Click here to skip to content

Asians in Britain: brief outline (1600-1947)

Beginning in the 17th century, Indian domestics, servants and ayahs (nannies), began to be brought to Britain in the service of the East India Company agents and British families returning from India. Some were returned to India when no longer required, but an unknown number remained in British homes. 

Indian sailors, the lascars, first recruited in small numbers to fill the manpower gap arising through death or desertion in India of white sailors, crewed the Company's East Indiamen, and later, as an all-lascar labour force, the steam-powered liners like P&O and Clan Line. Although they were transients, lascars sometimes jumped ship in British ports to escape maltreatment and their inferior employment conditions (Asiatic Articles). Servants and sailors were the earliest Indian working-class settlers in Britain.

Starting in the 18th century, travellers, emissaries, and petitioners seeking redress for lands lost to the East India Company, or having other complaints against the Company, visited Britain.

From about the middle of the 19th century an increasing number of Indians - largely professionals - came to Britain. Some came as a result of the political, social and economic changes brought about under colonial rule. Others came out of a sense of adventure or curiosity to see the land of their rulers, or as in the case of the princes, on official visits or for pleasure. Students, some on scholarships, came to obtain vital professional qualifications to enable them to gain entry into the structures of colonial hierarchy back home. Some, having qualified, stayed on to practice their professions in Britain. Political activists brought the struggle for colonial freedom to London, the centre of imperial power. Businessmen and entrepreneurs came to seek economic opportunities.

The inter-war period saw a growth, though numerically still insignificant, of both working-class and professional Asian migration to Britain. By then Asian organisations and institutions, places of worship, 'ethnic' shops and restaurants had also been established.

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 and labourers, students and activists, petty traders, merchants and businessmen, artists and writers. Asians then (as now) were not a homogenous community. There were different religious, ethnic and linguistic communities from south Asia and the diaspora in Africa and the Caribbean. Others were born here, some having families across the racial divide. The official India Office records document some aspects of their lives and struggles as imperial British citizens living at the heart of the imperial metropolis.

APAC archives for research

As the national repository for the source material on the British involvement with India and official administrative policies for the period 1600 to 1947, the India Office Records of the Asia, Pacific & Africa Collections (APAC) provide a documentation, within the context of colonialism, of the experiences of a range of Asians visiting or living in Britain during this period. Here only a small sample of some of the available material for individuals and groups is provided. Scholars and those interested in researching the history of Asians migration are encouraged to visit the Asian & African Studies. The India Office reference Guides and the published works of scholars in the field cited in the bibiliography provide further information for the available source material in the APAC.


Rozina Visram: Asians in Britain 400 Years of History (Pluto Press, 2002). This work documents the economic, political, social and cultural activities of Asians and their descendants in Britain from 1600 to the 1950s. It examines the nature of Asian settlement, official attitudes, the varied reaction of the British people to Asian migration and the differing responses of Asian themselves. It documents the lives and experiences of Asian migrants and their British-born descendants within the context of colonialism, race, gender, class and religion. The book also examines the anti-colonial struggle by Asians and their allies, Asian contributions to British society as well as their role in two World Wars.

Rozina Visram: Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain 1700-1947 (Pluto Press, 1986). A pioneering work on a range of Indians in Britain and their experiences.

Rozina Visram: Indians in Britain (Batsford, 1987, Peoples on the Move series). For younger readers, containing useful original documents and photographs, covering the period 1700 to the 1980s.

Rozina Visram: The History of the Asian Community in Britain (Wayland, 1995). Also for younger readers, and contains documents and over 50 colour and black-and-white photographs, for the period 1600s to the 1990s.

Rozina Visram: 'South Asians in London', in Nick Merriman, ed., The Peopling of London Fifteen Thousand Years of Settlement From Overseas (Museum of London, 1993).

Michael H Fisher: The First Indian Author in English: Dean Mahomed (1759-1851) in India, Ireland and England (Delhi: OUP, 1996). This book combines a reprint for the first time since its publication in 1794 of the Travels of Dean Mahomed, with a scholarly appraisal of Mahomed's life and times.

Michael H. Fisher: Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain 1600-1857 (Permanent Black, 2005)

Kusoom Vadgama: India in Britain The Indian Contribution to the British Way of Life (Robert Royce Limited, 1984). A pictorial account of the activities of Indians in Britain between the 1850s and 1947. It contains many photographs and extracts from contemporary newspapers and magazines.

Laura Tabili: 'We Ask for British Justice', Workers and Racial Difference in Late Imperial Britain (Cornell University Press, 1994). The focus of the book is on black and Asian sailors in the British Merchant Marine in the inter-war period.

Antoinette Burton, At the Heart of the Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late Victorian Britain (University of California Press, 1998). It focuses on three individuals in Victorian Britain: Pandita Ramabai; Cornelia Sorabji, and Beramji Malabari.

Shompa Lahiri: Indians in Britain: Anglo-Indian Encounters, Race and Identity, 1880-1930 (Frank Cass, 2000). Despite the all-encompassing title, this book focuses mainly on Indian students in British Universities and British reactions to them.