The Fear of Colonial Miscegenation in the British Colonies of Southeast Asia

The Fear of Colonial Miscegenation in the British Colonies of Southeast Asia

The Forum: Cal Poly’s Journal of History
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo
Volume 1, Issue 1, Article 8 (2009)
pages 54-64

Katrina Chludzinski, Co-Editor

Between 1820 and 1923, European and American travelogue writers in the Southeast Asian British Colonies looked down upon Europeans participating in miscegenation with local women. They felt that it was a “barbaric” institution, and if Europeans participated in miscegenation, they were destroying the racial hierarchy that had been established during colonialism. They feared miscegenation would blur the racial lines that had been used as the basis for control over the colonies. Miscegenation also produced children of mixed races, called Eurasians. Eurasians became a separate class, however, the British and Southeast Asians did not know how to classify and treat them. Eurasians were not accepted by Europeans or Southeast Asians, they were a group of people not even recognized as a class. Why did the European and American travelogue writers fear miscegenation between Europeans and Southeast Asians? By examining European and American travelogues, I will argue that in the Southeast Asian British Colonies between the years 1820-1923, British and American travelogue writers feared miscegenation between Europeans and Southeast Asians because it challenged the existing racial structures.

For this paper I will rely exclusively on the Travelogues of Europeans and Americans. They provide a window into the culture of Southeast Asia which Southeast Asians themselves did not write about. Southeast Asian culture was new and different to European and American travelogue writers, however. As such, they documented extensively what which was foreign or strange to them. Though relying exclusively on travelogues limits this paper by excluding the Southeast Asian perspective, my purpose is to analyze the European and American perspective on Southeast Asian culture. Travelogues proved the best source for such analysis.

For the history of miscegenation in Southeast Asia, I will mainly rely on John G. Butler’s The British in Malaya 1880-1941: The Social History 0f a European Community in Colonial South-East Asia. According to Butler, colonial miscegenation came about due to the necessity for female companionship. He goes on to speculate that concubinage occurred mainly in rural settings, and that these woman not only provided companionship, but they also helped acclimate European men to their new Southeast Asian settings. Later in his book, Butler describes how concubinage began to decline in the early twentieth century as Europeans in Southeast Asia began to make more money and were able to afford to bring European wives over…

…The British saw miscegenation as dangerous to the colonial structure because it contradicted the belief that Southeast Asians were inferior to Europeans. In one American travelogue from the Philippines, the writer compared the way that the British and the Spanish treated the natives. He commented that the British ridiculed the Portuguese and the Spanish for allowing interracial marriage. The British felt that miscegenation would result in the decline of the colonial government and even the decline of home government of the colonizing power, even though they did not explain how. ┬áThe conclusion that interracial marriage would lead to the decline of the colonial structure could only result from the fear that interracial marriage blurred the lines of the racial hierarchy that the British had established. According to the same American travelogue writer, the British believed that interracial marriage produced “mongrel,” “inferior” and “renegade” Eurasian children. The British did not know how to classify Eurasians and did not want to recognize their European descent. In order to maintain their racial hierarchy, the British needed to establish the inferiority of Eurasians in any way possible, including the use of derogatory words to describe them. Ann Stoler explains that miscegenation presented questions that Europeans were not ready to answer. One 0f those questions was how to maintain white supremacy when their racial purity was threatened by miscegenation. The British response to this question was to classify Eurasians as inferior and employed derogatory language to make them social outcasts and discourage others from participating in miscegenation.

European travelogue writers dismissed concubinage between Europeans and Southeast Asians because they did not want to admit that European men were part of the problem to the degradation of their racial structures. A British travelogue writer in Burma made excuses for British men falling into concubinage. He claimed that Burmese women had sweeter and more affectionate personalities, therefore British men could not help themselves. Ann Stoler remarks that Europeans also felt by keeping the race pure and abstaining from promiscuity, they were establishing their superiority over Southeast Asians. But concubinage would make the established racial structures harder to define, thereby making it harder to maintain their racial superiority. An interracial couple threatened the Caucasian racial purity. But they feared that if they admitted that British men were willing participants in miscegenation it would encourage other British men to do it as well. In an attempt to deter other British men from it, travelogue writers refused to admit that British men were consciously able to consent to concubinage.

To establish that British were not at fault for participating in miscegenation, other excuses were made by travelogue writers. For example, one writer claimed that Europeans could not help themselves. The climate of Southeast Asia weakened their strength to stand by their British morals. These outrageous claims were only used to remove all blame from Europeans and place it on the natives, or the climate of the colony itself…

…Miscegenation produced Eurasian children that were not European or Asian; they were a people without an identity that had the ability to change the European established racial hierarchy. Christina Firpo┬ámentions that in Vietnam, Eurasians were clearly recognizable as being of French descent. But the French viewed this as a threat to their racial purity and superiority. A British travelogue writer noticed that Eurasians were divided amongst themselves based on how closely they resembled Europeans. The Eurasians with the skin tones and facial features that more closely resembled those of Europeans had higher social statuses than those that had features that more closely resembled Southeast Asians. ‘This made it seem like there were several racial categories within the Eurasian community. This confusion over racial hierarchies within the Eurasian community created confusion among the British. The British were confused as to how to categorize Eurasians racially. The British had established a strict racial hierarchy. They were also convinced that they would be able to maintain a racial purity amongst the Europeans. So they were not prepared when British men began to participate in miscegenation and producing another race. As Ann Stoler put it, Eurasians “straddled the divide” between colonizers and colonized. This “divide” blurred some of the racial lines between Europeans and Southeast Asians, which terrified the British.

Travelogue writers also noticed that Eurasians were disliked by both Europeans and Asians. Not only were they despised by the Europeans, but since they despised their Southeast Asian heritage, they alienated themselves even further by rejecting the Southeast Asian community. This left Eurasians isolated and alone. The British feared Eurasians because they did not know what Eurasians would do, since they were not accepted by either community. Eurasians were also alienated in their own families. One travelogue writer wrote that in Eurasian families, the lighter skinned children had more privileges than the darker skinned ones. The British feared that unrest in the Eurasian community for not having a place in the previously established racial structure might lead to political unrest. Eurasians did not belong to European or Asian societies and they suffer disadvantages for it. ┬áThey were rejected from some jobs and events because they were Eurasian. The British would not allow them access to all European events or to high ranking European jobs. Furthermore, Southeast Asians would not accept them into the Southeast Asian community. In most cases, the European father left and the family was financially cut off and without a father. Having their European fathers leave lead to feelings of abandonment and alienation as well. In some cases, when the European father left, the family became poor. So not only were the Eurasian children alienated from most communities, they were left with no means to support themselves….

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