The year was 1975, and I was now fifteen years old. My childhood dream to come to Australia had become a reality. My mum and I joined the rest of the family in Perth, one of the most beautiful cities in Australia. Once we settled, it became obvious to me that my dream wasn’t quite going according to plan. I was informed by my Mum that it wasn’t possible for me to return to school. Instead, I had to find work to support myself. With little education and no skills, this soon became an incessant mission of misery.
One day, in a desperate hurry to attend yet another interview, I jumped into the back of a taxi. As the taxi drove away, I couldn’t help noticing, the driver trying to make eye contact with me via the rear-view mirror. The more he looked at me, the farther I sank into my seat.
Finally, he spoke. “Where ya off to, young lady?”
“To a job interview,” I replied.
“Well,” he continued, “if it’s based on looks, you’ll do all right!”
“Umm, thanks,” I said, feeling a little awkward at his unsolicited remark. These types of compliments didn’t sit well with me and left me feeling a little confused, because back in India, I was mindful that I was a rather ugly child.
The Anglo-Indian community, of which I was a part, measured beauty by two things: the colour of a person’s skin and the width of their nose. Fair skin and a narrow nose were highly esteemed. Needless to say, I was somewhat lacking in both these areas. Even my mum, when introducing the family, said, things like, “This is my beautiful daughter (one of my pretty sisters), and this is Cheryl.” Point taken. But did I need to suffer this humiliation every time we met new people? Probably not!
Old habits die-hard, and a culture of racism was firmly entrenched in us, me included. We were, after all, a by-product of the old days, when it was beneficial for us to look more British than Indian. To look more British meant a gradual progressive breeding out of the undesirable elements inherited from our Indian side. If we were lucky enough to look more British, better employment opportunities and marriage prospects ensued, especially if you were a girl. This was the warped understanding of beauty I grew up with.
For me, though, the tide had turned. God had somehow opened blind eyes to my subtle beauty. Since moving to Australia, it appeared I’d suddenly become attractive, and who was I to complain? People stopped me in the street to tell me how pretty I was. This was reiterated by the Australian man driving my taxi.
As we continued on our journey, the driver persisted in his efforts to make conversation with me, ignoring my disinterest in him. He then asked politely, “Where ya from”?
I replied, “I’m from India”.
“I thought, you were Indian”, he said, smiling confidently. Few Australians recognized Indians in the early 70s, as Australia had only recently opened her doors to Indian migration.
I abruptly, interrupted him, “I’m not Indian, okay? I’m Anglo-Indian.”
“What in God’s name is an Anglo-Indian?” he asked.
“Well, we’re British, actually,” I replied, shrinking into my seat at the thought of how ridiculous that must have sounded. For a moment, my mind drifted back to India, where we were disliked as much by the British as by the Indians. We were regularly called blackie-white, half-caste, half-breed, just to name a few taunts that were etched with acid in my psyche forever. Even so, how could this man not know who the Anglo-Indians were? We were the proud descendants of the British Raj and for now, at least, I was going to defend my heritage.
I was told from a young age to dissociate myself from anything remotely Indian and cling to all things British. Now was my chance to do this, so I proceeded to give the taxi driver a brief, “off the cuff” version of everything my juvenile brain knew about the Anglo-Indians. In hindsight, my assessment was somewhat misguided, but not altogether wrong.
I’m a little wiser now, and able to give a more succinct history of my people, which I find myself doing on a regular basis. Like the taxi driver many years ago, the world knows little about the Anglo-Indian story. That’s a shame, really, so in order for their history–and my history–to continue, let me tell you about the wonderful, music-loving, party-till-you-drop gambols (Jollies, because of their sunny disposition) who call themselves Anglo-Indians.
In order to do this, effectively, I’ll have to take you back in time, back to the seventeenth century, when Great Britain was the most powerful nation on Earth and when the number of ships and the ability to conquer unknown worlds differentiated superpowers from everyone else. India sat idly waiting, shining in all her unadulterated glory. She was the coveted prize and would eventually become one of Britain’s greatest conquests.
In the beginning, however, the British were the silent observers on the Indian subcontinent. It was the Dutch and the Portuguese who first seized on the newly discovered opportunities in the spice trade. Not satisfied to sit on the sidelines, the British soon got in on the act and monopolized this highly desirable commodity. Spices during this period had little or no aesthetic value to the dinner plate, as one might imagine. They were not bought and sold to perk up the insipid meat and potatoes dished up to the unsophisticated European palette. Instead, they had far greater value: They extended the shelf life of raw meats during the long winter months.
No longer did the Europeans have to experience food shortages; more importantly, no longer did they have to eat maggot-infested meat. Their lives had been transformed forever, all because of the humble spice. Subsequently, the trade flourished, generating huge profits of one thousand percent and more to the merchants.
Based on the successes of the spice trade, the British established the East India Company in South India. In the following century, a steady flow of young Englishmen arrived in India, eager to make their fortunes. From the onset, relationships between the newcomers and Indians remained amiable while at the same time cautious. Life, being life, though, is a series of paradoxes, and while India satisfied the financial needs of the foreigners, it created others. The newly arrived Brits had no women; their mothers, wives and girlfriends remained tucked away in England. It was not considered appropriate for English maidens to venture on the perilous 6000-mile sea-journey to India.
