Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Counterflows To Colonialism

Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain 1600-1857 by Michael H. Fisher (Permanent Black 2004).

Someone had to be the first person from India to visit Great Britain.

We don’t know his name – it was almost certainly a "he" – but we can make an educated guess as to the circumstances which brought him so far from home.

On New Year’s Eve 1600, the British East India Company received a royal charter, granting it a monopoly over English trade from southern Africa to the Philippines. Eight years later, the Company launched its first expedition to India. The ship was manned entirely by British sailors, some of whom either died during the passage or deserted upon reaching the subcontinent. Out of necessity, the Company hired Indians to work the return voyage, and one of those sailors may have been the first Indian to set foot in Great Britain.

He started a trend, explains Oberlin College history professor Michael H. Fisher in his compulsively readable book Counterflows to Colonialism. For the next two hundred fifty years, a flow of Indians – primarily but not exclusively sailors – journeyed to Great Britain. Some stayed one winter (because the ships leased by the Company arrived in England in the fall and departed for India in the spring). Some stayed for a few years, working or begging. Others married working-class British women, sired children, and lived out their days in Albion. All of them contributed to the creation of the vibrant Indian communities of modern Great Britain, communities now so "British" that a turban-clad Sikh writer named Hardeep Singh Kohli can refer to "we Scots."

The East India Company and its allies in Parliament inadvertently expanded the Anglo-Indian community. Indian sailors who arrived in Great Britain after 1657 discovered that the Company was charging an expensive license fee to everyone who wished to travel to India, returning natives included. Meanwhile, starting in the 1660s, Parliament passed a series of Navigation Acts which incentivized ship owners to hire crews that were no more than one-quarter Indian. Consequently, many Indian sailors stayed, lacking both the money to pay the license fee and the opportunity to earn the money by working a voyage.

Fisher’s technique is to illustrate his theories with richly detailed examples. Meer Hassan Ali, for one, was a high-born Muslim civil servant who traveled to England in 1809 and became an instructor of Urdu at the Company’s military academy in Addiscombe, South London. Although Hassan Ali, a native speaker, was far more fluent than the English instructors, an Urdu grammar he wrote was poorly reviewed by his superiors, and he was passed over for promotion. As Fisher notes, Hassan Ali was forced to have his work “authenticated” by English experts (who were no such thing).

But Indian life in London was not a consistent narrative of oppression and condescension. Indians who felt they had been wronged had recourse to the Company’s Board of Control, to the English courts and to Parliament itself – where their pleas sometimes met with success. Indians started businesses and families. Indians contributed to the local economy by patronizing merchants, publicans and prostitutes. Indians with a good story to tell had access to sympathetic ears in the media and, on occasion, the aristocracy. And, over time, a robust Indian neighborhood arose in the East End of London.

Nor was every Indian in England a sailor. As colonial power increased, delegations were dispatched to London in which claimants to Indian thrones petitioned for titles and pensions. The Indian elite’s tradition of higher education in the metropole began in 1845 when four medical students from Calcutta Medical College obtained advanced training at University College, London. One Indian, Dyce Somber, was elected to Parliament in 1841, although he and others were expelled from office within a year for vote-buying.

One of the themes of Counterflows to Colonialism is the continuous effort of the East India Company to control Indians while they were in England. Under the terms of its charter, the Company was financially responsible for all Indians in the U.K. So the Company attempted to exert its authority, primarily by bankrolling a series of lodging houses, the most famous of which was called Gole’s Depot. When unwelcome petitioners arrived in London, the Company would often offer a cash settlement with the stipulation that the petitioners leave the country on the next ship out. The Company’s responsibility for Indians ended in 1837 (except for a brief interval in the 1850s), when Parliament stripped the Company of its monopoly.

As evident from its title, the book Counterflows to Colonialism describes a small East-to-West trickle of Indians, traveling against the relative torrent of English and Scottish administrators moving West to East. Yet the Indians arguably won the struggle.

The modern image of "Britain" is saturated with Indian motifs, from the characters in Bend It Like Beckham, to the island’s justly praised curry houses, to the writings of Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul. In India, the veneer of Englishness recedes daily (cricket notwithstanding).

Fisher could have titled this excellent book The Beginning of the Triumph of the Colonials.

Note: For reasons passing understanding, Counterflows to Colonialism has not been published in the United States; it is available through the Indian academic publisher, Permanent Black. Also, the paperback edition is woven together, making it much stronger than a conventional glued paperback.

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Anonymous Mike Ferraro said...

Could we have more posts on the 1929 Berlin avant garde classic "Menschen am Sonntag?"

4:36 AM  

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