Even as Victorian England sought means and methods to 'manage' its poor through new laws, the colonial rulers of India found the European poor in India a threat to the myth of superiority and homogeneity they were busy building up for the British ruling class.
This study focuses on this particular section of European settlers in India, referred to in contemporary official papers as the Europeans' or 'mean whites: which loosely meant a white underclass comprising destitute, vagrants, convicts, lunatics and prostitutes. Primarily a study of the European underworld and marginal classes in two Presidencies of colonial India, viz. Calcutta and Bombay, the condition of the marginal Europeans and white underworld in the mofussil and railway cantonment areas also comes under its purview. The genesis of delinquency and marginality among Europeans in India: manifestations of the problem: reactions of different sections of society to the problem: debates among the ruling class about the problem, its origin and solution, remedial measures taken by the administration as well as private initiatives, arc closely analysed.
Sarmistha De (b. 1966) is Archivist at the State Archives of West Bengal, and has completed her PhD from Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
The present study focuses on a particular section of European settlers in India, referred to in contemporary official papers as the low Europeans or mean whites; which loosely meant a white underclass comprising the destitute, vagrants, convicts, lunatics and prostitutes. It is primarily a study of the European underworld and marginal communities in two Presidencies of colonial India, viz. Calcutta and Bombay. The condition of the marginal Europeans and white underworld in the mofussil and railway cantonment areas also comes under its purview. Though the non-British European colonial settlements in India, all considerably smaller, have not been touched upon, there is reason to assume that they would also fit into the same mosaic.
The period scanned in this work is roughly 1840-1920. Examples however have been cited beyond this chronological framework as arid when felt necessary. History of the marginal classes and the underworld has a rich pedigree in the West. Ever since Hobsbawm produced his pioneering work on Primitive Rebels (1974), historians in the West have devoted particular attention to crime and its social setting. Louis Chevalier, in Labouring Classes and Dangerous Classes in Paris During the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (1973) and Gareth Stedman Jones in his Outcast London (1971) have challenged the image of the miserable as the 'dangerous classes' of early nineteenth century Paris. David Rothman's The Discovery of the Asylum (1971) attempted to relate the emergence of the penitentiary, the mental institutions, the juvenile reformatory and the urban school to the transformation of American Society from the late colonial to the Jacksonian period. The other major work, dealing with France, has been Miche1 Foucault's Discipline and Punish (1978) which followed his studies of the origins of the mental institution, Madness and Civilization (1967) and The Origins of the Hospital, Birth of the Clinic (1973). Discipline and Punish opens up the entire disciplinary ideology functioning in different spheres, viz. in education, in the army, and in the new psychology and criminology as part of a new strategy of power, addressing the new challenges of the emerging capitalist system. E P Thompson and others, in Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England (1978), provide a rich account of eighteenth century England in terms of the criminal and other illegal activities of the period. Michael Ignatieff, in his account A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution (1978), concentrated on the emergence of penitentiaries in England in the period from 1770 to 1840.
In India, the history of different forms of crime and undesirable activities and related issues is still in an embryonic state. Until quite recently historians in India have treated crime as an aberration and relegated it to a law and order problem. Basudeb Chattopadhyay was one of the earliest scholars to write an article in 1981 on crime and control in early colonial Bengal, entitled The Daroga and the Countryside: Imposition of Police Control in Bengal and its Impact, 1793-1837’ (Indian Economic and Social History Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, January-March 1981). His other major work, Crime and Control in Early Colonial Bengal: 1770-1860 (Kolkata 2000) has brought to light the nature of colonial control and colonial perception of law and order in Bengal. Anand Yang's work on violence in the Bihar countryside, 'The Agrarian Origins of Crime: A Study of Riots in Saran District, 1886 to 1920' (Journal of Social History, No. 13, 1979) also deserves mention. Yang has also edited a very important collection of essays, Crime and Criminality in British India (1986) on the social history of law, order and crime. A significant impetus has also come from the writings of Ranajit Guha, particularly Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1986). Ranjan Chakrabarti in his article titled 'Social Origins of Dacoity in Bengal: A Preliminary Probe,' in Revolt Studies, Vol. I (1985), focused on the several possibilities of the existence of noble robbers in the nineteenth century Bengal rural society. Ranjan Chakrabarti's recent monograph, Authority and Violence in Colonial Bengal: 1800-1860 (1997) is a study of law and order, and violence in colonial Bengal. Radhika Singha's book, Despotism of Law: Crime and Justice in Early Colonial India (1998) explores the emergence of colonial criminal law against the backdrop of the British conquest and pacification of North India.
However, the serious problem of European delinquency and criminality in India is yet to be systematically studied. Unfortunately, most of the early researchers on European settlements in India have remained silent on the problems mentioned above, barring a few exceptions like H Hervey, Europeans in India (1913), S M Edward, Crime in India (1924), Percival Spear, The Nabobs (1963), Kenneth Ballhatchet, Race, Sex and Class under the Raj (1980), etc. Percival Spear in his work mentioned above treated the social life of the English 'in eighteenth century India, with special emphasis on the transitional phases of settlement life; Ballhatchet in his work tried to uncover the attitudes to women, race and class which underlay British attempts to control sexual behaviour in India in the interests of imperial power. He brings to light the degenerate life style of the European soldiers, their cantonment life, their sexual relations with Indian women, which consorted uneasily with racial prestige. But, significantly enough, none of these dealt directly with the marginal European community in colonial India. I have however come across a couple of works on the above-mentioned subject, both by David Arnold, who in an article titled 'European Orphans and Vagrants in India in the Nineteenth Century,' in The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History (Vo!. VIJ, 1979, pp. 106-114) focused on the European orphans and vagrants of nineteenth century India. In another article, 'White Colonization and Labour in Nineteenth Century India,' in The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History (Vol. XI, 1983, pp. 153-157) Arnold has dealt with the question of white colonization in India.
In a more focused area, Waltrout Ernst in her article titled 'European Insanes' in British India, Imperial Medicine and Indigenous Societies, ed. David Arnold (1989) has analyzed the institutionalization of the problem of European lunatics. This, she claims, was done to control the marginal Europeans who were eroding the image of British superiority. In yet another work, Mad Tales from the Raj: The European Insane in India 1800-1858 (1991), Ernst gave a detailed account of insanity among Europeans in India. Her case study of the treatment of the European insane in the Bengal Presidency exposes the humanitarian and scientific claims made by the colonial order. Ernst has also studied the records of the Bombay Lunatic Asylum in 1676-1858 and focused on the racial, social and cultural factors that went into the formation of this institution. Ann Laura Stoler in her Race and the Education of Desire (1995) shows how colonial bodies played a role in the articulation of European sexuality.
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