Untold lives blog

15 posts categorized "Black & Asian Britain"

19 June 2020

Get Up, Listen Up! for Windrush Day 2020

Windrush Day was introduced in 2018 to mark the 70th anniversary of the docking of the Empire Windrush at the port of Tilbury.  The day honours the life and work of the British Caribbean community whose presence in the UK long predates the arrival of the Windrush, but grew in the post-war years as the forces of colonial oppression pushed people to travel to a ‘Mother Country’ in need of rebuilding.  72 years on, the relationship between Britain, the Caribbean and the descendants of the ‘Windrush Generation’ continues to be fraught as anti-racist protests gather force and people await compensation following the fallout of the Windrush Scandal.

To mark Windrush Day this year we have released audio of three public events that speak to our current times. These events were recorded at our Knowledge Centre in 2018 as part of a series accompanying our exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land.    The exhibition shed new light on the significance of the arrival of the Windrush as part of a longer history of slavery and colonialism, telling the story of Caribbean people’s struggles for social recognition, self-expression and belonging throughout history.

Here’s your chance to listen again (or perhaps for the first time) to a lecture on that other ‘Middle Passage’ by Professor Sir Hilary Beckles; a conversation on race relations legislation and the Windrush Scandal produced in association with the Runnymede Trust; and the incredible voices of Wasafiri magazine’s ‘Windrush Women’ writers with Beryl Gilroy, Jay Bernard, Hannah Lowe, Valerie Bloom and Susheila Nasta.

For more explorations of race, migration and culture take a look at our Windrush Stories website which includes articles, collection items, videos and teaching resources. You’ll find suggestions for further resources specific to each event below.

Jonah Albert and Zoë Wilcox

 

British Trade in Black Labour: The Windrush Middle Passage
Recorded on Friday 15 June 2018 and sponsored by the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.

In this keynote lecture Professor Sir Hilary Beckles examines the circumstance which lead to people from the Caribbean re-crossing the Atlantic in response to the push of colonial oppression and exploitation, and the demand for their labour in the UK.

Historian Hilary Beckles is Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies.  Born in Barbados, he received his higher education in the UK and has lectured extensively in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. He is the founder and Director of the CLR James Centre for Cricket Research, and a former member of the West Indies Cricket Board.

For more on this topic take a look at the articles in the Waves of History section of our Windrush Stories site.  You can discover personal stories of migration in The Arrivants section, including video portraits from the 1000 Londoners series and video interviews with members of the Caribbean Social Forum.


Race Relations: An Act?
Recorded on Friday 6 July 2018, this event was produced in association with The Runnymede Trust.

Image by Michael Ward © Getty image

There have been four Race Relations Acts since 1965.  Our panel of experts discusses the impact of immigration legislation on the Windrush generation and other migrants and their descendants.

Sir Geoffrey Bindman founded Bindmans LLP in 1974 and throughout his long and distinguished legal career has specialised in civil liberty and human rights issues.  He was legal adviser to the Race Relations Board from 1966-1976 and to the Commission for Racial Equality until 1983.

Amelia Gentleman writes on social affairs for The Guardian.  An awarding winning journalist, she is known for her investigative and campaigning work on the Windrush scandal.

Maya Goodfellow, chair of the conversation, is a writer and researcher.  Her work spans a range of issues including UK politics, gender, migration and race.

Matthew Ryder was Deputy Mayor for Social Integration, Social Mobility and Community Engagement at City Hall.  He became a barrister in 1992 and writes regularly for national newspapers on social policy and cultural issues.

Iyiola Solanke is Professor of European Law and Social Justice at the University of Leeds, and an Associate Academic Fellow of the Inner Temple.  She has published on judicial independence and diversity, intersectionality and race relations in Britain and Germany.

For further reading see our series of articles, Perspectives on the Windrush Generation Scandal, by Judy Griffith, David Lammy and Amelia Gentleman.

