What was the significance of policing inter-racial sexual liaisons in late eighteenth century India?

The significance of the policing of interracial sexual liaisons in the 1790s cannot be realised without understanding Britain’s previous activities in India. Since its conception in the seventeenth century, the East India Trading Company’s primary function was the building and maintaining of trade links with India as a whole.[1] This holistic focus began to narrow under the administration of Warren Hastings, who intended to better understand India by interrogating the country’s customs and languages. This resulted in a degree of cultural assimilation and hybridity, which although it was not fully accepted, was not explicitly discouraged. This led to an increase in interracial sexual liaisons.  Such liaisons did not totally discriminate against Indian women, which is demonstrated by the degree of power that they exercised within these relationships. Hastings’ administration marked the beginning of colonial rule in India. It was during the era of Hastings’ successor, Charles Cornwallis, that the focus of British colonial rule narrowed further and began the process of racialisation, as Cornwallis sought to distance the people of India from the British. ‘Racialisation’ refers to the process in which social practices are defined by race, the practices of which were previously racially unclassified.[2] Cornwallis’ 1793 policies and attitudes towards Eurasians, those of mixed race, indicated this and encouraged the perpetuation of racist stereotypes throughout India which caused Britons to view all Indians with increasing anxiety. The racialisation of the British colonial state had lasting effects following Cornwallis’ departure. Cornwallis’ reforms had encouraged the British to view Indians as the inferior race, as demonstrated from the absence of Indian women from birth records in India and the establishment of Haileybury college. Later, the British desire to abolish Sati showed the highly racialised nature of the colonial state, as the British believed that the people of India needed to be helped in order to save themselves. In this essay I will argue that the policing of interracial sexual liaisons in late eighteenth century India was significant as it marked the increasingly narrowing focus of British colonial rule on race, which led to the racialisation of British colonial India.

Hastings’ administration must be understood in order to appreciate the significance of the policing of interracial sexual liaisons later on in the eighteenth century. Hastings was appointed Governor-General of Bengal in 1773, and sought to adhere to India’s ‘ancient uses and Institutions.’[3] To accomplish this, William Jones established the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784, which prioritised the study of ancient Indian texts.[4] This demonstrates that, in Hastings’ quest to better understand India, he placed the peoples of India and their views first and wished to adapt British concepts of rule in order to suit them. In Hastings’ mind, this would increase British interest in the culture of India and make Indians feel less subjected to British rule, as the British would have made an effort to understand them.[5] In Hastings’ view, this would lead to a harmonious colonial state. This, to an extent, did occur, as the education and proximity of British officials with the people and culture of India resulted in a degree of cultural assimilation and hybridity.

Many British men adopted Indian customs. Dalrymple’s work illustrates this, and speaks of British men who established harems and adopted Mughal ways of governance, such as James Kirkpatrick.[6] This occurred so frequently that contemporaries remarked that the British in India represented a fictionalised, outdated replica of Britain, because they were not attuned to the ongoing developments occurring in their homeland.[7] Under Hastings, the British immersed themselves into Indian culture, turning away from aspects of their native British culture, which resulted in an increase of cultural assimilation and hybridity. The growing proximity between the people of Britain and India resulted in an increase in interracial sexual liaisons.

Captain Thomas Williamson advocated the idea of interracial sexual liaisons and concubinage under Hastings, as it was ‘more practical and economic’ than marriage to a European woman.[8] Williamson justified such liaisons further merely as the result of the ‘disparity in numbers’ between British men and women in India.[9] It is worth noting that, these Indian mistresses too adopted European customs, and even went so far as converting to Christianity, thus encouraging further cultural assimilation.[10] Williamson did not discourage such unions and instead appears to dismiss them as unimportant, as did Hastings’ administration by extension.

These early interracial liaisons are significant as the Indian women involved fashioned themselves into colonial subjects and became involved with colonial governance and finances.[11] Although this power should not be overstated, Indian women did take the opportunity to use their advantageous connections with European men, which allowed for a degree of social mobility.[12]

It was under Hastings that the focus of the British began to narrow increasingly on the language and culture of India and how this could be used for administrative purposes. Although Hastings did respect Indian culture and tradition, it should not be forgotten that the British learned about India in order to rule the country more efficiently and legitimise British colonial rule.[13] Correctly, historians, such as Kopf, identify Hastings’ administration as the beginning of the establishment of colonial rule in India.[14] Although in Hastings’ eyes the resulting cultural assimilation and hybridity of his administration could be seen as examples of tolerance and cosmopolitanism, as Gosh argues, the advent of cultural assimilation and interracial sexual liaisons also led to an increase in anxiety,[15] which was acknowledged and acted upon during Cornwallis’ tenure as Governor-General, beginning in 1786.[16]

