Inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent have traveled the world far and wide for centuries. Before colonial times the travel was mostly voluntary. Indian influence in the far and middle east spread mainly through trade and religion. Later during the British rule when Britain got busy expanding its colonial reach on several continents, Indian indentured labor was utilized in sugarcane and rubber plantations and for building the infrastructure of the new colonies. Small and large contingents of men of different religious and linguistic backgrounds, from several parts of the subcontinent were transported to different places - some closer to home in Burma and Malaya and others as far away as Africa, the Caribbeans and Fiji. Although the indentured servitude was originally planned as a temporary affair, many among the dislocated groups chose to stay on in the new countries. The laborers, living lives of privation and subjected to systematic exploitation were permitted to bring over brides and other family members from the home country. Sizable Indian communities thus grew around the labor colonies over time. Languages, religious practices and other customs were perpetuated down the generations (incorporating the inevitable organic and eccentric variations as is common to all uprooted populations), thus preserving an Indian identity which was not forgotten even as the scattered and sometimes insular communities learnt to adapt to foreign surroundings. Those early emigres from India and their descendants formed the bulk of the first significant Indian diaspora of the modern era. [See the history of some older Indian diasporic groups here, here and here]
The history of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent in North America on the other hand, is widely believed to be of relatively recent vintage. Until now I was under the impression that the earliest group of small but ethnically significant number of Indians to settle in the US were the Sikh farmers of Yuba valley in central California in the early part of the twentieth century. The next wave of Indians (and Pakistanis) to arrive were mostly doctors, scientists and other professionals in the 1960s when immigration laws were loosened to admit more non-Europeans into the US. Since then Indians have emigrated to the US in steady numbers, their demographics changing gradually to include small businessmen, financiers, bankers and IT personnel. Unlike some other groups of immigrants who have fled their countries due to dangerous political / ethnic /religious strifes, Indian immigration to the US has been and continues to be voluntary - largely undertaken for economic reasons. Until now I was not aware of "involuntary" transportation of south Asians to America. It was therefore extremely surprising to discover that Asian Indians were present in American colonies as early as the beginning of the 17th century, brought here by British colonists as their indentured servants or personal slaves.
Indian Slaves in Colonial America
Evidence of “East Indians” in 17th-18th century Virginia
This first permanent English settlement in the New World would eventually become "the rightful birthing ground of America"; its soil sprinkled with the blood of Native Americans, European settlers, and their African slaves.
To this racial mix we must now include people from the Indian subcontinent.
That’s because, while preparations are underway for a grand commemoration of Jamestown’s 400th anniversary in May-June 2007, we have uncovered compelling evidence of the presence of people from the Indian subcontinent going as far back as 375 years in Virginia: people identified in American court documents of the time as "East Indians," "East India Indians," or "Asiatic Indians."
But unlike the indentured labor populations of Africa, the Caribbeans and Fiji, the newcomers to America were young, single men who either followed their English masters as servants or were poor ship hands shanghaied to the New World by mercenaries. The men had neither the opportunity to marry Indian women in America nor the wherewithal to travel back to India to bring over relatives. They thus lacked the critical mass of compatriots needed to form a community reflecting their cultural roots. Grouped together with other slaves, mostly from Africa, unable to keep alive an Indian identity, the Indian servants gradually "disappeared" into the African slave population.
As these South Asians melded into the population, they would be identified variously as "Mullato," "Negro," and "colored" in the ethnic cauldron that was evolving in America, thus losing much of their racial distinctiveness with each passing generation, merging into the African-American community, largely unaware of their Indian roots.
research into this early American history suggests that people from South Asia were transported as indentured servants or slaves— first by trading vessels belonging to the Dutch, French, and English; later, by captains of American vessels.
There is considerable evidence to suggest that "lascars" or seamen were recruited from Indian ports by European trading ships, and, on reaching Europe, succumbed to the promises of agents who enlisted indentured workers for the New World. Or else they were taken as servants by East India Company officials who amassed their fortunes in India, and subsequently returned home to England and thence to their newly established colony in America, where they took their servants with them as a sign of their wealth and status as "nabobs."
Documents recently unearthed by researchers looking into the history of Jamestown and Williamsburg in Virginia point to the presence of Indian indentured servants or slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries. Postings such as this [click on the picture on the left; note the reference to the teeth] in the Virginia Gazette, reporting the escape of one such Indian man, is similar to newspaper items relating to slaves in the American South. Another ad in the same paper placed by a man named William Brown on July 13, 1776, who reported the escape of a servant/ slave reads:
"Servant Man named John Newton, about 20 Years of Age, 5 feet 5 or 6 Inches high, slender made, is an Asiatic Indian by Birth, has been about twelve Months in Virginia, but lived ten Years (as he says) in England, in the Service of Sir Charles Whitworth. He wears long black Hair, which inclines to curl, tied behind, and pinned up at the Sides; has a very sour Look, and his Lips project remarkably forward. He left his Master on the Road from Williamsburg, between King William Courthouse and Todd’s Bridge, where he was left behind to come on slowly with a tired Horse --- "… he is a good Barber and Hair-Dresser, it is probable he may endeavour to follow those Occupations as a free Man. Whoever takes up the said Servant, and secures him in Gaol, giving me information thereof, so that I may get him again, shall have eight dollars Reward; and if delivered to me at Westwood, in Prince William, further reasonable Charges, paid by William Brown."
With these findings documented in 18th-century American newspapers, Indian Americans, or South Asian Americans, or Desis, as many of them like to call themselves, stand on the cusp of rewriting their history by acknowledging the full complement of their heritage—including that of slaves in America.