The spice of life in a new land

Asians in Britain

December 20, 2002

Of the roughly 2.5 million immigrants who have settled in Britain since the 1950s, about 1 million are from the Indian subcontinent (including Pakistan). Rozina Visram's extensively researched and annotated book - a much expanded, revised and updated version of her earlier Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain 1700-1947 , published in 1986 - is a comprehensive study of Asians (mainly Indians) who have lived and worked in Britain from the time of the first recorded baptism in 1616 to the present day.

Visram explores the social, cultural and political lives of these people and records the British official and social attitudes to Asian immigrants.

She tells the stories of some remarkable, little-known individuals. For example, the Calcutta-born first world war fighter pilot Indra Lal Roy, who shot down ten enemy aircraft during his flying time of 170 hours and 15 minutes, before being killed in action aged only 19. Roy was awarded a posthumous Distinguished Flying Cross. Then there was Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan, the first woman wireless operator to infiltrate occupied France, who was shot in Dachau in 1944. In 1949, she was decorated with the highest award for bravery, the George Cross; in France, she "remains one of the foremost heroines of the Resistance".

There are also prominent Indians such as Rajani Palme Dutt, a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain; K. S. Ranjitsinghi, the legendary cricketer known as Ranji; Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Indian MP, who won Finsbury Central for the Liberals in 1892; Mancherjee M. Bhownagree, the first Indian to become a Tory MP; Satyendra Prasanna Sinha, the only Indian to receive a hereditary peerage, who oversaw the implementation of the 1919 Government of India Act; and V. K. Krishna Menon, who served as a councillor for St Pancras for 14 years before becoming independent India's first high commissioner in London.

Visram also deals with humbler people. Ayahs were Indian nannies who cared for British children during voyages to and from India, some of whom settled in Britain. Lascars were Indian sailors temporarily employed by the British merchant navy and dismissed when no longer required. Some of them set up the first Indian curry houses in Britain. There were also servants from India who attended on those of exalted status, such as Robert Clive and Warren Hastings, and the journalist William Hickey. Sake Dean Mahomed of Brighton was appointed "shampooing surgeon" to King George IV, while Queen Victoria had several Indian servants, one of whom became a trusted, if controversial, private secretary.

In the heyday of empire, in the later 19th and 20th centuries, Visram maintains that Indian immigrants did not necessarily live in segregation from the rest of society. The professional immigrants - doctors, barristers and clergymen - were often well integrated in local communities. Interracial marriages were not uncommon, although inequalities and disparities were persistent in the army. Those who became active in nationalist movements in India were often kept under surveillance by the intelligence services - as shown by recently declassified government documents cited by Visram.

But creating a home in an alien environment was hard for most, particularly in the colonial era. The social clubs and associations, such as the Indian Workers' Association, that grew up between the wars, eased the passage from India. However, most immigrants led a dual existence, living as Indians in their houses and with fellow immigrants, while practising very different behaviour in their interactions with the majority community. They experienced racial prejudice to varying degrees, but they formed many genuine friendships too. Sophia Duleep Singh and her sister Catherine became suffragettes, and Sophia's contribution to the movement should be more widely acknowledged.

Most Asians became business people and entrepreneurs, including the ubiquitous newsagents. In 1931, the Bombay Emporium was established near Tottenham Court Road in London to sell Indian groceries, such as varieties of dal and exotic spices. Famous brands such as Rajah and Amoy probably date from this time. The Indian restaurant Veeraswamy's in Regent Street, established in 1926, was patronised by royalty and became famous with "old India hands". In 1935, the Bengali Sasadhar Sinha opened the Bibliophile bookshop at 16 Little Russell Street, near the British Museum. It sold new and secondhand books and quickly became a meeting place for politically minded Indians in London.

Visram concludes that Asians have enriched the social, economic and cultural life of the country in four centuries of residence in Britain. Her book is an invaluable resource for academics and journalists who want to study and understand the thriving Asian community in contemporary Britain.

Krishna Dutta is an author and editor living in London, who has published extensively on Rabindranath Tagore.

Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History

Author - Rozina Visram
ISBN - 0 7453 1378 7 and 1373 6
Publisher - Pluto
Price - £50.00 and £15.99
Pages - 488

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