Closed, normatively endogamous communities have a long history in Southern Asia. Over the past millennium, they have been labeled with the Sanskrit “jati”, Arabic “qaum”, Persian “zat” and others. But we have long known that there is no equivalent word for “caste” in any Indian or Asian language. It came as a loan-word but is today firmly embedded in Indian public and policy discourse. We also know that the first users of the term (as casta) were Iberians – Portuguese and Spanish, first in the Iberian peninsula and then in Asia and the Americas. But how the term was used – descriptively, administratively, and sociologically – is less known. The connection of Asia and the Americas has not been made.

Two Iberian Empires initiated and, for more than a century, controlled all the trans-Oceanic ventures of modern Europeans. These were the Spanish in the Americas and the Portuguese in Asia. Several Iberian kingdoms had begun a campaign of religious persecution against Jews in the 1300s. Many converted under duress. But to the dismay of many “old Christian” churchmen in cushy sinecures, the educated and affluent among the Jewish converts then began to rise in Church and royal service.

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Classification by descent

Furthermore, converts’ prominence among tax-collectors naturally made them unpopular with poorer Christians. The interests of clerics and plebeians thus coalesced first in pogroms and then in justifying their hostility via a doctrine of “purity of blood” – the idea that only “old Christians” were worthy of favour in Spanish and Portuguese society. Protagonists of the new idea had to contend against long-established Church doctrine of all humans are redeemable through Christ. Quite remarkably, they nonetheless succeeded in prioritising biological descent above spiritual redemption.

It followed that “New Christians”, “conversos” etc., especially those belonging to the “casta de judios”, should be carefully watched and vigilantly excluded from offices of status. (The above is drawn largely from Albert Sicroff, Le Controverse de Statuts de Pureté de Sang 1960.) This grew into a settled prejudice that intensified into the 19th century. “Casta” before 1500 had tended to refer to type or breed of plant or animal: but it now came to mean a species of human marked by descent. It was thus verging on the emerging concept of race. Even today a standard dictionary illustrates its meaning with the phrase “eso me viene de casta” rendered as “it’s in my blood”.

It is not surprising that when the Iberians came to Asia and the Americas, they promptly began classifying people by descent. Even at the time, Indians did not marry outside a specific set of families, or “caste” defined as a “marriage-pool”. Iberians however promptly decided that this was motivated by a drive to preserve the purity of their “blood”. This was pointed out by the American anthropologist Morton Klass. At the same time, the Spanish and Portuguese also began creating a “sistema de castas”, a caste system in the Spanish Americas.

Ignacio María Barreda, Depiction of the Casta System in Mexico

Language exchange

Spain and Portugal were united under one monarchy from 1580 to 1640. More importantly, they were also bound by the powerful racial ideology well embedded in the Iberian Catholic Church. The Portuguese introduced later-coming Europeans to the Indian subcontinent and Indians to a new kind of Westerner. Many Portuguese loanwords entered the languages of Asia. One of these was casta, anglicised to cast or caste. But while this etymology is well-known, most discourse has assumed that the loan-word was applied to a pre-existing and very old indigenous social institution, an institution that has remained unchanged until the present.

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In the 20th century, with the mounting cultural power of the USA, proponents of this view have increasingly assimilated caste to the Western idea of race. They have also assumed it to be confined to the Hindu segment of the Indian population. This has been a powerful and persistent trope, even though many specialists, such as the veteran sociologist Joseph Elder, have listed seven errors in the popular Western understanding of caste.

One of these was that “Castes are uniquely Hindu”. He wrote that in India, “castes exist among Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Muslims.” Frequently the rules about marrying within one’s caste and avoiding interactions with other castes are as strict among Christians or Jains, for instance. as they are among Hindus. Elder also puts his finger on a key element of its durability. This was that the British colonial regime – the most influential of South Asian empires – deployed it in its legal and political system.

The American anthropologist Morton Klass also attempted a historical account of the origin of caste as a concept and a practice. He pointed out that the Portuguese and Spanish were themselves just evolving a system of ethnic and social stratification by biological ancestry; it was for this reason that they immediately assumed that Indian jāti endogamous groups were aimed at maintaining “purity of blood”.

The early response was, however, not to attack caste but to reduce most features of it to a concern of civil society, external to the faith (adiaphora). Converts of different castes were thus permitted separate churches. According to the famous Jesuit missionary Nobili, this was an established practice by 1615. Indeed, Nobili approvingly quoted a Brahman convert who had responded to the criticism that Nobili’s coluor was evidence to his being a despicable “prangui” (barbaric Westerner).

“You reproach the saniassi [ascetic, meaning Nobili] with being a vile Prangui and cite his color as proof...by that argument I prove that you are a paria [a Dalit caste-name]. You are black, parias are black so you are therefore a paria. What! Can you not conceive that in another country where all men, brahmans and parias alike are white, there will be among the whites the same distinction of castes, the same distinction between nobles and commoners? Everyone applauded this reply, which was as substantive as it was spirited.”

This use of casta to mean any kind of descent group entered other European languages. The Dutch, for example, were by 1640 describing the wives of some sailors as of “Portuguese casta”. It also traveled into English.

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Early colonial governments recognised the administrative value of caste as a means to organise “civil society”. The Dutch conquered Sri Lanka from the Portuguese and enforced a strict caste system there. Different tax and labour dues were extracted from each caste in order to sustain Dutch colonial enterprise. To check evasion of the service requirement attached the land, subjects could not mortgage or sell their lands without leave, and the customs and distinctions of caste were rigorously enforced by Dutch penal regulations. This continued under the early British rule in Sri Lanka.

Similarly, in Bombay island, the first British colony in India, the early administration decided that the “severall nations at pres[ent] inhabiting or hereafter to inhabit on the Island of Bombay be reduced or modelled into so many orders or tribes & that each nation may have a Cheif (sic) or Consull of the same nation appointed over them by the Gover[nor] and Councell”. As late as 1900, the British government in India passed the Land Alienation Act, a major agrarian law regulating property transfers among two specified sets of “Tribes and Castes” described as ‘agriculturist’ and ‘non-agriculturist’. Both sets included Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. A more complete exposition of the long history of state, caste and ethnicity is to be found in my book, whose European and Indian editions are linked below.

(European) Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present(Indian) Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present

Sumit Guha is Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin.

This article first appeared on the blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas.