British Asians. The diaspora’s relationship with their new homeland

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2014

38 Pages, Grade: 5.0


Table of Content


Chapter One Historical Background of British Asians
1.1. The Colonial Period
1.2. Asians in Britain - From Nineteen-Century England towards World Wars
1.3. British Attitudes Towards the Earliest and Modern Immigrant Community

Chapter Two Modern Asians in Britain
2.1. Life of Modern Asians in Britain
2.2. Asians and their Religions
2.3. Traditional Asian Clothing
2.4. Asian Cuisine




The term British Asians refers to people from South Asia (principally from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan), as well as people descent of South Asians holding British passports domiciled in East Africa, who travelled and settled in Britain in the postcolonial period. The former travelled to Britain as migrants, mostly in the 1950s and, especially, the 1960s. The latter were political refugees who fled to Britain. While the population of South Asians in Britain is estimated to be only 5 percent of the total population, its presence marks a significant ‘colour’ of the ethnic pattern of Great Britain.

Because of this diversity, the various aspects involved in observing the Asian communities within Great Britain, as well as numerous attitudes of British citizens towards their former colonial servants, a wide range of books and journals is devoted to the subject. Indeed, Asian settlement of Britain is a postcolonial suffix to the colonial link of Britain and its Indian empire.

The present paper aims to be a practical introduction to the field. Moreover, it deals with the aspect of the historical background which is hidden behind various groups which form a body of what is called ‘Asians in UK’. It is also hoped that a closer examination of specific issues and further reading in those areas will be encouraged in the individual students. In this way, the paper can provide a stimulating introduction to a range of approaches towards the problem of ethnic variation within England which is typical and usually understood by its society.

Each of the chapters surveys a major area of the aspect. Beginning with the history of translation studies and defining the subject, Chapter One opens the paper to more complex aspects such as the reasons for appearing the Asians in Britain, the condition of their living in colonial period, as well as the attitudes of the British citizens towards Asians, who remained in their country after the Empire was dissolved.

Titled Modern Asians in Britain, Chapter Two focuses on the problems of Asians living nowadays in England. The life in modern country which used to be the country of their rulers is sometimes difficult for the Asians. They definitely differ regarding their culture, their attitudes towards family aspects, as well as social behaviour and norms. Their religions are different and although there is – already for several years – a trend to admire and join Buddhism, the majority of people do not see Asians as anything else but ‘different’.

Young Asians do not have language difficulties. This means that, as more Asian children grow up in Britain, there will be more chance to create friendships across ethnic boundaries, at least in theory. However, both Asian parents and young people still face hostility and sometimes discrimination from some sections of the white population, which discourages inter-ethnic friendships. There is a strong tendency to see South Asians in Britain but not as part of Britain. The representation of Asians in Britain continues to be refracted through a prism, which is unable to come to terms with the postcolonial nature of the South Asian presence. South Asian culture continues to be regarded as static, traditional or antimodern, patriarchal and authoritarian. This is in contrast to British/Western culture. Here, the most important obstacle is the idea of Western culture and values as being the norm and criterion in relation to which other cultures have to be positioned.

The following paper will attempt to analyse how the conditions of the Asians in Britain changed throughout the years – spanning between the age of Empire and the modern times. In that process, both the books and various journalistic as well as internet resources will be used. It is author’s hope that the paper will be interesting and valuable source of historical information regarding one of the parts of British society.

Chapter One Historical Background of British Asians

1.1. The Colonial Period

Migration to Britain is not a new phenomenon. For a long time, the country was receiving and absorbing a large number of people from other countries while many Britons have gone abroad to colonies as administrators, soldiers, businessmen and missionaries. Those who came to Britain in early and more recent periods were mainly white people, for example after World War II, about 460,000 foreigners entered Britain1. Sadly, these immigrants met with considerable hostility from British labor. However, over a period of time, all these white workers, were absorbed into the market and more workers were needed in some sectors of the industry. This gap was filled by workers from the New Commonwealth.

Since under the Commonwealth rules they had free entry into Britain they were initially welcomed by the British people as allies. The process of mass migration of non-white workers started slowly, but, during the 1950s, the number of immigrants from the West Indies increased and in 1956 some concern was expressed about the number of ‘colored’ immigrants.2 As the pressure for immigration control grew, more and more Asians migrated to Britain to manage the impending ban. In the beginning, the migration was disorganized but later on, it resulted in so-called chain migration where friends and relatives were encouraged and helped by the first migrants to follow them.

Dilip Hiro, the author of Black British, White British claims that towards 1970’s and with gradual changes both in policy and mentality of the Britons, the term ‘immigrant’ and ‘coloured’ became interchangeable.3 Nevertheless, for the common citizen of United Kingdom the difference between West Indians and Asians was unimportant and none of them tried to do so.