 

Windrush Women: Past and Present
Recorded on Monday 25 June 2018 and produced in association with Wasafiri

There are many stories missing from the Windrush narrative, not least those of the bold and pioneering women who left everything behind, to better their family’s lives and their own.  At this event, contemporary international writing magazine Wasafiri celebrates women writers from the Windrush era.  Former Editor-in-Chief of Wasafiri, Susheila Nasta introduces a recording of her interview with one these pioneers, Beryl Gilroy - writer, poet and London’s first Black head teacher.  Poets Jay Bernard, Val Bloom and Hannah Lowe read work inspired by their legacy of these women.

Jay Bernard is a writer, film programmer and archivist from London.  In 2016, Jay was poet-in-residence at the George Padmore Institute, where they began writing Surge, a collection based on the New Cross Fire and which won the 2018 Ted Hughes Award for new work.

Hannah Lowe is a poet and researcher.  Her first poetry collection Chick won the Michael Murphy Memorial Award for Best First Collection.  She has published a family memoir Long Time No See.  She teaches Creative Writing at Brunel University and is the current poet-in-residence at Keats House.

Valerie Bloom is an award-winning writer of poetry for adults and children, picture books, pre-teen and teenage novels and stories.

Susheila Nasta was Founder and Editor in Chief for 35 years from 1984 to 2019 of Wasafiri, the magazine of international contemporary writing.  A literary activist, writer and presenter, she is currently Professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature at Queen Mary, University of London.

For over three decades, Wasafiri has created a dynamic platform for mapping new landscapes in contemporary international writing featuring a diverse range of voices from across the UK and beyond.  Committed to profiling the ‘best of tomorrow’s writers today’ it aims to simultaneously celebrate those who have become established literary voices.

You will find more on Beryl Gilroy’s books Black Teacher and In Praise of Love and Children on our Windrush Stories website, as well as articles on the work of Andrea Levy and performances by female poets of Caribbean heritage including Malika Booker, Maggie Harris, Khadijah Ibrahiim, Hannah Lowe, Grace Nichols and Kim O’Loughlin.

 

30 March 2020

The National Indian Association and its handbook for students in Britain

The National Indian Association was founded in Bristol in 1871 by Mary Carpenter.  Local branches were established in both England and India. Its aims were to extend knowledge of India and its people in England; to co-operate with efforts for advancing education and social reform in India; and to promote friendly relations between English and Indian people. 

The Association published a monthly magazine; organised lectures; made educational grants; encouraged the employment of medical women in India; and gave information and advice to Indians in England.  The Committee of the Association also assisted Indian parents wanting to give their sons ‘the benefit of an English Education’ by offering superintendence of students, with expenses arranged individually for each case.  In all matters, ‘the principle of non-interference in religion is strictly maintained’.

Cover of Handbook for Indian StudentsNational Indian Association, A handbook of information for Indian students (10th edition: London, 1904) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Association published A handbook of information for Indian students relating to University and Professional Studies &c in the United Kingdom which ran to several editions.   It provided details of legal study; examinations connected with government service; universities and colleges; medical study; and technical training and manufactures. 

The 10th edition was published in 1904.  It offered general advice to those young men coming to England to study.  By practising ‘great economy’, a student could live in London in £120 to £150 a year.  Living expenses were cheaper in other cities.  Different kinds of accommodation were explained: rented rooms; boarding houses where meals were provided; or living with a family which had the benefit of gaining ‘acquaintance with English life and habits’.

As well as living expenses, the students had to pay educational or professional tuition fees and spend considerable amounts on books.  Candidates for the Indian Civil Service were likely to need £30 or £40 for books.

Indian students were warned that they would not be able to maintain themselves to any degree by teaching languages or other subjects.  After paying for the voyage, they were advised to bring at least another £20 or £30 from India for buying clothing and other essential items on arrival in England.  The Association said that it was inadvisable to buy articles of dress in India for use in England.

