Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Making Britain

As previously mentioned here, there is currently an exhibition at Middlesbrough Central Library on the subject of 'South Asians Making Britain, 1858-1950'. Last night brought the accompanying lecture by Dr. Rehana Ahmed.

The talk focused partly on the genesis of the project which produced the exhibition and partly on the impact of South Asians on British culture. The specific areas of South Asia in question are India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Things changed at the height of The British Empire but some of the changes have been left somewhat obscure by accepted history. For example, a lot has been written about the British presence in India at the time but there's comparatively little information about the Indian involvement in Britain during the same period.

Yet one of the effects of the colonial occupation was the influx of Indian people to Britain; after all, as British subjects, such migration was natural.

Dr. Ahmed highlighted several significant groups who made the journey from South Asia, including students (educated at British universities) lascars (Indian seamen) involved in exporting goods between Britain and India (and other parts of the world) and Ayahs, who were employed as nannies but who often ended up destitute once their services were no longer required (following a sea journey, for example).

Popular opinion may hold that major immigration started after WW2, with the Caribbean influx of 1948 on HMS Windrush, when post-war manpower was required, but the lecture and exhibition both made it clear that there is a lot more to the story. Indeed, one of the direct targets of the project is to increase the historical depth of South Asian contribution to British life, which certainly pre-dates the 1940s.

There were numerous eye-opening details revealed throughout the evening, such as the level of spying that went on by the British as they kept the new residents under suspicion; records of which survive at the British Library and were used as research for the project.

I was also unaware of the level of Asian involvement in the suffragette movement and, later, the segregation in the military hospitals of WW2, fuelled by the paranoia surrounding the prospect of English nurses coming into contact with Asian soldiers.

Another surprise was the Asian involvement and influence on the literary world. This is a big subject and plans are afoot to revisit the area in a future lecture.

For further information on this fascinating subject, please visit the official project website.

Well done Dr Ahmed and Middlesbrough Library for presenting such an excellent and thought provoking event.

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