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Erica Lewin

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About the author

Erica Lewin is a PhD candidate at Edith Cowan University and her thesis concerns the identity of Anglo-Indian women in Western Australia. Her interests include: feminist theory/research methodology and identity, in particular, 'mixed-race' identity.

Publication details

Volume 5, November 1999

Comments on Historical and Contemporary Portrayals of Anglo-Indian Women


The history of the Anglo-Indians 1 which dates back to the late 16th century, has generally been viewed in military, political and economic terms. Within this history, the lives and histories of Anglo-Indian women were, to a large extent, erased and subsumed. Anglo-Indian women were visible only in the reflection of the colonisers. The history of Anglo-Indians has focused on levels of inclusion and exclusion in the ruling processes of the colonial powers in India. In recent years a limited number of texts relating to the history and experience of the Anglo-Indian community has been published. These texts have impacted on the status and identity of Anglo-Indian women; an identity which has been subjected to a high degree of stereotyping in colonial and post-colonial texts, and particularly in popular fiction (Singh, 1975). In the past, Anglo-Indian women have been depicted as 'less-ethnic' than the 'Indian' woman, more culturally accessible to the 'western' man as a result of her proficiency in the English language and more sexually accessible because of her adoption of a 'western' lifestyle. Such a portrayal sexualises and mythologises Anglo-Indian women and misrepresents them. It fails to acknowledge the intersections of gender, sexuality, race and class, and the colonial framework within which Anglo-Indian women have lived their lives.

The breakdown of this stereotypical portrayal is instrumental in the affirmation of the colonial subject and problematises the notion of the 'other' (Bhabha, 1991). The ways in which the recent literature destabilises or reinforces the portrayal of Anglo-Indian women as 'other' is the focus of this paper. Consideration of the 'processes of subjectification made possible (and plausible) through stereotypical discourse' (Bhabha, 1991:71) will be considered. The transition from the 'Indian' environment to the 'multicultural' environment in Australia has had implications for the role, status and portrayal of Anglo-Indian women. The ways in which they have been 'othered' and identified within the discourse of multiculturalism is of current significance. The juxtaposition of colonialism in the lives of Anglo-Indian women and the maintenance of their integrity/agency is crucial. The texts included in this discussion are only those which purport to present information relating specifically to Anglo-Indian women.

The view presented in this paper reflects my particular experience as an Anglo-Indian Australian woman in Australia, and as such, provides a partial perspective. In this discussion, the use of terms such as 'Anglo-Indian', 'Indian', 'British' and 'European' are not intended to homogenise the lives and experience of individuals. They are used because they provide some form of identification in order to facilitate discussion.

The mothers of the Anglo-Indian community

Firstly, I will focus on the origin of the Anglo-Indian community and on the earliest 'mothers' of this community. The dominance of the British within the Anglo-Indian heritage is displaced by writers such as Hawes (1996) and Moore (1986a, 1986b), who provide many details about the lives and responses of Indian women who had participated in relationships with European men. In acknowledging the lives of the Indian women who were our first 'mothers', as an Anglo-Indian Australian, I express my affirmation of their experience. Their life experiences were integral to the birth (my italics) and development of the Anglo-Indian community. Their part in the formation of the Anglo-Indian community cannot be excluded from a discussion relating to Anglo-Indian women. In affirming this experience, it is my intention to problematise the colonial 'subjugation' of these women and to acknowledge their integral part in the formation of the Anglo-Indian community.

The patriarchal framework of both Indian society and the colonial era was instrumental in ensuring that the experience of these women and succeeding Anglo-Indian women was generally subsumed and forgotten. The historical background and lineage of Anglo-Indians has often emphasised European ancestry; correspondingly, the 'Indian' heritage was neglected, partly as a result of the absence of personal documentation held by Indian women (Moore, 1986a:6). Both Moore and Hawes facilitate the exposure of the 'Indian' element of the Anglo-Indian community through increased historical detail. The destabilisation of colonial influence occurs through acknowledgment of an 'Indian' past; a past that was, at times, conveniently forgotten in the name of perpetuating the myth of a 'pure' European heritage. In this way, the status of the colonial past 'as a totalizing agent' (Caplan, 1995:59) is swept aside, making way for a consideration of the concept of postcolonialism.

