The Colonial Eye: As The British Saw and Described Indians

colonial eye
['Bombay Servants' from ‘Typical Pictures of Indian Natives.’ Photo Source: M.F. Coleman]

The ‘Gorgeous East’, if robbed of the vivid coloring which is its greatest charm, would cease to please only one of the senses to which it ever appeals. By the same token, plain photographs fail to convey an adequate idea of the real picture to those whom fortune – or misfortune – has never sent eastward, and it is with a view, therefore, to enable travelers to present to their friends at home a true rendering of the varied and picturesque costumes worn by natives of India in general and of Bombay in particular, that this little book is presented to the public.”

So wrote F.M.Coleman, Managing Partner of the Times of India in Bombay with characteristic condescension, in the preface to a booklet that he produced in 1897, titled, “Typical Pictures of Indian Natives’. Being Reproductions From Specially Prepared Hand-Coloured Photographs with Descriptive Letterpress.” Coleman, an expert in newspaper production, was invited to India in 1892 by Thomas Bennett, the first professional editor of the Times of India and later offered a partnership in Bennett & Coleman, the Times’ holding company. He was only one of hundreds of British residents in India who undertook a systematic study of “Indian natives” during the 200 years of colonial rule. Many a young Briton came to India to make their fortunes, first as employees of the East India company (pre-1857) and later with the British colonial administration. Nineteenth century British families were large—most Britons had 6-8 kids—and as Charles D’Oyly, an artist who himself spent many years of his life in India, put it, working class British men “deficient in their rents”, turned “a longing eye” on India and other colonies, to salvage their “pride and poverty.

[Read More: ‘The Strongest Bond of Fraternity’: Social, Political And Artistic Links Between India And African Americans Before And After India’s Independence]

British expats who, until the advent of the camera to India in 1840, wanted to share images of their lives with families back home, relied on artists to paint their new environs. In fact, a hybrid style of painting emerged from 1750 onward, fusing (at the behest of Europeans) the stylized and static images of Indian miniature paintings with the more realistic style of European ones. Since most of the patrons of these paintings were East India Company officials, the genre came to be known as “company paintings.” It was this large market for paintings in India that led so many Western artists like George Chinnery, Thomas Hickey, Charles D’Oyly and William Daniell to travel there. They were assisted by Indian artists but as George Forster, a civil servant of the East India Company complained,

“The Hindoos (artists) of this day have a slender knowledge of rules and proportion, and none of the perspective. They are just imitators.

With the advent of photography in the 1850s, paintings were supplemented by photos, many of which were retouched as was the 1897 collection by Coleman.

The photographs, watercolors, and oils were often accompanied by descriptive notes giving us insights into what the Brits really thought. The commentary with Coleman’s portraiture in his booklet “Typical Pictures of Indian Natives,” is revealing and occasionally even amusing. Mostly, however, it’s supercilious tone makes us balk. Wrote Coleman,

“The Bengali belongs to a class who are as little distinguished for courage as any race in the world. It is not uncommon indeed for them to expatiate upon their own extreme cowardice as if alluding to a special gift“.

Of Parsees, Coleman declared,

“The advantages derived by the natives of India from the British conquest of the country have in no instance been so marked as among the Parsees. Before that event had been consummated, they were literally the hewers of wood and drawers of water for their rulers. At the present time they have been enabled to become one of the most enlightened and wealthy races in the west of India.” “The Bania,” Coleman added, “may have a large house and many servants, with a rubber-tyred carriage drawn by a pair of high-stepping Arab steeds.“ (…) “But when enjoying the privacy of his own house, he often wears a cloth around his loins and nothing besides. His custom is usually to occupy a small room in the rear of the house, where he squats on the ground and eats his rice, as from time immemorial.”

This curiosity about Indians coupled with large doses of disdain was not at all unusual among British residents in India.

