Long time residents

15th March 1996 at 00:00
THE HISTORY OF THE AFRICAN AND CARIBBEAN COMMUNITIES IN BRITAIN By Hakim Adi THE HISTORY OF THE ASIAN COMMUNITY IN BRITAIN By Rosina Visram Wayland Pounds 9.99 each Age range 10 plus

The dismal history of racial prejudice seems to throw up one eternally repeatable ploy: to blame people for doing the only thing you allow them to do. It's a measure of the scope and generosity of spirit of these excellent books that they give historical depth to the way the trick has been practised at the same time as they rise above blame and recrimination.

The "Asiatic Articles" which allowed shipping companies to pay lascars (Indian peasants driven by poverty to work as sailors) appallingly low wages also encouraged them to jump ship and set up communities in Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool and London.

These new Britons were then condemned for depressing earnings. If we still don't learn the lessons of economics and equity from this little piece of the past, it won't be Rozina Visram's fault. She and Hakim Adi have clearly shown why and how the movement of peoples takes place and they have drawn positive and encouraging conclusions from the story.

They use individual case studies every few pages to make their points. Ottobah Cuguano and Olaudah Equiano not only exemplified the evils of the slave trade in the 18th-century through their own life-stories, they wrote and organised against it and became leading figures in its abolition. Kamal Chunchie fought for Britain in the the First World War and against East End poverty and ignorance after it; Noor Inayat Khan worked dangerously as an aide to the French resistance and was killed at Dachau.

These histories illustrate both the length of the black and Asian presence here and the many different ways it has contributed to the growth, wealth and variety of our shared country. The distant past comes alive in such illustrations as an African trumpeter playing in a tournament of 1511 or an ayah with her pale and formal charges in a Reynolds painting. The spread of communities is remembered in accounts of the Somalis of south Shields (with Geordie accents in the mosque) or the Asian pedlars of fabrics who served remote households in the Scottish highlands.

If anything, the authors understate both the exploitation of colonised or enslaved peoples and the extraordinary achievements they still realised. We might have been told more of the money from sugar plantations that kept Mansfield Park civilised or sent Gladstone to Eton and Oxford. We hear briefly of Bridgetower the black violinist but not that he was the original dedicatee and performer of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata. The mathematical genius Ramanujan who helped rewrite the theory of numbers is passed over in silence.

But this is to carp. A very real sense of progress develops, from the restricted opportunities that kept people within the expectations of being servants, street-sellers or sportsmen to later accomplishments in law, politics and medicine. How many historians would have guessed that the first Asian MP was elected as long ago as 1892? (It was Dadabhai Naoroji, sitting for the Liberals in Finsbury.) Good bibliographies and splendidly researched pictures contribute to the success of excellent books which will enlighten and inspire teenagers whatever their skin colour.

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