Over Land and Sea

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Review of 'Asians in Britain', Rozina Visram, Pluto £15.99

Asians in Britain are increasingly in the media spotlight, yet there is little historical research on this community and there is an endemic view that Asians did not come to Britain until the 1950s.

Rozina Visram's excellent book challenges this mindset, and does for Asians what Peter Fryer achieved for African Caribbeans in his groundbreaking book, 'Staying Power'. Spanning four centuries, Visram traces the history of Asian settlement in Britain, specifically Asians from the Indian subcontinent, from the formation of the East India Company in 1600 to the end of the Second World War.

In the 17th century servants and ayahs (nannies) were brought over by British families returning from India. The most significant group of workers were lascars (Indian sailors) who, by 1938, formed 26 percent of the total number of workers employed on British ships. Life was not easy, with high death and sickness rates and labour conditions lagging far behind their white counterparts. Racism was rife and shipping companies played off white against black and in the process kept down the wages of both. Even in 1942, despite winning significant gains through strike action, lascars earned approximately 25 percent of the wages of their white counterparts.

From the 18th century, a trickle of Indian emissaries, visitors and Indian wives of British colonialists crossed the seven seas. They were followed in the 19th century by a growing number of students, many of whom stayed to practise their professions. Even then there were fears concerning numbers of Asians. Some academics thought there were too many Indians in too few colleges and proposed scattering them across Britain (mirroring the dispersal of asylum seekers today). Whether these early Asian migrants before the First World War could be considered a community is debatable.

The same is not true of the situation by 1945, as during the two world wars significant numbers of Indians arrived. During the First World War over a million Indian soldiers fought for Britain and during the Second World War some 2.5 million. Institutions and infrastructure usually associated with the postwar generation of migrants were already firmly in place. Asians formed their own organisations, such as the Indian Workers' Association and had their own places of worship, their own shops supplying Indian goods and their own restaurants. Yet they were also integrated into British society, as indicated by the high number of mixed marriages.

Visram provides a number of historical 'firsts' which made me rethink the pattern of Asian involvement in Britain. For example one of the first Anglo-Indian marriages was in Deptford in 1613; the first curry house opened in 1810; the first mosque opened in 1889 in Woking; the first MP, Dadabhai Naoroji, was elected in 1892 in Finsbury, north London (there was even an Asian Tory MP elected in 1895!); and the first Asian cricketer in the English team was in 1895. Yet so much of this important history has been forgotten, lost or misreported.

Radical nationalist movements challenged discrimination against Asians in Britain and British rule of India. They highlighted the fact that in India life expectancy had reduced from 30 years in 1881 to 23.5 in the 1920s. But many Asians were not narrow in their concerns and they participated in other political struggles for social justice such as the suffragette movement. One of the most impressive individuals was Shapurji Saklatvala, who was elected Communist MP for Battersea in the 1920s.

By the mid-20th century there was a small Asian population which had roots in Britain. They were not just located in the ports of Britain but spread far and wide, including the Outer Hebrides (where a Pakistani Gaelic-speaking community still thrives). Visram is highly informative about the numbers of Asians who came to Britain, and the professions, classes and geographical areas they were part of. This is extremely useful as it gives a real idea of what influence this growing band of Asians had on British life. As a result she does not exaggerate or downplay the importance of Asians during this period.

The book is full of personal histories. Visram analyses the reactions and perceptions of British people and the responses of Asians themselves. It offers a very useful starting point and brings together much previous research and primary sources. Importantly, it provides useful data to challenge many racist arguments about the contribution of Asians to British society.