A Passage to Britain – BBC 2

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It’s been a while since we’ve had a documentary series about historical immigration to the UK and, with the upsurge in interest in genealogy making personalised history very appealing at the moment, the idea of tracing the lives of passengers on ships travelling from India to Britain in three different decades sounded fascinating. It would have been a lot better had it concentrated more on telling their stories and less on trying to score socio-political points; but it certainly had its moments and was well worth watching.

The first episode used the passenger lists from the voyages of the P&O ship Viceroy of India, a rather luxurious liner, in 1933 and 1935.  Immigration from India to the UK is generally associated with the post Second World War era, so this sounded like it might throw up some particularly interesting stories.  At least, Yasmin Khan, the presenter, said that she was looking for stories about Indian (which at the time would obviously have included people from the areas which are now Pakistan and Bangladesh) people settling in the UK; but only three of the six people whose stories were explored actually fitted that category, so I’m not quite sure why she said it.

Maybe she said it because, at the beginning of the programme, it was a convenient way of dismissing the many schoolchildren and university students who were amongst the passengers. Students at schools, universities and other further education institutions made up a third of the Indian population of the UK in the 1930s, and – as an avid reader of school stories! – I’d like to have heard about the experiences of some of them.  Especially the girls, given that four of the five passengers we did hear about were male.

But they were ignored on the grounds that most of them went home afterwards –which would have been fair enough had the programme actually been all about Indian people staying in the UK. Maybe I’m being unduly cynical, but it was hard not to feel that they didn’t get a look-in because most of them would have been from the royal families of the princely Indian states, which weren’t under British rule, and that the BBC didn’t think that the avocado-eaters of Islington, or whoever it is that they try to appeal to these days, wanted to hear about them.  On a posh ship like that, you’d think there’d also have been plenty of adults from princely families, heading off to enjoy a whirl of glamorous social engagements in London and maybe then the French Riviera, and (I read Hello! magazine as well as school stories) I’d rather have like to have heard about them too … but nary a mention did they get.

Oh well!   The one student we did hear about had a very interesting story, as it happened.  The idea of the programme was to trace the passengers’ surviving relatives and follow the stories with them, and the son of this man was under the impression that his dad had come to London to take the Indian Civil Service exams, failed them, and not returned to India because of the shame.  Instead, it turned out that he’d become involved with the independence movement and that his parents had sent him away because they thought they were keeping him out of trouble.  He was so angry that he never spoke to them again.  You wonder why he never told his family about this, but evidently he didn’t.

The BBC tried to make out that this was all about the evils of empire, but I don’t think that that was entirely the right angle to come at. Clearly it was about the Indian independence movement, but it was also part of a wider pattern – a story, and you can find so many similar stories in the history of pretty much every country in the world, about the people who are involved in trying to overthrow a foreign and or tyrannical regime, or to work for change within that regime; and the people, generally the older generations, who either don’t want change or are frightened of the possible consequences of working against the powers that be.  What an intriguing story – and what a shame that this man’s relatives had thought all these years that the reason he’d stayed in Britain was because he was ashamed of failing some exams.  I hope they were really pleased to learn the real story.

Next up was Mulk Raj Anand, the writer. Of course, the BBC had to make out that the focus of his writings was, you guessed it, the evils of empire, whereas he also wrote a lot of important works about the sufferings of the Untouchables under the Indian caste system.  They also ignored his journalistic work during the Spanish Civil War.  Now there is a subject that deserves a documentary series – the role of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War!   He was someone who was in favour of change in many ways and many places – yes, Indian independence, but a lot more than that.  We heard a bit about his unsuccessful marriage to a British woman, and there was a nice personal touch with his niece talking about his recipes for curry!

The third person discussed was the only woman of the five – an ayah to a British family. They didn’t seem to have been able to find any of her relatives, but the baby of the family for whom she’d worked was still alive.  He’d been on the ship as well, possibly the only passenger from either of those voyages still alive.  The poor ayah had had to travel third class, whilst the family had been in the posh part.  There wasn’t much information about her, though: the family had paid for her to return to India once the children were older, and the BBC tried to make out that she’d been hard done by, but surely, unless she’d worked for someone like the Earl of Grantham, a nanny would have expected her employment to be terminated once the children were all at school?   It was pretty horrible that they’d refused to pay for her to have a decent cabin on the ship, but, sadly, par for the course, whether the servants were Indian or British.

