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"Whether hidden under crates of frozen fish in big lorries or spat on to a deserted beach like washed-up drowned men with itineraries in their pockets, we got here one way or the other. What none of us knew was how to go back."
The motivation for leaving the Asian subcontinent is as diverse as the individuals and groups involved. During British rule, predominantly male travellers and settlers embarked from the three main Indian ports of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta to sail to Britain.
Though many of the migrants were maritime workers - lascars and ayahs - most were fuelled by a desire to see and experience British life, to:
As British subjects, inhabitants of British India had, in theory if not always in practise, free right of movement within the Empire. From the 19th century many Indians went to other parts of the British Empire, including the Caribbean, South East Asia and Africa, generally as indentured servants or bonded workers.
Some groups of South Asians, such as Punjabis, Tamils and Gujaratis had always shown an inclination to travel. In the words of one Mirpuri:
'We are travellers throughout the world ... Our people are, you could say illiterate, but still they have a sense of travel, communication skills and a sense of adjustment.'
Anonymous, Home from Home - British Pakistanis in Mirpur, 1997
In 1869 the opening of the Suez Canal significantly reduced the journey time between India and England. British families were able to travel on steam-powered passenger liners accompanied by Indian servants.
Very little is known about how Indian nurses or ayahs experienced these sea voyages. The main duties of the nurses involved caring for children and babies and their employers during the voyage and sometimes in Britain.
Numerous travelogues written in South Asian languages including Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali and Urdu were published from the 19th century onwards, and a few were translated into English.
Aimed primarily at an educated Indian readership curious to know more about the West, the travelogues provided useful information about manners and customs for prospective students, tourists and businessmen as well as a fascinating glimpse of how early South Asians viewed, experienced and journeyed to Britain.
Behramji Malabari was born in 1853, the son of a Parsi colonial bureaucrat. By the time Malabari left Bombay to travel to England in April 1890 he was already the author of a book of Gujarati poems.
His journey to Britain and his observations of British life were recorded in The Indian Eye on English Life or Rambles of a Pilgrim Reformer, published in 1893 which was so popular it passed into three editions. Read more about Behramji Malabari.
The work was physically exhausting and dirty. Oral testimony from the son of an Indian seaman gives an impression of the harsh conditions in the engine room of the ship:
"It was very hard work on the ships. You'd find a funnel on these ships the size of a small room and you had to pick up coal with a shovel, raise it to shoulder level in the heat to put it in the funnel. In that heat!"
One resourceful Indian seaman took advantage of the opportunities available to him on board The Somali in 1921 and started a business selling tea to British passengers:
"The ship stopped in Saudi Arabia to pick up some fuel, then went down to Suez Canal, through Malta and Gibraltar and finally docked at London's Tilbury Dock. The ship took twenty-two days from Bombay to London and all that time I sold cups of tea."
Mr Gunaratnam, who came to Britain in 1960 as a student on a P&O liner, the SS Orion, brought with him a steel cabin trunk containing, among other things, his prized T Square and Drawing Board, tools of his profession as a draughtsman. He said, 'To study and be successful preoccupied my thoughts right from day one when I left Colombo.'
The passenger lists for the SS Orion show that Mr. Gunaratnam travelled on the 17th January 1960, just four weeks before his eighteenth birthday on Valentine's Day. He is listed as an 'apprentice'. Find out how to trace your ancestors using the passenger lists.
While most Asians travelled to Britain by ship up until the 1960s, Ram Chawla and Aspy Merwan were the first Indian pilots to fly to Britain in 1930, landing in London's international Airport, Croydon. At that time a sea crossing could take as long as ten weeks.
From the 1970s ships were replaced by planes and provided a much faster and regular mode of transport between Britain and the subcontinent for the remainder of the 20th century.
Arjumand Bano Wajid describes her first experience of air travel in December 1968.
"It was my first journey by air and under any other circumstances should have been exciting, but at the time my heart was too heavy to enjoy anything. My uncle and aunt saw me off at Karachi airport and as the plane took off I took a sigh of relief because at long last I was on my way, leaving all the anxiety of waiting months behind and ready to tackle 'the real life' and looking forward to seeing my husband with whom I had only spent a week six months ago. Arrival at Heathrow airport was pretty straightforward except for the chest ex-rays I was carrying. The immigration officers saw this as a cause for concern that an apparently healthy looking girl who had come to join her husband was carrying her chest ex-rays. They were only satisfied when they had done their own, which added another couple of hours to my journey which had started nearly 48 hours earlier."
The survival of these passports supplies clues to the presence of Indian migrants. Prior to the 20th century the documentation of British Indian subjects travelling abroad was largely unregulated. Discover more about the collection of Passports in the India Office and the people they belonged to.
Mrs Shama Ahmad, who came to Britain in 1971, described the fear and excitement she experienced prior to leaving Pakistan.
"I used to think how it would be outside and of course, there were some stories regarding Piccadilly Circus and the Underground and we did read a few stories. But I was anxious to come and see it myself. I was very excited and fearful leaving my family behind and coming alone."
Abdul Majeed Mallick describes his father's departure during the Second World War:
"Whenever somebody left home for abroad the members of his family and friends accompanied him to see him off at the River Pooch, that was the point of separation you see. So I accompanied my father up to the river, and then he crossed by boat. All the way across he was looking behind and I was looking at him, both of us were in tears."
The decision to leave home to seek out opportunities abroad was by peasant farmers motivated, in part, by the mythology of Britain that had been developed by the early pioneers.
"My Dad is one of those people who invented England for the people of Mirpur because he went there from Jhang in 1940 and stayed fifty years."
Tales of Britain began to spread among villagers in post-partition Pakistan:
"When someone left our village and sent his first letter from England or some money, that in itself was an advert for England. You'd receive a money order, or a letter, or a present. When he returned, he'd bring his luggage from England and that would create an idea of glamour among our people. Then he wanted to go as well. There was so much interest that I know people who sold their houses to try to get to England."
Creators: Dr. Shompa Lahiri
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