This aim of the following part of the chapter is to discuss the earliest – historically proved migrations of Asians to Britain. It also will show these people’s problems and finally will present British government’s response to the needs of new ‘color’ citizens.

The Open University, under supervision of Art and Humanities Research Council and British Library created in recent years a website that provides online information on over 450 South Asians in Britain from 1870 to 1950, the organizations they were involved in, their British connections and the major events in which they participated.4

And indeed, Asians from South Asia which is present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, have been in Britain for close on four centuries but their various histories remain little researched. Many believe that the arrival in Britain of people from the Indian subcontinent began in the 1950s, in response to the demand for post-war labor. In fact, the emergence of Asians in Britain stretches back to the founding of the East India Company in 1600.

Drawing on government documents, historian and educationalist Rozina Visram, the author of Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History, examines the nature of Asian migration – official attitudes towards the immigrant community, the reactions and perceptions of the British people and the social, cultural and political lives of the Asians themselves. In an opening chapter, she pictures a unique ceremony:

On 22 December 1616, at St Dionis Backchurch in the City of London, in the presence of a distinguished gathering of the Privy Council, the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, and the Governors of the East India Company (EIC), an Indian youth, ‘the first fruits of India’, brought to Britain two years previously in August 1614, was publicly baptised. The church was packed and a crowd of curious onlookers was gathered outside. The Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been consulted, had given his approval, while the name given in baptism was chosen by King James I. The parish register records the ceremony as: 22nd December 1616. An East Indian was Christened by the name of Peter.5

On the other hand, Ramdin, the author of Remaining Britain: Five Hundred Years of Black and Asian History both supports the opinion about much earlier than 1950’s migration of Asians but also states that with the passage of time, differences in color, race, religion and culture would become central to the images and imagery in the history of Asian people in Britain. Before the European colonial encounter in the fifteenth century, and contrary to the popular view that ‘black’ people first came to Britain after the Second World War, there was an African presence in Britain during the Roman occupation, and some argue even before that. Similarly, Asians too had early contacts with Britain – according to one source, it began some ten thousand years ago.6

Until recently very little was known about Asians in England but thanks to several sources available, the author of this paper will present the early encounters of Britons with so-called ‘colored people’. The following sub-division of the chapter serves as logical path through various stages of the British Asians’ history.

What was a novelty in the early eighteenth century, gradually became a custom and after 1858, more and more British men, women and their families of various classes joined the steady stream of travellers making their way back to Britain with an entourage of caring and devoted Indian servants.

A Passport of Anthony Ayah7

The passport is a very simple document. It only states who is ‘the owner’ of the given servant. It also describes her features such as eyes color and skin tone and height. The is also a photo included.

While some servants were rather satisfied, others were deeply unhappy. Nevertheless, either as slave or servant, Indians and Africans were viewed by their masters as inferior, a social standing which remained largely unchanged for such persons.

Due to the fact that the household service was one of the widest classes of jobs in the XVIII-century, Indians served broad functions. First of all, it was highly convenient when British citizen travelled for long time back to home around the Cape of Good Hope. Such sea-voyage could last up to six months or more and therefore personal servants were important to fulfill any needs of the family on board could have. Secondly, Indian servants travelled to Britain with children where they were to complete their education. According to Visram: “William Thackeray, the writer, came home from India as a child, in 1817, accompanied by his ‘Calcutta serving-man.”.8Ramdin extends the subject explaining that:

Ayahs were popular among members of the Anglo-Indian community and on their return voyages to England, these women were almost perfect for the jobs assigned to them especially as ‘travelling nannies’. We are told that they not only travelled well, but also gave undivided care and attention to their employers and their children and, through trial and error, became competent nurses.9

Furthermore, Visram claims that Indian servants might be brought to Britain for several other reasons, such as nostalgia for life in India but also: “[…] there was the economic aspect, a desire to enjoy the same cheap labour that had been available in India. But the most important reason was their value as an ‘index of rank’. In an age when things oriental were desirable fashion accessories in the homes of the rich, Indian servants in their gorgeous costumes, added to this sense of oriental luxury.” 10

In this place it should be understood that on their return to Britain, some of the Britons brought their Indian servants and many of them were devoted and caring as it was shown above. However, others fled from their masters’ homes, with little concern for the consequences, simply joining the growing ranks of the non-white population engaged in the familiar and urgent struggle for survival. Still, Indian servants and ayahs are present in the eighteenth-century family portraits and that clearly points out at this unique relationship.

