A Corner of a Foreign Field

A photo book on the long history of Indians in Britain finds lascars,politicians and even an turbaned Elvis

Written by AMRUTA LAKHE | Published:January 5, 2014 5:04 am

Four hundred years ago,during the reign of Queen Elizabeth,a Bengali boy arrived on English shores,travelling from India with Patrick Copland,a chaplain of the East India company. The boy,later christened Petrus Papa or Peter Pope,was brought up in the Christian faith and taught English and Latin. He was one of the first Indians to arrive in the country.

While the social,cultural and administrative influences of the British on India have been documented,critiqued as well as analysed,very little is known about the other side — about the many Indians who made the journey across the “black seas” to that foreign land. It was an anomaly that struck Susheila Nasta,editor of the literary magazine Wasafiri,while studying the migrant histories of India and Britain. “Much has been recorded about Indian-British connections during the earlier period of the East India Company and the well-known period of the Raj,[but the focus was largely on the British in India,” says Nasta. Hardly anything was said about the Indians who settled in England or the influence they had on British society and culture. “We began looking at the other side of this story. It was obvious that due to the long trade and political connections between both countries,it had to be two-way traffic,” she said.

Nasta’s efforts have resulted in the publication of her recently released book,Asian Britain: A Photographic Journey (published by The Westbourne Press),a pictorial documentation of the first Indian migrants in Britain. Through 286 black-and-white photographs,Nasta traces the history of the Indian population in Britain — from the first Indian Member of the British Parliament,Dadabhai Naoroji,to the first Indian woman to study law at Oxford,Cornelia Sorabji,the first Indian RAF pilots,and the only Indian Elvis impersonator,Peter Singh,seen in the book drinking tea with his wife and daughter in an Elvis costume and wearing a white turban.

Nasta,whose Indian father came to London in the 1930s,and married an Englishwoman,says that the book aims to break the myth that Britain’s contemporary South Asian population “arrived” only after the end of the Second World War.

For over two years,Nasta and her team sifted through hundreds of images of the British Library’s Indian records and Getty. They also sourced from private collectors and families,including her own. They began collecting photographs from around 1858. The images,of people across the class,race and gender divides,open up ways of understanding the multicultural history of the UK,says Nasta.

Most migrants belonged to the working class. “Some of the first Asians in Britain were the lascar seamen who worked on East India company ships,or servants brought back by rich ‘nabobs’. Then came sailors and ayahs. After the opening of the Suez Canal,many merchants,students,politicians,writers and intellectuals also came to Britain,” she says. Those that came later,Nasta says,contributed to all aspects of British life,from the arts,the sciences,to manufacturing industries,sport and health.

The Indians quietly tried to fit themselves into a foreign life. “We have a photo of the Indian women who were Auxiliary Ambulance Volunteers,a group in Britain,often made up of student doctors,nurses,who helped out at air-raid shelters during the Blitz in 1939. They are dressed in saris with gas masks around their faces,the effect of which was quite humorous,” she says. There are others too,such as the English colonial official working for the British Gas Board,explaining to Asian families in the 1970s how to use their equipment in Urdu. “We have writers (Attia Hosain),politicians (Naoroji),lawyers (Cornelia Sorabji) doctors and pharmacists,” she says. There is a striking image of Princess Sophia Dhuleep Singh,daughter of the Maharaja of the Sikh Empire,selling The Suffragette — a newspaper propagating women’s right to vote. Another of a sari-clad Indian woman leading the election campaign for Margaret Thatcher. The image of Abdul Karim,the munshi to Queen Victoria,which opens the book,and in which he is alone with the Queen in a castle in Scotland,suggests an unshowy rapport between the two. Karim was known to be one of her more favoured royal servants,and was given the title of Munshi,a teacher. The close relationship between the two caused a lot of friction in the royal household,and he was later castigated and denounced.

As Karim’s example shows,Asians from all backgrounds had to negotiate the difficulties of social and racial inequalities. For instance,the Alien Seaman’s Act of the 1920s stated that “coloured” seamen,who did not possess documentary proof of their British citizenship,had to register as “aliens” in Britain,“whether or not they have been in the United Kingdom for more than two months”. Police were ordered to apprehend “coloured” men disembarking from ships and report them to the authorities if they failed to show their proof. “There were riots in British ports in 1919 due to such inequalities. In the 1930s and 1940s,many Asians were put under surveillance for fear of traitorous acts. Wounded Indian soldiers in World War I were segregated from white nurses in hospitals such as the one in Brighton Pavilion,” she says. “But these pictures tell us the fascinating tales of survival,resilience,success and entrepreneurship of the earliest Indian migrants,” says Nasta.

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