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 The First Asians in Britain
Seminar Introduction
[IMAGE] Asians from South Asia (present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) have been in Britain for close on four centuries but their various histories remain little researched. Many believe that the arrival in Britain of people from the Indian subcontinent began in the 1950s, in response to the demand for post-war labour. In fact, the emergence of Asians in Britain stretches back to the founding of the East India Company (EIC) in 1600. The exploits of the EIC in India, first through trade and later through conquest and colonisation, leading to the establishment of the British Raj, set in motion forces that would profoundly affect both India and Britain, altering their historical relationship and development. Indian sailors, the lascars, crewed Company sailing vessels and, later, steam-powered liners; Indian servants and ayahs (nannies) were brought over by British families returning from India; European men, many having made their fortune in India, often returned home with Indian wives and children. Munshis (teachers) came to Britain to teach Oriental languages, as did a number of Indian emissaries and other visitors.

This small but enterprising community of professionals and working-class Indians was not a homogeneous community. There were different religious, linguistic and ethnic groups from the subcontinent and the diaspora in Africa and the Caribbean; other Asians were born in Britain, some having families that crossed the racial divide over several generations.

Drawing on recently declassified government documents, historian and educationalist Rozina Visram, author of Ayahs, Lascars and Princes and, most recently, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History, examines the nature of Asian migration; official attitudes towards the immigrant community; the reactions and perceptions of the British people; and the social, cultural and political lives of the Asians themselves.

Learning Objectives
  • Establish why Indian servants were imported into Britain and what their position was within British society.
  • List the reasons for employing lascars on board East India Company ships.
  • Analyse British attitudes towards Asian immigrants and assess their attempts at benevolence.
  • Identify the various groups of Asians that came to Britain.
  • Describe the life and career of Sake Dean Mahomed.


Session 1 The Colonial Context
Session 2 The Demand for Lascar Labour
Session 3 British Attitudes towards the Immigrant Community
Session 4 Asians in Britain: Their Social, Cultural and Political Lives
Session 5 The 'Shampooing Surgeon': Sake Dean Mahomed

This seminar is extracted from Chapter 2 of Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History, Pluto Press, 2002. Copyright Rozina Visram.

book In this groundbreaking book Rozina Visram offers an extensively researched, comprehensive study of Asians from the Indian subcontinent in Britain. Spanning four centuries, it tells the history of the Indian community in Britain from the first recorded baptism in 1616 and the servants, ayahs and sailors of the seventeenth century, to the students, soldiers, professionals, MPs, entrepreneurs and suffragettes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History
Rozina Visram
Pluto Press (2002)

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