[Read More: The Travel Ban Isn’t New: America’s History of Restrictive Immigrant Legislation – Part I]

Capturing images for friends and relatives in Britain was not the only motivation for the prodigious amount of graphic material produced. Ethnographic profiles of Indian people were undertaken to serve colonial interests too. Indians were painstakingly classified by “castes” and trades, ethnicity, dress (“costume”), religion and region. The ordering and codifying of Indian society enabled the British to better know and control Indian society. (All the better to divide and rule?) Other graphic taxonomies included those of Indian plants and animals, birds, monuments, Indian “servants,” places of worship, religious festivals and landscapes. While stereotypes abound in the oral and visual descriptions—elephants, tigers, snake charmers, “nautch” girls, dhobi ghats and funeral pyres make frequent appearances—we can marvel at the rigor and detail with which the documentation and classifications were done. 

Art was widely used to visually portray British superiority. Britons were depicted as virile, masterful and manly in contrast to “passive,” “effeminate” and servile Indians. To that end, hundreds of paintings captured scenes from big game hunting, a popular colonial pursuit, usually depicting British huntsmen, killing tigers, buffalo, wild boar or other wild game in Indian jungles.

[Hog-hunting in Bengal; from “ORIENTAL FIELD SPORTS” by Capt. Thomas Williamson of the Bengal Army, India, 1807. Phot Illustration by Charles D’Oyly]

In the same vein, “Indian servants” were a common theme. As Coleman put it, “The natives of India make excellent servants with even bachelors finding it necessary tto employ at least five persons.” In his book, “The Costumes and Customs of Modern India” (1813), author Thomas Williamson details the range of skills and services that a “gentleman” could avail of. These included sircars (money-servants), shroffs (money-brokers), duftorees (office-keepers), crannies (clerks), bearers, durzees (tailors), khidmatgars (table servants), khansamas (cooks), dandies (boatmen), hiscarrahs (messengers), peons, hookah-bindars (pipe-bearers), hajaums (barbers), ayahs (nurses) and a host of others. Williamson wrote,

What dilemmas a European is often subjected to among such worthy attendants, each of whom can speak two languages and possess both the will and the means of deception.

Williamson’s book, illustrated by Charles D’Oyly, offered all kinds of instructions and information on how to cope with Indian servants

 “The duftoree (office-keeper) must see that every part of the office be clean, the ink-stands filled, the desks properly arranged, the papers dusted and in general all in readiness for the clerks.

Of the clerks or “crannies” as they were called, Williamson offered,

They are with very few exceptions, Hindoos, and obtain situations merely from an ability to write a clear hand with tolerable quickness. It may appear strange, but it is perfectly true that many crannies who can read and write English with fluency and correctness, do not understand one word in ten! Others affect great erudition, which they are desirous of displaying on all occasions”.

The hajaum  (barber), Williamson warned,

“Regardless of the wincing and significant looks of the suffering customer, coolly removes not only the beard, but often, a large portion the skin!

And the sircar (‘money servant’)

“May with propriety compete with the most knowing among our Jews.”

Williamson was cognizant of the criticisms made against some British expats on account of their large retinue of servants in India, but these ‘gentlemen’ were deserving he believed because of the ‘sufferings, privations and danger’ they experienced in India. All told, he concluded,

“With regard to education, morality and liberal principles, the gentlemen of the Honourable East India Company’s Civil and Military Establishments are second to none.

Shefali Chandan is an educator and editor of Jano, the online history magazine for Asian Indian families. She has worked for 2 decades in children’s media at organizations like Scholastic, Time Inc. and PBS Kids. Shefali has always been a history buff and now brings her extensive experience in education to craft high-quality content taken from stories in history for South Asians in America and elsewhere. She lives in Reston, Virginia with her husband and daughter. You can reach her at

By Brown Girl Magazine

Brown Girl Magazine was created by and for South Asian womxn who believe in the power of storytelling as a … Read more ›

Culture Series Part 3: Remembering Indentureship Through art in Suriname, Guyana and Trinidad

Featured Photo Credit Kevita Junior | Left to Right: Tu hiya ka kare he, Tu kaha bate, Tu hamar ke bate 

Thundering waves clawed on the body of the vessel as the sea swallowed the voices of terrified passengers. They clung to the shreds of the Eagle Speed as each hour submerged the ship deeper within the kala pani (dark waters). Steamer ships were sent for rescue, finding two children alone, clenching to the remains of the mast. The unscathed captain and crew fled in boats, leaving the lives of coolies (indentured laborers) to the fate of the dark waters. The Eagle Speed set sail on August 19th, 1865 from Calcutta to Demerara. This tragedy took the lives of over 300 hundred indentured laborers. The coolies onboard were not just casualties of the kala pani, but a larger system of British colonialism.

