2 november 2007

How Asians helped make Victorian Britain

Cornelia Sorabji
Cornelia Sorabji, a social reformer who studied at Oxford and became India's first female barrister

Researchers at Oxford University are part of a new project to examine the contribution made by South Asians to British cultural and political life from the late 19th century onwards - from Members of Parliament to major literary figures.

Making Britain: Visions of Home and Abroad will look at migrants from the Indian sub-continent in Britain as far back as 1870 and their work as writers, political activists and artists. It will examine how they saw themselves in terms of race, class and nation and the links they formed between themselves as a group. Professor Elleke Boehmer and Dr Sumita Mukherjee from Oxford University are working in conjunction with a larger research team, based at the Open University and King's College London.

Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English, said: ‘There is a perception that Britain as a multi-racial and multicultural society is a product of the Second World War. This research will challenge that view, looking at how South Asians were shaping British life and culture much earlier. Studying this period also shows us that the aspects of multiculturalism that attract such interest today – from innovative literature to fear of terrorism - were with us a century ago.'

South Asians made a distinctive contribution to British cultural life in this period, Krishna Menon studied in London in the 1920s and later became a councillor in St Pancras and founder of Pelican books. Meary James Tambimuttu was a writer who in 1938 founded Poetry London, a journal which provided a platform for new writers such as Lawrence Durrell and which continues to this day.

South Asians also played an important role in politics, Dabadhai Naoroji, a businessman who came to Britain in the 1850s, was elected Britain’s first Asian MP in 1892. Others found themselves in conflict with British society and joined anti-establishment groups such as the Indian Communist party. A few even turned to violence, most famously with the murder of Sir Curzon Wyllie, an Indian Office official, in 1909.

The research will also be a chance to re-assess the impact on Britain of figures better-known for their role in Indian culture. These include the social reformer Cornelia Sorabji, who studied at Oxford and became the first female Indian barrister and Rabindranath Tagore, in 1913 the Bengali Nobel prize-winning poet.

Oxford was a major centre for South Asians during this period, by 1922 150 students had attended the University, and so offers rich resources for the study of these groups. The research will draw on a range of sources, from historical and political archives to literature, journalism and photographs.

Dr Sumita Mukherjee, research assistant on the project, who has recently completed a doctorate on Indian students in Britain from 1900-1947 said: ‘Indian students had varied individual responses to British social and educational life. One common theme was a strengthening of their sense of Indian identity as opposed to specific regional identities. The students had an important impact on both British and Indian life – English education brought considerable prestige in India, forming the basis for great status there.’