The family themselves were very interesting. I got the impression that the BBC had hoped they’d be some very snooty types, the way people usually envisage the British in India – think all those people at the club in A Passage to India – and very definitely coming from British India, but it transpired that the dad was a jockey who’d been working for a maharajah.  So we got to hear a bit about the glamorous lives of princely families after all, hooray!  (Sorry, too much Hello! magazine!)  The surviving passenger had some lovely stories to tell about the relationship between his family and his father’s employers, and the good times they’d had there.

None of this really had much to do with the establishment of Indian communities in Britain, though. No problem with that – it was all very interesting – but why make out that that was what the programme was about, when it wasn’t?!   And the next passenger certainly wasn’t Indian: he was the gloriously named Sir Lancelot Graham, the first governor of Sind.  And his grandson lives in Altrincham!  The BBC seemed keen to push the snooty angle, going on about how Sir Lancelot had been to a public school and then to Oxford, but his grandson made a point about how hard the exams were and how hard his grandfather had had to work to pass them.

I think a lot of us are guilty of thinking of the imperial service in general, not just in India, as some sort of old boys’ club where getting a top job wasn’t so much what you knew as who you knew, but it’s probably not very fair to think like that, certainly by the 1930s. Er, yes, and the last viceroy was the king’s second cousin and the uncle of the future queen’s intended!   OK, OK!

It moved into Children of the Raj territory then, with the Altrincham-dwelling grandson explaining that his father hadn’t been on the ship because he had at that time been at boarding school in Britain, and talking about the difficulties faced by families because of the system of sending children to school in Britain whilst their parents remained in India.  That possibly wasn’t what the BBC had been after, but it was a fair point.  It can be hard now to sympathise with adults who made that choice, although it’s very easy to sympathise with the children, who weren’t given any choice; but times were different then, and the separation can’t have been easy for anyone.

Finally, we did actually get back to what was supposed to be the point, Indian immigration to Britain – with the life of a man, a lawyer, who’d come from India and settled, not in an urban area of the UK, as might have been expected, but in a rural area of Essex, and had married a white British woman. We were told that there were around three thousand marriages between Indian men and white British women in the 1930s, probably more than might have been expected.  At a time when levels of racial tolerance left a lot to be desired, and when religious intermarriage even between Protestants and Catholics was frowned on, this marriage hadn’t gone down very well with either family.  Even now, there are so many cases of families being unwilling to accept someone’s choice of partner: we’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go.

It was also sad to hear, from one of the couple’s descendants, about the abuse that the children had suffered at school, from the teachers as well as the other kids. In that area, at that time, the man who’d travelled on the ship was the only Asian person, and that must have been very difficult.  The idea was mooted last year about every council in the country being asked to take a small number of Syrian immigrants, rather than large groups of people settling in a small number of areas, and you can see where the authorities were coming from from a financial and practical viewpoint, but that sort of thing just doesn’t work.  It must have been so hard to have been the only Indian person, the only non-white person, in a community that doesn’t seem to have been overly welcoming.

Also, the family’s surname had been changed, to something that sounded English. That, in my experience, is very unusual for a family with Indian sub-continental heritage: it happens more with surnames associated with other parts of Europe. I doubt we’ll be seeing that again in the later episodes.

All in all, quite a mixed bag of stories. I’m not sure what the programme was actually hoping to show – the BBC always seems to have to have an agenda with everything these days, and it’s rather annoying –  and I’m not sure that it showed what it hoped to, but it was certainly interesting.  I suppose they don’t want to overlap too much with Who Do You Think You Are?, but I wonder if this could be done with other groups of immigrants to the UK as well – maybe go back to the 1680s (possibly not with ships’ passenger lists, but there’ll be some records available), when there were Huguenots moving to the British Isles (I can’t really say “Britain” pre-1707!) from France, and both Protestants and Jews from the United Provinces (the Netherlands), and work forward from there?

As I said, it’s been a while since we’ve had a documentary series about immigration to the UK – and I’m talking history, not current affairs and certainly not politics.   And this personalised history does seem to be very popular at the moment.   Great idea for a documentary series.

2 thoughts on “A Passage to Britain – BBC 2

  1. Chris Deeley

    I definitely think a series on Jewish immigration in to the UK would be interesting. The majority came from Amsterdam, starting in 1656. The Creechurch Lane Synagogue was founded in 1657. Sir Gerald Nabarro was a descendant and quite possibly related to a branch of my family – Nunes Cardozo, who intermarried with the Navarro family.

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