Being private servants Asian domestics usually could be expected to have a very good life and while they were something unique and exotic – like a pet, mostly, their owners cared for them and satisfied them to some extent. There were some, like Hickey’s Munnoo, who were even sent to school.11 Nevertheless, the evidence show that apart from that lucky ones, they had sad and lonely lives, and their position in society was at the bottom.

Indian page in England12

The portrait presents Lady Charlotte Fitzroy in a rose-coloured dress sitting on the ground; on her right, an Indian servant boy in brown dress and sandals kneels, offers her a dish of grapes. It is a scene which is supposed to show how much trust the British parents had towards their servants brought back from colonies.

Furthermore, India had a long tradition of marine and Indian sailors were well known for their skills. The word ‘Lascar’ comes from an ancient Persian word Lashkar which, meaning an army, was later applied to a soldier and, in the course of time, to a sailor.13 Lascars were connected with the Port of London for a long time . In the second half of the 18th century they were arriving in the Thames as part of the crews of the ships of the East India Company.

Lascars were recruited as groups and although they were highly valued for their skills the process of giving them the actual job was so corrupted that the final amount of money they got was reduced to almost nothing.

Apart from their problems within homeland, the lascars were known as men looking after their own employees, but paternalism was not stretched to the crews, no matter if it was Asian or British, of the chartered boat. Ramdin points out that although a well-known and highly-demanded, lascars encountered similar problems to the unneeded after sea-voyage servants:

Over the years, ships owned by the East India Company came and went with increasing regularity, discharging Indian Lascars at British ports, especially in London, where the growing problem of destitution among them and Asian servants added to their numbers as exotic beggars. Indeed, for most Indian servants, coming to Britain with their employers was a hazardous business, as many were abandoned either on arrival or soon after.14

In destination ports of Britain, Indian seamen, once hired for their professional skills, were exposed to the misery associated with their lowly status. They suffered verbal abuse and physical abuse, many died, while others, barely alive, saw England as a hell on earth. The seamen awaiting for the possibility to return home became beggars, wondering half-naked in the streets of London;

Their condition was so inhumane that in 1814 an Act was passed compelling the Company to provide adequate food, clothing and other necessities for their Asian seamen, and a Parliamentary committee was appointed to consider further regulations.15 That commission did an unexpected visit to the hostel where the Lascars were living. It came back with a report that the rooms were filthy, there was no heating, even fireplaces, and there was no place to sleep or sit on. The Company defended itself by claiming that stoves were installed during the winter, and stated, that if beds were provided the men would sell them. Finally, Government decided on the number of points such as a standard of living conditions and accordingly, ship-owners were made to return them to their home countries every time the contract period of service expired. According to an article transcribed from the P.L.A. Monthly February published in 1931, available online:

Oriental seamen are protected by the Indian Merchant Shipping Acts, which regulate the terms of the contracts ship-owners must enter into with all lascars they engage. These agreements must be made before a shipping master, and must contain stipulations providing for the return to India. The master of the ship is required to give a bond of one hundred rupees for each man engaged. Agreements may be made binding a lascar to make a voyage to the United Kingdom and there enter into another contract to return by another ship. […]As regards accommodation, the lascar is entitled to the same allowance of space as the European seaman. He is secured against destitution when incapacitated by an accident, by the Workman's Compensation Act, 1923.16

Interestingly, the Eastern system endured well into the twentieth century. As for wages, a first-class lascar received much less than an equivalent British seaman, who, according to one ship-owner, earned on average between £4 and £5 a month during the Napoleonic Wars.17

1.2. Asians in Britain - From Nineteen-Century England towards World Wars

At first it is worth considering the context of developments in nineteenth-century Britain. Once again, the balance of cultures within the British Isles shifted radically in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and in England certain social, demographic and economic changes arising from industrialization brought a new culture to the once-remote parts of the country. Moreover, with a better communications network incorporating road, rail and sea, Ireland, Wales and Scotland became more accessible and therefore more exposed to English political influences. With time, according to Ramdin, Ireland proved to be more susceptible to outside influences than Wales and Scotland.18

And such political and social changes faced those Asians – largely professionals who, from around the mid-of the 19th century in increasing numbers came to Britain. Some came as a result of the political, social and economic changes brought about under colonial rule and others came out of a sense of adventure or curiosity to see the land of their rulers, or on official visits. Students came to obtain vital professional qualifications to enable them to gain prosperous work back home. Some, having qualified, stayed on to practice their professions in Britain. Political activists brought the struggle for colonial freedom to London, the center of imperial power. Businessmen and entrepreneurs came to look for economic opportunities.

