‘Black Lives’ under the Raj by Sarah Ansari

The 2020 Black Lives Matter movement is rightly reinforcing the urgency of acknowledging in concrete and accurate ways the historical voices and experiences of Black people. That it is taking place against the backdrop of an effervescence in identity politics more generally also underlines the complex ways in which people see and label themselves in contemporary Britain. One of the current criticisms of the umbrella terms ‘BAME’/’BME’, for instance, is that these do not convey sufficiently clearly the spectrum of ethnic and other identities supposedly encompassed by them. What follows here, therefore, is not intended to suggest that people of African and South Asian heritage have had 100% identical past experiences, but simply to remind ourselves that, in the days of the British Raj, Indians could often be marginalised and oppressed as ‘black’. On the one hand, as historians, awareness of diversity is always important; on the other hand, so is the need to challenge ‘divide and rule’ narratives.

The whole business of ‘divide and rule’ (following hot on the heels of its close relation ‘divide and conquer’) is, of course, closely associated with the British Empire, and methods deployed there to limit and deflect the resistance of people subjected to imperial control. Such divisive tactics can be blamed for generating political responses that led – in due course, though never inevitably – to the creation of a separate state for Indian Muslims when South Asia secured its freedom in 1947. By officially sanctioning what were packaged as the ‘separate’ needs of Indian Muslims, British policy directly encouraged political separatism. In this case, the divisions nurtured and exacerbated by imperial policy-making were premised on religious difference, and they eventually helped produce Partition in August 1947: an event marked by enormous human suffering, around a million deaths, and something like 14-16 million displaced people moving between the two new states of India and Pakistan.

A tea party in Calcutta, 1890
Colonists and servants at a tea party in Calcutta, 1890 (British Library)

But back to ‘blackness’ under the Raj. Racial identity (albeit infused with the added complication of class) was always a sticky issue for imperialists, with ‘whiteness’ intimately associated with the ‘running of empire’. Contact between the rulers and the ruled was kept as minimal as possible: for instance, clubs – the social hubs of empire – with few exceptions held Indians at bay for as long as they could. Anyone who has ever read a nostalgic book or watched a nostalgia-tinged film about the Raj, for instance, is likely to have come across the institution of the ‘cantonment’. Originally associated first and foremost with the military, these garrisons often mutated into the ‘separate’ locality within a town or city where the British resided, worked and played, usually with as much physical and psychological distance as possible put between themselves and Indians (other than the legions of local servants they employed). This was not just about creating hypothetical ‘safe cultural spaces’ for themselves. In British-controlled South Asia skin colour was always highly politicised, with the ‘blackness’ of local people contrasted against the ‘whiteness’ of the British and their world.

Map of Madras c. 1710
Map of Madras c. 1710, featuring ‘White Town’ and ‘Black Town’

Look at Presidency port-cities such as Madras (Chennai) and Calcutta (Kolkata), two of the earliest commercial bridgeheads through which British interests established themselves in the subcontinent from the seventeenth century onwards. Both for many years contained so-called ‘black towns’, areas in which local people lived and worked, and where British people rarely lingered for long. In the case of Madras, as a British Library webpage tells us:

‘Black Town was originally the old native quarter and grew up outside the
walls of Fort St George to the north on the seafront. … As Madras grew,
Black Town became the commercial centre of the city and developed a very
high population density. … Its name was officially changed to George Town
after a visit by the Prince of Wales in 1906.’

Calcutta, too, in its early colonial heyday was divided into two main districts – White Town, which was where the British resided and conducted their business, and Black Town, where local Bengalis were to be found. Kolkata today offers a ‘Blacktown walk’, which takes visitors on a guided tour of the old-world ‘heritage’ dwellings that make up this historic part of the city. In a similar fashion, Karachi, with its increasingly cosmopolitan population, came in the second half of the nineteenth century to be ‘demarcated’ along colour lines too, with Saddar Bazaar and Empress Market frequented by the ‘white’ population, and the Serai Quarter serving the needs of the ‘black’ town.

‘Blackness’ was thus intrinsic to how the British and other Europeans viewed Indians, but it was also part and parcel of the derogatory ways in which they frequently described ‘the natives’. People with a mixed European-Indian ancestry (nowadays called ‘Anglo-Indians’) were also troubling, since their very existence embodied ‘racial’ mixing, and, as in the United States and South Africa, those among them who could pass as ‘white’ frequently did their best to do so.

More controversial still for us today was the use of the ‘N-word’ to describe Indians under the Raj. As Sam Fortescue has highlighted, in his exploration of material written by British men and women during or soon after the so-called Mutiny of 1857-8, this deeply racist term was bandied about by contemporaries. Take William Russell, the London Times special correspondent, who was sent out to India in early 1858 to report on the Uprising, and who provided many vignettes of the British whom he encountered, satirical no doubt but all the same indicative of perceived realities:

”By Jove! sir,” exclaims the Major, who has by this time got to the walnut
stage of the argument, to which he has arrived by gradations of sherry,
port, ale, and Madeira, – “By Jove,” he exclaims, thickly and fiercely, with
every vein in his forehead swol’n like whipcord, “these n*****s are such a
confounded sensual lazy set, cramming themselves with ghee and sweetmeats,
and smoking their cursed chillumjees all day and all night, that you might
as well think to train pigs. Ho, you! Punkah chordo, or I’ll knock –
Suppose we go up and have a cigar!”

Moreover, as Fortescue goes on to explain:

Atkinson’s famous satire of ‘Our Station’ hinted at a more serious, endemic
double standard in the British. Take, for instance, his sketch of ‘Our
Judge’: ‘There you see him in his court – n*****s – ten thousand pardons!
no, not n*****s, I mean natives – sons of the soil – Orientals – Asiatics,
are his source of happiness.’ The implication is, that in spite of British
evangelism and Utilitarian rhetoric, and notwithstanding Government’s heavy
reliance on servants, native soldiery and pundits, officials tended to feel
that at heart, they ruled a land of ‘n*****s.’

Bengali Babu 2British rule in South Asia, as elsewhere in the world, thus always hinged on the deployment of crude stereotypes, ethnic or otherwise, from the ‘salt-of-the-earth’ ‘martial races’ associated with the plains and mountains of the North-west, to the ‘too-clever-by-half’, inherently untrustworthy Bengali ‘baboo’. Indeed, according to 1890s Daily Mail journalist G. W. Steevens, whereas an Englishman possessed a straight leg, the Bengali’s was unquestionably that of a slave: “Except by grace of his natural masters”, Steevens duly asserted, “a slave he has always been and always must be”.

So whether Indians were “half-naked fakirs” (Winston Churchill’s insulting description of MK Gandhi in 1931) or loyal soldiers volunteering in enormous numbers on behalf of British interests in both world wars, the fact remains that – under the Raj – Indians could very often end up being labelled as ‘black’, with all the exceedingly negative connotations that such categorisations implied at that time.


Sarah Ansari is Professor of History at Royal Holloway, University of London. She has published widely on the history of South Asia and is currently writing a history of Pakistan for Cambridge University Press.

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