When we think of the British in India, most of us will instantly envision colonial officers and their memsahibs lording it over the natives. This supremacist attitude, however, did not always the reign in England, but was the result of a long and complicated progression.
England had a presence in India from the year 1600, when the East India Company was formed to advance trade in India and Asia. In accordance with trade practice at the time, the company colonized as it went, seizing control of strategic parts of India and other countries along the trade routes to protect British interests.
To support their activities, the EIC brought in hundreds of Englishmen to act as officers and soldiers in a paid army that ensured that the balance of power—and therefore trade—would remain in British hands. These men were generally unmarried, and after a long day of keeping the peace, they had only a barracks full of other grumpy men to come home to.
This situation led to drunkenness, brawls, bawdy parties, and an influx of fatherless children of unwed Indian mothers around the camps. To combat the problem, the EIC first tried to import English women into India, with the idea that they would marry and settle down the men, with little success. Single women of high enough character to tempt the British soldiers in India simply were not desperate enough to leave their English lives and travel into an unknown region to be married to whatever man would have them.
So the EIC encouraged their men to marry Indian women instead. Many of them had already done so, some setting up harems after the manner of Indian sahibs. This practice did settle things down, and generations of Anglo-Indians sprang up as ready replacements for their fathers within the ranks of the EIC. Several high-ranking officers, most of them of the English nobility, took Indian noblewomen as wives, and a few even began to dress and act like Indian Mughals.
However, by the late 1700’s, the political tensions between reigning Indian factions and the British presence in India had come to such a height that the EIC began to question the loyalty of its part-Indian dependents. They felt they could not trust anyone of Indian descent to protect the interests of the EIC when they clashed with the rights of Indians. So they did what any reasonable totalitarian body would do: they turned their back on them.
Thus began the slide from integration to segregation, starting with changes in policy to forbid the placement within the company of any candidate who was not of at least 3/4 English blood. These changes were retroactive, and resulted in the summary dismissal of several Anglo-Indian children of former and present full-English officers and soldiers. Only a few extremely lucky Anglo-Indian employees survived this purge, and only with the help of high-ranking (and rich) supporters.
Those who did not were left to fend for themselves, which was increasingly difficult because they were also mistrusted by their Indian neighbors. Understandably, as the EIC asserted its authority in India, all things English became hateful to those Indians opposed to their rule, and Anglo-Indian persons found themselves unable to exist in either sphere.
Meanwhile, back in England…
Thanks to the difficulty of travel (steamships were not in use until 1830, and the fastest travel time from England to India was four months one way), communications from the EIC to its English offices were slow and tedious. Policy changes came to England with very little context, and free of the immediate pressures that surrounded their counterparts in India, the London officers of the EIC often scratched their heads over them or disagreed with them outright. This caused a back-and-forth conversation that was much like that of tin cans on a string: much misinterpretation and very little clarity.
But the English imagination had been ignited by India, and English people—for the most part oblivious to the increasing tensions that reverberated between cultures in that far-away sub-continent—embraced anything Indian with enthusiasm. Among the elite, especially, there was a fascination with Indian style in home decoration, and even the Prince Regent remodeled the Royal Pavilion in Brighton to resemble an Indian palace.
Refugees, generally of the Mughal (ruling) class in India, came to England to seek redress when treated unfairly by the EIC, and were met with great favor and clemency, many winning their cases and returning to India with cash awards for their trouble. Some opted to remain in England and enjoyed the life of a celebrity for some time.
Thus, by the Regency (1810-1820), there came an influx of Anglo-Indian children to England, sent to make their way in a gentler world. As generally only officers and other high-ranking officials in the EIC could afford such an arrangement, these children were of the upper class, and therefore already had an advantage in society. Some lower-class children, and their Indian mothers, however, were also successfully integrated into English society during this time.
This tolerant period, unfortunately, was fairly short-lived, as the advent of steamships and the telegraph accelerated communication—and thus, fellow-feeling—between the English in the two countries. By the 1830’s, strong prejudices against Indians and Anglo-Indians began to develop in England, culminating in the typical colonialist attitudes of the Victorian era.
Dalrymple, William. White Mughals. Harper Press 2012.
Fisher, Michael Herbert. Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain, 1600-1857. Permanent Black, 2006.