Ulster Logo
Link to facebook  Link to INCOREinfo on twitter  Link to INCORE rss feed    Linkedin link Linkedin link

The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest


Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History
Rozina Visram

London: Pluto Press, 2002
ISBN 0745313736. 488 pp

In 1986, Rozina Visram wrote a pioneering study of Indians in Britain between 1700 and 1947. The present work draws on a much wider range of sources to provide a detailed social history of South Asian communities in Britain before the 1950s. It is an important contribution, not least because South Asian immigration started in large numbers only in the 1960s, making it easy to overlook the long formative period from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth century.

Many of the South Asians who reached Britain were sailors, usually known as Lascars, or female servants. However, a wide variety of other professions were represented: doctors, itinerant pedlars, dockworkers, and, especially in the labour shortage of the early 1940s, factory workers. Visram documents her study meticulously, including some of the outbreaks of ethnic prejudice and, occasionally, violence, that the immigrants faced. For example, in the summer of 1919 there was a series of incidents, termed “race riots”, where indiscriminate attacks were made by whites on blacks and Asians.

One of the most detailed sections of the book deals with the contributions of the Asian community to the fight for independence on the Indian sub-continent. It also describes the British surveillance and harassment of activists. This section covers in depth the remarkable career of Krishna Menon, a radical Labour Party member, anti-fascist, pro-independence activist, and moreover co-founder of Penguin Books.

Visram's work is strong on social and labour history; it does however tend to ignore the question of religion, although there is brief mention of the first mosque built in the UK, in 1889. Surprisingly there is hardly a word about the introduction to Britain of Hinduism and Buddhism. In the period, notable religious leaders visited and even settled, founding many institutions which are still active today.

For example, the Buddhist Society was founded in 1907, and re-launched in 1924, largely due to the efforts of the world-famous Sri Lankan Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) and his fellow monks. The London Buddhist Vihara, staffed by Sri Lankan monks, was founded in 1926. The scholar and yoga teacher Dr Hari Prasad Shastri (1882-1956) settled in London in 1929, attracting numerous students from a variety of backgrounds. Swami Vivekananda was probably the most influential Hindu spokesperson in London in the 1890s. C. Jinarajadasa, President of the Theosophical Society, was Cambridge-educated; as was Aurobindo Ghosh the revolutionary turned mystic. And J. Krishnamurti, possibly the best-known Indian philosopher and writer of the twentieth century (again, not mentioned in this book), spent much of his life in England and was frequently in the news. Given the central role of religion in South Asian ethnicity, and its importance in Western perceptions of the sub-continent, more comment would have been welcome.

With this reservation, Visram's work can be strongly recommended as an outstanding contribution to the history of the Asian diaspora.

Alan Hunter, Senior Lecturer, Centre for the Study of Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Coventry University

Disclaimer: © INCORE 2010 Last Updated on Monday, 10-Aug-2015 12:20
contact usgoto the search page
go to the top of this page