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The East Indies cover a wide geographical expanse in South and Southeast Asia ranging from the Indian subcontinent to the Malay Archipelago, described as the world’s largest island group. Initially referring to India, these colonial demarcations of territory later comprised more than thirteen thousand islands located across the Indian and Pacific Oceans between mainland Southeast Asia and Australia. Coveted for their rich natural resources, including rubber, spices, cotton, and indigo, and their strategic location as important trading centers along the spice routes, the East Indies were colonized by Europe in the seventeenth century after the initial exploratory missions of the Portuguese and Spanish, and especially after the founding of various European trading companies. These companies carved out zones of influence named after the particular colonizing power they represented, such as the British East Indies (India and Malaysia), the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), and the Spanish East Indies (Philippines).
Christopher Columbus’s (1451–1506) miscalculation of westward navigation routes from Spain to Asia brought him to the New World instead of India. To avoid confusion with the “original” Indies (i.e., India), the terms East Indies and West Indies were applied by Europeans to highlight territorial distinctions between Indians from the East (Asia) and the West (the Americas). These territorial designations became racial designations to distinguish East Indians from their West Indian counterparts, thereby authenticating the centrality of Europe and its power to arbitrarily classify and homogenize entire populations from the non-Western world.
East Indian also became a marker of diasporic identity in North America to designate Indians from India and to avoid further confusion with indigenous Native American or First Nation peoples also known as Indians due to Columbus’s navigational errors. Consequently, East Indians had to be distinguished from American Indians even though the former did not necessarily identify with the appellation East Indian on account of its specific ethnic connotations in India and the political realities of decolonization. In the postcolonial period, the blanket characterization of East Indians as colonized subjects inhabiting the East Indies became invalid with the establishment of sovereign states. The term consequently misrepresented diasporic Indians who preferred to selfidentify as South Asians instead.
In India, the term East Indian refers to a specific ethnic minority from the western Konkan coast that settled in and around the area of Bombay (Mumbai) during the period of Portuguese rule in India. They were Christianized by the Portuguese and called Bombay Portuguese to distinguish them from Goans migrating to Bombay from the former Portuguese territory Goa. They may have adopted the name East Indian under British rule to show their allegiance to the British. It is therefore misleading to label all Indians from India as East Indians because of this constituency’s historical and cultural specificity in India.
In addition, the label East Indian added another polemic in the West Indies, where it designated people of South Asian origin in the Caribbean. These East IndianWest Indians further exemplified the ruptures created by colonial history and its random demarcation of boundaries through misleading nomenclature.
- Selvon, Sam. 1987. Three Into One Can’t Go: East Indian, Trinidadian, West Indian. In India in the Caribbean, eds. David Dabydeen and Brinsley Samaroo, 13–24. London: Hansib.
- Van Kley, Edwin and Donald F. Lach, eds. 1993. A Century of Advance: South Asia. Vol. 3, Book 2 of Asia in the Making of Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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