Book Review: Ian Patel Essays a Relentless Timeline of Britain’s Struggle to Keep Itself White

For those yearning for evidence of British colonial racism, reading Ian Sanjay Patel’s 'We’re Here Because You Were There' is like finding the mother lode.

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It no longer surprises me how much of the White world’s political thinking, especially that of the old colonial powers, is underpinned by something as atavistic and tribal as racism.

Race is, after all, an irrational dislike of strangers, of people ‘not like’ oneself, paired with an equally irrational wish to favour other strangers who look more like us. This mindset comes cloaked in a veil of denial, as though our one-time colonial masters know that racist thoughts are unworthy of a species that sees itself as ‘better’ than others, a group that wants the moral high ground to lecture the rest of the world about what is right.

After all, isn’t racism like savarna ‘merit’ in India nothing but the last refuge of the mediocre? So racism will persist, but as a shameful mental wiring that must be kept under wraps, hidden from the light of day.

‘We’re Here Because You Were There: Immigration and the End of Empire’, Ian Sanjay Patel, Verso, 2021.

Ian Sanjay Patel’s in-point in his quest to uncover the story of British colonial racism in We’re Here Because You Were There: Immigration and the End of Empire is the period right after the Second World War, and the start of an influx of non-white migrants from the colonies into Britain.

Readers are left to imagine the original sin the entitled belief that Britain had the right to enter and appropriate territories all over the world, many of them with large local populations.

Proceeding like a bloodhound, Patel skips that start point and picks up the scent exactly where migration of Caribbean war veterans after the war has begun to alarm the local population (and, more important, their political elites). Patel calls his book ‘a story largely about British citizens’ attempts to enter Britain’. And once he is on the trail he moves from clue to clue to create a timeline of British official reaction to migration from the colonies which is underpinned by an astonishing degree of racism.

Patel’s first pit stop is to establish that Britain was concerned only about the influx of non-white colonials, whose numbers were never as great as the British imagined, while ‘white settlers’ from Britain to the colonies must always be welcome to return to Britain: or, as one historian he cites puts it, it was ‘racial exclusion without naming race’. All this while ‘every year the pace at which people with British nationality have left Britain has outstripped those with British nationality coming into Britain by almost 70,000’.

Going from incident to incident, using archival material from the official pronouncements of the British state, Patel builds his case that whatever the fuss the British state made about the ‘immigration’ from the empire’s hinterland, it was always only about keeping Britain white.

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Once this basic point is established it becomes a background hum, and Patel goes on to review the same period in flashbacks, looking at the political and economic state of Britain between the post-war period and the 1980s, when the empire on which the sun did not set was rapidly imploding. Winning the war had left Britain poor, reduced to being a ‘cold and unimportant little island’ with the ‘largest external debt in history’, money owed to the United States for its material help in the early stages of the War.

Britain was in no position to maintain its empire, as a military giant could, and as more and more big non-white countries demanded independence, Britain faced the double whammy of a loss of identity as a colonial power along with non-white citizens from the old empire starting to migrate to Britain.

Patel tracks the story as Britain tries to sustain its old identity by reinventing the old empire as a Commonwealth. It ‘could not yet relinquish [the Commonwealth empire] as a vehicle for British post-war imperialism’, even though newly independent India clearly expressed its intention to become a republic. Soon the Commonwealth was split into two colour-based camps: ‘Dominions’ where white British settlers were the majority of the population and which had been granted self-rule, and an increasingly large proportion of non-white nations from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

These newly independent nations were calling for racial equality, and the United Nations, where they were becoming a majority, began to take up the cause in earnest. Britain needed these non-white ex-colonies in its fold, however, as it needed the idea of a Commonwealth to sustain the illusion of its place in the world even if this brought nightmares that ‘the colored races will exceed the white races in a few years’ time in a ratio of no less than five to one’, and the dreaded prospect of more non-white ‘immigration’ into Britain.

It is a short hop from here to understanding the white world’s present fixation on ‘overpopulation’, seeing it entirely as the presence of far too many non-white people on the planet, jeopardising the old colonial dream of reconstituting the world population as mainly settlers from the white mother countries.

