It’s been a year now since Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirkwas released to critical acclaim, public approval and criticism. Much of the criticism arose because the film omitted any mention of the Commonwealth troops who were in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and at Dunkirk. It felt like a missed opportunity to correct an anomaly in the collective memory of Britain and the world: to remember the mule drivers of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps (RIASC) who were also on those beaches.
So here’s the missing piece of the story, derived from my research into Dunkirk’s Indian soldiers.
On May 29, 1940, in the middle of the evacuation of Dunkirk, with thousands of British soldiers lined up on the beaches east of the French town, with a giant pall of smoke from the burning oil refinery, with regular sorties by Luftwaffe planes scattering the queues, and with ships large and small taking men off the beaches, Major Mohammed Akbar Khan of the RIASC marched four miles along the beach at the head of 312 Muslim Indians, en route from Punjab to Pirbright.
Caroline Preston is in her final year of undergraduate study in History at the University of Exeter. This post stems from an essay written for the module ‘Critics of Empire.’
Many Indian nationalists in the 1920s were angered by the coercive British enforcement of free trade in India. The policy was, according to one scholar, ‘thrust by an advanced industrialised country on a nation which still needed protective tariffs to develop’. This same free trade imperial policy had resulted in an economic ‘drain’ as India had to export raw cotton and import manufactured cotton goods because India’s native industries were underdeveloped and thus uncompetitive in the global economy. Mass nationalist politics picked up in colonial South Asia, first in Bengal in the Edwardian era, and then across India in the 1920s. This included the self-determination ‘Swadeshi’ (indigenous goods) movement, which aimed to achieve ‘swaraj’ (home rule) by establishing India’s economic self-sufficiency from Britain. Swadeshi was in certain respects an anti-colonial adaptation of German-American protectionist theorist Friedrich List’s (1789- 1846) concept of economic nationalism.
Mahatma Gandhi led the Swadeshi movement in the 1920s, encouraging non-cooperation and the exclusive consumption of hand spun cloth called ‘khadi’ in order to develop domestic industries. In response, the pro-India movement of the 1920s arose in the United States, a network of Indian and US intellectuals who hoped to mobilise the US government and the public to challenge British imperial policy. They promoted Indian independence from British rule, or at least dominion status comparable to that of Canada.
I’ve chosen two illustrative sources to explore the political economy of the pro-India movement in 1920s America. The first is an article by Norman Thomas, ‘Internationalism and India’ (June 1920) in Young India, a monthly magazine published in New York by the Indian Home Rule League of America (IHRL). Thomas (1884- 1968) was an American Presbyterian minister, a pacifist, and an anti-imperialist. He was a member of the Friends of Freedom for India (FFI), another key pro-India organisation. Thomas was also a democratic socialist; he became formally affiliated with the American Socialist Party in 1918, and was its presidential nominee in 1928. Murray Seidler has since described Thomas as the party’s ‘most influential theoretician’. In the article, Thomas’s general argument was that, although he supported the Indian nationalist movement, once they obtained independence they should avoid enforcing a protectionist economic policy, believing such policies created geopolitical tensions that could eventually result in war. Instead, he advocated internationalism under a democratic socialist structure.
The second source comprises of extracts from a chapter entitled ‘American Interest in India’ by the American liberal activist and Unitarian minister Dr Jabez Sunderland (1842- 1936). The chapter is from India in Bondage (1929), which, like Young India, was published in New York. Sunderland was elected vice president of the IHRL in 1918. Following the collapse of the IHRL and FFI in 1922, Sunderland again became active in the Pro-India Movement at the end of the decade, largely in response to Gandhi’s ongoing civil disobedience campaign. Sunderland’s India in Bondage argued for Indian Home Rule, written partly in response to Pennsylvania journalist Katherine’s Mayo’s explicitly pro-imperialist book Mother India (1927). This particular chapter explained why America held an interest in what was commonly perceived to be a local colonial issue for Britain. Here Sunderland focussed on economic factors; he suggested that Britain should relinquish its imperial control over India and enable Indians to enforce their own policy of free trade. He hoped this would reduce international tensions and provide opportunities for American businessmen.
