Descent to Illegality
Risk, hope and folly: the story of Mela the migrant has them all. Rich sources to appreciate the longue duree of migration, folktales circulating within the Diaspora reflect the uncertainties and ironies of migrant life. Punjabi literature on migration, both folktales and short stories, became available in print from about 1963-64, when a Punjabi newspaper and popular magazines created opportunities for the publication of Punjabi short stories in the UK (Shamsher 1979: 233-46). From the mid-60s, increased circulation of Punjabi news magazines and journals denoted a growing community of settlers, for whom these were stories of hope, but also tales of caution. South Asian migration to the UK, however, stretches much further back than the stories do. From the beginning of the East India Company, Indians (and Africans) were brought as servants to England by officers of the East India Company to serve in white households, and that is a history going back almost 400 years. Transnational movements connected different classes of people and disparate social groups across space and time, with widely different consequences for all of them (Fisher 2004). The presence of ayahs (nannies) or coloured pages, for instance, enhanced the status of their white employers. On the other hand, seamen or lascars jumped ship at
Liverpool or other docks, ended up as peddlers, road sweepers and street hawkers. ‘Many came ashore to escape from particularly brutal officers but there was also an economic incentive: a man who signed on in London got higher European rates of pay, as opposed to the Asiatic rate he would have earned if he had taken the same job in Bombay … Although all Asians in London were ex-seamen they did not sit back passively waiting for a ship. They took up a variety of shore based occupations; some ran lodging houses, others worked for circuses and many … were professional beggars’ (Ballard and Ballard 1977: 23) In an early 1873 tract, The Asiatic in London, Joseph Salter wrote that ‘Asiatics’, as he called them, visited autumn retreats at the seaside or in watering holes to ‘come in contact with the English Sahib and extract a backshish’ (Salter 1873: 221). From the 17th century, some of these servants and sailors formed the earliest Indian working class settlements in Britain (Visram 2002: 2). By the 19th century, Asian seamen settled primarily in London’s East End (Raull 2006).