It was during the administration of Cornwallis that the focus of the British narrowed further and focused specifically on race, marking the beginning of the increasing racialisation of the British colonial state. The Cornwallis Codes of 1793 barred Indians from taking posts in the British colonial administration.[17] This reform directly contradicted the work of Hastings, who based his administration on the ancient texts and word of India. Cornwallis’ measures ensured that only Britons could be appointed to positions of power in the administration, which Stokes described as ‘a defensive form of Anglicization.’[18] Cornwallis felt that he was defending the British by limiting their contact with the Indians, as he believed them all to be ‘corrupt.’[19] Cornwallis’ anxieties directed the developing ideas of the colonial state, and encouraged him to abolish interracial sexual liaisons through the deployment of legal reforms. Through said reforms Cornwallis clearly marked the distinction between British and Indians and discouraged cultural assimilation, as he saw interracial liaisons and cultural assimilation to be destabilising and threatening to the British colonial order. Both this action and belief represents a radical change in the direction of colonial policy and the beginnings of racialisation in British colonial India. Cornwallis found that such cultural assimilation and hybridity would result in the birth of Eurasians, whose presence he also found problematic.

Eurasians were viewed as a direct threat to the increasing racialisation of British colonial rule as their mixed heritage bridged the divide between the coloniser and the colonised.[20] As part of the Cornwallis codes, Eurasians were also barred from taking positions of power within the colonial administration.[21] Their existence, as part of the ‘colonial family’ threatened British ideals of domesticity and the conventional definition of family.[22] Carton explains that British anxieties were bolstered further by confusion over shifting Eurasian political affiliations, and their lack of a unified voice.[23]  This linked to broader, conflicting ideas of national identification, as Eurasians were not fully identifiable with the Britons or Indians, and therefore represented a dangerous, third party.[24] For the British, the existence of Eurasians and the difficulties that they posed clearly demonstrated the dangers of interracial sexual liaisons, and in Cornwallis’ eyes, called for the policing of them. This demonstrates the narrowing focus and increasing racialisation of British colonial rule, as Cornwallis primarily sought to reduce all forms of contact between the people of Britain and India. Such ideas encouraged the perpetuation of racist stereotypes within the empire.

The perpetuation of racist stereotypes heightened the anxieties that Britons felt towards Indians, which can be examined when looking at the figure of the Indian prostitute. This image epitomised the attractive yet dangerous nature of India, as well as its degradation because of what the British called ‘temple prostitution.’[25] This referred to the devadasis, women who lived out their days in a temple in dedicated worship of a chosen God.[26] The British believed that such a position shamefully married eroticism and religious worship, which only heightened their fears of the Indian woman further.[27] The moral degradation of the Indian woman was vocalised by Lord Kitchener, who declared that all women in India had Syphilis in its most ‘fatal form.’[28] This strengthened the view that India was a diseased country that needed to be contained. This view was supported by British contemporaries, such as Mary Sherwood, who lamented that young British men in India were ‘sacrificing themselves to drinking, smoking, want of rest, and the witcheries of the unhappy daughters of heathens.’[29] Sherwood referred specifically to the Indian nautch girls.[30] The perpetuation of the racist stereotype of the ‘degraded Indian woman’ implied that Indian women were not suitable sexual partners for elite British men and should therefore be shunned. This marks a change in attitudes from Hastings’ administration, which allowed the development of interracial relations and even afforded Indian women a degree of power. The policing of interracial sexual liaisons is therefore significant, as it reflects Britain’s narrowing focus and increasing racialisation of British colonial India.

Despite Cornwallis’ departure, in 1793, his active racialisation of the British colonial state had lasting effects. The racist stereotypes perpetuated about Indian women and men cemented Cornwallis’ belief that the people of India needed to be helped to save themselves. This view was epitomised by the act of Sati, which saw a widowed woman throw herself on her husbands’ funeral pyre.[31] Seen by the British as a barbaric act, Sati legitimised the superiority of Britain’s domestic ideology and Christian values.[32] Britons declared that, as Indian men lacked these, they were devoid of authority and masculinity, and therefore could not govern their household properly, let alone their country.[33] As Indian men were unfit to protect their women from the horrors of their own tradition, the British decided that they must.[34] In response, the British legally abolished Sati in 1829.[35] This perpetuated the idea that the people of India were so morally degraded and incompetent that they needed to be saved from themselves by the British. This marks the point at which the British colonial state can be seen as highly racialised, as the British not only decided that the people of India were inferior, but that they had to involve themselves with, and alter the traditions of India.

