Race and Belonging

Eighteenth-century definitions of ‘race’ focused centrally on family. In Samuel Johnson’s famous Dictionary of the English Language (1755), race was ‘A family ascending’, ‘A family descending’, ‘A generation: a collective family’ and ‘A particular breed’. What impact did both the familial structures and the demographic patterns of the East India Company era have on British understandings and experiences of race? This lecture explores race through lenses that include legitimacy and illegitimacy, place and space, gender and culture. It follows specific men, women and children into (and sometimes out of) ascribed racial identities that entailed distinctive practices of belonging and exclusion. Race loomed large in India, but Company families deployed this concocted category both strategically and selectively to advance their collective aims. In this context, behaviours displayed in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay could diverge both from each other and from the norms of each of their provinces, while the imprint of race in Bengal often departed from dominant practices in the Punjab. Race was a powerful, pervasive and persistent force in Company families in India and Britain precisely because it was labile rather than fixed.