The crossing of these tumultuous seas was forbidden for Hindus, as it meant the severance of reincarnation and the unraveling of caste. Yet more than 2 million Indians were taken across the kala pani. The forbidden water carried stories along its transatlantic waves, bearing witness to history lost against its tides. The restraints of caste drowned along the voyages as surnames and relations were cast across the seas. They became Singhs (lions) and Maharaj’s (great kings), Brahmins by boat instead of birth.

[Read Related: The Culture Series Part 1: Descendants of Indentured Diaspora a Look at Fijian Representation]

These indentured workers were mainly taken from regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to different corners of the globe, with some of the largest to the Caribbean. Guyana experienced around 238,909 workers, Trinidad 143,939 and Suriname 34,304. With 399 Indians, the Lalla Rookh docked on June 5, 1873, at Nieuw Amsterdam in Suriname, later becoming known as the coolie depot. As workers poured out of ships and onto plantations, they experienced violence and oppression at alarming rates, especially against women.

Coolie Belle

They were nameless and barefooted with gold jhumkas and bangles adorning their bodies. As tourism increased in the Caribbean’s, photographing indentured women on postcards became part of its selling point. These women became subjects to appease the white colonizer gaze and fetishized exotic ‘Coolie belles.’ A bulk of these postcards were shot in Trinidad and sold in local shops to visiting tourists. Yet these postcards failed to translate the hierarchy of power between the photographed and those behind the camera. The white European men who carried out these photoshoots chose backdrops that masked the real conditions of sugar cane fields and living quarters. Who were these women? What were their names? The women were juxtaposed with the term ‘Coolie,’ a slur for laborer and ‘Belle,’ the French word for beautiful. They were coined as laborers of beauty, yet their eyes tell a story of fear of pain.


Tu hamár ke bate? (Who are you to me?) Tu hiyá ká kare he? (What are you doing here?) Tu kahá báte? (Where are you?) Artist Nazrina Rodjan posits these questions that rummage through the minds of many Indo Caribbean descendants. Who were my ancestors? What did they experience? Rodjan aims to explore the experiences of indentured women through her oil painting series “Kala Pani.” In this series, she reimagines the postcards of indentured women alike the depictions of European nobility. In conversation with Rodjan she mentions,

 I’ve thought long and hard about whether it would be ethical to reproduce these staged images of women who might have felt scared and uncomfortable being brought into these studios to be photographed by men. I will never know their true experiences and how they might have felt knowing a stranger in the future will decide to paint them in the same positions they were put in for the original photograph.

Rodjan’s art series started as a way to commemorate 150 years since the first indentured workers arrived in Suriname and expanded to include regions like Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica. 

Wanting to reclaim these images comes from feelings of injustice whenever I see these postcards. They were made from a dehumanizing perspective. Reclaiming these images becomes necessary knowing how the violence Indo-Caribbean women still face today is just a continuation of the violence brought onto indentured Indian women then. To me, creating this piece, symbolized the acceptance of questions remaining unanswered, stories being lost forever, and realizing that after a history full of trauma, there’s a treasure in the women that are still here to tell their stories.

The ratio of men to women arriving on these ships left little to no autonomy for women. Experiences of violence on ships and plantations were common throughout the Caribbean. Despite this, indentured women became trailblazers and pioneers in uprisings against poor working conditions. 

Everything about these women seems to be a question we can never answer, but I decided to give them titles in Hindustani that are questions they might have for me as the painter who looks at them and sees both a stranger and a loved one. Tu hamár ke báte? Who are you to me?

Living in the Netherlands, Rodjan talks about her experiences tracing her ancestry and honoring this history:

 Unfortunately, in the Netherlands learning about the history of Dutch colonization only meant memorizing all the different spices they brought in and listening to teachers talking proudly about the Dutch East India Company in elementary school. Tracing back my ancestors has so far only led to a picture of my parnani and a few more names in the family tree.


