Despite the widespread belief that South Asian migration to the UK began after WWII, there is evidence of a considerable South Asian presence dating from the 17th century that has been documented by historian, Rozina Visram (2002).
The early settlers from South Asia included a range of transitory and permanent migrants, and were a diverse group from different regions of South Asia. Some of them survived on the margins of British society, lived (and died) as destitutes but others were very wealthy. South Asian migrants over the centuries included servants, such as nursemaids and travelling nannies (known as ayahs) who accompanied British families returning from India, sailors (lascars) who settled in port cities like Glasgow, London, Liverpool and Cardiff, soldiers who fought in the two world wars, members of Indian royal and aristocratic families who came for education purposes and for leisure trips, and professionals like doctors, lawyers and merchants.
Rozina Visram records evidence from the middle of the 18th century that some of the workers that came here stayed because they could not find the means to pay for a passage back to India. Seamen who were recruited from Sylhet (in present-day Bangladesh) and Mirpur (in present-day Pakistan) were often not re-employed on return journeys and so were forced to remain in Britain. Others jumped ship to escape maltreatment and poor working conditions. Similarly, not all of the servants and nannies brought here by wealthy British families returning from India were offered a paid return passage. An unknown number remained in British homes or were destitute. In 1850, 40 'sons of India' were found dead because of cold and hunger in London alone, and in 1857, the missionary Joseph Salter opened the 'Stranger's Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders' in Limehouse, East London.
Examine this evidence from the following sources dated 1869 and 1895:
A letter from Syed Abdoollah, former Professor of Oriental Languages, London University, dated January 1869, concerns 'native servants' abandoned and left destitute, begging in the streets of London. He suggested a re-introduction of the system of deposit to cover the expenses of their return passage (IOR: L/P&J/2/49, f. 7/281).
One example of this issue is described in this document dated 16 April 1895, about a stranded 'ayah' (nursemaid or servant) in a workhouse in Manchester: "The Local Government Board forward a letter from the Manchester Guardians from which it appears that a Hindoo woman named McBarnett who came to this country as an ayah in the service of an English family has been unable to obtain an engagement which would enable her to return to India" (IOR: L/P&J/6/395, f 608).
For more court records, which provide some of the earliest references to the presence of Indian servants in Britain, see:
Using this evidence about the migration of servants from South Asia to the UK, write a paragraph about the early presence of South Asians in the UK.
From about the middle of the 19th century, another category of South Asian migrants began coming to Britain – students from affluent backgrounds, professionals, princes who came on official visits and travellers. Studying in Britain enabled them to gain positions in the colonial administration as civil servants on their return to India. Many of those who studied in Britain went on to lead the Indian struggle for independence. They included Mahatma Gandhi (who led the non-violence movements protesting against British rule in India) who studied here from 1887-90, Mohd. Ali Jinnah (the first Governor-general of Pakistan) and Nehru (the first PM of India after Independence in 1947). Some of the students stayed on in Britain to practice their professions or to campaign for Indian independence in the very heart of the British empire. In 1892, Dadabhai Naoroji was elected as Liberal MP for central Finsbury, the first MP of South Asian origin in the UK.
Explore this interactive timeline showing how South Asians helped to build Britain in the period before India's independence in 1947.
Create a powerpoint presentation using facts and images taken from this timeline and the 'Striking Women' South Asian Migration Map. You must select 5 key timeline events and discuss 'the ways in which they helped Britain to develop'.
What makes a strong presentation?
- Use evidence, statistics and quotes to support your arguments
- Never have too much text on one slide
- Get to the point and keep your points straight forward
- Keep your presentation short; as a general rule you should have no more than 3 slides in a 5 minute presentation
- Use images to enhance your main points
- Be careful with your choice of font, colour and layout
- Have a title on each slide
- Take time when you talk, be clear and make eye contact
- Make sure you introduce your presentation, then when concluding link back to this introduction.
The numbers of Indians migrating to the UK accelerated in the period between the two world wars. For example over 700 young semi-skilled male workers from India took part in a six month training scheme in October 1940 in Hertfordshire to improve munitions production in India. Upon arrival, they were sent to the Letchworth Training Centre for preliminary training as fitters and machine operators and then for further training in Manchester followed by experience with private employers.
But it was only after WWII that significant numbers of migrants from South Asia began to arrive and settle here.