The period saw a growth of both working-class and professional Asian migration to Britain. By then Asian organizations and institutions, places of worship, ‘ethnic’ shops and restaurants had also been established. Ramdin, however presents also the reverse of the medal, stating that:

As in the eighteenth century, in the early nineteenth century racial prejudice in Britain was paradoxical for although black radicals achieved prominence by leading fellow-whites as members of working-class groups in London and elsewhere, discrimination against black and Asian people was pervasive.19

By the end of the Second World War several thousand Asians had been living in Britain for generations, and an ‘Asian Community’ was already in existence. There were Asian professionals, industrial workers, students and political activists, small traders, merchants and businessmen, artists and writers. Asians then were not a one-layer community. There were different religious, ethnic and linguistic communities from south Asia and the diaspora in Africa and the Caribbean. Others were born there, some even having families across the racial divide. According to Anwar:

In 1955, just under 8,000 people from India and Pakistan entered Britain, while this number rose to 49,000 in 1961 and 44,000 for the first six months of 1962 up to the introduction of the Act. As a result of this pattern of migration from the Indian subcontinent, the number of Indians and Pakistanis increased substantially in the inter-censal period of 1951-61 from 36,000 to 106,000. Those who entered Britain before the 1962 Act were predominantly economically active persons and the overwhelming majority of them were men.20

The phenomenon of ‘chain migration’ mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, was exemplified in the various forms of sponsorship and patronage of friends and relatives by those Asians who were already in Britain. This resulted in mass migration of people from the Indian subcontinent. Mass migration in turn resulted in the establishment of institutions, agents and organizations to facilitate the migration. In this way, even after the 1962 Act, the introduction of the voucher system reinforced the patronage of friends because the migrants already in Britain were in a position to obtain vouchers for their kin and friends.21

It is worth mentioning here that, in addition to voluntary movement of people, some institutional arrangements helped the process of migration too. For example, in India and Pakistan, British textile and other companies advertised for workers and some workers were directly recruited.

In addition to migration of Asians from the Indian subcontinent, a significant number of Asians have also migrated from East Africa, after the policy of Africanisation22 in many states in the region. Most of them had British passport and were also ‘twice migrants’. This migration mainly started in the 1970s when East African Asians were forced to leave African countries.

From legal point of view, the position of Indian domestics was not very lucky. Ramdin depict that in a most saddening way:


1 Anwar, Muhammad, Between Cultures: Continuity and Change in the Lives of Young Asians, London: Routledge. Publication, 1998, p. 1.

2 Ibid., p. 3.

3 Hiro, Dilip, Black British, White British, London and Glasgow: Grafton Books, 1991, p. 52.

4 For further information: , (accessed on January 12, 2014).

5 Edward D. Neill, Memoir of Reverend Patrick Copland, New York: Charles Scribner & Co., 1871, pp. 11–12. As quoted in Visram, Rozina, Asians in Britain: 400 years of history, London: Pluto Press, 2002, p. 1.

6 Visram, Rozina, Asians in Britain: 400 years of history, London: Pluto Press, 2002, pp. 2–3.

7 For further information: (Accessed on January 11, 2014).

8 Visram, Rozina, Asians in Britain: 400 years of history, Op. cit., p. 8.

9 Ramdin, Ron, Reimaging Britain : five hundred years of Black and Asian History, London: Pluto Press, 1999, p. 61.

10 Visram, Rozina, Asians in Britain: 400 years of history. Op. cit. p. 9.

11 Marshall, A.C., ‘Nurses of Ocean Highways’, The Quiver: The Magazine for the Home, vol. 57, p. 923.

12 Peter Lely’s portrait of Lady Charlotte Fitzroy, c.1672, available online: (Accessed on January 17, 2014).

13 Collins English Dictionary, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003. Digital version.

14 Op. cit. p. 60.

15 Ibid., p. 62.

16 Lascars in the Port of London. History of lascars online: (Accessed on January 15, 2014).

17 Visram, Rozina, Asians in Britain... Op. cit., p. 16.

18 Ramdin, Ron, Reimaging Britain… Op. cit. p. 38.

19 Ramdin, Ron, Reimaging Britain… Op. cit. p. 63.

20 Anwar, Between Cultures…, Op. cit. p. 2.

21 Ibid.

22 Bhachu, Parminder, The Twice Migrants, London: Tavistock, 1986, p. 19.

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British Asians. The diaspora’s relationship with their new homeland
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Asians, Islam, Muslims, traditions, culture, history, diaspora, differences, difficulties, New Commonwealth, emmigration, private servants, new life, reality, politics, food, clothes
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MA Marta Zapała-Kraj (Author), 2014, British Asians. The diaspora’s relationship with their new homeland, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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