Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

‘The Eurasian Question’: The postcolonial dilemmas of three colonial mixed-ancestry groups compared

Why did some Eurasians opt for staying in the former colony while others left for the metropolis or another country?

Duration
2013  -   2017
Contact
Liesbeth Rosen Jacobson
Funding
NWO via Posthumus Institute NWO via Posthumus Institute

Eurasians were privileged groups of mixed ancestry in Asian colonial societies. They were the result of unions between European males and indigenous women. They neither belonged to the colonizers, nor to the colonized. When colonization came to an end, the Eurasians found themselves in a difficult position.  The European rulers, on which their status was based, were gone. The new indigenous rulers usually perceived them suspiciously as colonial remnants and sometimes even as traitors. In this chaotic, sometimes violent situation, they were forced to make a choice, albeit a preliminary one, between staying in the former colony or leaving, usually for the European metropolis.  This was a serious dilemma since they only knew the metropolis from stories and lessons at school. The point of departure of this research is formed by the Eurasian group of the former Dutch Indies: the Indo-Europeans. However, I compare the decision making process of this group with those of similar groups from two other Asian colonies, the Anglo-Indians from the British Indies and the Métis people from French Indochina.

When colonization came to an end, Eurasians - a broad and varied colonial group in the British Indies, Dutch Indies and French Indochina - had to redefine their position.  The Eurasians were people of mixed European and indigenous descent in the colony, who stood between the colonized people and the colonizers. Eurasians passed as ‘white’ to a certain extent. That meant that they saw themselves and were regarded by others as European and westernized in the colonial society. In that context, this ‘whiteness’ does not only refer to a biological attribute, but to an construction, both defined by Eurasians themselves and assigned by others. The degree to which Eurasians could pass as ‘white’ was associated with the amount of European privileges they enjoyed in the colonial period. The Eurasian group was very heterogeneous; the extent of mixed ancestry varied as well as the extent of identification with the indigenous or European culture. These features in turn influenced their ‘white’ status in the colonial period and eventually also their position after decolonization. The point of departure of this research is formed by the Eurasian group of the former Dutch Indies: the Indo-Europeans. However, I compare the decision making process of this group with those of similar groups from two other Asian colonies, the Anglo-Indians from the British Indies and the Métis people from French Indochina.

In the chaotic, sometimes violent situation after decolonization, Eurasians were forced to make a choice, albeit a preliminary one, between staying in the former colony or leaving, usually for the European metropolis.  The consequences of their decision seem to be clear: If they stayed, they were perceived as traitors because of their whiteness and former support to the colonizers. If they ‘returned’ or ‘repatriated’ to the metropolis, where most of them had never been before, they were considered not ‘white’ or Western enough. Of course, a lot of variations existed  between these two scenarios but it is certain that in all scenarios, they lost their privileged position and experienced downward social mobility. Individual factors such as status or class, education, gender, and age, and structural factors such as the economic situation in both the former colony and the metropolis influenced their choices. In this project, a double comparison is made: 1. between the Asian colonies of three former empires (British, French and Dutch), and 2. between those who stayed and those who moved. Thus, in short, in my PhD-project I aim to explain the choices Eurasians made and analyze the discursive factors that influenced the choices by examining a range of sources: newspaper and magazine articles, archival documents of government agencies as well as non-governmental Eurasian interest organizations and (post) colonial novels.

Connection with other research