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The lascars' lot


SOUTH Asian life in Britain between the late 18th and mid-20th Century little resembles the same community's situation today. In the earlier period, as Rozina Visram shows in her readable, detailed history, the community never exceeded about 70,000 (it numbers more than two million now). South Asian immigrants nowadays are far more likely to be permanently resident in Britain and in stable employment. Immigrants have, of course, always come in the hope of improving their material lot. But in earlier years, Britain had its limits as a land of opportunity. Some appear to have been prosperous enough: professionals such as doctors, teachers and lawyers, of whom, at the very most, several thousand were established in Britain by the late 1940s; a few successful businessmen; and a handful of wealthy leisured. But by far the main part of the community, from the beginnings of South Asian immigration to Britain, was made up of merchant sailors or "lascars", lodging in British ports in between voyages, ruthlessly exploited, working for wages whites would not accept; another significant part were those who never progressed beyond petty itinerant peddling.

Justifiably, Visram devotes many pages to the lascars. They played a vital role in the British economy, being about a quarter of the country's maritime workforce by the 1930s. Yet, thanks to aggressive and unscrupulous employers' organisations with great influence over the Government, these sailors' working conditions and wages were far worse than the Western norm. At the start of the Second World War, white seamen in Britain earned £9 12s 6d a month, while lascars' wages averaged around 35 shillings. Lascars could expect only half the accommodation space on board ship accorded to white seamen. On shore, lascars' housing conditions were abject. The desperate need for their labour imposed by the outbreak of the Second World War encouraged a series of strikes and strenuous petitioning for better wages and conditions. These agitations were fiercely opposed by the employers and the Government, and many lascars were arrested. The owner of one shipping line, returning from a shooting trip, argued that to accede to the lascars' demands would be the same as giving in to Hitler. Despite a rise in lascar wages due to wartime imperatives, their white counterparts received three or four times more money. Visram notes that although about 6,800 lascars were killed at sea during the Second World War, the monument at Tower Hill recording the names of 26,833 seamen of the British Merchant Navy killed in the two World Wars has only a few Asian names.

Visram's description of the lascars, the itinerant traders and the few South Asians who acquired industrial employment, usually on a "last hired, first fired" basis, yields hardly any evidence of working-class immigrants of Indian origin being able to rise from the bottom of the British economic ladder. Lack of knowledge of English and pervasive racial discrimination are hardly likely to account wholly for this, as Visram implies. After all, in other societies, often illiterate working-class emigrants from the sub-continent have proved adept at thriving economically, despite racial prejudice against them. In the period Visram covers, many of them established themselves prosperously in East and South Africa, Malaysia, Fiji, the West Indies and in North America. One might have expected much the same story in the British case. Why was the situation here so different? Unfortunately, Visram does not compare the British South Asian community with its counterparts elsewhere, and with other immigrant communities which came to Britain at roughly the same time, such as the East European Jews. Several reasons for the relative economic failure might be surmised: the smallness of the permanent South Asian settler population, enforced in the early 20th Century by stringent entry restrictions aimed at the indigent would be immigrant; the existence of a successful domestic commercial tradition, unlike in Africa; the lack of openings in farming, as in the West Indies, Canada and Fiji.

Despite this bleak background, a few South Asians did achieve individual note in British life, and Visram tells their stories. The first Indian members of the House of Commons, Dadabhai Naoroji, Mancherjee Bhownaggree and Shahpurji Saklatvala, make up a piquant trio. All sprang from the tiny Indian Parsee community. Naoroji, elected on a Liberal ticket in 1892, known to his London constituents as Mr. Narrow Majority, used the House of Commons to criticise severely what he called "unBritish rule in India". He formulated a theory of British economic exploitation of India which was vastly influential among Indian nationalists. Bhownaggree, although a Conservative and a staunch upholder of the thesis that India was "solidly Conservative", worked hard to defend Indian rights in South Africa. Saklatvala, despite being a manager of the great Indian Tata industrial empire, was the second Communist member of the House of Commons. A fiery campaigner for the abolition by Radical Socialist means of poverty in Britain and colonial rule in India, he was known to his followers as Comrade Sak. In the Spanish Civil War, the British battalion of the International Brigades was known as the Saklatvala Battalion. For all that, Saklatvala found it necessary to ensure that his children publicly underwent the traditional initiation rites of the Parsee religion, and was censured by his Communist Party branch for this unMarxian lapse.

The other political figure whom Visram discusses at length is Krishna Menon, well known from the 1930s onwards as a tireless Indian nationalist activist in Britain, and a confidant of Jawaharlal Nehru's. A zealous figure for many years on the St. Pancras Borough Council, Menon became the first High Commissioner in London of independent India. He was also the co-founder of Penguin Books. It is a pity that Visram does not say what made him internationally famous, and, in many quarters, infamous, in the 1950s and early 1960s: his role as India's caustic-tongued spokesman at the United Nations, specialising in baiting the Western powers; and his spectacular career as Indian Defence Minister, which ended suddenly in 1962 with his country's military defeat by China.

Three other South Asian contributors to British life at this time deserve mention: Dr. Frederick Akbar Mahomed, who made an important medical discovery in the 1880s relating to hypertension, a discovery for which he was only recently accorded recognition; Indra Lal Roy, Britain's youngest air combat ace in the First World War, dead at 19 and posthumously awarded the DFC; and Inayat Khan, posthumously awarded the George Cross for her espionage work in France in the Second World War.

Relating the story in an enthusiastically multi-culturalist tone, Visram manages to be sanguine in her assessment of the community's experience. She claims to show that the period was one in which South Asian immigrants already shaped British identity to an important extent — that such a development did not, as is often assumed, begin only after the Second World War. What the book uncovers is a rather different, though no less fascinating, story: of how an immigrant community, which one might well have thought to have great potential for growth in numbers and influence, was forced, for the most part, to remain at the bottom of British society. Overall, Rozina Visram's book demonstrates that the vision of Britain in its Imperial heyday, celebrated by many historians, as a cosmopolitan haven, ever open to the enterprising immigrant, is a white idea of things.

Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History, Rozina Visram, Pluto, p.488, £50 (hardback), £15.99 (paperback). 0 7453 1378 7

©The Times Literary Supplement

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