“Now, what extraction is he?”
We were at a wedding in Derry and an older woman was asking one of my mother’s friends about John. I know older people in Derry who claim they can tell whether someone’s Catholic or Protestant just by looking at them but put a non-white person in front of them and they are stumped completely.
I once suggested an ancestry DNA test as a gift for my parents in a WhatsApp group made up of my brothers and partners. John pitched in, “I’ll save you the time and money. Heaney kids DNA test results: 75% Derry, 25% Dunfanaghy.” I pointed out that both of our grandmothers were from Donegal. “50/50 then,” he replied, “You’re biracial.” I did eventually get my mother a DNA test as a gift and the result came back 99% Irish, 0.8% Scandinavian and 0.2% Broadly Northwestern European. John wasn’t far off.
The story of John’s ancestry was revealed to me in drips and drabs. When we first met working in the record shop I answered the phone to his mum on one occasion and noted her accent. She was born in India, he told me. I later learned both his parents were Anglo-Indian, born in India with English as their first language. It wasn’t until we started going out that I got a sense of the full picture. Generations of intermarrying between Indian people, English people, Anglo-Indian people, and probably some Portuguese and Burmese too.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s during British rule in India it was not uncommon for British soldiers to marry local women. The intermarrying was initially tolerated and even encouraged by the British – men who married Indian women were more likely to settle and help establish a permanent population loyal to Britain. But after the bloody Indian Rebellion of 1857, during which an estimated 100,000 civilians were killed, the British introduced laws prohibiting intermarriage.
As I learned about John’s heritage and the history of India it made me think consciously about colonialism for the first time really. I saw parallels between the British who went to India – John’s ancestors – and the British who went to Ireland during the Plantation years. And maybe for the first time I consciously thought about the human impact on both sides.
This is how colonialism worked. The poorest, most disenfranchised were encouraged to uproot and move across the world in service of the empire and with the promise of land and some degree of power. So these people who don’t have enough of a reason to stay at home travel to new lands and settle there. Over time their descendants develop a unique culture, fully belonging to neither Britain nor their new home. And more often than not that community is eventually abandoned by the crown.
After India gained its independence in 1947 most of the Anglo-Indian community emigrated to the UK, the US, Canada or Australia. Only a few hundred thousand remain in India today with most living in relatively segregated communities.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would end up married to a man from a line of British Army soldiers. But it’s not lost on me that I’ve found my deepest connection with someone from the opposite side of the historical divide.