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Clement's Corner: India-Australia Connection

Owen Clement reveals the historical links between India and Australia.

There are two distinct periods in the history of India’s and Australia’s association, the colonial and the post-colonial.

The Colonial Period


This period can be categorized under convicts, workers and trade.

Convicts - A few convicts came out on the First Fleet. Others, mainly British, from 1828 onwards were transported to Sydney after being tried and sentenced by a military court in Bombay.

Workers - More significantly were the workers, a man by the wonderful name of “Rhamut the Favourite”, who arrived in 1808 was the first recorded free settler from India. William Box from Calcutta arrived in 1809 and in 1816 William Browne brought in 9 workers.

John Mackay was among those who advocated recruiting Indian workers into NSW. Although Governor Bourke did not support the proposal, Mackay went ahead anyway making private arrangements. In 1837 he brought in 42 Indian labourers from Calcutta. It seems that they were distributed to various employees. Dissatisfied with their working conditions, they took their complaints to the Sydney Bench of Magistrates in 1838. That same year a scheme to employ orphans from Madras and Bengal was implemented.

In the second half of the 19th century a number of Indian labourers were brought in. Many would return to India once their object of earning money was satisfied. Some of these were Punjabi’s (Sikhs) who began arriving in Australia from 1895 to work on the cane fields, (Woolgoolga in northern NSW is the largest settlement of Sikhs in Australia). They also took part in the gold rush on the Victorian fields while numbers of Muslims from North Western Punjab region worked as camel drivers in the Central Australian desert.

In the latter part of that century others worked mostly as hawkers or as agricultural labourers. They were made welcome because India was a British colony. By 1901 the Indian-born population of Victoria alone was almost 1,800.

That same year however the Immigration Restriction Act, known as the White Australia Policy, was introduced. The Indian population subsequently dwindled, and many returned to India.

Trade - Trade began as early as 1792 when India played a central role in nourishing the young colony. When the supply ship “Guardian” sank in only the fourth year of the infant penal colony, leaving the inhabitants close to starvation, it was to Calcutta that Governor Phillip looked for help, dispatching the “Atlantic” to bring back all the food and stores it could carry. On a winter's day in 1792, the Atlantic anchored in Sydney Cove "to the inexpressible joy of all ranks of people in the settlement" and began unloading its cargo of "rice, sougee (semolina) and Dholl (lentils)". Trade with Australia would become an important element in the economy of the East India Company in Bengal. NSW also had advantages over Britain:

Penal colonies in distant corners of the Indian Ocean were not necessarily the first choice of residence for your average Victorian memsahib. An alarmed Elizabeth Prinsep, whose husband had worked with the East India Company in 1833, soon after arriving in NSW after spending a lifetime as a colonial wife in British India said, "Our cook has committed murder, our footman burglary, and the housemaid bigamy". However, while it may have been "quite horrid ... being surrounded by convicts", Mrs Prinsep nonetheless preferred the healthy climate to the enervating "disease and death of Bengal". "Two hundred pounds would purchase a noble property here while in England the interest on it would scarcely furnish two boxes of millinery annually," she wrote excitedly to her friends, "You have no idea of the cheapness of things here!"

Between 1799 and 1812 a modest export trade in cedar and mahogany were sent to India

In 1830 India exported to NSW piece goods, sugar, Bengal rum and re-exports of European goods. Much of the furniture and furnishings of early colonial homes also came from India and China. This caused in imbalance in trade until Australia began exporting coal from the hunter region, plus timber and horses.

India does not loom large in history of Australia, and yet an official catalogue titled “India, China, Australia: Trade and Society 1788-1850” at the Museum of Sydney that my wife Jan and I attended in 2005, showed that for the next half century, Australia's most immediate and spontaneous links were with India rather than London, as chaplains, judges, bureaucrats, merchants and convicts moved between the two colonies. By 1840 a ship was leaving Sydney for India roughly every four days, and Calcutta merchants scrambled to supply and profit from the new outpost.

Calcutta then was at the height of its Golden Age. Known as the City of Palaces or the St Petersburg of the East, the British bridgehead in Bengal was the biggest, richest, and most elegant colonial city in the Orient. The city acted as a general store for Australia's groceries - French wines, German hams, Irish linens and Indian nankeens. To this rich, glamorous and decadent world, wealthy Australian girls would go to be "finished" and find wealthy husbands without criminal records. From it retired colonials arrived, bringing Anglo-Indian furniture and architectural styles, like "punkahs", a taste for spicy food and, not unusually, Anglo-Indian children. At the beginning of the 19th century, a surprising number of British colonial families made a life for themselves in the new Australian colonies. “Horsley House” in Horsley Park, 15Kmtrs west of Parramatta, is almost entirely imported from Bengal, it is the first evidence of the colonial style architecture in Australia.

