Historical background to the relationship between India and Britain

In 1600 British merchants founded the East India Company, establishing a formal trading route between Britain and India that irrevocably changed the relationship between these nations. 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.

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 August 1947, after a long struggle against colonial rule, what had been undivided British India was partitioned into the independent nation states of India and Pakistan. In 1971, East Pakistan became Bangladesh.

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.

This website provides 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.

The project

Asians in Britain is a free learning resource aimed at students and the general public that has been produced in partnership with ‘Beyond the Frame: Indian British Connections’, a research project led by The Open University and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Working in close collaboration with the British Library, the project curated a facsimile panel exhibition Beyond the Frame: India in Britain, 1858–1950 that toured India in 2011/2012 with the support of the British Council. In addition to the AHRC, the development of the project has been enabled by financial support from The Open University, the British Library and the World Collections Programme. ‘Beyond the Frame’ expanded and built on the success of the cross-institutional 3-year AHRC research project ‘Making Britain: South Asian Visions of Home and Abroad’ (2007–10), directed by Professor Susheila Nasta.

AHRC logo

'Help for Researchers: Asians in Britain' Additional information for researchers

'Making Britain' Discover how South Asians shaped the nation, 1870–1950

'Beyond the Frame: Indian British Connections' is funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council


Asians in Britain is written by Rozina Visram, Florian Stadtler and Susheila Nasta.

Susheila Nasta is Emeritus Professor of Modern Literature at The Open University and Founding Editor of Wasafiri, the magazine of international contemporary writing. She has published several books and essays, including Home Truths: Fictions of the South Asian Diaspora in Britain (2002), Writing Across Worlds: Contemporary Writers Talk (2004) and Asian Britain: A Photographic History (2013). She was Principal Investigator of the AHRC-funded research project ‘Making Britain: South Asian Visions of Home and Abroad, 1870–1950’ (2007–10) and directed the follow-on project, ‘Beyond the Frame: Indian British Connections’ (2011–12), partnered by the British Library and British Council. In 2011, she was awarded an MBE for services to black and Asian literature. From September 2017, she will join the Department of English and Drama, Queen Mary College, University of London.

Dr Florian Stadtler is Senior Lecturer in Global Literatures at the University of Exeter. Previously Research Fellow at The Open University, he worked on the AHRC-funded projects ‘Making Britain: South Asian Visions of Home and Abroad, 1870–1950’ (2007–10) and ‘Beyond the Frame: Indian British Connections’ (2011–12). He has published articles and essays on South Asian and British Asian history and literature, as well as Indian popular cinema. He edited a special issue of Wasafiri magazine, ‘Britain and India: cross-cultural encounters’ (June 2012) and curated with Susheila Nasta, Asian Britain: A Photographic History (2013). His monograph Fiction Film and Indian Popular Cinema: Salman Rushdie’s Novels and the Cinematic Imagination was published in 2013. He is Reviews Editor of Wasafiri.

Rozina Visram is a distinguished historian and educationalist. Her major publications include Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain, 1700–1947 (Pluto, 1986), reissued by Routledge in 2016, and Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (Pluto, 2002). She has written several books for schools and has contributed to many publications, including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. She co-authored a pioneering report for the Geffrye Museum on presenting histories in a diverse society and was advisor and researcher to the Museum of London’s Peopling of London exhibition. In 2006 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by The Open University. She was advisor to the ‘Making Britain’ project from 2007 to 2010 and consultant on the follow-on project, ‘Beyond the Frame’. She was also a consultant on the National Archives education project, ‘Indian Soldiers on the Western Front: Loyalty and Dissent’ (July 2016–January 2017). Her essay, ‘History of Asian Presence in Britain from 1600’ in Migrant Britain: Histories from the 17th to the 21st Centuries (Tony Kushner et al., eds.), in honour of Colin Holmes, is forthcoming.