Robert Winder's Bloody Foreigners is a spirited intervention into the immigration debate. He wants to set the record straight and show that immigration has been a central narrative of British history. In his account, the British are not a settled homogeneous ethnic group but a people with deep multicultural roots.
The book sets out to describe the role that immigrants have played in creating Britain through their large numbers and their significant contribution to the economy, science and culture. Winder uses his excellent storytelling skills to introduce us to the lives of immigrants. But he is keen to demonstrate that, "in spite of everything that can be said about racism and injustice", Britain has "an exceptionally long tradition of tolerance towards foreigners". His book tells a more complex story.
Once it gets going (24,500 years are dealt with in 40 pages), we are treated to some heart-warming accounts of the arrival of the Huguenots, the Dutch and the Germans from the late 17th century onwards. One Jacques Fontaine, a Huguenot, arrives in Barnstable to find the people "kindness itself". The Dutch who arrive with William of Orange also integrate well into the court and the City of London. The Hanoverians bring not only monarchs but Handel and many musicians. They, too, seemed to fare well despite episodic outbreaks of racism. In the main, white Protestant Europeans soon become integrated and settled.
However, the arrival of African slaves and servants from the British colonies seems to disrupt this even history. This chapter is Winder's best, vividly recounting the lives of the large black community in Britain in the mid and late 18th century - perhaps 40,000-strong. Ignatius Sancho, Ottobah Cuguano and Olaudah Equiano make their rightful appearance. The character of racism in this period is of a different order, as we are encountering representatives of the peoples whom British imperialism is enslaving, conquering and committing genocide against. Winder describes how black slaves or servants in London were seen as "fashion accessories" and records the racist outbursts of those who compared Africans to animals. In 1774, Edward Long called Africans "brutish ignorant, idle, crafty, treacherous, bloody, thievish, mistrustful and superstitious". This community almost entirely disappeared through early deaths and emigration.
But while Winder makes the link between the British and slavery very well, he is less sound in connecting empire and racism to British nationalism.
Nationalist discourses, too, attempt to colonise the migrant. This is perhaps the point of the multiculturalist response. Winder seems unaware that he presents British multiculturalism as evidence of a superior national characteristic; Britain has it, whereas the benighted peoples of India, Cyprus, Palestine, Rwanda and Yugoslavia do not. The key issue in the immigration debate is to address such constructions of superiority openly. That is why it is disappointing that Winder concludes his well-intentioned book with the well-known mantra that Britain is a moderate, liberty-loving place that values the rule of law.
So that is what British Government support for the Iraq War is all about, is it?
John Strawson teaches law at the University of East London.
Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain
Author - Robert Winder
Publisher - Little, Brown
Pages - 403
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 316 86135 9