Marrying or entering a relationship with a European man was undertaken at great cost to the Indian woman. These Indian women could have been of noble birth, but were more likely to be slaves or widows from the battlefield. Often, an Indian woman who married a European ran the serious risk of becoming an outcast and losing the support of her own people, and her children usually lost their legal inheritance (Moore, 1986a:4). According to Moore (4) Hindu women were, in these situations, freed from 'the complexities of a rigid caste system, although they often had to learn the intricacies of an equally rigid class system as they moved into British society'. Moore describes the experience of Job Charnock, 'founder' of the city of Calcutta, who married a young Indian widow who was destined for the 'suti or funeral pyre'. In this instance, Moore herself falls prey to a prescriptive colonial discourse, which sees Hindu women as needing to be freed from the caste system. Khan (1998) comments that the European coloniser's 'supposed' mission was to enlighten rather than exploit, and to deliver women from religious oppression, are applicable to the experience of Indian women. So is the concept of the 'availability' of women to European men within the Orientalist/colonialist discourse.

Moore (1986a:14) describes many unions between the upper class British and Indian women. For example, she writes about General Palmer and his Indian wife and about Sir Charles Malet and his 'charming' (to use Moore's adjective) Rajput 'bibi' (unofficial wife/mistress) from Poona, whose daughter married the Dean of Salisbury Cathedral. The romanticism and emphasis on the upper class in such examples are in great contrast to Moore's acknowledgment that the relegation of the Indian wife or unofficial wife to a secondary status remained a feature of colonial history. Desertion of these women, and their children was a very real aspect of this history. These children, of course, were Anglo-Indians who would be regarded in India as foreign, since the Indians made no distinction between them and their European fathers (Moore, 1986a:11). There is also evidence of the ways in which it was made difficult for Indian women to marry European men. For example, there were times when Indian women were required to become Christian in order to marry (Hawes, 1996:1-2). Their reluctance to do so resulted in many illegal relationships. Both Moore and Hawes provide a greater understanding of the beginnings of the Anglo-Indian community, and throw light on many of the reasons for legitimate and illegitimate unions between Indian and Anglo-Indian women and European men.

There is no doubt that Anglo-Indian children were, at times, the result of illegitimate unions (Hawes, 1996:4). Ballhatchet (1980:2) states that during the eighteenth century, the 'favourite after-dinner toast was to turn the traditional lament 'Alas and alack-a-day' into 'A lass and a lakh a day!'' Ballhatchet (11) goes on to describe the brothel scene (called a lal bazar) in India and the lock hospitals which were used to cater for women who contracted venereal disease. The stereotype of the Anglo-Indian woman as 'promiscuous' has, as one of its causal factors, the issue of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the progeny of Indian and Anglo-Indian women. This issue has been a point of debate and concern within the Anglo-Indian community and has contributed to the way in which Anglo-Indian women have been portrayed during colonial and post-colonial times.

The quality of life for Indian and Anglo-Indian women was affected by class. At times, they were acknowledged in wills at the death of their husbands, and if wealthy enough, their children were sent back to England for their education. There is evidence (Hawes, 1996:7) that British men respected the traditional way of life and religious beliefs of the Indian woman of high social standing with whom they may have a sexual relationship.

Hawes also maintains that during the early 1800s, 'the blame for their (ie. the Eurasian population) (my italics) alleged moral shortcomings or personality defects was routinely placed upon the Indian mother rather than the British father' (1996:15). Indian women are depicted as degenerative partners in this racist scenario. This depiction indicates the construction of a racialised and gendered 'other' who is subjugated in the interests of maintaining a particular relationship of power and control.

Anglo-Indian women in India

Anglo-Indian women are depicted by Moore (1986a, 1986b) as being caring, gentle, enterprising, possessive of their children and aggressive in a number of instances. These instances highlight the diversity of experience of Anglo-Indian women and the agency that they exercised in their lives. They contribute significantly to a reassessment of the stereotypical 'Anglo-Indian' woman.

Hawes widens our understanding of the lives of Anglo-Indian women by asserting that although there has been much emphasis on the relationships between the European men and Indian or Anglo-Indian women, little is recorded about the relationships between Anglo-Indian women and Indian men, a situation which would problematise the status of the European man and would confer greater agency on the portrayal of Anglo-Indian women. Indeed such events would challenge the power of the colonial patriarchal structure. Hawes (1996:108) provides an example of such a relationship:

Nor was the marriage of Eurasian women to Muslim men unknown. It is unlikely that Lucknow society looked askance when Mrs. Whearty, the widow of George Walters, went to live with Buksh Ali Khan, although British opinion in India was most disapproving.