It wasn’t thought necessary for students to be met on landing. The shipping agents would look after baggage, and students coming all the way by sea could take a train from the Albert Docks to Fenchurch Street Station and then a cab to their destination.  It was equally easy to arrive at Charing Cross Station from Brindisi.  However it was important to inform a friend in London by letter or telegram of the expected date of arrival.

A resolution of the Government of India was quoted which stated that Indian students travelling to England should apply for a Certificate of Identity signed by the head of school or college, and counter-signed by a District Officer, Commissioner of Police, or Political Officer.  The certificate proved that the holder was a British subject and could be used to obtain a passport for travel to foreign countries.  It also allowed for speedier processing of appeals for assistance from students unable to complete their course ‘owing to embarrassed circumstances’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
National Indian Association, A handbook of information for Indian students relating to University and Professional Studies &c in the United Kingdom (10th edition: London, 1904) British Library 8366.bb.60.

17 September 2019

Bogle-L’Ouverture publishing house

In October 1968 the activist and author Walter Rodney, returning from the Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Canada, was declared persona non grata by the government of Jamaica.  He was banned from resuming his teaching position at the University of the West Indies.  In Kingston, students and other activists participated in what became known as the Rodney Riots, and there was considerable activity amongst Caribbean communities in the UK and the US.  Out of that struggle, the publishing house Bogle-L’Ouverture was founded in London by Jessica and Eric Huntley.  2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of their first publication, a collection of Rodney’s lectures entitled The Groundings with my Brothers

Cover of The Groundings with my Brothers by Walter RodneyCover of The Groundings with my Brothers by Walter Rodney - Artwork for cover design ©  Errol Lloyd

Named for the leaders of the Morant Bay Rebellion and the Haitian Revolution, Bogle-L’Ouverture, alongside New Beacon (founded 1966) and Alison & Busby (founded 1967), soon became an integral part of progressive independent publishing in London.  Their publications provided a space for radical black thought to be distributed and read in the UK.  In 1972, Bogle-L'Ouverture published one of the key early post-colonial texts in Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

Cover of How Europe underdeveloped Africa by Walter RodneyCover of How Europe underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney - work in copyright

The Huntleys founded the Bogle-L'Ouverture Bookshop in West London in 1974, and the space became a key venue for political meetings, talks and readings.  In 1980, following Rodney’s assassination in Guyana, the bookshop was renamed in his honour.  The physical space of the bookshop mirrored the fact that Bogle-L’Ouverture was an example of community publishing in the true sense, with publications often financed by friends of the Huntleys, and collaboration central to their work.  It was out of this sense of collective struggle that The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books was established by Bogle-L’Ouverture, New Beacon and Race Today.  There were twelve Book Fairs held between 1982 and 1995 and they were intended, as John La Rose stated, 'to mark the new and expanding phase of the growth of radical ideas and concepts, and their expression in literature, music, art, politics and social life'.

Programme of International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books 1985 featuring photograph of Malcolm XProgramme of International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books 1985 featuring photograph of Malcolm X - work in copyright

The programmes from each of the twelve book fairs have all been reprinted in A Meeting of the Continents: The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books – Revisited.  Looking through them one is made aware of what important and creative accomplishments these events were.  Yet, rather than evoking nostalgia, the editors hoped to offer inspiration for others to act.  Indeed, longstanding publishers such as Hansib, Karnak House and Karia Press were founded in the wake of New Beacon and Bogle-L’Ouverture, and Peepal Tree sold their first publication, Rooplall Monar’s Backdam People (1985) at the book fair.  More recently, innovative publishing concerns such as Own It!, Jacaranda, and Flipped Eye have also begun to build on the tradition established by the Huntleys more than half a century ago.  Yet their legacy extends beyond the publishing world – the Huntley archives are held the London Metropolitan Archives, which since 2006 has hosted an annual conference reflecting on their life and work.

