The sad history of the first Asian Indians in America
We feel free when we escape – even if it be but from the frying pan into the fire. ~Eric Hoffer
In the early days of America, migrants from India were commonly called as ‘East Indians’, ‘Asian Indians’ or ‘Asiatic Indians’. These terms were used to distinguish us – those from India – from the American natives – called ‘Indians’ as well.
The first ‘East Indians’ arrived in American in early 17th century. A historical study by Martha W. McCartney confirms the presence of ‘East Indians’ in America as early as 1624. But how and why they came to America is not a pretty story; it is nothing to write home about.
Most of the Indians came to America via England as servants or helpers of Englishmen. They traveled in British trading ships, arriving in the newly established British Colony in America. Some Indians also came to America – ‘the new world’ as they called it – as lascars or helpers aboard the trading ships of the British East India Company from the Indian ports directly.
Once in America, the Indian migrants were no longer simple helpers or workers, but more like slaves. Yes, it is true; the social status of earlier Indians who settled in America was that of slaves and servants. Their rights were very limited; they did not have the freedom to leave their masters – the ‘owners’. Their names were often changed to the English names and surnames of their masters or ‘owners’.
Some of the earliest documented presence of East Indians in America comes from the newspapers of those days. For example, in case a servant or a slave would run away, the owner used the newspapers to advertise the ‘run-away slave’, describing his looks and offering rewards for his recovery.
Here are some samples of the actual advertisements from the local newspapers, as archived by the historians:
August 4, 1768.
Richmond county, July 14. RUN away about the 20th of May last, an East-India Indian, named Thomas Greenwich; he is a well made fellow, about 5 feet 4 inches high, wears his own hair, which is long and black, has a thin visage, a very sly look, and a remarkable set of fine white teeth. A reward of 40s will be paid to the person who delivers him to the subscriber, besides what the law allows. WILLIAM COLSTON.
And here is another one: The Virginia Gazette newspaper reported the run away of a ‘Servant Man’. The advertisement is posted by ‘the master’ William Brown from the town of Prince William, in an effort to track down and bring back his servant. The ad, in parts, describes the run away slave and the reward as below: Continue reading