- Rozina Visram, Asians in Britain. 400 Years of History
At a time when revisionist histories of empire are all too present in the U.K. claiming that the British Empire was overall a ‘Good Thing’, and popular national histories are also returning to very traditional versions of the ‘island story’, Rozina Visram’s Asians in Britain. 400 Years of History is especially welcome. This is an updated and much expanded version of Visram’s Ayahs, Lascars and Princes. The story of Indians in Britain 1700–1947, which was published in 1986 and provided the first study of the Indian presence in Britain. Fifteen years later she has produced this much larger work based on meticulous archival research. Since coming to Britain in 1969 Visram has been active in educational work, both in schools and museums, and has been tirelessly engaged in the effort to demonstrate that ‘migration has been part of Britain’s history and society…British culture has never been a homogenous product of indigenous origins’ (360). Her particular focus has been on tracing the South Asian presence in Britain since the seventeenth century and insisting that the post-war migration of Indian, Pakistani and later Bangladeshi peoples into Britain needs to be understood as part of a much longer history of connection. The empire gave white Britons access to India—its wealth, and its culture. Some enjoyed the benefits of a sojourn in that country, returning to spend their booty. Then there were the white soldiers who fought in the army, or iconic figures such as Kipling who were locked in a complex and ambiguous relation to the beloved places of their childhood, or indeed the white women who ventured to India in pursuit of new forms of spiritual life. But empire also made Britain more accessible to people from South Asia—the sailors or lascars, the ayahs who cared for the children of the colonisers and sometimes returned with them to Britain, the middle and upper-class male students who came to study. Only a relatively small number of these sojourners settled but they, together with the numerous travellers and visitors, have ensured a South Asian presence in Britain since the seventeenth century.
As Rozina Visram notes in her preface, relatively little scholarship has focused on these men and women. In part this is connected to the documentation for the records are scattered and fragmented, with nothing equivalent to the collection of materials linking Britain to Africa and the Caribbean and associated with slavery and abolition. In the recent past research on South Asians in Britain has tended to focus on the post-war period, and has mostly been done by sociologists and anthropologists. This is connected also to the regrettable absence of British South Asian postgraduates: history, and unfortunately this is largely true of British African-Caribbeans too, has not been a chosen subject to pursue. Perhaps history, as taught in most British schools and universities, is still too inattentive to the efforts which are being made to re-think national stories through a post-colonial lens, rendering it somewhat irrelevant to the lives of young black and South Asian Britons. Yet as Visram points out, there are rich sources to be mined, not only in the East India Company and government records—and she herself has made especially good use of the secret Indian Political Intelligence records which were released in 1997—but also in the usual range of local history sources, including family archives, which can be mined for traces of ‘other’ peoples. This is a slow and painstaking job, gradually being made somewhat easier by the work which is going on in some local areas to retrieve lost histories.1
Asians in Britain looks at the nature of settlement in Britain, at official attitudes to migration, and at the varied responses of both the South Asians and the British. It investigates the economic, political, social and cultural worlds which South Asians made through the experiences of both individuals and groups. It documents the anti-colonial struggles in which they engaged in the metropole and...