In a crowded commercial neighborhood of the south Indian city of Bellary, there once stood a distillery owned and operated by a Tamil-speaking Protestant named Matthew Abraham. Matthew came from the low-ranking paraiyar community (one among many so-called untouchable groups). In 1820, he married a woman of Anglo-Portuguese descent, Charlotte Fox.1 Since 1800, Bellary was under the rule of the English East India Company. So strategic was Bellary’s location that the Company established a military cantonment in the northwest section of the city. During the 1830s, Matthew became wealthy by producing liquor and selling it to the troops. His younger brother Francis assisted him at the distillery and assumed its management after his death. For a time, the interracial couple, their two “half-caste” sons, Francis, and members of their extended family shared a common household and enjoyed a relatively affluent lifestyle under Company rule.
As they linked the worlds of liquor, Protestantism, and the army, the Abrahams made the most of their circumstances in colonial Bellary. Over the span of fifteen years, they acquired considerable wealth through their distillery business, a shop, and other investments. They conducted business with leading European mercantile firms of south India. By channeling funds through an international lending house, they financed the education of their eldest son, Charles Henry, at Queens’ College Cambridge. The family also owned six bungalows, which they rented to colonial officers or used to host family parties and balls. They used profits from their distillery and rental income to invest in the sale of other commodities such as cotton, wax, and military surplus items.
On July 10, 1842, after having accumulated assets valued at more than 300,000 rupees, Matthew died without a will. Thereafter, Charlotte and Francis became embroiled in a bitter contest over family assets. Charlotte believed that she had become the new head of the household and that she and her two sons were entitled under English law to Matthew’s wealth. Francis was merely to be paid as a hired agent. Francis, however, argued that he and Matthew, as persons of “pure native blood,” had functioned as undivided brothers of a Hindu family.2 According to Hindu law, he had become head of the household and would share family assets with Charlotte’s two sons. Charlotte, he claimed, was entitled only to maintenance in the family home.
A series of confrontations with Francis led Charlotte in May 1854 to file suit in the Bellary District Court.3 Her two sons, Charles Henry and Daniel Vincent, were listed as co-plaintiffs. The ensuing court case, Abraham v. Abraham, went all the way to the Judicial Committee of London’s Privy Council, the final court of appeals for cases originating within the colonies. On June 13, 1863, Lord Kingsdown of the Judicial Committee issued a judgment based on “justice, equity and good conscience.” Charlotte and her son Daniel received all of the property that Matthew had acquired during his lifetime, but had to pay Francis (for his labor) half the profits of the distillery since the time of Matthew’s death. In his famous decree, Kingsdown expounded on issues of religious conversion, cultural change, and family law.
This book describes how a family’s complex social experiences were simplified in court. In their household and business dealings, the Abrahams moved seamlessly between multiple social spaces. They bridged untouchables and Eurasians, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian merchants, and British and Princely ruled India. In court, however, their textured lives were reduced to a contest between racial and religious identities. The legal battle between Charlotte and Francis hinged on whether English or Hindu law should apply to the family. To determine their law, the court instructed them to prove their customs – were they English or “Hindu” in their daily habits and ways of relating to each other?4
It was precisely in this moment of having to produce a fixed identity, I argue, that their lives in Bellary entered the story of the British Empire in India. Unlike accounts of transgressive interraciality found within other contexts, I present the Abraham household as a rather normal feature of life in early colonial Bellary. It was the family’s experience of going to court that ordered their lives in new, imperial ways. Courts of law, as Lauren Benton has shown, mediated imperial understandings of racial and religious difference.5 Categories through which the British organized India and the world provided the Abrahams with their idiom of self-fashioning. The family’s encounter with colonial modernity consisted of this burden to locate itself within a civilizational framework – whether Hindu, Christian, or Muslim – instituted by the courts.6 Their story accesses a wider experience of modernity, where broad categories of identity conceal day-to-day experiences of mixture.
Historians of many world areas have demonstrated the value of court cases for examining complex lives.7 Court cases amass details about the attitudes, bodily practices, vocations, and social behaviors of litigants and the society around them. In this respect, they reveal what Arjun Appadurai calls “the production of locality.”8 They also illustrate how local details are scrutinized according to priorities of state institutions or other structures of power. A single case creates a public record of lives while documenting how those lives were molded or refashioned through argumentation. As they reveal the interplay of normative concepts and everyday life (of law and fact), the evidence and proceedings of court cases can fuel the larger claims of social history. The Abraham case is significant not only for its incisive interrogation of identities, but also for how it records the voices and experiences of lower-class people. The rich ethnography produced in the case therefore serves two purposes in this book: It captures the lives of the Abrahams within their local milieu and reveals how, in court, their lives were linked to imperial flows of knowledge.
