Half-caste is a term for a category of people of mixed race or ethnicity. It is derived from the term caste, which comes from the Latin castus, meaning pure, and the derivative Portuguese and Spanish casta, meaning race. It can sometimes be used or seen as an offensive term (particularly in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands and parts of Asia), but this is not universal.
The terms half-caste, caste, quarter-caste, "mix-breed" etc. were widely used by ethnographers in British colonies to try to classify natives. In Latin America, the equivalent term for half-castes was Cholo and Zambo.
In Australia, the term half-caste was widely used in the 19th- and early-20th-century British commonwealth laws to refer to the offspring of white colonists and the Aboriginal natives of the continent. For example, the Aborigines Protection Act of 1886 mentioned half-castes habitually associating with or living with an Aborigine, while the Aborigines Amendments between 1934 and 1937 refer to it in various terms, including as a person with less than quadroon blood. Later literature, such as by Tindale, refers to it in terms of half, quadroon, octoroon, and other hybrids.
The term half-caste was not merely a term of legal convenience. It became a term of common cultural discourse and appeared even in religious records. For example, John Harper notes, from records of Woolmington Christian mission, that half-castes and anyone with any aborigine connection were considered "degraded as to divine things, almost on a level with a brute, in a state of moral unfitness for heaven".
The term "Half-Caste Act" was given to laws passed by colonial governments (and later enforced by state governments) allowing the seizure of half-caste children and forcible removal from their parents. This was theoretically to provide them with better homes than those afforded by typical Aborigines, where they could grow up to work as domestic servants and for social engineering. The removed children are known as Stolen Generations. Other British commonwealth Acts on half-castes and Aborigines enacted between 1909 and 1943 were also, in theory, called Welfare Acts, in statutes passed deprived these people of basic civil, political, and economic rights and made it illegal to enter public places such as pubs and government institutions, marry, or meet relatives.
The term half-caste to classify people based on their birth and ancestry became popular in New Zealand from the early 19th century. Terms such as Anglo-New Zealander suggested by John Polack in 1838, Utu Pihikete and Huipaiana were alternatively but less used.
In Burma, a half-caste (or Kabya) was anyone with mixed ethnicity from Burmese and British, or Burmese and Indian. During the British colonial rule, half-caste people were ostracised and criticised in literary and political media. For example, a local publication in 1938 published the following:
You Burmese women who fail to safeguard your own race, after you have married an Indian, your daughter whom you have begotten by such a tie takes an Indian as her husband. As for your son, he becomes a half-caste and tries to get a pure Burmese woman. Not only you but your future generation also is those who are responsible for the ruination of the race.— An editorial in Burmese Press, 27 November 1938
Similarly, Pu Gale in 1939 wrote Kabya Pyatthana (literally: The Half-Caste Problem), censured Burmese women for enabling half-caste phenomenon, with the claim, "a Burmese woman’s degenerative intercourse with an Indian threatened a spiraling destruction of Burmese society." Such criticism was not limited to a few isolated instances, or just against Burmese girls (thet khit thami), Indians and British husbands. Starting in early 1930s through 1950s, there was an explosion of publications, newspaper articles and cartoons with such social censorship. Included in the criticism were Chinese-Burmese half-castes.
Prior to the explosion in censorship of half-castes in early-20th-century Burma, Thant claims inter-cultural couples such as Burmese-Indian marriages were encouraged by the local population. The situation began to change as colonial developments, allocation of land, rice mills and socio-economic privileges were given to European colonial officials and to Indians brought in Burma by the British with economic incentives. In the late 19th century, the British colonial administration viewed intermarriage as a socio-cultural problem. The colonial administration issued circulars prohibiting European officials from conjugal liaisons with indigenous women. In Burma, as in other colonies in Southeast Asia, intimate relations between colonised women and colonising men, and the half-caste progeny of such unions were considered harmful to white minority rule founded upon carefully maintained racial hierarchies.
Half-caste in Malaysia referred to Eurasians and other people of mixed descents. They were also commonly referred to as hybrids, and in certain sociological literature the term hybridity is common.
With Malaysia experiencing a wave of immigrations from China, the Middle East, India, and southeast Asia, and a wave of different colonial powers (Portuguese, Dutch, English), many other terms have been used for half-castes. Some of these include cap-ceng, half-breed, mesticos. These terms are considered pejorative.
Half-castes of Malaya and other British colonies in Asia have been part of non-fiction and fictional works. Brigitte Glaser notes that the half-caste characters in literary works of the 18th through 20th century were predominantly structured with prejudice, as degenerate, low, inferior, deviant or barbaric. Ashcroft in his review considers the literary work structure as consistent with morals and values of colonial era where the colonial powers considered people from different ethnic groups as unequal by birth in their abilities, character and potential, where laws were enacted that made sexual relations and marriage between ethnic groups as illegal.
