Paper abstract

kradhikary at kradhikary at
Fri Mar 21 00:12:08 UTC 1997

"South Asian Immigrants to Britain in the Early Nineteenth Century: A
Question of Agency"
                                        by Michael H. Fisher, Oberlin College
                                                        presented at the
                                            University of Texas at Austin,
                                        South Asia Seminar, March 20, 1997

        A growing body of powerful scholarship has begun to analyze the
dimensions and effects of recent racial attitudes in Britain toward people
of South Asian origin.  Less attention has hitherto been given by scholars
to the degree of agency that different classes of early nineteenth century
immigrants from South Asia could assert in shaping English attitudes both
about them as individuals and about India and Indians generally.  This
paper examines the changing nature of interactions in Britain during the
first half of the nineteenth century between a single class of people
immigrating from South Asia and indigenous Britons, drawing as much as
possible the words and lives of these immigrants.  By focusing on lascars
(i.e. sailors from South Asia), this paper will analyze the patterns of
their relationships with the rest of society in England.
        Based on preliminary research into the life histories and social,
cultural, and economic contexts of various immigrants from India to
Britain, I argue that for the early nineteenth century, we must not
anachronistically project back twentieth century British cultural
definitions of race or the "orient."  Rather, such constructs about people
from South Asia developed in Britain over time, through shifting
negotiations and interactions between Asians and Britons, in the context of
growing British imperialism, and at a different pace from racial attitudes
and dynamics within India and other British colonies.  During the early
years of British imperialism in Asia, immigrants from South Asia advanced,
with varying degrees of agency, discursive models of their identity within
the British society they had entered.  For most immigrants from South Asia,
class boundaries in Britain during this early period seem to have been more
pronounced than racial ones.  For lascars, their status as males also did
much to determine their opportunities in British society.  Limited upward
mobility in terms of economic status and what would later be called
"inter-racial marriage" were both possible.  By the late nineteenth
century, however, the degree of agency that these and other immigrants from
South Asia in Britain could exercise through these ongoing and contested
negotiations with the indigenous British had diminished considerably.

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All the best,

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