Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Book review - the invisible empire

The Invisible Empire - White Discourse, Tolerance and Belonging
Georgie Wemyss
Ashgate Publishing Limited

It will be a real shame if this ridiculously expensive book fails to attract sufficient academic subscribers to ensure its publisher issues a much cheaper version for readers with more modest incomes. Hopefully this will include some of the Bengali community, whose relationship with the east end of London, stretching back hundreds of years, Georgie Wemyss analyses so succinctly.

Tower Hamlets resident Wemyss is married to a Bengali Muslim and mother to two children. She examines events in the early 1990s to graphically illustrate how attitudes shaped hundreds of years ago impacted on their reporting. All of which, conveniently for those in charge, continues to help block the working class unity needed, by people of all colours, for a struggle to improve conditions there.

Wemyss examines why the highest levels of the British state joined with the Americans in celebrating in 2007 the arrival four hundred years previously in Virginia of a handful of English colonists that set sail from Blackwell whilst totally ignoring much more important events in Britain’s commercial history two hundred years later. This, of course, was the opening of the East India Docks in 1806, when 20,000 members of London’s fashionable society celebrated, safe in the knowledge that the new facilities would help increase the exploitation of the Indian sub-continent and those who lived there. This was a process established even before the Virginia trip, Queen Elizabeth I granting the right to the East India Trading Company a charter, or monopoly on importing goods from the East Indies in 1600.

Amongst the exploited few came as high as the ‘Lascar’ - the seamen of India, China and east African who sailed the seas in Britain’s merchant and Royal Navies and without who both would have been crippled.

Not that anyone in authority cared, even when many found themselves callously discarded when ships arrived in London. Instead of succour and support, and a right to stay, they faced further discrimination. In an early forerunner to Britain’s first immigration act of 1905 Parliament passed an act in 1848 prohibiting settlement rights for people who it admitted had the right to call themselves British citizens.

It is this grudging acceptance by the ruling class and the intellectual middle classes that so slavishly service them, accompanied by the unwillingness to recognise and celebrate the important roles that people from Asia have played in building Britain that still permeates the often poisonous politics of east London even today.

So when Bengali families apply for larger family units on the Isle of Dogs they’re challenged with claims that they have no connection with the area, and should stay living in overcrowded Brick Lane.

Then when Bengali Youth organise to protest about a vicious racist attack on one of their friends, Quddus Ali, during the BNP campaign that culminated with the election of Derek Beackon as the parties’ first councillor in 1993 it’s fair game for the police to brutally over-react against what it described as “outsiders.” As if!

This book is a worthy addition to Rozina Visram’s Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History published in 2002. It would be a shame if it remained the preserve of an elite few. 

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