The East Indian Community

Original Inhabitants of Bombay, Salsette & Thana.

East India Christians

East Indian Christians

 By William D’Souza B.A.


East Indian Christian ! Out of which part of the Indian sky overspreading the Christian population of Bombay, Slasertte and Bassein, did this terms drop off? This question or a similar one must have led many a mind on the path of research, which leads the research student either to come out of the contest defeated and exhausted, or to some other goal which leads resembles a vague representation of the true and actual solution of the riddle. Yes,  uphill is the  task of the seeker after truth to discover what is not and to answer the question why and how to the satisfaction of this unbelieving world.


The present Christian population of Bombay, Salsette and Bassein, know as “ East Indians”may rightly trace their descent from the natives who most probably first saw the light of Christianity at the hands of the Franciscan missionaries in the early part of the sixteenth century (1534 –38) and after 1542 at the hands of the Jesuit fathers under St. Francis Xavier and his successors. The converted Christians were composed of Bramhins, Prabhus, Panchkalshis, Charkalshis, Sonars, Khatris, Bhandaris, Kharpatels, Kunbis, Kambhars, Nahvis, Dhobis, Kolis, Mhars and Chamars and in Thana some converts were Mussalman weavers. As the converts made by the Portuguese were not obliged to give up their caste distinctions; their descendants have retained many of them and many of them can tell of what caste his family belonged before conversion.


Among all converted Christians adopted Portuguese name. Among the educated Christians they are unaltered but among the lower classes and the uneducated, they are so transformed as to be scarcely recognizable. Such name as Sabastian is written and pronounced as Bastao, Manuel as Munnoo, francis as Fursoo, Gonsalves as Gosal, Da Dilva as Seal and so on. The difference is most probably due to the dialect of  the Marathi language spoken by these people. In order to arrive at a satisfactory solution of the problem in hand, it is necessary to trace, in as precise a manner as possible, the descent of the term “East Indian” by which the present East Indians community is “appropriately” known.


By  the Charter if 21st December 1600, the East India Company, then known as “Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading to the East Indies” obtained the privileges of trading to the “East Indies”, that is, according to James Mill, to all places beyond the Cape of Good Hope and the Striates of Magelhaes. Indian being the center of trade and commerce was commonly called the East Indies by the trading nations of the West. Consequently, the term “East Indian” was adopted by all the classes in India to distinguish the descendants of Europeans and native mothers (Cyclopedia of India Vol I, A-Gyr).


It is difficult it determine satisfactorily who are properly East Indians. Reference at this moment, may be made it the report of the Indian Law Commissioners on the petitions of the East Indian and Armenians. Mr. Advocate General Pearson in a letter dated February 21, 1832, addressed to Mr. Deputy Secretary Thomson says that “ the first difficulty which occurs to me…is want of some definition of the class of persons . .  the consequent difficulty in determining who are properly East Indian, and in what distance from the pure European blood this character is to be found”. He was also not sure whether “under the general denomination of East Indians that mixed race of persons who are usually styled Portuguese are meant to be included”. The difficulty thus pointed out by Pearson was a considerable one. But, the Law Commissioners in order to make their way clear, thought that “ no other definition was necessary than the simple negative one of not being Hindus or Muhammedans, a definition common to the East Indians with British subjects, Armenians, Portuguese, Frenchmen and many others”.


The East Indian Christians of today have no racial connection at all with the early East Indians who are now know as Anglo Indians. The racial distinctions which did not exist at the time of the Portuguese, seem to have been introduced by the Europeans in India.” The Indo-British race (later on called East Indians)had not sprung up when they were first established’, but in the course of time, when marriages between the British officers and soldiers of  the Company and Indian women were not only recognized, but also encouraged,” the East Indians became numerous in population, and were every year become more so”


The Carter Act of 1813 had thrown open Indian to British subjects with the result that the East Indians were enormously increasing in number with the regular increase in trade between India and the countries of the west, and the influx of Europeans in India. In the report of the Indian Law Commissioners on the Petitions of the East Indians and Armenians,  the term East Indians meant to included all those who  were not Hindus and Muhammedans and the English Law was made applicable to them as personal law.


The case Abraham v.Abraham from Moore’s Indian Appeals (1836-76) discusses the  legal status of two Christian communities of that name. The native Christians were purely of Hindu origin and the “East Indians” were generally of mixed blood, who had assumed the dress and usages of Europeans. The East Indians were rich and property holders, and could well afford to adopt the costly European costumes. The case reveals that the native Christians could also make themselves competent enough to change their class and become East Indians by acquiring wealth and property, and by adopting European customs and manners, at the same time maintaining their native blood. Naine, in his Konkan also mentions the “upper class of native Christians dressed as Europeans” and now it is evident that the Bombay Christians of the upper class must have also been known as East Indian before the whole community came to be called by that term.


Various names were given to the native Christians of Bombay, Salsette and Bassein, but “there is none” says Nairne, “except simply Christian which is  both appropriate an correct.” Are they Portuguese ? No. Portuguese they  are not, for the greater part of them are the descendants of the converted natives who have to a considerable extent still retained their own caste distinctions. Still, there are a few who claim that they are the descendants of the Portuguese settlers and can trace their origin to one of the noble families who reigned as Lords in the various parts of Salsette, Bassein and Thana. Are the native Christians “East Indians” ? They are. From the legal point of view, because the term includes all Christians and the English law was applicable to them. But having regard to the racial point of view, the “East Indians” differ because they are the descendants of Europeans and native mothers. The native Christians could be called “East Indians” having regard to the social side of the question, because it was merely competency to adopt their manners and customs that made this term applicable to them. On Account of the admixture of communities on the one hand and increase of East Indians on the other, the term began to lose its significance, and amore specific term was slowly and steadily coming in vogue.


By the end of the nineteenth century, there was an enormous increase in the population of the East Indians (now known as Anglo Indians). The manners customs and standard of living of the East Indians rendered them a community absolutely apart from all  the other Indian communities. They segregated themselves from the rest of the Christians in India and proudly formed a separate community and went by the specific name of “Eurasians”. Sir Henry Digney in  his Future of Anglo Indian Community says  that it was in the year 1911 that the name Eurasian by which the mixed community had hitherto been known was altered to “Anglo Indian.” As a result of this change the Europeans who had a temporary residence in India and Europeans who had a domicile or a permanent residence in India ceased tobe called Anglo-Indians and called themselves Europeans.


The Christian of different parts of India came to be known by territorial designations, such as, Goans, Mangloreans, etc. The native Christians of Bombay and the suburbs discarded all differences and retained the original name, by which the upper and educated class was already known, the more appropriate and suitable appellation of “East Indians”.


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