Fijian people of mixed descent were called half-caste, kailoma or vasu. This started with British colonialism, and over time developed into a race conscious, segregated system of society. The colonial government viewed this as a “race problem.” It created a privileged underclass of semi-Europeans who lived on the social fringes in the colonial ordering of Fiji. This legacy continues to affect the ethnic and racial discourse in Fiji.
Kailomas or vasus were children born to a Fijian native and European or indentured laborers brought in by the colonial government to work on sugarcane plantations over a century ago. Over the generations, these half-caste people experienced a harsh, shunned and a bizarre social treatment from the colonial obsession with herding citizens into separate, tidy, racial boxes, which led to the separation of Fijian mixed-bloods from their natural families.
Sociological literature on South Africa, in pre-British, British colonial and Apartheid era refers to half-caste as anyone born from admixing of White and people of color. An alternate, less common term, for half-caste was Mestizzo (conceptually similar to Mestizo in Latin American colonies).
People of mixed descent, the half-caste, were considered inferior and slaves by birth in the 19th-century hierarchically arranged, closed colonial social stratification system of South Africa. This was the case even if the father or mother of half-caste person was a European.
British Central Africa
British Central Africa, now part Malawi and part Zimbabwe, referred to people of mixed descent as half-castes. These unions were considered improper, mixed couples segregated and shunned, and the colonial courts ruled against mixed marriages.
In today's United Kingdom, the term primarily applies to those of mixed Black and White parentage, but such was not always the case. In just about any area that fell under the crown's dominion, the term was made use of, and anyone of mixed Caucasian and conquered races could be properly described as being half-caste.
In the UK the term half-caste is generally considered more offensive than mixed-race because it implies being 'half pure' (the connotation being that the white half is the pure half). The term denies the mixed race person a section of their heritage by reducing them to half of a race.
Ruth Landes notes that half-castes born in Britain of colonial fathers felt rootless in the society in which they lived.
Sociologist Peter J. Aspinall argues that the term's origins lie in 19th-century British colonial administrations, with it evolving into a descriptor of people of mixed race or ethnicity, "usually encompassing 'White'", in the 20th century. From the 1920s to 1960s, he argues it was "used in Britain as a derogatory racial category associated with the moral condemnation of 'miscegenation'".
The National Union of Journalists has stated that the term half-caste is considered offensive today. The union's guidelines for race reporting instructs journalists to 'avoid words that, although common in the past, are now considered offensive, e.g. half-caste and coloured. Ask people how they define themselves. Check if a person identifies as mixed-race or Black'. NHS Editorial guidance states documents should 'Avoid offensive and stereotyping words such as coloured, half-caste and so forth'.
While the term half-caste tends to evoke the understanding of it referring to the offspring of two persons of two different pure bloods or near pure bloods, in other languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, the words half-caste and mixed ethnicity or multi-ethnic are the same word, hun-xue (混血).
Half-caste in other languages
The term half-caste was common in British colonies, however not exclusive. Other colonial governments such as Spain devised terms for the mixed-race children. The Spanish colonies devised a complex system of castas, consisting of Mulattoes, Mestizos, and many others. The French colonies used terms such as Métis, while the Portuguese used the term Mestiço. French colonies in the Caribbean referred to half-caste people as Chabine (female) and Chabin (male). Before the American Civil War, the term mestee was common for certain people of mixed descent.
Other terms in use in colonial era for half-castes included - creole, casco, cafuso, caburet, cattalo, citrange, griffe, half blood, half-bred, half-breed, high yellow, hinny, hybrid, ladino, liger, mamaluco, mixblood, mixed-blood, mongrel, mule, mustee, octoroon, plumcot, quadroon, quintroon, sambo, tangelo, xibaro. The difference between these terms of various European colonies usually was the race, ethnicity or caste of the father and the mother.
Ann Laura Stoler has published a series of reviews of half-caste people and ethnic intermixing during the colonial era of human history. She states that colonial control was predicated on identifying who was white and who was native, which children could become citizens of the empire while who remained the subjects of the empire, who had hereditary rights of a progeny and who did not. This was debated by colonial administrators, then triggered regulations by the authorities. At the start of colonial empires, mostly males from Europe and then males of indentured laborers from India, China and southeast Asia went on these distant trips; in these early times, intermixing was accepted, approved and encouraged. Over time, differences were emphasised, and the colonial authorities proceeded to restrict, then disapprove and finally forbid sexual relationships between groups of people to maintain so-called purity of blood and limit inheritable rights.
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Historical applications of the mixed-caste concept
- Between white/European and black/African:
- Between white/European and Native American / American Indian:
- Mestizo, a word common in Latin America, particularly Mexico
- Between white and Indian:
- In literature:
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