The solution to the ‘immigration’ nightmare was ‘development’, an ingenious plan to hijack the agenda of the newly independent countries and keep them safe for British interests, with a ‘second colonial occupation in practice (which) meant more white immigration, in which various experts, technical and professional staff, so-called development officers, doctors, teachers and engineers (would migrate) to help “develop” Africa’. ‘Development’, clearly, was never meant to be about improving any nation that was not a one-time colonial power something we have known in our hearts all along. It could also kill one more bird with a single stone, by deterring new nations from falling into the socialist or communist camps, as the Cold War was becoming the new board game in town.

The last two chapters of the book focus on Kenya and Uganda, where Britain tripped over her feet trying to block British citizens of South Asian origin from moving to Britain as their British passports should have automatically allowed. Here I was on the lookout to see how Patel dealt with the East African Asians’ part in causing the fiasco, beyond chronicling Britain’s duplicitous behaviour. He does provide a one-sentence full-disclosure statement, early in the book: ‘My paternal grandparents were born in colonial India, and my father in colonial Kenya’. But after that he steps back and lets his story tell itself.

What I did not see from Patel was any reflection on the racist and entitled behaviour that made East African Asians so disliked by Africans. Any community with any foresight should have sensed a ticking time bomb, and an awareness that the British were not going to stay on as their protectors in Africa forever. And that the British ultimately did not differ from Africans in their antipathy towards Asians. In chapters 8 and 9, we get a continuation of the same timeline style as in the rest of the book, with clear cut bad guys (the British) and Asians as the aggrieved party, victims of British as well as African racism, coming at us as fact after fact, presented with a certainty that bears a convincing ring of truth.

But I was there in London in August 1972, when the Ugandan crisis hit. I recall seeing the same Ugandan Asian students in the hostel who were being negative about some of us Caribbean Indians’ being of ‘mixed race’ transformed overnight into refugees humbly seeking asylum in Britain, while Kenyan Asians who had been there a while longer showed the same casual bigotry, proudly calling themselves ‘British Asians’.

Patel has an easy ‘out’ from this criticism of mine: he has set his in-point cleverly, right after the Second World War, by which time the fat was already in the fire because East African Asians had been too smart by half. Yes: as he says, many Asians who would have wanted to become citizens of Kenya or Uganda did not have an easy ride getting it, and many of those who did become citizens were just as summarily expelled by Idi Amin as those who had ‘disloyally’ held onto British nationality. But two groups can play at the dismal game of apartheid, and in East Africa, the Asians and the British were well matched, each content to use the other with no affection coming in the way.

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Could it have been otherwise? The way it was in the Caribbean, where neither Indians nor Africans felt we belonged less? I don’t know. East Africa was different: Africans were the sons of the soil, and Asians were not. The way Fijians in Fiji were there first, so it was their land, while Indians were a group of migrants brought by the British, easy to see as outsiders, and easy to want to expel.

East African Asians, unlike Indians in the Caribbean, were also much more middle class as compared with local Africans than we Indians in the Caribbean were, and more recent migrants from India. This middle class identity made them feel ‘better than’ the Africans they ultimately depended on for a chance to stay, and spawned in them the sort of racist thinking that the Indian middle class is known for. And as middle class migrants, they also got an offer of continuing British citizenship, something that we in the Caribbean never asked for, and which the British would never have thought of offering.

We’re Here Because You Were There is a dense book, like a walk through a tunnel, a relentless timeline of incidents in which the reader is made to keep trudging step after step. You are reminded of the history lectures in college where you were reduced to copying down everything the professor was spouting at breakneck speed, with no relief in sight till the next tutorial class with a different sort of teacher brought a sense of focus. But Patel’s dogged approach makes the litany of events credible.

Never do we doubt that he has ferreted out every tiny factoid on the subject. And for those yearning for evidence of British colonial racism, reading We’re Here Because You Were There is like finding the mother lode. It is a book that leaves you with much food for thought, and confirms your darkest imaginings about the days of empire and the present world order it has evolved into.

Peggy Mohan is a linguist and writer who lives in Delhi.