Laurence Byrne
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Andrews, Margaret Doing nothing is not an option: the radical lives of Eric & Jessica Huntley, Middlesex, Krik Krak, 2014 [YK.2015.a.1141]
Sarah White, Roxy Harris & Sharmilla Beezmohun (eds). A Meeting of the Continents: The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books – Revisited, London: New Beacon Books/George Padmore Institute, 2005 [m05/.29879]

 

16 April 2019

An Easter vacation for Indian cadets at Sandhurst

In the India Office Records there is a file dedicated to Easter vacation arrangements for Indian gentleman cadets at the Royal Military College Sandhurst in 1920.  Some cadets wanted to stay with family or guardians in the UK whilst others had more ambitious plans.  Letters between the Military Department of the India Office and the College show a wish to take account of the cadets’ wishes balanced with a duty of care for the young men.

Cover of  file on Easter vacation arrangements for Indian gentleman cadets at the Royal Military College Sandhurst in 1920IOR/L/MIL/7/19051 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Military Department official William Henry Swain sent Sandhurst a proposal that Captain Conrad Bertie Lochner of the Indian Army should take Madanjit Singh and Tek Bahadur Shah to visit the occupied territory in Germany.  Madanjit Singh wrote a polite letter to Swain thanking him for arranging a stay in London and the trip to Cologne, but questioning whether it would be worth going to Germany for only a week.  He was keen ‘to see a few Theaters’ in London. 

Faiz Muhammad and Khan Sikandar Ali Mirza wished to stay together in London without a guardian. Instead it was suggested that they stay in Harrow on the Hill with Mrs Ellen Stogdon, a widow in her late 70s. Faiz Muhammad Khan wrote to Swain that although Mrs Stogdon had been very kind to him on a previous visit, he was keen to stay elsewhere. 

Sikandar Ali Mirza also sent a letter to Swain saying that he did not like the idea of staying with Mrs Stogdon.  There was absolutely nothing to do there and ‘besides I have an impression that Indians are not very welcome at Harrow on the Hill’ although ‘Mrs Stogdon herself is very kind’.   He believed he was old enough to take care of himself and to distinguish between right and wrong. 

Swain suggested to Major-General Reginald Stephens, Commandant at the Royal Military College, that Madanjit Singh and Sikandar Ali Mirza might be allowed to make their own arrangements for the holiday as both would soon be fully-fledged officers.  Stephens advised against letting them loose in London alone for a fortnight.  It was agreed that Major J W H D Tyndall would take charge of Madanjit Singh, Sikandar Ali Mirza, Faiz Muhammad Khan, and Edris Yusuf Ali at the Russell Hotel in London.

Minute on arrangements for Easter vacationIOR/L/MIL/7/19051 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


The file records that it was very difficult finding suitable officers to look after some of cadets.  The terms offered by the India Office were not sufficiently attractive. Hitherto it had offered pay plus 10s per day.  It was proposed to increase this to pay and allowances plus £1 per day and also a reasonable sum for travel and incidental expenses for officers whilst the cadets were in their charge.  Taking the young men to theatres and other places of amusement involved the officers in considerable extra expenditure.  In some cases the India Office was having to make advances to cadets for vacation expenses and then recoup this from parents or guardians in India.  There is a comment by General Sir Edmund George Barrow, Council of India, that in his opinion none of the vacation expenses should fall to Indian revenues as the cadets’ parents should provide financially for all aspects of their sons’ care.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/MIL/7/19051 Collection 430/42 Indian cadets at Sandhurst: arrangements for Easter 1920 vacation.

 

05 February 2019

A little piece of India

In 1917, a new Muslim burial ground opened in Woking for Indian soldiers dying in England during the First World War.

Plan for layout of Woking Burial GroundPlan for layout of Woking Burial Ground IOR/L/SUR/5/8/8 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In 2016 we posted a piece about the design of the Muslim Burial Ground with images taken from a military file in the India Office Records.  Today’s post develops the story using evidence from papers in the archive of the Surveyor’s Department.

