Desi Pardesi: South Asians in Britain, Grand Trunk Project Team

History of South Asians in Britain is not just post Second World War phenomenon, it reaches as far as 400 years.

As RozinaVisram (2002), a leading expert on history of South Asian community in Britain, writes in her excellent account, back in the seventeenth century Indian sailors, the lascars, who crewed the East India Company ships would come to Britain as well as Indian servants and ayahs who were brought over by families returning from India. Lascars sometimes jumped ship in British ports “to escape maltreatment and their inferior employment conditions”. The servants and sailors formed some of the first working-class settlers, and from eighteenth century, Indian emissaries, visitors, and Indian wives of European men would follow.

Middle of the nineteenth century saw a large numbers Indians arriving, from students, exiled princes, to  businessmen and entrepreneurs. Some were coming as a consequence of the political, social and economic changes in India under imperial rule of ‘the Raj’. Others came “out of a sense of adventure or to see the land of their rulers”. By the mid-twentieth century a small population of students, activists, petty traders, merchants, industrial workers and professionals, as well as artists and performers from all different religious, ethnic and regional backgrounds of the Indian subcontinent would reside in Britain.

The largest influx of Indian settlers came after the war, in the 1950s, in a response to the labour needs of the economy in the post-war era. Despite decades of discrimination and racism the South Asian community faced, their struggle for workerss’ rights and civil rights meant that “many have contributed to the political, economic and social life in the UK”. As Roger Ballard (1994) writes in his book DeshPardesh, the titular phrase has a double meaning as both ‘home away from home’ and ‘at home abroad’ which forms the central theme of the book: that despite many obstacles the communities have faced, they are still strongly committed to their own self-determined pursuits.


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