) were being sent to England for their education. They were 'almost as fair as English children', while the third, though strong, was 'too dark to escape detection' and would be educated in Bengal. A contemporary work of satire further illustrates English society's complex and ambivalent attitude to these children: 'Mind Old Pagoda the Nabob, with his piebald family. I wonder how much he will give [his daughters], those dingy devils set in diamonds there. They'll doubtless fall to the lot of some dished [bankrupt] guardsman.' A combination of fair skin, the wealth of a nabob father and a claim to descent from Indian aristocracy could allow them to win a place in English high society.
A fate of a different kind awaited the majority, who stayed in India. They were consigned to 'the life of clerks' as second-class whites in the lower ranks of government service. A few managed to make a name for themselves: James Kyd, the ship-builder, Colonel James Skinner of Skinner's Horse, Charles Peter, the artist, and H.L.V. Derozio, the poet