Vivien Leigh, Anglo-Indian?
by Emily Monroy
Last December marked the 75th anniversary of the movie Gone with the Wind. The film, like the historical novel by Margaret Mitchell on which it was based, has generated a wide range of reactions over the years. A (White) teacher of mine in high school called Gone with the Wind the best movie ever made. On the other hand, my mother (also White) happened to chance upon the film as she was flicking through the channels on her TV and remarked to me, ‘It really was a racist movie,’ echoing a criticism often voiced against Gone with the Wind.
To be fair, Gone with the Wind was not The Birth of a Nation. Rather, ‘Negroes,’ the polite word by which Blacks were known then, were portrayed in the former film as good people as long as they knew their place, which happened to be slavery before the Civil War and serving in the O’Hara household afterwards. Even the bumbling slave girl Prissy (‘I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies’) comes across as more or less benign; she, after all, isn’t clamouring for freedom or joining the Yankees.
It might come as a surprise, therefore, that Vivien Leigh, the actress who played the main character Scarlett O’Hara, may not have been purely ‘White’ as we understand the term. Although Leigh is generally described as British, she may actually have been part-Indian, from India.
Vivien Leigh was born Vivian Mary Hartley in Darjeeling, India, at a time when that country was under British rule. Her father was from Britain itself (Yorkshire), but her mother’s origins are more mysterious. Leigh’s maternal grandmother is believed to have been Irish; her Catholic religion seems to suggest this (statements that Vivien Leigh was half-French were in all probability fictitious, part of a ruse to make her further resemble the character she played in Gone with the Wind). Her maternal grandfather’s surname is given as Yackjee, which is thought to be an Indian name. Vivien Leigh may therefore have been an Anglo-Indian.
Who are the Anglo-Indians? Anglo-Indians are people of mixed Indian and European background who, as a group, arose during India’s days as a European colony. Anglo-Indians’ European ancestry generally hailed from England itself, but some Anglo-Indians had forbears from other European countries that ruled (parts of) India, such as Portugal and the Netherlands, while others descended from Europeans who came to India along with the English, like the Irish. Most first-generation Anglo-Indians were born to White fathers and South Asian mothers rather than the opposite combination. In time, however, Anglo-Indians became a community in their own right, marrying within their group and distinguishing themselves from the Indian majority around them in areas like language (usually English) and religion (Christianity, mainly Catholicism or Anglicanism).
In many ways, the Anglo-Indians resembled other mixed communities in Asia, such as mestizos in the Philippines, Indos in Indonesia, and Anglo-Burmese in what is now Myanmar. Like the Anglo-Indians, these groups were born mostly from unions of European men and Asian women. They too tended to adopt the language and culture of their paternal as opposed to maternal ancestors. However, because Europeans were never a large numerical presence in Asia, mixed White-Asian communities were always a small percentage of the population in the countries in which they lived. Hence they did not have much influence on these nations as a whole. This was quite a different situation from that of the mestizos of Latin America, who eventually became the majority of that region’s population and brought it into the Western fold (I discuss this in my previous essay ‘Race Mixing and Westernization in Latin America and the Philippines.’)
Anglo-Indians largely ceased to be a distinct community in India when that nation gained independence from Britain in the 1940s. Some historians theorize that being so much more European than South Asian in culture, Anglo-Indians felt they no longer had a place in a country that had broken off from the so-called motherland. Therefore, many Anglo-Indians left India, going to the United Kingdom itself or to Commonwealth countries like Australia and Canada. Some famous Anglo-Indians include comedian Russell Peters and singer Engelbert Humperdinck (not to be confused with the German composer of the opera Hansel and Gretel; the singer’s name was a pseudonym of George Dorsey).
Going back to Vivien Leigh, the idea that the woman who played Scarlett O’Hara may not have been 100% White puts her role in Gone with the Wind in a different perspective. I know that, contrary to the beliefs of left- and right-wing ideologues alike, different minority groups do not necessarily love each other. I also know that relations between Blacks and South Asians have not always been easy, whether in Uganda under Idi Amin, in places with large numbers of both groups like Guyana or Trinidad and Tobago, and even in industrialized countries such as Britain or Canada. It is not even that Vivien Leigh’s performance as the slave mistress who beats Prissy with a tree branch is less convincing. However, I do think it places my mother’s description of Gone with the Wind as racist (i.e., in this case White Supremacist) in another light.
Another question: if Vivien Leigh was actually of mixed race, did that help her career in terms of the roles she received? She portrayed characters of various ethnicities, from (French or part-French) Southern belles like Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire to the title character in Anna Karenina (Russian) to Cleopatra (Egyptian of Greek origin) in Caesar and Cleopatra. Was Vivien Leigh perhaps a bit like Anthony Quinn (of Mexican and Irish descent), who managed to play a culturally diverse repertoire of characters? These are the many questions raised by Vivien Leigh, Anglo-Indian (?).
Emily Monroy is a professional translator and is of Irish, Italian and Norwegian descent. Born in Windsor, Ontario, she now resides in Toronto. Her articles have appeared in several publications, including Interracial Voice, Cats Canada, and Urban Mozaik. She welcomes feedback on her articles. You can contact Emily here