The file is dedicated to the construction of the cemetery, including correspondence between designers and suppliers, plans of the layout of the cemetery, advertisements for grave and coffin prices, financial statements and the names of seventeen Indian soldiers who were buried at the cemetery.

Indian soldiers buried at WokingIndian soldiers buried at Woking IOR/L/SUR/5/8/8 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Not much is said about the soldiers, just their regimental number, rank, name, regiment and the date of their death. All seventeen of the soldiers died between 1915 and 1916 and the majority of them were either a Sowar (Indian Cavalry) or Sepoy (Indian Infantry). There were also two drivers and two cooks included in the list.

Unfortunately, the information on the soldiers stops there, with no indication on how they died or where they were before being laid to rest at Woking. The plans show that each soldier was to be buried with his ‘face towards Mecca’ and ‘each stone bears an inscription at the top in Hindustani, and then follows the other details in English’. This indicates that the designers made sure that each soldier was buried according to his religion.

The site designer, T.H. Winny, took great care in the preparations and construction of the cemetery, having it built in the Indo-Saracenic architectural style. Throughout the file, there is correspondence between designer and builders going into precise detail including the ‘recipe’ of concrete to be used (‘one part of Portland Cement to 2 parts of clean washed river or grit sand and 5 parts of screened river ballast’), a building contract (‘the whole of the materials and workmanship are to be the best of their respective kinds’) and even how many cypresses to plant in the grounds (‘100, in 4 varieties, 2-5 feet high’).

A newspaper clipping gives insight into what the cemetery was like upon opening, stating that in the sunlight it ‘assumes quite an Oriental appearance’ and the representative for the newspaper was ‘struck with its beauty and the splendour of some of the stones erected on the graves’.

Design for gravestones for Indian soldiersDesign for gravestones for Indian soldiers IOR/L/SUR/5/8/8 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Winny and his team of designers, builders and suppliers did everything they could to make this corner of Woking into a little piece of India.

Candace Martin-Burgers
Librarianship Placement Student, RMIT, Melbourne

Further reading:
IOR/L/SUR/5/8/8 India Office Surveyor’s Department file on the Muslim Burial Ground at Woking

 

06 July 2018

New black Britain and Asian Britain web pages launched

The British Library holds rich resources for the study of black Britain and Asian Britain. A new suite of web pages highlights the wide variety of material available, including printed, archival, visual, music and oral history collections.  The development of these web pages is discussed in the Asian and African studies blog.

The collections of the former India Office Library and Records, which are held at the British Library, illuminate the long history of South Asian people in Britain.  They document the stories of people from all walks of life including Indian seamen, known as lascars, soldiers and others providing vital support during both world wars, workers, servants such as ayahs (nannies), entrepreneurs, campaigners, students, lawyers and doctors, politicians, sportsmen and Indian royalty.  The people featured below are just a small sample of those whose lives are recorded in the collections at the British Library. 

  Portrait of Sake Dean Mahomed , 1826Portrait of Sake Dean Mahomed , 1826 (T 12646) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Sake Dean Mahomed started his varied career in the East India Company’s Bengal Army.  He left for Ireland in 1782 with a Captain Godfrey Baker. After marrying an Irish woman in 1786, he wrote a book about his travels.  His next venture was the Hindoostanee Coffee House which he set up in London.  When that failed, he moved to Brighton where he created a thriving business as a ‘shampooing surgeon’.  Dean Mahomed’s children lived in Britain and pursued successful careers.

 

Dadabhai Naoroji was the first Indian MP in Britain.  Photograph of Dadabhai Naoroji Dadabhai Naoroji -- Mirror of British Merchandise, 1892 (14119.f.37)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was born in 1876 in Suffolk, the sixth child of Maharajah Duleep Singh, the deposed ruler of the Punjab. Proud of her Indian ancestry, Princess Sophia was a generous patron of causes which helped Indian people in Britain. Today, she is best remembered as a passionate suffragette campaigning for women’s right to vote.