On May 5, 1838, Anat Ram stepped foot on the rich grounds of Berbice, becoming the first Indian laborer in Guyana. The Whitby and Hesperus departed from Calcutta on January 13 and arrived in Berbice first then West Demerara. Over the course of 79 years, approximately 259 ships voyaged from India to Guyana. While the experiences of these ancestors may remain unknown, artists like Suchitra Mattai aims to revitalize the voices of our indentured ancestors.

[Read Related: The Culture Series Part 2: Exploring the Indo Jamaican Identity ]

Suchitra Mattai is an Indo Guyanese multi-disciplinary artist. Through her work, she uses the experience of her family’s migration and the history of indentureship to rewrite and expand our notions of history. In her piece, Life-line, a rope of saris pours out of a tilted boat, mirroring the experiences of her ancestor’s journey across the transatlantic. The saris serve as both water and a connection to two lands, India and Guyana. Mattai further explores indentureship in the piece “Coolie Woman,” depicting a woman seated with a sari, embellished with jewelry and flowers. 

I wanted to reimagine the photo to give her agency. I also wanted to address the desire for people of the diaspora to connect to their homelands and ancestral pasts. The painted wallpaper drips and fades to parallel the way my memory of Guyana ebbs and flows, Mattai says.


Anchoring at the Port of Spain on April 22, 1917, the last ship to ever carry indentured Indians made its final stop. A system that bound Indians to an unknown land finally ended after 79 years. 

To invoke conversation and pay homage to their memory, artist Gabrielle Francis creatively analyzes indentureship. Gabrielle Francis is an Indo Trinidadian queer interdisciplinary artist, writer and organizer from Queens, New York. In her piece “206:21 Queer Altar Mixed Media Performance,” Francis pays homage to her indentured ancestors with a focus on queer identities. The title 206:21 reflects the ratio of men to women that journeyed on the Fatel Razack, the first ship from India to Trinidad. A mirror is decorated with the colors of Trinidad’s flag along with six candles embodying the pride flag and vibrant red carnations. Written across the mirror is, “I wonder how many of you were queer?” A question that allows for openness and conversation around potential queer ancestors. Written records around indentureship were translated and produced by European men, leaving little to no room for women or queer folks. Francis’s work aims to transform and challenge Eurocentric narratives surrounding indentured history.

 {insert photo} 206:21 Queer Altar Mixed-Media Performance, 2021

As descendants of indentureship, it becomes difficult to sit with questions that may never have answers. Visiting National Archives or exploring digital databases can help connect descendants to learn about their own history. As we unravel difficult experiences of the past it’s important to ask, how do we carry the legacies of our ancestors? How do we honor their sacrifices?

As they were stripped of their identities and reduced to passenger numbers, they fostered new relations—jahaji bhai and jahaji bhain (ship brother and sister). From shipmates to family, to present-day melodies of chutney music to the stew of pepper pot on Christmas morning, these bonds of community have evolved and are seen across the diaspora today.

By Anjali Seegobin

Anjali Seegobin is an undergraduate student at the City College of New York, majoring in political science and anthropology. She … Read more ›

‘The Black Rose’: British Asian Shweta Aggarwal Voices her Truth Against Colourism and the Battle to end her Skin Whitening Cream Addiction

Black Rose

I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.” 

Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind. 

[Read Related: Liam Neeson’s Week of Rage is Every Person of Colour’s Truth]

Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too. 

Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially  when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,

I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.

During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance. 

The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose! 

Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type —  the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way. 

[Read Related: Dear Priyanka Chopra, Endorsing Colorism and Discrimination is not ok. It Never was and Never Will Be]

It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits, 

Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you. 

I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance. 

But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,

The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and  not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour? 

I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?  

A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride! 

I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.

“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.


Photo Courtesy: Shweta Aggarwal

By Sejal Sehmi

Brown Girl Magazine’s U.K. Editor Sejal Sehmi is an IT consultant by day, whose passion for writing stemmed from challenging … Read more ›