Abraham v. Abraham (1854–1863) was tried during a critical period of transition in British India. In 1857, sepoys (Indian soldiers) in various parts of north India rebelled against their British superiors in a momentous challenge to Company rule. This event resulted in important changes in imperial ideology and practice. Many had attributed the 1857 Rebellion to policies that offended the cultural and religious feelings of Indians. Bullet cartridges coated with animal fat violated convictions of Hindu and Muslim sepoys. Beyond this conventional explanation are the roles of Anglicist and Evangelical influences in preceding years, which are believed to have fueled anti-British sentiments.9 These culturalist explanations prompted colonial administrators to adopt a far more cautious and conservative approach to governing Indian society. When in 1858 the British Crown assumed direct control over Indian territories, Queen Victoria issued her Proclamation, which declared the Crown’s strict commitment to religious neutrality and noninterference.
Situated at the transition from East India Company to Crown rule, Abraham v. Abraham showcases two distinct ideologies of empire, namely its civilizing mission and its ordering of difference.10 The civilizing mission has long consumed those who write about colonial Africa or Asia.11 It evokes images of European powers bringing their knowledge, religion, and customs to the “darker continents” and of “natives” rising in the world by embracing them. Colonial rulers legitimated their dominance of more backward societies by contributing to their moral and material progress and giving natives opportunities to become “more like us.”12
More recent literature stresses the British Empire’s ordering of difference. This pertained not only to qualities that separated Europeans from non-Europeans, but also to categorical differences between non-Europeans. The more conservative outlook of the post-Rebellion era gave rise to an imperial multiculturalism, a policy of classifying colonial subjects according to race, religion, caste, or ethnicity with no intention of “turning them white.”13 In spite of being tied to notions of noninterference, this policy, like the civilizing mission, restructured and transformed the lives of colonial subjects. Administrative schemes of governance simplified populations through their classifications. Broad categories of identity privileged some classes while marginalizing individuals or families who did not fit neatly into any of them. The implementation of Hindu, Muslim, or English personal law was part of this attempt to conserve or tolerate practices grouped according to religion.14 By presuming that laws could be applied along such lines, courts played a key role in institutionalizing difference.
In a recent study, Karuna Mantena describes this move toward conservatism in terms of a “crisis of liberal imperialism.” Events of 1857 convinced the British that Indian subjects could not be civilized and had to be left to observe their own cultural practices. But what exactly were these practices? To prevent another rebellion, colonial officials attempted to understand and contain the “unique, cultural logic” of native society through policies of noninterference and neutrality. If the native of pre-Rebellion India, Mantena observes, “was figured as a child amenable to education, conversion, and assimilation, the native of late empire was construed as tenaciously bound to custom.”15 The moral and transformative vision of empire extolled by English Utilitarians and Evangelicals thus gave way to policies that conceived of Indian society in terms of coherent cultural wholes, each operating according to its own habits and customs.16
Against a growing imperial focus on custom, Abraham v. Abraham became a contest over the habitus of Matthew Abraham. Pierre Bourdieu describes habitus as “embodied history, internalized as a second nature and so forgotten as history.”17 Matthew’s habitus is his way of being in the world, his embodied practices, dispositions, social demeanor and affinities, and ways of conducting himself. These would have been deposited into his unconscious through the workings of power structures (including colonial authority, caste hierarchies, and the role of church bodies), work experiences, family influences, and his social location as a paraiyar. Matthew’s habitus made him a product of a structured past, which established a framework for his conscious choices.18 At issue in the case was whether Matthew instinctively betrayed the habitus of an East Indian or of a native. When he engaged in commerce, did he embody a Protestant work ethic or the skills of an Indian bazaar merchant? When he consumed liquor, did he do so as a Tamil paraiyar or as someone acculturated into colonial society? As much as the court case revolved around such binaries, this book critiques its project of constructing Matthew’s habitus as a cultural essence, locating him within the orbit of one law or another.
An important aspect of the case, for instance, concerns Matthew’s transformation from a paraiyar untouchable into a person of high social status. Charlotte and her district court pleader, Vasudeva Naidu, portrayed this change in terms of his assimilation into European culture.19They invoked a classical imperial paradigm: that of an Indian from a lower social class rising in the world by converting to Protestantism, adopting Western clothes, and marrying an East Indian woman (the cliché, “eating beef, drinking liquor, and donning the Western dress” is also applied to such persons). To establish Matthew’s location within East Indian society (and the suitability of English law), Naidu drew sharp distinctions between East Indian customs and those of the native society Matthew had supposedly abandoned.
To make his case for Hindu law, Francis stressed the unchanging aspects of race and caste in defining his and Matthew’s identity. He and his pleader, J. S. Shrieves, posited an identity that was fixed at birth irrespective of cultural changes that may have occurred during their lifetime. In spite of embracing many English customs and marrying East Indian women, the brothers remained bound to the inheritance practices of Hindu undivided families.
Both sides of this case produced caricatures of family identity, which concealed a far more porous and dynamic social tapestry. Pleaders in Abraham v. Abraham named a total of 271 witnesses. Deposing in English or in their mother tongues, butchers, washers, cooks, bricklayers, and others presented exhaustive details about the Abrahams and other cross-sections of Bellary’s society. Their testimonies form a valuable archive, recording social experiences of lower classes. A typical deposition would identify the caste, religion, occupation, and residence of a witness. This recorded identity, however, could not account for the transient social conditions in Bellary. A witness could assume many different occupations during a lifetime and would literally follow the army to various places to maintain a livelihood as a service provider. The shifting roles of these “camp followers” often defied the categories assigned to them in the court records.20
This study moves within the conceptual terrain mapped by Mantena and other scholars of culture and imperialism in British India. Its main point of departure concerns the type of change being documented. While Mantena’s concerns are centered on a shift from early to late imperial policy and changing representations of Indian society, this book traces changes that occurred within the life of a single family. It documents their transition from being cross-culturally engaged through trade, intermarriage, and cohabitation to their encounter with the fixed alternatives of personal law.
The transition from “fuzzy” cultural boundaries of precolonial India to more formal classifications of subjects under British rule is a familiar trope in South Asian historiography. Religion-based personal laws, census categories, and other types of official classifications drew sharp distinctions between members of different “communities” who experienced far more interwoven relationships on the ground.21 This literature pays considerable attention to the evolution of Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh identities under British rule. Largely omitted are the unique dilemmas associated with “Native Christians” under the classification raj.
This omission is partly due to the fact that Protestant Christianity, especially its Evangelical variety, is widely associated with the civilizing mission and its logic of cultural assimilation. William Dalrymple, for instance, views Evangelical preaching as a key factor that ignited the 1857 Rebellion. Evangelicalism was a polarizing force that reversed an early cultural synthesis between English nabobs and their concubines, and Indian and British culture more broadly.22 Seen from this angle, Protestant converts enter the story of what went wrong with the British in India. A belief in the essentially Protestant personality of the raj and of Protestantism as marking the boundary between ruler and ruled easily locates converts on the side of British rulers in terms of their culture, religion, and sympathies.23
Instead of becoming brown sahibs who embraced the ways of the colonizer, the Abrahams eventually faced crises of identity shared by Hindus, Muslims, and other typecast colonial subjects. Early chapters of this book describe the complex social tissue lying beneath their Christian identity. I want to show how the family flourished in their business dealings not by “becoming white,” but by adapting themselves to Bellary’s unique social landscape. The discussion that follows moves us into messy details of this relatively unknown locality. Only by paying due attention to the vast scope of the family’s involvements can we fully appreciate how their lives were impacted by colonial law.
Discussions of immigration in North America often invoke images of the melting pot versus the salad bowl. Whereas the melting pot refers to a process of assimilation or “blending in,” the salad bowl implies a lasting retention by immigrants of their distinctive cultural characteristics. This book inverts the meanings of these images. It describes a condition of cultural mixture in Bellary – a curry pot – where residents absorbed many kinds of cultural influence, experienced shifting vocations and social networks, and functioned cross-culturally and interracially as a normal mode of being. This condition of mixture predated colonial rule and extended well into the years of the Company’s raj. The book then describes how a family’s place within this curry pot was radically reframed in a nine-year legal dispute. The salad bowl represents idealized distinctions between Hindu, Muslim, and Christian civilization mediated through the system of personal law. At issue are not the labels themselves, but how courts invested each with a coherent set of customs, prejudices, and behavioral norms. More than any model of assimilation, this artifice of difference is the most lasting legacy of empire.
The city of Bellary is located near the border of the current south Indian states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. During the early colonial
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