The impact of class on the lives of Anglo-Indian women is clearly identified by Hawes. He states that Anglo-Indian women born of upper class British fathers were more likely to enter into suitable marriages (Hawes, 1996:11-12). He also maintains that class influenced the sort of work they were prepared to undertake.

Anglo-Indian women continue to be depicted as beautiful. Indeed, we need only look at the dust jacket of Moore's book 'The Anglo-Indian Vision'. The cover picture is of two very attractive and young Anglo-Indian women. The portrait on the back of the dustcover dates back to 1805, and shows Katherine Kirkpatrick who is described as a Regency beauty, and her brother William. Moore (1986b:67, 99, 131,148) makes considerable reference to the 'good' looks of Anglo-Indian women.

The use and abuse of Anglo-Indian women went hand in hand. Moore claims that women appear to have had 'better' opportunities through the marriage market to European men (Moore, 1986a:23). Indeed, it was commented by contemporaries that 'upper-class Eurasian women had a better chance of integration into British society than their brothers' (Hawes, 1996:77). Moore does not account for the complexities that may determine the marriage market such as the dependency on skin colour and class, or of the negative consequence of such marriage. The second class status awarded to Anglo-Indian women is also ignored since Anglo-Indian women were primarily valued for their role in reproduction and for meeting the needs of the European colonialists.

Marriage to Anglo-Indian women was contemplated only as a matter of necessity. Their secondary status is made plain by Hawes (1996):

Once travel to India became easier in the later nineteenth century and greater numbers of British women were prepared to come to India to marry, so toleration of deviation from the approved code of public behaviour there diminished. British civil servants who married local women in the later nineteenth century were liable to transfer or to be passed over for promotion (154).

The ability of Indian and Anglo-Indian women to threaten the ruling powers through their ability to create a mixed-race community is significant. Ballhatchet (1980) writes about a friend who was based at a military station in India some years ago and who planned to marry an Anglo-Indian girl. This friend was posted to another station a thousand miles away. Ballhatchet maintains that this potential marriage

threatened the social distance between the ruling race and the peoples of India. The preservation of social distance seemed essential to the maintenance of structures of power and authority. Marriages that threatened to bridge this social distance were sternly discouraged (vii).

One example of discrimination experienced by Anglo-Indian women was embodied in the Bengal Civil Fund and the regulations for the Military Funds. Eligibility required any claimant, wife or child, to have been born of married European parents and this was expressed as 'four removes from an Asiatic or African being considered as European blood'. This meant that legally married Christian Indian or Eurasian wives and their legitimate Eurasian children were excluded (Hawes, 1996:67). When marriage allowances were restored to Eurasian wives (but not to Indian Christian wives) in 1824, it was at half the rate for British wives. This was because Eurasian women lived mainly on rice and the need of a 'Half-caste' are more confined than that of European women (Hawes, 1996:70). Hawes (70) also reports that the conditions for Eurasian wives of Company officers in the 1820s improved in the 1820s and that by 1833 all the civil and military funds had agreed to readmit Eurasian wives and their children to the benefits they had been previously excluded from. The identification of Anglo-Indian women as half-caste was a source of injustice in their lives.

Eurasian girls faced an uncertain future. Hawes (1996:40) maintains that they did not have a choice in marriage partner and were often left behind when soldiers returned to Europe or died. Anglo-Indian women were often deserted, along with any children they had. The disadvantages of marriage or partnership with a European are disclosed by both Moore and Hawes. The notion that such unions were regarded as universally desirable by a mythical and homogeneous 'Anglo-Indian' woman are not valid.

A recent depiction of such a union is the autobiography of Ester Mary Lyons (1996) titled 'Unwanted!'. Despite the politics surrounding the autobiographical text, I suggest that this example provides an insight into the lives of Indian and Anglo-Indian women, since the author's mother was Indian and her father European. The conditions of their lives were often difficult and harsh, especially in light of the lack of support by the father who deserted his family during the formative years of his children's lives. Lyons was born in 1940 and the story of her life tells us about the lifestyle and values of the Anglo-Indian community and the lives of Anglo-Indian women. Issues of class, gender and race intersect throughout the narrative, though without reference to a theoretical analysis. Lyons's autobiography does serve to highlight the impact of colonialism in the lives of Indian and Anglo-Indian women.

