BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
COLONIAL COUSINS: A Surprising History of Connections between India and Australia
, November 27, 2010
Family ties with India
A Surprising History of Connections between India and Australia
by Joyce Westrip
and Peggy Holroyde
(Adelaide: Wakefield Press)
Paperback: 464 pages
Rec. price: $39.95
Reviewed by Dunstan Hartley
For the authors, the connection between India and Australia is initially traced to the super-continent Gondwana, before tectonic plate-shifts separated the Indian sub-continent from Australia and Antarctica, some 130 million years ago. They were fascinated to find that Gondwana is an Indian word which means "land of the Gond people", as familiar to Indians on the east coast states of Orissa and Andhra as it is to many tribal Aborigines throughout Australia.
Struck by similarities in the geological and topographical characteristics of south-eastern India and the south-western corner of Australia, the authors were led to seek geological advice to test their theory that the two countries possessed a common genesis.
As expected, modern geological surveys of the ancient seabed of Terra Australis have indicated, on the basis of mineral finds, that basalt flows in Asia some 300 million years ago also formed the base of the Darling escarpment leading down to the Stirling ranges and the Porongorups of Western Australia.
While the authors admit that it is as yet difficult to find any compelling anthropological evidence which can be used to show definitively that the two races - Indian and Aboriginal - have a common ancestry, nonetheless there are, in the book, two accounts of recent cultural exchanges between the groups leaving more than a hint that such notions are not entirely without foundation.
The first relates to the Indian Ocean Arts Festival, held in Perth in 1979, when a group of Gugudja people from the Great Sandy Desert began to hum a ritual song cycle. The festival was also attended by 200 Indian Ocean artists who "took up the melodic line into a South Indian raga pitched in exactly the same key and with almost identical phraseology".
The second concerns an encounter documented in the Australian Foreign Affairs Record of August 1982. It seems that Stephen Hagan, a descendant of the Aboriginal Maranganji tribe, accompanied by Reg Blow, attended a festivity in South India where "he was amazed to hear a song being chanted which he had heard sung by tribal people in the desert west of Alice Springs".
The English language also, as we are informed, has been enriched by the addition to it of words as common to the vocabulary now as those derived from European roots. To "bungalow" and "verandah", which are mentioned, could be added "jodhpur", "dinghy" and "posh". Doubtless there are many more.
In a chapter titled "To-ing and fro-ing - triangular journeying", the links connecting the two colonies and the Mother country - together with the identities who forged them - are captured delightfully.
India in the late 18th and early 19th century was still largely governed by the East India Company, although the British Government was taking steps to curtail its influence.
Because India had been settled much earlier, was closer geographically to England and boasted, for Europeans, a far more luxurious lifestyle, it was seen as a much more attractive location for those wishing to serve the Empire in its military or civil service than was Australia, especially given that the latter had just commenced its existence as a penal settlement.
The parlous state of the fledging Australian colony's agricultural resources was a matter of concern and, especially in the early years, the East India Company was charged with the responsibility of attending to its provisioning.
With the passage of time there occurred a series of migrations in both directions: military personnel in India, actively engaging in acts of insubordination in order to receive convictions and serve time in Australia because of the prospects it offered, as well as jailers and convicts returning to the British Isles via the sub-continent, both legally and illegally.
The Indian administration made it abundantly clear, in despatches to the governors of the Australian colonies, that certain members of the latter group were less than welcome.
Among a celebrated array of people important to Australian history, and with connections to India, the book includes anecdotes from the lives of Macquarie, Darling, Denison, Stirling, Blaxland and Sturt among others. Of special significance are the sections devoted to Caroline Chisholm and Edmund Lockyer.
Caroline Chisholm, whose portrait adorned the first $5 note, exemplifies the triangular journeying peculiar to those who, at various times, lived on three continents. Her story commences in England as she sets sail to join her husband undertaking military service in Madras (Chennai). There she founded, with a friend, the Female School of Industry which served the daughters of European soldiers, many of whom were leading desultory lives.
The illness of her husband Archibald in 1838 led to the family relocating to Sydney in an attempt to facilitate his recuperation. In Sydney she observed the plight of single females, often forced into prostitution to make ends meet, and immediately set about befriending and protecting them from the clutches of predators, initially without the assistance of the governor and the authorities.
After the birth of one of her children, her husband, whose convalescence was by now complete, was recalled to Madras to continue his military service. Because he recognised the importance of her work, he did not insist that she accompany him.
