Socialist Worker

The hidden history of Asians in Britain

ONE OF the great myths about Britain is that immigration, especially from Third World countries, is a recent phenomenon. THERESA BENNETT looks at a new book, Asians in Britain by Rozina Visram, which challenges that myth.

Issue No. 1809

AN OLD slogan in anti-racist movements in Britain is 'we're over here because you were over there'. Rozina Visram shows how true that is. From the beginning, Asian migration to Britain is entwined with the way Britain established and built its empire. Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter for trade to the Governor and Company of Merchants of London in 1600, founding the East India Company. And it was the company's ventures which sparked the first movement of people between South Asia and Britain.

The first recorded case of an Indian being christened here was bound up with British commercial adventures in South Asia. The baptism-on 22 December 1616 at St Dionis Backchurch in the City of London-took place in the presence of governors of the East India Company. Many of the first Asian arrivals in Britain came as servants to returning East India Company agents.

Those agents snatched land in the Bengal provinces and bestowed the title of 'nabob' (from 'nawab'-Muslim nobleman) upon themselves, adopting many of the customs of local rulers and living an opulent lifestyle. And when they returned to Britain some brought their Indian servants back with them. Visram explains, 'Indian servants were a symbol of the exalted status of the newly enriched India returned nabob.'

As well as status there was another motivation, says Visram-the cost of 'a common servant in England was eight times higher than in India'. By 1753 you could find Indians employed as servants and ayahs, nurses for children, in the households of a significant number of the British elite. Many Asians who came to Britain in this way eventually returned to India. But others settled in London, and some also went on to live in cities such as Edinburgh, Cheltenham and Bath.

IN THE 18th century the presence of Indians was familiar to people living in many parts of London. The exact number of Asian people who settled in Britain isn't known. But parish records reveal that Indians became a normal part of life in the London districts of Tooting, Whitechapel, Greenwich and Lewisham, and also out into Essex. Many servants were only employed to accompany their British masters while travelling back from India. Once here many were simply dumped, and some employers broke promises they had made to return servants to India.

One 18th century London publication recorded, 'The number of poor wretches who are daily begging for a passage back proves those who bring them over leave them to shift for themselves the moment they have no further occasion for their services. Many have been in England two or three years.' Although there were exceptions, the relationship between Europeans and Indian workers was one of harsh exploitation.

This was most obvious in the growth in the number of Indian workers used on merchant ships as the British wealthy cashed in on the growth of international trade on the back of empire. These seafarers, called lascars, were systematically discriminated against, and a 'first class lascar received much less than an equivalent British seaman'. Grasping ship owners skimped on lascars' clothing, food rations and often left them destitute.

Lascars' miserable conditions were so bad that in the 1780s there were reports of those in London roaming the streets searching for ways to survive. Racial discrimination against lascars was institutionalised in the 1823 Merchant Shipping Act. This occurred at the same time as the British elite was sharply stepping up its racism towards Asians, and establishing mush sharper divisions between the 'British' and Indians in India itself. Ordinary people in India suffered in a host of different ways from British rule, with repeated great famines killing millions in the Indian subcontinent at the height of British rule.

Yet all the time Indians had to pay through taxes for the British rule imposed upon them. Poor Indians were also funding the British military machine, with the Indian army being used to protect British interests in the empire. BY THE late 19th century some of those Asians living in Britain began to be involved in political agitation in this country. Dadabhai Naoroji, for example, lived in London and was a campaigner for Indian independence.

In 1892 he became the first Asian to be elected to the Westminster parliament. He was selected as the Liberal Party candidate for the overwhelmingly white working class area of Clerkenwell. The Liberals were, at the time, the party to which many radicals looked when it came to elections. Naoroji was friendly with many radical figures of the day, including socialists.

In the run-up to the election his opponents and figures within the Liberal Party itself attempted to play the race card. Yet he was elected by the working class electorate. His success in rallying support against colonialism sparked the fear in some of the British ruling elite that 'such support at home does untold harm in India. It encourages the belief that the people of England are in full accord with the intention of the Indian National Congress'.

A few years later another Indian, this time a far more conservative figure standing as a Tory, was elected to parliament. Yet nevertheless the fact that Mancherjee Bhownaggree was elected by white workers in the east London constituency of Bethnal Green is a fact often hidden from history. Shyamaji Krishnavarama, another radical supporter of Indian independence, in 1905 founded India House in Highgate in London.

It became a centre for the movement for Indian independence, where meetings and debates were held and political agitation organised. Many prominent figures including the Indian independence struggle leader Mahatma Gandhi stayed at India House before a British state clampdown forced Krishnavarama to flee and closed down India House.

In the years afterward the tradition of Asians being involved in radical politics in Britain continued.

In the first decades of the 20th century, for instance, Sophia Duleep Singh was a leading member of the Suffragette movement fighting for women's right to vote. THE FIRST World War from 1914 to 1918 saw a huge expansion in Britain's use of Indian workers, soldiers and lascars in its military campaign. Over a million Indian soldiers had been sent to fight by 1918.

Racism in the military ranks meant that Indians couldn't become officers, and the War Office was forced to admit, 'the intention of the military authorities is to exclude all candidates who are not of pure European descent.' Loyalty towards Britain brought no rewards. The role of Indians who fought in the First World War went unrecognised and Asians suffered in a post-war backlash and repression.

New laws were introduced to racially discriminate against Asians even further in their search for work. Race riots in Cardiff, London, Glasgow and Liverpool took place in 1919, although it was recognised the 'aggressors' in these attacks were 'belonging to the white race'.

The police in Cardiff recommended to the Home Office they 'give serious consideration to the advisability of immediate steps being taken to repatriate all the unemployed coloured seamen at this port'. But alongside this the earlier tradition of Asians being involved in radical politics in Britain and being supported by white workers continued. In the 1920s Communist Party member Shapurji Saklatvala was elected to parliament in Battersea in London, and became a hugely popular figure among his white working class supporters.

A 1924 newspaper report talked of 'a Battersea charwoman almost in tears because she lived on the wrong side of the street and could not vote for Saklatvala'. And at an election meeting one of his opponents argued that 'the electorate have an instinctive preference for an Englishman' and was howled down by his audience with cries of 'shame'.

Tories used arguments in the election campaigns telling people 'not to vote for the black man'. But the race card failed and twice Saklatvala was triumphantly elected to parliament.

Rozina Visram's book does a great service to all anti-racists by telling the often hidden story of Asians in Britain.

Asians in Britain by Rozina Visram, £14.99, Pluto Press. Available from Bookmarks-phone 020 7637 1848.

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Sat 20 Jul 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1809
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