Meanwhile, in India, their men folk yearned for love, companionship and sex–although not necessarily in that order. So a growing number of them sought the affections of local Indian and Luso-Indian women (Indian and Portuguese mix). The question remains as to how many of these relationships were genuine and how many were a matter of convenience. Most Anglo-Indians believe that all of these relationships were genuine and resulted in marriage and commitment. But in reality, it would appear that this was not always the case.
From the history of British India, stories have emerged of the grand residences, known as the Khanna (residence), where British officers and gentlemen kept harems of beautiful Indian woman at their beck and call. The term given to these women was Bibi (surrogate wife). Polygamy was not uncommon: The famous Major General David Ochterlony, for instance, in 1820 had thirteen Bibi’s. In time, babies were born to the Brits and the Bibi’s. But it wasn’t until the Census in 1911 that these Bibi-babies, who were now all grown up, were given the official title of Anglo-Indian. Prior to that, they were called many other things, including other words starting with ‘B’, which I will ignore for now, as there are far too many ‘B’ words in this paragraph already!
The ethnicity of the Bibi-babies wasn’t the only imminent problem faced by the British. They were predominantly Christian, and their Bibi’s and wives were Hindu or Muslim. So what religious ideals would this peculiar pairing impart to their offspring?
This was a question I asked myself when I went in search of my own Christian roots. I wasn’t content to just accept my religious heritage as part of my destiny. I think it’s rather strange that people do. Whether we are Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim, we embrace the belief systems and religious values passed down to us through generations. And even if we loathe our inherited religion, we still associate ourselves with it as distant bystanders.
In following my traditions, I was no different from the masses, although, unlike the masses, I had to find out why I believed what I believed and how that belief system came to me. I am fairly confident I have traced my roots back to one of two sources:
The first source would have to be St. Thomas (you’d be right in thinking, please…give me a break!). Let me explain ─ the disciple Thomas went to India to preach Christianity in approximately 50 AD. Apparently, he needed some convincing to make this perilous journey and at one point, even suggested to God that perhaps someone else should go in his stead. Now, in all seriousness, if God asked me to become a missionary to India, I would be asking the same thing. Wouldn’t you? After some persuasion and the promise of a travelling companion, Thomas succumbed. He travelled farther than any other disciple had ever gone before. Once in India, it’s not certain whether he converted Hindus, Brahmins or Jews (yes, there were Jews, members of what’s known as the ten lost tribes), but let’s face it, he must have converted somebody.
Christianity spread from the small coastal town of Kerala to my home town of Madras, which is now called Chennai. From there, it spread to other parts of India.
Okay, the possibility of me being linked to St. Thomas is pretty farfetched and you’ve probably decided that already, but this guy is pretty cool. This is what’s written about him in the Gospel that bears his name.
Thomas, while in India, encountered a young man who lay dead on the side of the road. The Apostle cried out to God to reveal His power and glory in this tragic situation. While Thomas prayed, a serpent came out from behind a rock and began a dialogue with him. The serpent said he had every right to kill the young man; he had earlier caught the young man having sexual relations with a woman who was not his wife. The Apostle then asked the serpent to name himself, to which the serpent gave this rather mouthy reply:
I am a reptile of the reptile nature and noxious son of the noxious father: of him that hurt and smote the four brethren which stood upright. I am son to him that sitteth on a throne over all the earth, that receiveth back his own from them that borrow: I am son to him that girdeth about the sphere: and I am kin to him that is outside the ocean, whose tail is set in his own mouth: I am he that entered through the barrier (fence) into paradise and spake with Eve the things which my father bade me speak unto her:
I am he that kindled and inflamed Cain to kill his own brother, and on mine account did thorns and thistles grow up in the earth: I am he that cast down the angels from above and bound them in lusts after women, that children born of earth might come of them and I might work my will in them: I am he that hardened Pharaoh’s heart that he should slay the children of Israel and enslave them with the yoke of cruelty: I am he that caused the multitude to err in the wilderness when they made the calf:
I am he that inflamed Herod and enkindled Caiaphas unto false accusation of a lie before Pilate; for this was fitting to me: I am he that stirred up Judas and bribed him to deliver up the Christ: I am he that inhabiteth and holdeth the deep of hell (Tartarus), but the Son of God hath wronged me, against my will, and taken (chosen) them that were his own from me: I am kin to him that is to come from the east, unto whom also power is given to do what he will upon the earth.
This serpent was obviously having a “Forrest Gump” moment–minus the shrimping business, of course! The serpent had been there, done that, everything, everywhere, with everyone. The Apostle Thomas then commanded “the shameless one”, the “old serpent” in the name of Jesus to suck back any poison injected into the young man, and that he should ingest it and bring about his own imminent death. The serpent obeyed, the young man returned from the dead, and multitudes repented, begging forgiveness of God, and converted to Christianity, an outstanding miracle near the second mile (stone) somewhere in Southern India.
Wow! Don’t you just love that story? That’s how Christianity started in India.