In Moore's (1986a:28) acknowledgment of Anglo-Indians who achieved great things she lists two women: Mary Carey and Catherine, the Princess de Talleyrand. Those aspects of the life of Mary Carey which warrant this recognition are described by Moore, hand in hand with the heroic nature of Mary's English husband. The reader is left unsure as to whether Mary Carey or her husband is being celebrated in the description, which was intended to emphasise the achievement of Mary Carey. The second Anglo-Indian woman, Catherine, Princess de Talleyrand, seems to be acknowledged because of the love of Napoleon's adviser Talleyrand was bestowed on her. 'Her beauty, simple nature and languid grace of carriage were widely praised' (28). I suggest this does not constitute an acknowledgment of Anglo-Indian women who may have achieved 'great things.' It is also of note that women do not make it into the picture when Moore states that 'The first two decades of the 19th century, the age of Ricketts, Derozio, Kyd and Doveton saw the growth of a distinct Anglo-Indian identity' (1986a:21-2). The role of women in the development of the Anglo-Indian identity is negated.

The quotes and comments above stand at odds with Moore's (1986a:136) statement that 'Anglo-Indian women had always had complete equality with their men'. This generalised statement is not substantiated in her book. Indeed, the issue of gender equality is not a theme of her work and is not subjected to any form of analysis as such. It excludes the Anglo-Indian community from the 'patriarchal' framework despite the identification of Anglo-Indian women in terms of their partners and their socio-economic status.

After immigration

There is limited published literature relating to Anglo-Indian women since their migration experience. Their role and status in Australia has not been explored to any great depth. There has been no indication of any 'carry over' of the stereotyping of Anglo-Indian women after the migration experience. This may be an indication of the homogenisation of the entity 'migrants' through the Australian discourse of 'multiculturalism'. Women who emigrate from India, in particular if they are coloured women, 2 are usually identified as 'Indian' (Lewin, 1996). Such an identification does not distinguish between 'Indian' women and 'Anglo-Indian' women whose cultural traditions can be extremely varied, both within and between those two groupings. Caplan's (1995:759) call for more plural and ethnographically sensitive narratives when addressing the emergence and transformation of the Anglo-Indian identity is relevant, not only for the Indian environment which is Caplan's framework, but also for such transformations within the global context.

Moore's portrayal of Anglo-Indian women after emigrating from India during the mid 20th century is brief and does not allow for a substantial discussion of their lives. Colquhoun, in his Honours thesis (1996:ii) examines 'the acculturation outcomes of Anglo-Indians in Australia in relation to their psychological well-being and a predictive set of socio-demographic factors.' Both Colquhoun (1996) and Chandraratna and Cummins (1988), indicate that the adjustment problems faced by Anglo-Indian women in Australia include adjusting to life without servants. This includes taking on greater responsibility for child rearing and domestic chores.

Colquhoun (1996) identifies gender as an important factor influencing Anglo-Indian acculturation in Australia. However, his findings need to be seen as reflecting the views of Anglo-Indians who identify strongly as Anglo-Indian since his data was derived from the membership of Anglo-Indian Associations around Australia. One of Colquhoun's hypotheses, that gender would be positively related to assimilation and integration and negatively related to marginalisation and separation, was not supported by his data (1996:89). Gender and acculturation outcomes were unrelated. Within this framework, gender is a variable that is not contextualised and is not grounded in women's experience. Such grounding in women's experience is visible in the Honours thesis (Anglo-Indian Women and Identity Issues), which I completed in 1996. It is based on the lived experience of Anglo-Indian women. It attempts to highlight the tensions and influences in the lives of Anglo-Indian women living in Australia and the notion of hybridity that has shaped their experience. The categorisation of these women as 'other', which results from the dichotomous discourse of colonialism, is framed within the Australian multicultural environment in this thesis, which begins to address the complexities of the lives of Anglo-Indian women.


The secondary status of Anglo-Indian women within the patriarchal framework of colonialism has brought into clearer focus through the texts I have discussed. Moore and Hawes in particular, explore the ways in which the colonial system used Anglo-Indian women and also discriminated against them. The issue of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the first Anglo-Indians, which is closely linked to the image of Anglo-Indian women as 'promiscuous', is made more visible.

