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South Asians have been settling in Britain for at least four centuries. It is hardly surprising that their reasons for moving here have varied widely.
Up until the early 19th century there was no great gap in living standards between Britain and many parts of the Indian subcontinent. Any migration that took place in this period was not motivated by hardship, but by personal interests. Living conditions deteriorated over the long years of British colonial rule, but migrating to Britain was by no means an easy remedy for difficulties at home. Passports were hard to obtain and sea fares prohibitively expensive, especially for the poorest and hardest-hit. Colonial rule did, however, bring increasing numbers of relatively affluent South Asians to the United Kingdom, most of whom pursued educational and career interests. Simultaneously, Indians of all backgrounds were encouraged to migrate to other parts of the Empire - East Africa, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, even the Caribbean and Canada - from where some moved on to Britain in later decades. Most South Asians living in Britain today arrived after independence, responding to difficulties affecting particular local communities.
The relationship between Britain and India reaches back to the Age of Great Discoveries in the 16th century. Like other Europeans at the time, British merchant adventurers found that large profits could be made from importing oriental luxuries via newly discovered sea routes. India provided spices, dyes, and most importantly, textiles of a quality that could not be produced in Europe.
For the next 250 years, this trade was organised by the East India Company - a private shared stock company registered in London. British merchants established themselves in new trading posts on the Indian coast, but did not get directly involved in the politics of the subcontinent. From the 1750s, however, trading interests began to give way to a colonial hunger for territorial expansion. The East India Company transformed itself from a purely commercial operation into a military power that gradually brought most parts of India under its control. This transformation always remained haphazard, and legal and political difficulties began to mount. After a massive rebellion against foreign rule in 1857, the British government decided to place India under the direct control of the Crown. The Company was abolished and Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1858.
The growth of industrial capitalism in Europe changed India's role in the world economy. From being an exporter of artisan products on a fairly limited scale, India was turned into a massive source of cheap raw materials, such as cotton, jute, indigo and tea. Steamship travel, the railways, the postal system and the telegraph were all innovations which opened up the subcontinent to international trade. Colonial rule advanced foreign commercial interests with little regard for the welfare of the people of India. Although some Indians benefitted from this, most suffered when exposed to the fluctuations of the global economy. The once world-famous artisan industry collapsed in the face of cheap machine-made imports. See the paintings of different trades people commissioned by the East India Company.
The peasantry was forced to switch from food crops to cash crops which led to mass starvation in times of agricultural crisis. Read the 1923 Crop Atlas of India. The long term positive impact of colonial innovations such as the railways, the postal system and some irrigation projects must not be overstated. Contrary to its own propaganda, colonial rule was about Western control not development, and will always compare unfavourably to the modernising achievements of a dedicated national government, for instance in 19th century Japan.
Great Britain was unable to supply the manpower to sustain the new colonial government complete with its railways, post offices and police stations. Substantial numbers of Indians who spoke English and possessed modern skills, had to be made junior partners in the colonial enterprise. Some British politicians, such as Macauley, responded to this need by promoting western education, promising all but full equality with the colonial rulers themselves. Read Macaulay's Educational Minute (1835). Starting off in Bengal, many Indians responded enthusiastically to the opportunities of English education. Indigenous reform societies and religious trusts quickly set up schools and colleges along British lines. By the 1930s a whole generation of anglicised Indian 'gentlemen' had emerged, although the vast majority of the population remained illiterate. A few members of the Indian elite really became 'brown Englishmen'. But on the whole, the promise of racial equality was never fulfilled. Many colonial officials hated anglicised Indians more than anybody else. The advancement of Indians to responsible positions in colonial government was extremely slow and hard fought over.
The response of the people of South Asia to colonial rule varied widely. In some regions - for instance in the Punjab - whole sections of the rural population saw opportunities in army and police recruitment and offered their full-hearted collaboration. The westernised white collar class and Indian entrepreneurs decided to make the best of foreign rule for the time being, but also sought to advance their own interest by political pressure. Large sections of the peasantry and the artisan class completely rejected the colonial regime, but lacked the political organisation to launch sustained opposition. It was the second group - the westernised professionals - who were the first to build political institutions, albeit with very limited aims.
When the All India National Congress was founded in 1885, it was little more than a rather formal annual debating club. Younger Congress members, mostly from the newly-emerging professional middle-classes, soon pushed the organisation to a more principled stand against colonialism. But it was charismatic leaders such as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose who turned the Congress by the inter-war years into an country-wide mass movement, proposing full independence for the Indian subcontinent. They had to bridge the gap not only between the westernised elite, the peasantry and the emerging working class, but also between the different religious communities, castes and regional identities that divided India.
Despite impressive achievements in popular mobilisation, Congress failed to accommodate the majority of India's Muslims. Under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Muslim League emerged as a rival mass party. After prolonged negotiations, Jinnah and Nehru failed to find a constitutional solution that would recognise the Muslim demand for national self-determination within an independent India. Read the Muslim League's resolutions made on 29th July 1946 - they announce the League's intention to resort to direct action to achieve Pakistan.
