Asians in Britain

January 26, 2012 — Review

Written by Thushari Perera

A new learning resource, Asians in Britain[1] produced by the British Library[2], explores the contribution that South Asians have made to Britain’s cultural, social and economic life.

Focusing on the period 1858-1950, this online resource debunks prevailing myths about the Asian presence in Britain, and the tendency to associate this presence solely with post-World War II immigration.

Rozina Visram’s and other experts’ writing in this field is clearly felt in the crafting of this engaging online resource. This learning tool has an interesting multi-layered interactive timeline[3] and uses library and archive collection items (including videos) to explore how global trade and Empire building brought not only hard-working and resilient ‘ayahs’ (Asian nannies) and ‘lascars’ (Asian seamen) to Britain, but also early settlers. Entrepreneurs, intellectuals and middle-class Asians active in political struggles against discrimination and inequality, whose presence have benefited the British educational, medical and arts sectors are also spotlighted.

Gandhi’s fight against colonialism is emphasised in a continuum of campaigns for rights. Figures like Dadabhai Naoroji (the first British Asian MP), Sophia Duleep Singh (an Asian Suffragette), and Krishna Menon (a Labour politician active in the relief of poverty) are highlighted.

References are also made to interesting aspects of Asian servicemen’s role in the first and second world wars. Neither the lives of ‘ordinary’ Asian Britons, whether nurses or factory workers, nor British spy Noor Inayat Khan’s resistance to the brutality of the Nazi war machine are forgotten.

There are a few areas in which this resource could be improved. It tends to focus on people from the Indian subcontinent, sidelining the contribution of smaller South Asian communities like Sri Lankans and Maldivians[4]. The interconnections and campaigns for race equality with people of African heritage could also have been noted even though it is arguably beyond the scope of this small-scale e-resource.

In these days of public library funding cuts[5], this free online learning resource will be a useful aid to the study of history and citizenship in schools. Older audiences, who may have grown up without educational resources relating to South Asians could also benefit greatly from Asians in Britain. It is an opportunity for all to learn or remember that British and South Asian cultures and struggles have been interwoven for centuries.

Related links

Making Britain


[1] The learning resource Asians in Britain is available here. [2] The Asians in Britain timeline and microsite have been produced in collaboration with 'Beyond the Frame: Indian British Connections', a research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. [3] The Timeline has downloadable image plates with commentaries that could help teachers with classroom discussions. [4] This emphasis on Indians is arguably understandable as it is suggested here that most South Asians in Britain have links with the old 'British India', which was partitioned into the independent nations of India and Pakistan, and that East Pakistan later became Bangladesh. [5] 'Library closure threats spark campaigns across England', BBC News, 26 January 2011 and 'A national legal challenge?', Public Libraries News, 15 January 2012.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.


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