Europeans in South Asia

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Europeans in South Asia

ETHNONYMS: Ferangi (from "Franks"), Sahib (fem.: Memsahib; child: Chhota Sahib)

While the impact of Europe on the South Asian subcontinent has been immeasurable and dates back long before Vasco da Gama's exploratory visit in 1498, the number of Europeans resident in the area now is merely a few tens of thousands. (They move about so much that a close estimate is difficult.) But even in the heyday of British imperialism there were only about 167,000 Europeans in all of South Asia (1931 census).

Leaving aside from this discussion the Anglo-Indians and Luso-Indians of the South Asian mainland, and the Burghers of Sri Lanka, who are all in fact local people of part-European ancestry, we can identify the following categories of Europeans as being resident in South Asia today.

(1) Diplomats and journalists. Found only in the capital cities and other consular posts.

(2) Development workers, etc. Technical specialists from the World Health Organization, other United Nations agencies, the U.S. Peace Corps, etc. are regularly encountered in most South Asian countries. Students of anthropology, linguistics, and some other subjects may be found almost anywhere, though never in great numbers. Some tea and coffee plantations in India still have European managers and indeed are owned by British companies.

(3) Retired British residents. A small number of very Elderly people who retired in India or Sri Lanka at about the time of independence are still there. (Most, however, left the subcontinent to retire in Britain, the Channel Islands, Cyprus, or Australia.)

(4) Christian missionaries. While the South Asian churches are essentially self-governing, several hundred European and American missionaries and Catholic priests and nuns may still be encountered in the region. They are still of some importance in education, as well as in funneling Western aid to their parishioners.

(5) Religious seekers. At any given time there are some thousands of Australian, European, or American people, Usually fairly young, who are wandering around India, Nepal, and elsewhere in search of religious enlightenment within the broad tradition of Hindu spirituality. Some of these people have been loosely classed as "hippies." French people are particularly attracted to Pondicherry and the nearby religious center of Auroville, while others have been especially attracted to specific ashrams, to Rishikesh and other Himalayan sites, or to the Theosophical Center in Madras City.

(6) Tourists. The region has an enormous tourist potential, which has been slowly developed since independence, and in 1991 India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and the Maldives have a thriving tourist industry. Unlike the religious seekers mentioned above, who may stay for many months, ordinary Western tourists usually visit for just two or three weeks. The great majority of these tourists are from western Europe and Australasia. (Many of India's tourists, on the other hand, are non-Europeans from other South Asian countries.)

The British Impact

The cultural and political impact of the British over the past two centuries in South Asia has been vast and extremely pervasive. Numerous histories of the "British period" testify to this, and it is an influence referred to in the Introduction to this volume. Space does not permit even a brief review of the administrative, legal, religious, educational, public health, military, agricultural, industrial, sporting, and communicational developments that occurred during the period of British administration of most of the subcontinent.

We may instead highlight the contribution of Europeans from India to the arts. Best known of course is the literary contribution of Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), one of two Indian-born writers to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (the other was Rabindranath Tagore). Of numerous professional artists to work in India, the most outstanding was the Anglo-German painter John Zoffany, who worked there from 1783 to 1790. The artistic impact of the British on Indian architecture was vast, and well documented: witness only the official buildings of New Delhi. Less recognized during the present century has been the impact of this relatively small ethnic group on the British film industry. Julie Christie, Vivien Leigh, Margaret Lockwood, Merle Oberon, and Several other actors, as well as the director Lindsay Anderson, were all born and at least partly brought up in British India. One might wonder whether the ubiquity of school plays and amateur dramatic societies in that era had something to do with these careers.

See also Anglo-Indian; French of India; Indian Christian


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Barr, Pat (1976). The Memsahibs: The Women of Victorian India. London: Secker & Warburg.

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