When the British surrendered power in 1947, they decided to partition the subcontinent into a majority Hindu India and a majority Muslim Pakistan. Read more about the partition of India.
Despite coming from a variety of cultural and religious backgrounds, migrants from the Indian sub-continent shared some common features. The vast majority were from agricultural backgrounds, which meant that they were used to demanding physical work, living frugally and long periods of temporary migration in order to supplement their agricultural income.
On the other hand, they were also used to their work varying with the seasons and in line with cultural, religious and social practice. The monotonous work, cold weather and long winter nights immigrants encountered in Britain required a lot of adjustment. But adjust they did: prayer times were missed, religious festivals were postponed to the weekend and many Sikhs cut their hair and shaved their beards.
The main unit of social organisation in the sub-continent is the extended family, which usually includes a man, his sons, and his sons' sons, together with their wives and unmarried daughters. Resources are shared within the group and children are regarded as an investment in future security for the group. As a result, many migrants were 'invested in' by their families, who would pool resources in order to pay for the expensive journey to Britain. Therefore, an emigrant did not leave the extended family group but remained an integral part. As only the privileged could afford to migrate with their family, most left their families to live with relatives until they had earned enough money to return or to send for them. This strong family network meant that rich and poor alike would send money to their relatives, repaying and contributing to the investment in the family's future security.
The roots of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi presence in this country were laid down long before the subcontinent gained its independence in 1947.
Small numbers of professionals - mainly doctors, businessmen or lawyers - had established themselves in Britain from the mid-19th century onwards, and from the beginning of the 20th century, small groups of much poorer ex-seamen and ex-soldiers, most of whom eked out a living as pedlars, could be found in many seaports.
When recruitment into the armed forces resulted in acute shortages of industrial labour during the course of the Second World War, many of these pedlars were able to obtain jobs in industry for the first time. When Britain experienced the post-war economic boom, which lasted right up until the end of the 1970s, there were plenty more jobs to be had, and more and more migrant workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh came to join these early pioneers.
Some of the immigrants had professional qualifications - many were doctors. However, the overwhelming majority of those who came to fill the (mostly unskilled) jobs on offer in Wolf's rubber factory in Southall, in iron foundries in Birmingham, in steelworks in Sheffield and Scunthorpe, and in the textile towns on both sides of the Pennines had rural origins. Most were literate in Urdu, Punjabi or Gujarati, but few had much in the way of formal educational qualifications.
The vast majority of migrants from South Asia were from the north of the sub-continent: Gujarat and Punjab in India, Mirpur in Pakistan, and Sylhet in Bangladesh. The reasons for the majority of migrants originating from only a few of the myriad communities in India is directly linked to earlier patterns of settlement. Demobbed soldiers, mostly from Punjab and Gujarat, and deserters from the merchant navy, from Mirpur and Sylhet, who settled in England from the early 1900s became the bridgeheads for the flow of migrants who arrived in Britain from the 1960s. Famously, Sylhettis were often ship's cooks; many of them went on to work in the 'Indian' restaurants which they still dominate today. When the post-war industrial boom created a huge demand for unskilled labour, those who had already obtained a foothold in Britain encouraged their male relatives to come to Britain, guaranteeing them work and support.
People from other parts of the sub-continent also migrated to England, as did people from the region who had originally settled in Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, Fiji, and the West Indies. In recent years Tamil refugees from the civil war in Sri Lanka have joined those from other smaller regional communities, including Goa and Kerala who have mainly settled in the South East of England. Read more about the Origins of South Asians who live in England and discover why 95% of British South Asians come from only 3 places in the sub-continent.
Following the final withdrawal of the British in 1947 Nehru was elected prime minister of a self-governing India - an office he would hold till his death in 1964. His view of the newly independent India was of a modern India ruled by a new, highly educated elite. Although people were encouraged by the government to go abroad to study, migration was discouraged through propaganda. By the mid 1970s it had become evident that money sent back by non-resident south Asians was an important source of investment and foreign exchange. Since then, the attitude to migration has softened and countries such as Pakistan have taken steps to build links with )grl allowing dual nationality. No government wishes its highly skilled doctors or software programmers to leave its shores. The current policy is, however, that if people choose to leave they should maintain their links with their country of origin, in order to encourage a flow of investment and ideas.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, East African Asians began arriving as a result of pressure from the 'Africanisation' policies in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
In 1972, Uganda's military dictator, Idi Amin expelled 80,000 Asians. The British were reluctant to admit the refugees, even though the majority were highly skilled and had British passports. The Conservative government was worried that the refugees would be 'parasites' and upset already volatile race relations. The government considered settling the refugees on the Solomon Islands in the Pacific, or the Falklands Islands. Britain eventually admitted 28,000 Asians, many of whom settled in Wembley in Middlesex, and Leicester in the Midlands.
Creators: Dr. Markus Daechsel and Umbreen Daechsel
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