The erasing of Indian women from birth records also supports the idea that the British colonial state had become highly racialised. Dalrymple’s research indicates that from 1805 to 1810, bibis appeared in only one in four wills; by 1830, this decreased to one in six, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, bibis were no longer present.[36] The anonymity of Indian women speaks to their position outside of the traditional British meaning of ‘family.’[37] This communicates the extreme lengths at which the British were willing to go to sever ties, and associations, between British men and Indian women, and in turn, the racialised colonial state that Cornwallis had aided.

The British also felt the need to discourage such relations even before British men took up post in India, beginning with their education in Britain. Haileybury college was established in 1806 to educate young Britons about Christian values, morality and self-restraint.[38] The temptations of India appeared to be so dangerous to the British that they assumed officials would need to be trained specifically in order to resist, and that this would require the establishment of an entire college. This demonstrates the profound impact of the stereotypes and anxieties that were embedded in British minds during Cornwallis’ administration. This shows the significance and results of, the policing of interracial sexual liaisons in India, as such extreme provisions, like the establishment of an entire college, were taken to ensure the separation of the people of Britain and India.

By examining the administrations of Hastings and Cornwallis, as well as the aftermath, I have demonstrated that the policing of interracial sexual liaisons in the 1790s was significant as it led to the racialisation of British colonial rule. I have discussed how Hastings was concerned with the culture of India and did not explicitly discourage cultural hybridity. Cornwallis’ conception of the British colonial state was examined to illustrate that social groups and practices of the Indians were negatively attributed to race. The British were styled as the superior through the perpetuation of racist stereotypes, a gulf which, as established in the 1790s through the policing of interracial sexual liaisons, only widened further throughout the nineteenth century.

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[1] T. Metcalf, Ideologies of the Raj¸ vol. III.4, New Cambridge History of India (Cambridge, 2007), p. 57.

[2] H. J. Gans, ‘Racialisation and racialisation research’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 40 (2017), pp. 341-352, p. 342.

[3] B. D Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India (Cambridge 2006), p. 57.

[4] Ibid., p. 62.

[5] Ibid., p. 62.

[6] W. Dalrymple, ‘Assimilation and Transculturation in Eighteenth-Century India: A Response to Pankaj Mishra’, Common Knowledge, 11 (2005), pp. 445-485, p. 449.

[7] D. Ghosh, Sex and Family in Colonial India: The Making of Empire (Cambridge, 2006), p. 47.

[8] Ibid., p. 35.

[9] Ibid., p. 35.

[10] Dalrymple, ‘Assimilation and Transculturation in Eighteenth-Century India,’ Common Knowledge, 11 (2005), pp. 445-485, p. 448.

[11] Ghosh, Sex and Family in Colonial India, p. 15.

[12] Ibid., p. 16.

[13] M. S. Dodson, Orientalism, Empire, and National Culture: India, 1770-1880 (New York, 2007), p. 5.

[14] D. Kopf, British Orientalism and the Bengal Renaissance: The Dynamics of Indian Modernization, 1773-1835 (Princeton, 1969), p. 13.

[15] Ghosh, Sex and Family in Colonial India, p. 33.

[16] Ibid., p. 14.

[17] J. Sramek, Gender, Morality, and Race in Company India, 1765-1858, (Basingstoke, 2011), p. 40.

[18] Ibid., p. 40.

[19] Metcalf, Ideologies of the Raj, p. 24.

[20] K. Ballhatchet, Race, Sex and Class under the Raj: Imperial Attitudes and Policies and Their Critics, 1793-1905 (London, 1980), p. 4.

[21] Sramek, Gender, Morality, and Race in Company India, 1765-1858, p. 40.

[22] Ghosh, Sex and Family in Colonial India,p. 3.

[23] A. Carton, Mixed-Race and Modernity in Colonial India: Changing Concepts of Hybridity across Empires (London, 2012), p. 38.

[24] Ibid., p. 32.

[25] Metcalf, Ideologies of the Raj, p. 102.

[26] Ibid., p. 102.

[27] Ibid., p. 102.

[28] Ibid., p. 102.

[29] S. Sen, ‘Colonial Aversions and Domestic Desires: Blood, Race, Sex and the Decline of Intimacy in Early British India’ South Asia, 24 (2001), pp. 25-45, p. 31.

[30] Ibid., p. 31.

[31] Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India, p. 82.

[32] Metcalf, Ideologies of the Raj, p. 96.

[33] Ibid., p. 94.

[34] Ibid., p. 94.

[35] Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India, p. 82.

[36] Dalrymple, ‘Assimilation and Transculturation in Eighteenth-Century India,’ Common Knowledge, 11 (2005), pp. 445-485, p. 447.

[37] Ghosh, Sex and Family in Colonial India, p. 18.

[38] Sramek, Gender, Morality, and Race in Company India, p. 48.

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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