Hawes depiction of the poor origins of the Anglo-Indian community and his emphasis on the role of class in the lives of the Anglo-Indian community results in the neglect of issues of 'race' and skin colour. His approach is in contrast with Moore's idealisation of the Anglo-Indian community, and her oft-romanticised image of Anglo-Indian women is a reflection of a writer who is proud of her heritage as an Anglo-Indian. Her book uncovers much diversity in the lives of Anglo-Indian women, but does, in some ways, perpetuate the notion of the 'exotic' Anglo-Indian woman. As Moore herself states:

This book has sought to redress a little of the massive imbalance of deliberate distortion, misunderstanding, ignorance and hackneyed views about a remarkable people with a fine and civilised history, rich in humanity, who have suffered purely because they were pioneers; a transitional group who challenged prejudice hundreds of years ago (1986a:175).

The space of marginality that Anglo-Indian women occupy has not been acknowledged in terms of their migrant experience. It may be possible that their knowledge of the English language and the predominant Christian and western traditions that many of them claim has enabled them to develop a less 'obtrusive' image within the multicultural environment in Australia. There is some debate relating to the ability to the Anglo-India community to maintain their culture and heritage as a result of the Anglo-Indian diaspora. Indeed, the role of women in this task of reproducing 'culture' and 'tradition' has been seen as instrumental and is therefore an important focus for a consideration of the role and status of Anglo-Indian women.

The 'othering' of Anglo-Indian women in the multicultural context has not been explored in depth. Bearing in mind that Anglo-Indian women can be both white or coloured, the relationships between Anglo-Indian women and the 'so-called' category of 'Asian women' or 'white women' within the Australian multicultural context remains unclear. If the objective of 'colonial discourse is to construe the colonized as a population of degenerative types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction' (Bhabha, 1991:75), then I would suggest that the portrayal of Anglo-Indian women requires further analysis. The same can be said of the role and status of Anglo-Indian women in the Australian context.


1. The term 'Anglo-Indian' requires clarification. The phenomenon of colonisation resulted in the creation of a number of 'mixed-race' communities. I acknowledge that terms such as 'mixed-race' are marked with racist overtones and 'seem' to support the notion of biologically determined racial groups. However, I use the term here to identify communities that have developed as a result of colonialism. One of these 'mixed-race' groups was the Anglo-Indian community. In the past, Anglo-Indians were also referred to as 'Eurasian', 'country-born', 'Indo-Briton' and 'East Indian'. Anglo-Indian women are descended from the sexual contact between Portuguese, Dutch, French and British males and Indian women. Western women did not, as a rule, make the journey to India until the 19th century and as a consequence, Western men either lived with Indian women or married them. As time passed, there was a high degree of intermarriage within the Anglo-Indian community as well.

2. Anglo-Indian women can be 'white' or 'coloured'. See Lewin (1996) for a discussion of this issue.


Ballhatchet K. (1980) Race, Sex and Class under the Raj, Weidenfeld and Nicolson: London

Bhabha H. (1991) 'The Other Question: Difference, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism' in Ferguson R et. al (eds.) Out There: Marginalisation and Contemporary Cultures, New Museum of Contemporary Art: New York and MIT Press: London & Cambridge

Caplan L. (1995) 'Creole World, Purist Rhetoric: Anglo-Indian Cultural Debates in Colonial and Contemporary Madras', Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol 1 No 4

Chandraratna D. & Cummins M. (1988) Ethnicity and Ageing: The Anglo-Asian Experience, Social Welfare Research Centre: University of New South Wales

Colquhoun S. (1996) Predictive Factors, Acculturation Outcomes and Psychological Well-being of Anglo-Indian Immigrants in Australia, Unpublished Honours Thesis, Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia

Hawes C. (1996) Poor Relations. The Making of a Eurasian Community in British India 1773-1833, Curzon Press: Surrey

Khan S. (1998) 'Muslim Women: Negotiations in the Third Space', Signs. Journal of Woman in Culture and Society, Vol 23 No 2

Lewin E. (1996) Anglo-Indian Women and Identity Issues, Unpublished Honours Thesis, Murdoch University, Western Australia

Lyons E. (1996) Unwanted!, Spectrum Publications Pty Ltd: Victoria

Moore G. (1986a) The Anglo-Indian Vision, AE Press: Melbourne

--- (1986b) The Lotus and the Rose. An Anglo-Indian Story, River Seine Publications: Melbourne

Singh B. (1975) A survey of Anglo-Indian Fiction, Curzon Press: Rowman and Littlefield

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