Sophia Duleep Singh selling 'The Suffragette' 1913Sophia Duleep Singh - The Suffragette, 18 April 1913 IOR/L/PS/11/52, P1608, f.273 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The photograph shows Princess Sophia selling The Suffragette newspaper outside Hampton Court Palace, where she lived in an apartment. 

The Bevin Training Scheme was established in 1941 with the support of the British Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin. The Second World War increased demand for skilled engineers in the Indian industries engaged in war-related work. The scheme aimed to provide practical training for young Indians who otherwise would not have the means to travel to Britain. This booklet was produced by the Indian Government as part of an essay competition for Bevin trainees to stimulate public interest in the scheme.

Front cover of Ambassadors of Goodwill - two Indian and European men shaking handsAmbassadors of Goodwill - Essays by Bevin Trainees, 1940s IOR/L/I/1/978 f.30 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

We hope that you will be inspired to look at the new web pages and discover more about our collections relating to the history of black and Asian Britain.

Penny Brook and John O'Brien
India Office Records

Further reading
Asians in Britain
Paper bag reveals forgotten history
Award of Victoria Cross to Khudadad Khan
A tribute to forgotten heroes of the seven seas 
Indian princess in suffragette march
Bevin Indian trainees during the Second World War

 

26 October 2016

An abandoned ayah

Imagine being abandoned at London’s King’s Cross railway station with just one pound in your pocket. In 1908, this is exactly what happened to an ayah who had travelled from India to Britain to look after a family’s children on the journey home.  An India Office Records file reveals the details of this story which was told in last night’s Sky Arts programme ‘Treasures of the British Library’ featuring Meera Syal.

Many British people employed an ayah to look after their children on the long voyage from India to Britain. The ayahs were at the heart of the family during the voyage, and their employer was supposed to provide for their passage home. However it was not unusual for ayahs to be dismissed once in Britain and left to fend for themselves. There were many critics of this callous behaviour because ayahs often suffered poverty and poor living conditions. In the late nineteenth century, these concerns led to the founding of the Ayahs’ Home in East London. Such was the demand that it moved to larger premises in 1921. They could enjoy a safe place to stay in the company of other ayahs and Chinese amahs, with food and décor that was intended to make them feel at home.

 

Ayahs in the Hackney Home

Inside the Ayah's Home in East London from G Sims Living London (1904-06)

 

The ayah highlighted in the broadcast arrived in England from Bombay with a Mrs Catchpole in May 1908. Mrs Catchpole asked Thomas Cook and Son to find the ayah another employer returning to India. The ayah’s services were duly transferred to a Mrs Drummond and she journeyed to Scotland where she spent fifteen days with the family.  On 24 June the Drummonds came to London to take passage to Bombay the following day on SS Arabia. The family left the ayah at King’s Cross Station, giving her £1.

 

  Ayahs' home entrance

The Ayahs’ Home in Hackney East London, London City Mission Magazine (1921) PP.1041.C
 

From King’s Cross, the ayah managed to find her way to the office of Thomas Cook at Ludgate Hill. She was advised to go to the Ayahs’ Home in King Edward Road, Hackney.  The matron of the Home, Sarah Annie Dunn, wrote to the India Office on 16 July reporting the case.  Although the Home did not take charge of destitute ayahs, it would not turn the woman away. Mrs Dunn questioned whether it was against the law for a native of India to be abandoned in such a manner.

 

Sarah Annie Dunn’s letter 16 July 1908

Sarah Annie Dunn’s letter 16 July 1908 IOR/L/PJ/6/881, File 2622 Noc

 

The India Office believed that the ayah had no legal remedy unless she had a written agreement that she would be taken back to India. The file notes that the India Office had declined to take responsibility in a previous case in 1890, and that the Government of India had then also refused to intervene. However Council of India member Syed Hussain Bilgrami recorded his disagreement with the proposed response, writing of ‘dishonest and cruel’ European employers inveigling Indian servants to travel with them and then abandoning them on arrival.

