Louise Brown, author of Eden Gardens, explains more about the invisibility of poor whites in the British Raj.
Poor whites do not figure prominently in the histories of the British Raj. ‘Low Europeans’, as they were called at the time, can be found in the writings of Rudyard Kipling, but, today, most people’s image of the British in colonial India is formed by the social world of the sahibs and memsahibs, usually the middle class servants of Empire who aped the manners of the Victorian and Edwardian English aristocracy. However, David Arnold, a respected scholar of South Asia, has estimated that poor whites accounted for almost 50% of the European population in India in the last decades of the nineteenth century. There were low class soldiers, seamen, adventurers and chancers, and many semi-skilled workers, especially in the railways. If this is the case, why have they been given so little scholarly attention?
Conventional understandings of colonial power relations assume a clear binary division between elite white colonisers and subjugated Indians. In this racial hierarchy, the very idea of a ‘white subaltern’ is a contradiction. But just as Indian society was divided by caste, class and religion, the British too were not a homogeneous group. They were divided, principally by class, and, to a lesser extent, by the English/Scottish distinction. ‘Whiteness’ and ‘Britishness’ were stratified, and full possession of ‘whiteness’ depended on superior social class. The elite saw the very poor, or the ‘great unwashed’ of the nineteenth century metropole as a different race, and they applied a similar understanding to poor, white ‘riff-raff’ in India.
Let me be clear; whites from low social classes were still privileged in India when compared with Indians of similar, or even superior, social standing. They had the advantage of whiteness, and many went to India in the first instance because they were attracted by the prospect of an elevation in their social status. Even the lowest class of European was accorded a rank above the majority of local people. What is more, some of the worst kind of violence against Indians was often perpetrated by very low class whites. Wayward whites were given far more lenient treatment by the authorities than their Indian counterparts. For instance, it was considered unacceptable to publicly flog Europeans because this might lower the prestige of all whites in the eyes of the Indian population.
The British colonial elite spent a lot of time discussing, and trying to remedy, the activities of a subset of the poorest whites. They investigated and reported on the plight and nefarious behaviour of ‘distressed’ seamen, paupers, vagrants, the unemployed, drunkards, prostitutes and ‘loafers’. Committees were set up and laws passed to deal with the problems. Homes were established to accommodate the children of indigent whites, and, in 1869, the European Vagrancy Act (amended in the 1870s) established a network of workhouses, and a system for deporting white beggars and ‘loafers’. Every year in India, several hundred white people could be found in workhouses for Europeans. There is a wealth of material on these people in the archives, indicating the elite considered them to be a serious problem. However, until fairly recently, they have not been the focus of historians’ attention. For a long time, they have been largely invisible.
The reasons for this are two-fold. First, particularly after the 1857 Indian Rebellion, or Mutiny, the British developed an Imperial ideology that stressed that their right to rule lay in their racial superiority, and the importance of their civilizing mission. A comparatively small number of British people ruled a vast number of Indian subjects. Their ability to do this was based, in part, on their prestige; their assumed entitlement to rule. In many ways it was a giant confidence trick. Unsurprisingly, the existence of white people who were poor and disorderly was an embarrassment to the elite. White prostitutes, drunkards, beggars and ‘loafers’ undermined their prestige, and claims about a civilizing mission appeared hollow when white people themselves also needed to be civilized. It was in the interests of the British elite to keep their unruly brethren out of sight. The discourse on the British in India has therefore been influenced by the rulers’ desire to erase a social and politically embarrassing group.
Second, with a few exceptions, the best recent work on poor whites in India has been done by scholars based outside the UK. The leading scholar in the field is Harald Fischer-Tine (ETH Zurich). Interesting work has also been done by Satoshi Mizutani (Doshisha University), and Sarmistha De (Historian, Government of West Bengal). It appears there has been an understandable reluctance by academics in Britain to engage fully with this topic. Focussing on poor whites may be seen as misplaced when their numbers are tiny compared with the millions of much poorer Indians. They are, moreover, associated with a discredited Imperial past, and any examination of the relative sufferings of poor whites can cast the historian in the role of an apologist for the Empire. At times, it seems as if writing about poor whites has about as much appeal as writing about kindly Nazis.
Subaltern Studies has done wonderful work reclaiming the history and voices of Indians, particularly poor Indians. By contrast, poor whites are not seen as subalterns, and proper subjects for analysis within this field, because, according to conventional understandings of power, they are presumed to be part of the colonial elite by virtue of their skin colour. This is not to deny that ‘low Europeans’ had the privilege of whiteness, even if their social superiors considered them less than white, and ‘not quite pukka’. But poor whites are worth studying, not only because of the light they shed on the divided nature of ‘the British’ in India, but also because they show that class and race intersect in complex ways, and that the clean cut boundaries between the colonialists and the colonised are, in fact, not as fixed as often portrayed.
For a fascinating and provocative account of poor whites in India which articulates the arguments made here in great depth, see Harald Fischer-Tine, Low and Licentious Europeans: Race, Class and ‘White Subalternity’ in Colonial India, Orient Blackswan, 2009.
Louise Brown has lived in Nepal and travelled extensively in India, sparking her enduring love of South Asia. She was a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Asian Studies at the University of Birmingham, where she worked for nearly twenty years. In research for her critically acclaimed non-fiction books she's witnessed revolutions and even stayed in a Lahore brothel with a family of traditional courtesans.
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