Our Story Was Theirs: South Asian Americans Before 1800

The South Asian presence in the US is often treated like a recent phenomenon, something which accompanied the software boom which began in the 1980s. Depictions of us in popular media almost always show us in some sort of engineering capacity. I’m starting to think that a large number of American television producers genuinely believe that South Asians are born with computer chargers instead of umbilical cords.

The truth, as it always is, differs quite significantly. Of course not all South Asians work in technology – and, perhaps more significantly, the first South Asian Americans arrived on this continent over two hundred years before Microsoft was founded. We have a long and storied past in this nation, and I’d like to devote space on my blog to discussing it.

During the eighteenth century, the thirteen North American colonies were not the only overseas possessions of the British. The most famous, arguably, was a land which had long been a centre of colonial efforts in Europe, and which was officially signed over, bit by bit, to England by 1757: India. When English settlers entered the colonies, many of them brought South Asians along – as indentured labourers, and as slaves.

Records of some of these enslaved South Asians still survive. Thomas Greenwich fled from slavery in Virginia in late May of 1768. He was labelled an “East-India Indian” – the descriptor was used to distinguish South Asians from Indigenous American people.

Image Description: An advert which describes Thomas Greenwich, an “East-India Indian”, as a runaway slave. Source here.

Perhaps it is strange and surprising to think of South Asian slaves in the colonial South. I know I was initially startled – but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. The British would not outlaw slavery for sixty-five more years. India, a vast, heavily populated land with a built-in caste system wherein segments of the population had already been condemned to generational slavery on their native soil, was a ripe land from which to pluck enslaved labour.

And yet, in a testament to the complex and confused manner in which we often regard our racial identities, East Indian ancestry could also be a ticket out of slavery. In neighbouring Maryland, just two decades before Thomas Greenwich ran, a woman named Mary Dove – who was designated as Black – argued that her children should be freed from enslavement. Why? Because her grandmother, Malaga Moll, a “yellow” woman with “long black hair”, was purportedly a free East Indian.

Dove’s effort was successful. By shedding a Black identity, associated with slavery, and adopting an ambiguous, exotic “East Indian” one, Mary Dove’s legacy changed into freedom. Historian Dr Warren Milteer writes:

“From the late seventeenth century into the eighteenth century, people from the Indian subcontinent became important parts of the developing British Empire. Many of them became servants in British households or sailors on transoceanic voyages. The Dove case demonstrates that some masters attempted to blur the lines between servants and slaves, and hold South Asian servants and their American-born descendants in slavery. However, the judgment of the court suggests that colonial Americans assumed that South Asians were free people by birth and their descendants, if descended from a South Asian woman through the mother’s line, were also free.”

When I read this passage, I was struck by the parallels to our modern situation. South Asian Americans still inhabit an ambiguous space in the racial dynamics of the United States. On one hand, we are a so-called model minority, the highest-earning ethnic group in the country (Pakistani and Sri Lankan Americans have comparable median incomes). We have plenty of political representation – some of which is less than savoury.

On the other, we are targeted by racism. I have memories of being called dirty and illiterate in elementary school, and laughed at for my (then much thicker) accent. From little grievances like having our names ridiculed to the horror of being shot down by white supremacists, South Asian Americans are constantly reminded of our shaky status, the danger we exist in as people of colour in a society which too often lets violent racism go unpunished.

There is a huge streak of anti-Black thought in many South Asian American communities. It has its roots in casteism, in colonialism, and in colourism. And, I think, it is also rooted in fear: the idea that, if we rock the boat, if we stand in solidarity with other people of colour – if we outright reject model minority status in order to challenge the white supremacist status quo – we will lose all that we have supposedly “gained” in the last forty-odd years. We will be seen as a threat to systemic racism, and so we will be subject to it.

But our history here shows that we are, and always have been, victims of racial discrimination. Being “model minorities” will never shield us completely from its effects. That will only serve to harm other communities of colour, which is exactly why that myth was created in the first place.

In rejecting one identity, perceived as negative, and embracing one seen as potentially-positive, Mary Dove did what she could to escape enslavement. No person could possibly fault her for that. But we, the heirs to the South Asian American legacy, have a choice not available to her. We have the power to help overturn systemic anti-Blackness by refusing to keep silent about it, by raising our voices and hands alongside those of Black Americans to help promote intersectional social justice.

And to do so, we must reach across the centuries to face our own American past – our stories of slavery, and of freedom.

––Aditi Ramaswamy

Software engineer; emerging author; almost certainly not a changeling. I write about the uncomfortable parts of Indian & American history & culture.