Marginal whites

Published : Jan 02, 2009 00:00 IST

The novelty of this book is that it focusses on the white underclass and its life in colonial India.

HISTORIANS and scholars have studied diverse aspects of colonialism, including the complexities relating to hierarchies within the white society. Gender historians have demonstrated how, for example, these hierarchies ensured that the memsahib was an underprivileged entity both within the household and in the colonial project outside.

Sarmistha Des seminal work enriches our understanding of an under-researched area namely, social stratification within the white community in colonial India. Her concerns include the white under class, comprising vagrants, prostitutes and convicts. The author focusses on the Presidencies of Bengal and Bombay, especially the urban centres of Calcutta (Kolkata) and Bombay (Mumbai). Drawing upon a diverse range of archival sources, contemporary newspapers and books, she takes up the low Europeans or mean whites for scrutiny.

As the author says at the outset, direct white colonisation was ruled out from the beginning. This meant that it was not possible to exclude the presence of the poor whites. She begins by outlining the origin and social evolution of the low Europeans in colonial India. As explained by her, the growth of the white population in India over the 19th century was a fallout of the process of colonisation itself. Exploring the social origins of this section of white people, she emphasises that it was their poverty at home that brought them to India. She refers to the crop failure of 1846-47 and the resulting crisis in Ireland. The severe unemployment in this period led to migrations to colonial India.

The movement of the white population was also part of a project to increase the number of whites in the colonial army. It saw men being recruited from among the Irish and Scottish peasantry.

Sarmistha De also refers to the fears and insecurities engendered in the minds of the colonialists by the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, which led to the enlisting of 50,000 men from Britain as soldiers in the colonial army. Skilled labour from Europe was also essential in sectors such as the railways (where the manpower requirements ranged from technicians to engine drivers). The author classifies the men and women who came from Europe into three broad groups.

The first included the few skilled labourers who came on assignments from companies or the government and were not a source of any problem. The second category comprised disbanded soldiers and sailors (some of whom were of American origin), who were a nuisance as many of them became alcoholics. Finally, there were men and women from eastern Europe and the Balkans who had no real professional skills and who settled down as thieves, crooks, habitual drunkards, prostitutes and pimps. In fact, the novelty of this book is that it focusses on these marginal classes and their life in colonial India.

Continuing her analysis of the social origin of the European destitute, Sarmistha De explores the theme of destitution and deprivation faced by these marginals. This was on account of a variety of factors, ranging from the tropical climatic conditions (which plagued them) to pauperism.

These marginal people proved to be an embarrassment for the colonial enterprise, since the white ruling race found it very difficult to accommodate them. After all, personnel from the troops disbanded in the wake of the 1857 rebellion or unemployed seamen in the aftermath of the cyclone of 1864 that wrecked several ships became vagrants. On occasions, some of them stayed with the poorer Anglo-Indians; many of them found it difficult to retain their jobs as they did not have the temperament of the Indian labouring class. Since most of them were rootless at home, they had to carry on under difficult conditions in India.

The bulk of the low Europeans were a disadvantaged lot when it came to employment opportunities while many who were competent to get better jobs lost out because they were brought up in India. Interestingly, the latter were not considered European enough in terms of their physical or moral standards. The Eurasian community was at the bottom of the hierarchy and, as pointed out by Sarmistha De, suffered the most. She also throws light on the lives of European and Eurasian women who were paupers.

Some of these people were engaged in anti-social activities. In fact, the existence of these vagrants in colonial India prompted the appointment of two committees (in 1862 and 1867) to look into the problem and suggest possible solutions. This saw the enactment of the European Vagrancy Act of 1869 to deal with different sections of the European destitute population. An exercise in image preservation, it was designed to make the white marginals invisible but it resulted in their criminalisation.

Sarmistha De explains that the colonial ruling classs actions in this regard were largely determined by complex attitudes involving both class and race. At the same time, there was a difference of opinion among the ruling elite, with one group condemning the low Europeans as people who needed to be treated as vagrants and believing that all discharged employees should be deported and another group arguing that any attempt to annihilate the underclass was pointless.

The author refers to the emergence of charitable institutions in both Calcutta and Bombay that sought to help the poor within the white community. Even here, it is important to note that the poor whites born in India were discriminated against.

The author also refers to the arrival of white prostitutes, especially in the latter half of the 19th century, after the opening of the Suez Canal, and the way they posed a threat to the colonial enterprise. These women were mostly from eastern Europe and were regarded as a part of the mean white population.

They were mostly present in the Presidency towns, a few mofussil areas and cantonments to serve British soldiers and low-ranking white employees. Their advent was designed primarily as a white male project in tune with the very process of empire-building. Hence the coloniser was obviously alarmed when they transgressed racial boundaries and interacted with the non-white population.

The novelty of this book, a major historical research, lies in the manner in which it focusses on race, class and gender. The author successfully dispels myths about the apparent homogeneity within the white community in colonial India. This book would attract those interested in colonial history, gender and cultural studies, apart from the lay reader.

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