Merle Oberon: problem with roots
Down the road from where we live is a seemingly ordinary upper middle class Bengali family but of proven descent from England’s King Henry II (1133-1189) and the “Fair Rosamund” whom “with envious heart queen Ellinor” murdered with a “cup of deadly poison strong” in Thomas Delone’s imaginative ballad. Despite their Plantagenet blood, they wouldn’t have been welcomed by the whites-only clubs of colonial Calcutta. The Rangers, too, would have pulled up its drawbridge for they are not Anglo-Indian in law or perception. But they are part of a cosmopolitan mix that entitled Susobhan Sarkar to call Henry Derozio “a great son of Bengal” long before Mamata Banerjee’s “Marwaris are as Bengali as I am” and which has again been confirmed by the excitement over Prince William’s ancestry.
Actually, the story isn’t new. Lady Colin Campbell’s biography of Princess Diana long ago mentioned “the secret they kept hidden”. It was of “a dark-skinned native of Bombay who had lived, without benefit of matrimony” with Theodore Forbes, great-great-grandfather of Diana’s grandmother, Lady Femoy. “Unsavoury as the taint of illegitimacy was, even at that distance in time, it was nothing compared with the stigma of what was then known as ‘coloured blood’… Eliza’s true race was therefore expunged from the family tree and she re-emerged as Armenian. This fiction was maintained even when Diana married the Prince of Wales”.
Lady Colin Campbell, whom a British newspaper called “a very unladylike lady”, should understand diversity. Chatting with her at the wake for a common friend who called her “Georgie” and had appointed her his executor, I learnt she was born Georgia Ariana Ziadie in race-sensitive Jamaica. Her parents were of Lebanese-Maronite Catholic-Jewish extraction with English, Irish, Portuguese and Spanish blood. She didn’t tell me she was born male and married a younger son of the Duke of Argyll after gender surgery. The marriage lasted only a year though she clings to the title.
Eliza Kewark couldn’t have been as ethnically exotic, but was she Indian or Anglo-Indian? It’s a moot point. The Government of India Act 1935 defines an Anglo-Indian as “a person whose father or any of whose other male progenitors in the male line is or was of European descent, but who is a native of India”. K.C. (Bhaiya) Sen had to call his memoirs The Absolute Anglo-Indian instead of his original choice “The First Anglo-Indian” and he was incorrect even then. Since General Sir Edward Barnes, commander-in-chief of India, 1831-33, was his mother’s great-grandfather, he wasn’t Anglo-Indian at all. His paternal great-grandfather being Brahmananda Keshub Chandra Sen, he was Indian in law like my Bengali Plantagenet neighbours.
Mr Bumble knew “the law is a ass”. Contrary to his view, however, the law has experience of diverse forms of matrimony. Colonel William Linnaeus Gardner, who raised Gardner’s Horse (2nd Lancers), argued that “a Moslem lady’s marriage with a Christian by a Kazi is as legal in this country as if the ceremony had been performed by the Bishop of Calcutta”. Gardner referred to his own spouse (whose father was Nawab of Cambay) as “Her Highness the Begum” and to his son’s spouse as “the niece of the Emperor, the Nawab Mulka Humanee Begum”. His descendants in Uttar Pradesh’s Etah district can claim a dormant barony in the United Kingdom.
The 1935 Act allowed people with “the lofty names of Albuquerque and De Silva and De Souza (that) are borne by kitchen boys and cooks” as W.W. Hunter of the Indian civil service commented, to call themselves Anglo-Indian. He might have added Braganza, Portugal’s royal family and a comic but ultimately heroic character in the film Bobby, or the Bhopal Bourbons of even grander lineage. This profusion of Anglo-Indians with not a drop of Anglo blood doesn’t mean Eliza’s Armenian connection would have counted for anything even if it wasn’t invented like Merle Oberon’s Tasmanian roots to cover up what expatriates called “a touch of the tar brush”. Rumer Godden mentions a British mercantile executive having to quit his job for marrying an attractive young Armenian. A Bengali honorary white covenanted officer in a similar firm, also with an Armenian girlfriend, took the hint.
Eliza may have “been” pure Indian like Job Charnock’s wife. Or she may have been like the very burra memsahib of 1960s Calcutta of whom my octogenarian Indian army host at the Cavalry Club in London said 50 years later, “She had country in her, didn’t she?” Expatriate English society ruthlessly tracked down and penalized mixed blood. From Herbert Stark to Wilson deRoze, articulate Anglo-Indians attributed this discrimination to the humiliations European colonists suffered in the United States of America, Haiti and San Domingo. They blamed the ban on Anglo-Indians studying in England and holding superior positions in the army and civil services (Standing Order of 1791) to the fear of revolt. The East India Company’s grandees turned the argument round. They told J.W. Ricketts, who led the first East Indians’ Petition to London in 1830 that “exclusion” was “founded upon the belief of your appearance and your colour being likely to affect you in the estimation of the natives of India”.
Perhaps there was some truth in both charges. When Bhaiya Sen’s sister Monisha (later Chaudhuri) was invited to play the piano in a concert at the Saturday Club, the organizers suggested she do so under her mother’s maiden name, Barnes. “After all, you could pass for English.” Monisha refused. The snobbishness that was one of the bulwarks of the empire didn’t concern only darker skins. A nephew of Sir Jeremy Raisman of the ICS who became finance member of the viceroy’s council and its vice-president during World War II, told me a tale that might have been amusing were it not also sad. Raisman and his small son were visiting his mother, an Orthodox Jewish refugee from the Baltic who made ends meet in Leeds by taking in sewing. The little boy wanted to urinate and his grandmother was about to take him to the lavatory when Raisman grabbed his son and drove off to London nearly 200 miles away. He didn’t want his mother to know his son wasn’t circumcised. Robert Towers, US consul in Calcutta in the 1940s, mentions a colleague who affected Anglo-Saxon airs to conceal his Jewishness.
No rule is absolute. Many Brits were fond of and cared for their Anglo-Indian children but did not collectively accept responsibility and resist official policy. Lord Reading, the viceroy, was Jewish. Calcutta Brits looked askance at the flamboyant “Mr Leventine” in Rumer Godden’s novel The Dark Horse, but the original was the only private person to host the future King Edward VIII when he visited Calcutta in 1921. Unlike Merle Oberon, Darjeeling-born and Calcutta-bred Anna Kashfi (Johanna O’Callaghan) who married Marlon Brando insisted she was Anglo-Indian although her parents vehemently denied any Indian blood.
William’s paternal antecedents may be just as mixed. Lady Colin has also written controversially about the queen mother’s birth and pregnancies. A play that was banned in Britain depicted Lord Melbourne, the prime minister, agreeing to Queen Victoria’s marriage only after he was convinced Prince Albert was not the son of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg but of either a Jewish chamberlain or the commoner lover the duchess later married. Melbourne preferred illegitimacy to haemophilia from the Saxe-Coburg royals. What with Spain’s Moors, Ottoman Turks throughout the Balkans and Regency England’s 500 or so Negro slaves who were assimilated into the population, the Oxford historian, H.A.L. Fisher wrote, “Purity of race does not exist. Europe is a continent of energetic mongrels.” But like Frank Anthony, I prefer the comment by Cedric Dover, the Calcutta-born Anglo-Indian scientist and writer, “There are no half-castes because there are no full castes.”