Introduction

 

Cover of the magazine Britain and India, 1920
Cover of the magazine Britain and India, 1920

Many people believe that Asian migration to Britain only began in the 1950s after World War II. Yet the presence of Asians in Britain stretches right back to 1600, a direct result of trading contact established by the East India Company. Through trade, conquest and colonisation, the Company transformed the economy and society of both countries, setting in motion the movement of people in both directions.

‘The Accession of the Queen of India’, Punch, September 11, 1858
‘The Accession of the Queen of India’, Punch, September 11, 1858

After the 1857 Indian Uprising, resulting in the East India Company’s abolition, the British Crown took direct control of the government of India. This period of the British Raj in India lasted almost 100 years. In 1947, after a long struggle against colonial rule, what had been British India was partitioned into the independent nations of India and Pakistan. In 1971, East Pakistan became Bangladesh.

A reception at Warwick Castle to mark the coronation of Edward VII, August 1902
A reception at Warwick Castle to mark the coronation of Edward VII, August 1902

Starting in the 17th century, British rule in India led to a steady migration of many classes of Asians to Britain. Servants and ayahs were brought over by returning British families. Indian sailors, known as lascars, crewed Company ships and later steam-powered liners. Indian soldiers fought alongside British soldiers in two world wars. Intellectuals, politicians and activists campaigned in Britain for equality, social justice and Indian independence.

The following webpages provide a vivid testimony of the imprint left by this sizeable early Asian community on British society. This population contributed to the enrichment of Britain’s cultural, social and economic life.