In 1948, a case came up for hearing in the California supreme court that challenged one of the very bases of racial segregation. The case was of Andrea Perez, a Mexican American woman. Perez, who was legally considered white because of her Spanish heritage, had been denied the right to marry Sylvester Davis, an African American, because of California’s anti-miscegenation law. An indignant Perez petitioned the supreme court, demanding a marriage licence. The court agreed. It struck down the miscegenation law as unconstitutional by a verdict of four to three. Justice Jesse Carter, one of the judges in the majority, wrote a 3,565-word judgement explaining the decision, in which he chose to cite a book written by Cedric Dover, an Anglo-Indian born nearly 8,000 miles away in Calcutta.
Justice Carter specifically quoted a paragraph from Dover’s Half Caste that spoke elegantly of human evolution. In the book, Dover wrote that humankind’s Neanderthal ancestors could have possibly arisen from a “mixture between ape-men of the Ice Age”. Or its Neolithic forebears could have emerged from relations between Neanderthals and Aurignacian invaders of Europe. This means that miscegenation had influenced human evolution from the earliest times – “there has not been a pure race of our species for at least ten thousand years,” Dover said.
The judgement was arguably a sign of how influential Dover’s book was at the time. Though an entomologist by training – his discovery of a mosquito repellent helped Allied soldiers during WWII – Dover wrote Half Caste at the age of 33, while striving to promote equality and build “coloured solidarities” across races and nations. Historian Nico Slate quotes Dover as saying, “Where there is racialism, there can be no peace…[And] without the security of assured peace…sermons on racial equality will do no more than promote adjustments here and there.”
One possible reason that Dover was attracted to issues of identity, community and belonging was his own background. He was born in an Anglo-Indian family at a time when the community was derided by others. Perhaps spurred by this prejudice, he became an activist in the cause of people of colour (the “mixed races” in his parlance), who to him were the prime movers of culture and societal evolution, and yet were denied their rightful place in history.
Dover’s work on mixed races, the “Half Castes” of his eponymous book, drew in large part from WEB Du Bois, the African-American thinker whose books including the seminal The Souls of Black Folk Dover had first read as a young child in Calcutta. Du Bois’ words that the “problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line” resonated with Dover. Like Du Bois, Dover felt that the world’s “coloured and colonised people” needed to present a united front.
The Early Years
Cedric Cyril Dover was born in April 1904 in Calcutta of Eurasian (or Anglo-Indian) parents Percy and Sophy. On his mother’s side, his ancestry could be traced to the legendary soldier James Skinner (1781-1841), who established two regiments in British India that bore his name. His father, a civil servant, died when he was just 12.
A voracious reader, Dover learnt early with his mother’s encouragement to question the accepted thinking of his milieu. In his teens, he found a mentor in Thomas Nelson Annandale, the Scottish head of Calcutta’s Indian Museum who founded the Zoological Survey of India. Annandale helped him secure a scholarship to Edinburgh University after Dover worked for a while at the Indian Museum. But the university stint did not last long. Dover was back in Calcutta by the early 1920s, where Annandale hired him at the Zoological Survey as an entomologist, while he also worked at the Asiatic Society of Bengal.
Dover’s first book, written when he was 17, was on the hymenoptera order of insects. Its long and distinguished title was The Common Butterflies of India: An Introduction to the Study of Butterflies, and how to Collect and Preserve them.
His entomological interests led to untiring research and many scientific papers, some written jointly with Mercia Heynes-Wood, his first wife. As Patrick Wright details, Dover discovered a primitive ancestral crustacean; had an extensive collection of water insects; studied spike disease in sandalwood trees; and looked for ways to preserve wood from termite attacks. He had a lifelong, undiminished love for trees. Besides joining the Men of the Trees, a conservation organisation that became the International Tree Foundation, he wrote on afforestation measures and the part that trees play in new cities and societies.
Dover had three children with Mercia Heynes-Wood. But in 1934, he effectively abandoned them in Calcutta and set off alone to London. It was here that his explorations of race, colour and identities really deepened. Joining VK Krishna Menon’s India League, he lobbied for India’s independence and extended the work of New Outlook, a magazine he had founded with Mercia in Calcutta. Their goal: to inspire “Eurasians to join the struggle for Indian independence”.
His first book on the subject of “mixed races”, Cimmerii: Or Eurasians and Their Future, was published in 1929, and detailed the “in-between position” of the Anglo-Indians in British India. Not part of the elite, they were scorned by everyone. Next, in Kingdom of the Earth (1931), he wrote a series of essays decrying blind adherence to religion and cultural stultification.
At age 33, he published Half Caste, his most acclaimed work. Prominent African-American thinkers, including educator Alain Locke, gave the polemical treatise rave reviews. Mulk Raj Anand, a giant of Indian English writing, praised Dover’s “scientific humanism” after reading Half Caste. All this success encouraged Dover to speak more volubly for a “Congress of Coloured and Colonial Peoples” after the World Peace Congress in Brussels in 1937. He described “the new colour movement that has become a realistic issue impressed on us by the similarity of our problems, by the parallel conditions created by imperialism, and economic domination, whether it be in Africa, America, or India or anywhere else.”
While his work gathered accolades, his personal life remained unsettled. He married twice again: first to Dorothy, who travelled with him to the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, and then to Maureen Alexander-Sinclair, whose extensive collection of Dover’s works is still invaluable for the insight it provides.
In 1938, Dover visited the US, where he met the man who had shaped his political thinking since his young days in Calcutta: the African-American thinker WEB Du Bois. As Nico Slate writes, Du Bois – and other notable figures like Langston Hughes, Claude Mackay and Paul Robeson he met in the US – profoundly influenced his beliefs on colour, race, culture and his politics.
In his later books, Dover would urge the mixed races of the world – he gave examples of the Portuguese settlements in Myanmar, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, and some among the Maori community in Australia and New Zealand – to unite against the world’s ills. In April 1947, he argued for “Pan Asian solidarities”, something that would come about at the Bandung Conference of 1955, when newly independent African and Asian nations met in a new era of cooperation.
During World War II, Dover returned to England, where his old calling and experience came in use again. As an entomologist, he wrote the section on biology for a compendium titled The Complete Self-Educator (1939). More interestingly, as Wright says, a mosquito repellent cream he had discovered in the mid-1920s as a research scientist by the Malarial Bureau in the Malay states came in handy again. The lotion called Dover’s Cream – which had citronella oil mixed with cedar wood oil, white petroleum jelly and spirit of camphor – came to the rescue of Allied soldiers who were fighting in the humid climes of South East Asia. Ever a man of many parts, he also worked with George Orwell, Venu Chitale and EM Forster at the BBC as radio broadcasts from London became crucial for boosting the Allied war effort in India.
After the War, Dover spent some years teaching at US universities, namely Fisk in Tennessee and the New School for Social Research in New York. He tried to expand scholarly collaboration between Indian universities and America’s historically black colleges, but his association with Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes, two cultural figures persecuted by the US authorities for their leftward leanings, meant he could not stay on in the US.
Dover’s last book, written a year before his death in 1961, was an ambitious project titled American Negro Art. It collated decades of art produced by African-Americans and argued that the corpus was not a subset of American art but an endeavour unto its own. Dover hoped this story of art, reflecting decades of struggle and resistance, would inspire others, and establish the solidarities he spoke of all his life.
This is the sixth part in a new triweekly series on early Indians who blazed a trail in other parts of the world. Read the rest of the series here.