Colonial Cousins

Colonial Cousins


Colonial Cousins,
a Surprising History of Connections
between India and Australia

by Joyce Westrip
Peggy Holroyde

Twenty years in the making and 450 pages, Colonial Cousins explores the historic relationships and connections between Australia and India. The connections discovered by the authors during their research are not only surprising, it is also astonishing that after more than 200 years both countries are mostly still ignorant of these connections.

India was aware of Australia even before it was settled and Australia’s first settlers were well aware, many from personal experience, of India. After all both were colonies ruled by England. Both British soldiers and workmen convicted of serious crimes in India were transported to New South Wales or Tasmania.

Australia never existed in a vacuum. From the time of its establishment at Botany Bay in 1788 Australia’s immediate links were with India and other Asian countries. Both Bengal and Batavia, in Indonesia, were possible sources for workers, goods and services, but Bengal was British and prosperous. Military personnel were often transferred between the two countries.

Without the approval of the British governors in Australia private schemes to import Indians were operating as early as the beginnings of the nineteenth century. In 1852 the East India Emigration Society was formed in India to encourage Euro-Asians to migrate to Australia. The British government did not have a very high opinion of the schemes nor of its colonials on both sides of the Indian Ocean. As late as the 1920s Australia was a beckoning land for English families stationed in India

Both Indians and Australians knew what it felt like being socially snubbed or put down by that insufferable Anglo-Saxon one-upmanship. The strong Irish component of the Australian population could align itself with Indian rebellion and Bengali revolutionary propensities. It was not for nothing that Bengalis have been called the Irish of India. It is now generally accepted and documented that the Celts, somewhere along the route of human migration and development, are said to have a bloodline into India. Myths and legends of pre-Christian Ireland and Hindu India share remarkable similarities.

Whatever the British thoughts and rules, in times of scarcity Australia looked to India for its supplies. In 1791 Governor Phillip dispatched the Atlantic to Bengal for livestock, seeds, plants, copies of the Calcutta newspapers and rum. From 1790 Scottish born Robert Campbell of the Indian firm Campbell Clark & Co was trading with Australia. In 1798 Campbell established his business in Sydney and built imposing warehouses on the harbour. Three years later Governor Hunter of NSW contracted him to supply 150 cows and sugar from Bengal. His business became vital to Australia. The contribution of Merchant Campbell, the father of Australian commerce, to Australia is acknowledged with a plaque at the Rocks but there is no mention of India on it!

One of the most significant persons involved in the earliest exchanges between India and Australia was Lachlan Macquarie, Governor of New South Wales from 1810 until 1821. He had served two years in India becoming military secretary to the government in Bombay. Many others have travelled across the oceans between India and Australia. John Hut, Governor of Western Australia also came from India. Sir William Denison became Governor of Madras after having served as Lieutenant Governor of Tasmania in 1847 and then Governor of New South Wales in 1855.

When Caroline Chisholm’s husband came to Australia with his family on sick leave from India, Caroline stayed behind for seven years when he returned. She wanted to finish her work among the poor and downtrodden women and care for them. Governor Arthur Lawley left Western Australia in 1902 to take up a position in India whereas Lord Northcote became Governor-General of Australia after having served as Governor of Bombay.

It is an established fact that Australia rode on the sheep’s back to prosperity, but what is not generally known is that they came from Bengal in 1793 as the first lot from the Cape had died or were eaten. India was our first trading partner in the import/export market as well. The first shipment of coal from Newcastle went to Calcutta. Ships for Australia were built in India as well, including the Buffalo, originally named Hindustan, which brought some of the first settlers to South Australia in 1836.

Although sheep have played a large part in Australia’s development so too have the camels, most of them from India. In 1836 the NSW government inquired into the possibilities of importing camels from India, which was widely supported. The first camels were landed in Hobart in 1840 by John Thomson on the HMS Calcutta, a naval barque built of Indian teak. That same year the Western Australian government was offering a premium of £100 for a pregnant camel. Burke and Wills used Indian camels, landed at Melbourne in 1860, for their attempt to cross Australia from South to North.

South Australia too had many surprising connections with her Colonial Cousin. As early as 1838 both John Gleeson and Joseph Bruce from Calcutta brought Indian workers to Adelaide. Although the name of South Australia’s copper town Burra is thought to come from the local Aboriginal language meaning great, Hindustani shepherds also used the word (bara) for great. Explorer Captain Charles Sturt was born in India, the second son of an East Indian Company judge in Bengal. Peter Egerton Warburton spent 20 years in Indian Army before becoming Commander of the South Australian Police from 1853 until 1867.

In 1865 Samuel Stuckey and Thomas Elder brought out 124 camels and their cameleers from India to Port Augusta. This resulted in Australia’s first camel stud to be established at Beltana. Camels, and their Afghan handlers, opened up the interior. They went where no one else wanted or could go. The tracks they made later became railway lines and bitumen roads, many of which opened up Australia’s inland resources. Of the three drought animals introduced, the bullock, horse and camel, it was the camel that proved man’s best friend. Just for the record, the camel that caused the death of John Horrocks did not come from India but from the Canary Islands.

