Mythbuster: Rewriting Immigration History


One of the greatest myths permeating in our society today is that the nation is this old, spontaneous and self-originating thing that was once racially ‘pure’ and built from the ground up by the Britons….Oh Really? We thought we’d take a snapshot of how immigrants contributed to one of the richest nations and largest Empires the world has ever seen.

Pre History

Around 7000BC or thereabouts, global warming melted the ice caps and raised the sea level. The cavemen of Africa migrated and great civilisations began to spring up. The earliest settlers on these shores were the Beaker people, the Picts and of course, the Celts. Over several thousand years new forms of human knowledge, advancing new ways to cultivate and irrigate the land, build towns, monuments and roads came to Britain in the minds and mouths of migrants.

The Roman Empire

The Romans were responsible for building the famous lattice of roads radiating out of London that are still visible on today’s atlases. They not only founded towns, but introduced the idea of towns itself. They planted a rough legal framework, the rudiments of finance, a calendar, the first sprigs of Christianity, the Latin language, an architecture based on stone rather than wood and much more.

In the episode of Question Time with Nick Griffin, Bonny Greer proclaimed:

“The BNP website starts its history in 700 AD, where’s the rest of British history, where’s the Roman’s, there’s a reason the Romans aren’t there because they were a multi-cultural society.”

Few of the Roman overseers were Italian; the army was composed of Gauls, Hungarians, Germans and North Africans. So, among its other achievements, Rome introduced the first black people to Britain.

From Rome to Empire

Vast waves of successive groups came to this island in the intervening time after the Romans came. They were often conquerors like the Vikings and the Normans. Or else they were desperate, like the the Angles, the Saxons (Yep they were immigrants too originally), the Jews, the Hugenots. Yet people have claimed that multi-culturalism is a failed project of Tony Blair’s forced on the British people. Well if by multicultural they mean the presence of people other than white Christian Britons then we have always been multicultural; we couldn’t have evolved without it.

British Empire

The British Empire was built on the principle of innate, inherited superiority of non-white races, and it was this that legitimised colonising countries and subordinating people to second class status.

Slavery was the basis of the British Empire in the West Indies; the Caribbean colonies soon adopted the system of sugar plantations which depended on slave labour. The slave trade was extremely profitable; in fact it became the major economic lifeblood for cities such as Bristol and Liverpool which formed the third corner of the triangular trade with Africa and the Americas. Britain also profited from trading in spices, cotton, silk, dye, salt, tea and opium in Asia.

Other slaves were brought to Britain to be personal household servants. Over time, they married native born Britons and ports like Liverpool and Cardiff turned into multi-racial areas. Yet there was a tendency for the black areas of these seaports to be cut off from the rest of the city; you could visit Liverpool for the day and not even be aware it had a sizeable black community.

After the abolition of slavery

Despite being the first country to abolish slavery and the numerous Acts of Parliament making it illegal, British participation in the trade was on-going. The government and the literate/interested public knew that British manufacturers and merchants supplied 80–90% of the goods used to barter for enslaved Africans destined for Cuba and Brazil, the main destinations for the trade.

The British Minister in Brazil wrote to Lord Aberdeen in 1829 that a ‘vast amount of British capital [is] indirectly employed in the slave trade’. Moreover, the 1840 British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (BFASS) annual report states that Birmingham manufactured the ‘collars and shackles’ used in the trade quite publicly; British fire-arms were manufactured for the African ‘slave-wars’; Manchester and Glasgow annually exported half a million pounds’ worth of ‘fabrics used in the purchase of trade’; £200,000 worth of other manufactured goods were sold to the Cuban slave trade, and British ‘bankers furnished the capital employed in it’; extending credit to dealers in slaves and to the mines, plantations and other slave-worked enterprises in the Americas.

WW1 + 2

We must also never forget that migrants from the Commonwealth, Ireland and Eastern Europe gave their lives to Britain in times of war. In the mid-19th

century, more than 900,000 Irish immigrants settled in England and became 30% our armed forces by 1830. By December 1944, 5,000 men were enlisted in the West African Air Corps as ground-crew and over 166,500 Africans were involved defeating the Japanese. Furthermore, exports of palm oil, nuts, rubber and food were produced by mainly British-owned companies, who saw vast profits, at the expenses of badly housed and underfed African Labour.

By the end of WW1 the British Indian Army expanded to a colossal 1.2 million-man force; of this, Muslims constituted a third. Similarly, during the Second World War, 2.5 million South Asian soldiers participated, including 700,000 Muslims and 120,000 Gurkhas. The financial contribution is estimated to be £1.3 billion and the human cost over 80,000 men.

Post WW2. Commonwealth

Immediately after the Second World War Britain faced a serious labour shortage, in response the Labour government imported thousands of Europeans who had been displaced by war. They were given preference over Commonwealth citizens because, among other reasons, “there was considerable prejudice against the recruitment of black colonial workers”. Nonetheless, this limited supply was soon exhausted and from 1948 black Commonwealth citizens arrived in Britain to meet the demand for labour. In the 1950s and 1960s workers from the West Indies and South Asia found jobs in electrical engineering, car manufacturing, paper mills, rubber mills and more fuelling the post-war economic boom that backed up MacMillan’s claim that “we’d never had it so good”. By 1968, there were almost 19,000 trainee nurses and midwives born overseas – 35% of whom were from the West Indies and 15% from Ireland. To this day the NHS – Britain’s most treasured service – still employs ‘one in seven of all immigrants in the UK’ to fill its skills shortage.

From the beginning of this small island to this very day, immigration has contributed to our wealth, culture, literature and civilisation in immense ways, ways in which one article couldn’t possibly do justice to. Every country needs controlled immigration to varying extents, but the next time the debate on immigration arises and people talk about immigration as if its inherently negative, about immigrants as a burden, of ethnic and religious minorities as people who aren’t ‘true Britons.’

The truth is that nations are almost always forged out of violence, built up using slavery, colonialism, cheap labour and that civilisations evolve through migration.

Remember who helped build this country, whose bondage and suffering laid the foundations of our wealth, whose sacrifice helped us fight for our freedom in our greatest hour of need and remember modern immigrants are contributing just as much to Britain today by delivering our most vital public services.

Natasha Holder

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