In 1846 she returned to England with her husband, recently retired, to press the British government for a regular source of funding for her important work. For the next 30 years, her life was spent travelling between Australia, India and England to further her cause. She died in obscurity in London in 1877. One can only wonder why the cause for her beatification and canonisation, once promoted with a great deal of vigour, now appears to have stalled.
One of the unsung heroes of this saga is without doubt Edmund Lockyer. Born in 1784, he had reached the rank of major in the Indian army before being despatched to Sydney with the 57th regiment in 1825. He was immediately commissioned by Governor Brisbane to undertake a voyage of exploration 150 miles up the Brisbane River to report on the aboriginal presence, minerals and wildlife.
By way of digression, it is important to realise that during this period Britain was not alone in her colonisation of India. France possessed enclaves within it, including an outpost at Pondicherry in southern India; and it was inevitable that, after the Napoleonic Wars, Britain would seek to oust the French from the sub-continent.
As might be expected, the French had been conspicuous in their exploration of Australia, navigators such as La PÃ©rouse, de Freycinet and D'Entrecasteaux being prominent. Obviously, the French also had colonial designs on Australia. In 1826, however, when Dumont d'Urville entered King George Sound (Albany), he found that Major Edmund Lockyer had already been despatched by the governor of NSW, at the behest of a jittery Colonial Office, to claim Western Australia for Britain. This of course was three years before Captain James Stirling founded the Swan River Colony.
The provisioning of the infant colony of New South Wales by the East India Company has already been alluded to; it is now appropriate to describe some of the principal participants.
A Scot, Robert Campbell, or "Merchant Campbell" as he was known - and after whom Campbell's Wharf in Sydney is named - is acknowledged to be the father of Australian commerce. As this country's first resident merchant, he came to Sydney from Calcutta to encourage trade between the colonies in 1798. Imports from India were principally grain, sugar and piece goods, while exports to Bengal from NSW consisted of fish oil, saddlery and timber.
Campbell's claim to fame was enhanced by the acumen he displayed in shipping live cattle to Australia; he is credited with establishing the cattle industry in Tasmania.
Dr S.B. Singh from the University of Magadha, however, takes him to task for importing 18,000 gallons of rum and spirits into NSW without the permission of the Bengal government, thereby incurring the displeasure of Governor Hunter in 1801. Interestingly, in view of the problems that he was about to encounter at the hands of the NSW Corps, in the infamous "Rum Rebellion", Governor William Bligh, in 1806, commented favourably on Campbell's civic attributes.
It would be remiss to close this section without making mention of the Prinsep family's contribution to the early settlement of Western Australia. The patriarch of the clan was John Prinsep, also known as the "Prince of Merchants and the Indigo King of Bengal"; his elder brother Charles was Advocate General to the East India Company. Together with other members of the family, they were responsible for much of the commercial success enjoyed by the company.
Ironically, however, they were to be involved in a reversal of fortune during the 1830s from which the company never fully recovered. The catalyst producing the disaster was a glut of indigo leading to a fall in its price which, together with fluctuating prices of tea, and opium in Canton, spelt the demise of many of the hitherto profitable enterprises in India.
In the rush to minimise the damage from the fallout, Charles, together with business tycoons - including the grandfather of Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore - who made up the Bengal Association, despatched an estate manager to the Swan River Colony to take up land grants there. The area, south of Perth, was designated Australind, not surprisingly derived from the words "Australia" and "India".
Opening the outback
No attempt has been made in this review to cover many of the topics dealt with so admirably in the book. Notably, the role played by the Hindus and Sikhs in opening up the outback, the valuable service rendered by Afghan cameleers in transporting goods to the diggers during the gold rushes and, last but not least, the thriving equine exports in Australian "walers", which supplied the cavalry units and polo stables of the Raj. (Australia exported some 27,000 horses to India before 1938).
Essentially, this book is about a period of history which has vanished forever, but told from the perspective of the people who created it.
The previous section attempted to outline a small trickle from the stream of commerce which flowed between these two former colonies of the British Empire. Currently, economic growth in south-eastern Asia is increasingly becoming the focus of Australia's foreign trade programs.
Sadly, however, most of this is concerned with the Pacific Rim of the continent. In the interests of balancing our priorities, and also to counter the growing influence of China in the region, perhaps it is time once again to do as the authors suggest and re-invigorate our cultural and trade links across the Indian Ocean.