In 2019, India will embark upon a uniquely postcolonial set of centenaries. During the Great War the Defence of India Act (1915) had given the Government of India exceptional powers to silence dissent and crush any nascent “terrorist” or “revolutionary” movement. So effective had the powers proven, against both radical and moderate nationalists, that there were many within the colonial state who sought their extension into peace time. The “Rowlatt” (Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes) Act of 1919 attempted this, and the resistance against the act was led by the ex-lawyer and future-Mahatma, Mr MK Gandhi. The centenary of the Rowlatt “Satyagraha” (the name for Gandhi’s non-violent, political “truth-force”, protest movement) will doubtless by commemorated by the Congress party and many others in India.
Yet both these commemorations may well be overshadowed in 2019 by the centenary of the “Jallianwala Bagh” massacre, in which the colonial state displayed the violence inherent in the Rowlatt regulations in Amritsar; the shooting of unarmed civilians that sparked a global outcry. While India was enduring violence at home it was plotting peace abroad. The year 1919 will also mark the centenary of India’s contribution to the Peace Treaty of Versailles. Few anticipated that India’s attendance at the conference would automatically make it a founder of the League of Nations, the only non-self-governing state to ever become a member. 1919 will be a busy year for centenaries; all of the above, in some way, are legacies of the First World War.
I recently came across a photograph I can’t stop thinking about. Captured in 1905, it shows a Bangalore-trained masseur, Teepoo Hall, in the middle of a Melbourne Hospital room. One woman and twenty some men have clustered around Hall to watch him massage the bare shoulders of a reclining woman. Many of the students display bemusement in half-smiles. One of the men is positioned very close to Hall’s left shoulder and looks forthrightly at the camera, as if ready to learn from Hall; ready, even, to take Hall’s place.
The photo shows the transfer of Indian knowledge in process in the medical heart of Melbourne. It does so four years after the institution of the racially exclusive federal 1901 Immigration Restriction Act (IRA), which was effectively reducing the numbers of Indians in Australia. And yet, as the picture shows, in the early 20th century Hall continued to promote the ‘art of massage’. Indeed, Hall had recently become a founding member of the Australian Massage Association, and on this basis he features in histories of physiotherapy in Australia.
The image thus tells an intriguing story, but not a typical one. Probing further, we can understand that the picture also reflects a tension of nation-building and empire. In Hall’s centrality and power, an inversion is at play. Most white-made representations of the day consigned Indians to the ‘slum’ margins of ‘Little Lon’, and showed them as an ‘undesirable nuisance’. But in this Melbourne Hospital room, Hall literally had the upper hand. Continue reading “‘The Indian masseur’: How Teepoo Hall Kneaded Early ‘White’ Melbourne”→
Charles V. Reed Elizabeth City State University Editor, H-Empire
As the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visit south Asia this week, doing the sorts of things that royals are expected to do whilst abroad in the former empire – attend fancy social events, commemorate, inaugurate, and patronize, play cricket, and so on – the celebrity-obsessed global media has enthusiastically followed their every move. An even cursory glance at the tweets tagged #RoyalVisitIndia reveals the performative and visual character of the royal tour – so essential to its purpose since the first visits of the nineteenth century. William and Kate’s touring ancestors would find much familiar in their itineraries, the ceremony, the responses. It’s a quite odd thing, when we think about it, considering nearly seventy years of Indian independence from British rule. Of course, the present Queen’s dedication to the Commonwealth and maintaining the monarchy’s role in the former empire — as chronicled in Philip Murphy’s Monarchy and the End of Empire — explains much of it. But the Victorian history of the royal tour is of equal significance. Continue reading “The Victorian Origins of Will and Kate’s Visit to India”→