 

Syed Hussain Bilgrami’s dissenting minute 24 July 1908

Syed Hussain Bilgrami’s dissenting minute 24 July 1908 IOR/L/PJ/6/881, File 2622  Noc

 

Nothing more is written in the file about the destitute woman. Perhaps she was one of the ayahs who developed a special expertise in looking after children on voyages and travelled regularly to Britain. But if it was her first voyage, then her experience of being abandoned must have been truly terrifying.

Penny Brook and Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
Rozina Visram, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (Pluto Press, 2002)
Learning website: Asians in Britain 
Making Britain
Judicial and Public Annual Files 2575-2672: Case of an ayah abandoned in London, 16 Jul 1908, IOR/L/PJ/6/881, File 2622 Explore Archives and Manuscripts
London City Mission Magazine, report on the opening of the Home of Nations (Ayahs’ Home) on 4 King Edward Road, Hackney in June 1921 (Dec 1921 issue, page 140) PP.10451.C

 

02 July 2015

Herabai and Mithibai Tata: British support for Indian suffragists

In the second half of 1919, three Indian women, Sarojini Naidu, Herabai Tata and Mithibai Tata, were in London to address the Government as final readings of the 1919 Government of India Bill were being put through Parliament. They travelled to Britain to urge the Government to remove the sex disqualification that explicitly excluded women in India from the franchise.

Mother and daughter, Herabai and Mithibai Tata, were from Bombay and were on their first visit to Britain. They toured the country meeting with various women’s groups looking for support and advice. Their statement ‘Why Should Women Have Votes?’, sent to the India Office on 25 September 1919, laid out a number of reasons for Indian women to have the vote:

It has been recognised now in all countries that the sex barrier has been a grave mistake, is out of date, unworthy of the times, a relic of past days when might was above right … Why should India lag behind others in this respect and create a sex barrier where one does not exist, and thus brand Indian women as inferior to their sisters in other countries.

  Statement ‘Why Should Women Have Votes?'
IOR/L/PJ/9/8, File 267/19 Noc

In their support, as might be expected, the main women and suffrage organisations in Britain, the Women’s Freedom League, the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship and the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland sent letters and resolutions to the India Office. However, the India Office soon became inundated with letters of support from individuals and local associations across the breadth of Britain.

They included resolutions from three different groups in Glasgow. The Study Circle, Glasgow, sent the following on 17 September 1919:

That this meeting, approving of the principle of equality in the citizenship of men and women, urges that, in the Government of India Bill, women having the same qualifications as men should be included in the franchise proposals; so that popular government in India may start without any sex disability.

  Resolution from The Study Circle
IOR/L/PJ/9/8, File 267/19 Noc

 

The Tatas then went up to Scotland and engaged in an impromptu meeting that led to the following resolution sent on 24 November 1919:

That this meeting of Glasgow Citizens approves the principle of the extension of the franchise to Indian women as well as to the men of India, and asks that they shall be included on the same terms as men, in the franchise proposals being considered in the Government of India Bill.  

Similar resolutions were sent between September and December 1919 from the Glasgow Society for Women’s Suffrage, a public meeting of Newcastle citizens, the Huddersfield, Bristol and Manchester branches of the Women’s International League, the Liverpool Council of Women Citizens, the Cardiff Branch of the Britain and India Association, the Letchworth and Swansea branches of the Women’s Freedom League and the New Cross Branch of the National Co-operative Men’s Guild among many others.

These petitions were unsuccessful as the Government of India Bill did not include women into the franchise, but the Government did concede autonomy to Indian provinces to enfranchise women, which they started to do from 1921.


Sumita Mukherjee
King’s College London

Further reading:
IOR/L/PJ/9/8, File 267/19 - Representations etc relating to Franchise for Women in India under the Reforms Scheme (1918-1919)

 

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