Only occasionally were there complaints. One homesick memsahib confessed to her diary that "she often cried herself to sleep" wishing she were back in Calcutta, attended by a full complement of attentive servants: ayahs (nannies), syces (grooms), punkah-wallahs and dhobi laundrymen: "I cannot reconcile myself to the attendance of a convict," she wrote.

Horses - In 1788, the First Fleet, of eleven ships brought out two stallions, four mares and foals from the Cape of Good Hope, English horses having perished on the perilous sea journey. Subsequent ships also brought out Cape horses, such as the Britannia, which landed in 1795 with thirty-three horses. English horses later also began arriving safely, the influential thoroughbred stallion, Rockingham, was brought out in 1799. About this time, the Governor of New South Wales asked for more heavy horses, specifying Scottish Clydesdales. Timor ponies were also shipped over from what is now Indonesia.

In the 1820’s Captain John Piper & John O’Connor exchanged horses for breeding. D’Arcy Wentworth’s Arab stallion “Hector” is said to be the foundation of all Australian breed stock. The export of “Walers” from NSW began in 1833 with 200 horses. The name 'Waler' is derived from a horse bred in New South Wales. It was coined as a term for colonial bred horses used both in Australia and as remounts for the British Army in India. Rajahs also bought Walers for military and recreational use such as polo. Walers, through the flourishing remount trade, were sold to India from the 1840's to the 1940's and were supplied to the Australian Army for the Boer War and World War I, where their feats of endurance and courage became legendary. Other States named these horses Stock Horses as they objected to the New South Wales connotation.

Money - !n 1812 Macquarie was forced to import Spanish dollars from India. In order to keep them in the colony he had the centres cut out thus the “Holy Dollar”.

Holiday destination - In 1821 the East Indian Company sent many officers on furlough to NSW. Lieutenant Vickers Jacob arrived in 1821 a retired officer from the E.I. Company and received a grant of 4000 acres in the Hunter region. He complained that the land was too distant from “inhabited districts” and “too vulnerable to bushrangers and murderers”. His complaints were unsuccessful and he returned to Calcutta in 1825 with his wife and family.

The Post-Colonial Period

On 15 August 1947, the date of Indian Independence, the converted troopship HMAS Manoora reached Western Australia with more than 700 Anglo-Indians and 20 Polish refugees on board. Arthur Calwell, Minister for Immigration, had been advised six months earlier by the Australian High Commissioner in New Delhi that ‘although no actual immediate crisis has yet developed in India, a state of emergency actually exists right now,’ and that ‘should anything adverse happen it will happen quickly and there will be no opportunity then to evacuate the women and children’ Australia was at the height of White Australia policies, where ideas of national freedom, democracy and peace were inseparably bound up with ideas of racial purity. And yet, despite these instructions, the majority of passengers on the Manoora were Anglo-Indians and were the first sizeable group of people of mixed descent to enter 'White Australia.' The term ‘Anglo-Indian,’ many officials still thought referred to British residents in India. The political embarrassment for Calwell if the well-publicised evacuation ship should return to Australia virtually empty; and the political inexpedience of turning non-white migrants away at Fremantle would amount to a public admission of racist immigration policies. In the event, this prompted increasingly restrictive policies to create and to maintain a ‘White Australia’.

The India-born community increased significantly after the end of the White Australia Policy in 1973. By the late 1970s in Victoria around 12,000 were India-born. By the turn of the millennium, over 30,000 were India-born.

In the 1960s thousands of Anglo-Indians who had migrated to Britain remigrated to Australia after the relaxation of the restrictive entry policy. Between July 1969 and June 1972 Australia admitted 6,892 Indian-born of "mixed descent", of whom 39 per cent went to Victoria and 33 per cent to Western Australia.

Today, the India-born community is culturally diverse. Half of the community is Christian; almost one third is Hindu, while around 15% are Sikhs. A few are Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish. Half speak English at home, while smaller numbers speak Hindi, Tamil, Urdu and Bengali. Over one-third work in professional roles; many others work in clerical, sales, communication, production and transport-related roles. The vibrant cultures of India are maintained through a range of organisations and events, including the Australia India Society of Victoria and the Academy of Indian Music.

© Clement 2007


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