St. Thomas was killed in 72 AD; he was murdered by Hindus on a mountain which now bears his name, St. Thomas Mount. A beautiful Church stands on the top of the mountain, in honor of his soul-saving prowess.
Many a time my mum took me to his mountain, in the hope that I would be cured of my many ailments. We climbed what seemed like a stairway to heaven–steep, narrow steps, hundreds of them. I hung tightly to my mum’s dress; I was so scared of falling off the mountain. At the top of the Mount we purchased holy water, blessed rose petals to snack on, and a small statue for our home grotto.
Of course, the other of the two possibilities as to how I might have ended up a Christian is that British fathers paid five rupees to their Indian Bibi’s and wives, to baptize their children into the Christian faith.
How boring is that when compared to the St. Thomas version, filled with mystery and legend?
In 1869, life for the Bibi ─ the Indian wife ─ the concubine, changed forever. It was in this year that the Suez Canal was completed. The long journey from England to India had been reduced to six short weeks, and finally, British men and women were reunited. However, there was no turning back; their centuries of separation created a new breed of people ─ the Anglo-Indians, who were now an intrinsic part of their lives on the subcontinent, an indelible feature of the Indian landscape.
In the years to come, the Anglo-Indians would have a profound impact on the triumphant British Empire. Much of the success accredited to the British, during their rule in India is in fact owed to Anglo-Indians. Their children and their children’s children served the British in wars and by managing the key industries of the fledgling nineteenth century, such as rail, road, and telegraph. They would be intelligent, educated and attractive, but mostly they would be loyal–too loyal, perhaps–to a cold-hearted Empire. History shows that eventually they would be abandoned, left to rot, after the British took all they could, collected their ill-gotten gains and headed home to England.
My Anglo-Indian grandparents Peter and Mary Ball (seated in centre).
My mum in circle (Madras, Circa 1923).
My mum’s father, Peter Ball, served under the British Raj. He was a superintendent on the railway in Madras (Chennai). He was the father of 11 children; my mum Marie Agnes was the youngest. The Balls enjoyed all the privileges associated with being part of a successful empire. Their house was so big that they needed eighteen servants to maintain it. The servants lived in the servant quarters at the back of the main house. The family had a car. One day when they were out driving, a wheel came off. They picked it up from a ditch on the side of the road, and Granddad and my mum watched as the driver reconnected it.
Christmas for the Ball family was a rather grand occasion. Mum recalled a whole roast pig sitting in the middle of the table, with lemons in its mouth and an assortment of herbs and flowers as garnish under its tail. They ate Christmas puddings, cakes and many other delicacies imported directly from England. Peter Ball was highly respected and if respect wasn’t given to him willingly, he demanded it. He also had a cruel side to his personality. Mum remembered one day he kicked the barber for accidentally grazing his neck.
Peter Ball’s father William Ball, my great-grand father, served in the 20th Battalion Royal Artillery, his army number was 436, his regiment served in India and it appears that when he left the Forces he stayed on in India.
He signed on 6th October, 1854 for 10 years and then added a further 2 years and ended up a sergeant leaving in 1866. He was born 1837 that is if he gave his true age, many lied about their age to get into the services.
An extract from Indian Mail 1843 about my Great-Great Grand Father, Dr Anthony William Snaize, who was a doctor in the Kings Own Regt.
These were the good old days for the Anglo-Indians, before 1948, the year India won her independence. After the British left India, life would never be the same for them. Many lost their jobs, homes and the prestigious lifestyles they once enjoyed. Instead, they endured the wrath of the Indians, who wanted someone to blame after centuries of oppression. One of the biggest problems faced by the Anglo-Indians during this time was the return to traditional Indian languages. They were fluent in English, a language they were taught from birth, and now they needed other languages to survive. My mum and dad lived during this period; they were the generation that was born into the British Raj. They were born into wealth, success and power; they died having lost everything.
My Anglo-Indian Mum & Dad
The Anglo-Indians didn’t remain in India after India won Independence. They immigrated to England, Canada and Australia, where they began new lives and created new histories for themselves. Somewhere in the world, right now, the Jollies still sing, still dance and still know how to have a good time.
According to the late Geoffrey Moorhouse (Moorhouse, 1983), famous author of Calcutta and India Britannica, the story of the Anglo-Indian will always be a sad one, the saddest result of British Imperialism. A sad story, perhaps, but with a happy ending. I have learned a great deal about my heritage from this unbiased man, and I will be eternally grateful to him.
I will also be grateful to the inquisitive taxi driver who drove me to my job interview in 1975. After he wished me luck and drove away, I never forgot his question: “What in God’s name is an Anglo-Indian?” For the first time, I had to confront my origins. I discovered so much about my people that I didn’t already know. Now I can truly say that I know who I am. I am not British. I am not Indian. Nor am I some sad, pathetic cultural schizophrenic.
I was right in the first instance: I’m an Anglo-Indian!
Copyrighted Material © Cheryl Mason 2012.
The Apocryphal New Testament, 1924.
Many thanks also to my cousin Edmund for faithfully searching through our family records and to cousins Roy and Patricia for the lovely photo of Peter and Mary Ball.