Whereas camels were imported from India, horses were exported in return. From the 1840s they were used by the British Army in India. Soon Australia became the principal supplier to the Indian Cavalry. Horse buyers from India attended the sales in Adelaide. Some of the well-known South Australians connected with the trade were O’Halloran, Sydney Kidman, Thomas Elder and several station owners along the Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks. Kidman’s horse sales at Kapunda attracted local as well as Indian Army buyers. Horses from his Blanchewater Station had an excellent reputation.

When the Savings Bank of South Australia opened a branch in Kapunda in 1870 its first customer to open an account was an Indian. The first depositor at its Adelaide office was also an Indian. Croppo Singh entrusted his life savings of £29 to the bank in 1847.

The necessity of claiming Western Australia, New Holland, and settling it came from old ‘India hands’. When that colony was settled many of its early supplies and settlers came from India as well. In 1836 an Indian Army Officer, T.N. Yule of Bengal selected 15,000 acres in that colony. Western Australia too established an export industry to India. From 1857 thousands of jarrah railway sleepers were shipped to India. When gold was discovered at Hall’s Creek in 1885, 26 camels were landed at Derby to ease the transport problems. In 1907 another 500 were landed from Bombay. When Bombay got a Mint in 1918 its first Deputy Master was Raol Khan, former Chief Assayer of the Perth Mint.

As early as the 1830s West Australia and later the Northern Territory tried to import Indian labour (coolies). Some Indians, both Muslim and Hindu did make their own way to Western Australia in 1830. Despite these early interactions, India has always been seen as a land of mysticism and magic. Once again there are similarities of this in Australia, particularly among the Aborigines. The Indians have their ‘death-wish’ which seems as effective as ‘pointing the bone’ among Aborigines. Another similarity is the importance of snake symbolism in both Aboriginal and Indian religious beliefs.

The surprising connections don’t stop here. Besides sharing defined climates and seasons, millions of years ago both Australia and India were part of the supercontinent Gondwanaland, an Indian name meaning ‘land of the Gond people’. Several Indian words have found their way into the English language. Both the bungalow and verandah are of Indian origin as are pyjamas. These same words have also found their way into the Dutch language before they were forced out of India by the English.

Although many native-born Australians still referred to Britain as home during the 1960s, many of the English who came from India, after having served for lengthy periods retired to Australia, to make it their home rather than going back to England. No wonder that when India became independent of Britain more than 10,000 Anglo-Indians migrated to Australia. Australians who are familiar with India do display, despite an incipient racism prevalent in society, a sneaking sympathy for India as an ex-Empire cousin nation. Today more than ever many Australians are travelling to India and not just backpackers.

During the last decades Australia has experienced an exciting change. A cosmopolitan society is now very much in evidence, in the cities, distant mining towns and even in the bush. More than 140 nationalities make up modern Australia. As a result Anglo-Indians, who earlier tried to deny their Indian ancestry are beginning to research and proclaim their links with India. In 1996 the number of Indian born migrants living in Adelaide numbered 3,149 with a further 2,390 second generation Indians.

There have also been military links. William Munson Mills from Wivenhoe, England, was posted to India where he fought in the Sikh wars. He and his wife Mahala and children came to Adelaide in 1878 at the age of 54. He later became a founding member of the South Australian Corps of Veterans. When he died in 1917 he was accorded a military funeral at Payneham. One of the first multi-national peace-keeping forces was made up of Australian and Indian military personnel. They responded to the Boxer Rebellion in China, assisted by the South Australian cruiser HMAS Protector They also made extensive use of South Australian horses.

Why then is India still seen as ‘at a distance’ and why have both India and Australia ignored these historical connections and similarities for so long. Why is the vast majority of Indians so ignorant of the rapidly changing nature and increasingly sophisticated attitude of cosmopolitan Australia? Why do Australians still worry about the large numbers of Indian students in Australia, even though it is one of Australia’s large money earners, but don’t seem to mind eating at Indian restaurants? The annual Adelaide Indian food and cultural festival in April 2000 attracted some 20,000 people.

Perhaps the most recently established stepping stone in the renewal of connections, was the 2008 establishment of the Australian India Institute which could be a way to encourage more and better relations with our Colonial Cousins. A year later Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, on his visit to India acknowledged that our nation had a long history of a ‘stop-start’ relationship with India. In reply India’s Prime Minister, Manmohah Singh called for Australians to learn more about India’s culture.

These very problems, questions and concerns, the authors have tried to answer. It is also the first time that anyone has recorded such a comprehensive social history covering migration from India over two centuries. Not only that, they have provided numerous documented examples and material from rare interviews to back up their findings. No wonder it took some twenty years and 450 pages.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Colonial Cousins by Joyce Westrip and Peggy Holroyde,
extensively illustrated, with chapter references, bibliography and index,
is available at $49.90 from
Wakefield Press

Telephone 08 8352 4455


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