The Real History of Multicultural Britain

We are a nation of migrants.

It’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot these days, and in the wake of yet more divisive rhetoric from Ukip, and as we move into Black History Month, we’re going to hear it more.

But is it true? Or is it just a convenient fiction – something that’s useful to throw in the face of the bar-room bore who’s cornered you for a rant about migrants ruining the country? What is the real history of multicultural Britain?

Migration from overseas is, of course, nothing new to Britain. The Anglo-Saxons were migrants, in fact recent archaeology suggests they were much more peaceful than we’d thought, and that the old idea of a ‘genocide’ of the ‘indigenous’ Celtic population is untrue.

And there have been both waves and ripples of immigration ever since.

In 1066, William the Conqueror’s invasion brought over a small number of Norman aristocrats. These migrants were wealthy and skilled (they knew how to build castles). This, of course, made them okay, as they busily took over all of the English landscape and caused such devastation in the north as to make the Burnley Riots look like a croquet match. Incidentally these wealthy migrants bore Norman names like ‘Nigel’.

Later in the middle ages some Flemish weavers came over, and a number of French Protestant ‘Huguenots’ after 1685 (the Huguenots had sinister French-sounding surnames like ‘Farage’).

These were of course, all migrants from northern Europe, but the heroic recent research of Miranda Kaufmann has also uncovered evidence for something like 350 Africans who lived at some point in England between 1500 and 1650. Not a huge number, by any stretch, but nice to know for the next time some prat whinges about the BBC using black actors in a historical costume drama.

But does this really mean that pre-modern Britain was ‘multicultural’?

I’m not so sure. The numbers, you see, were tiny. Even in the early eighteenth century, I suspect that most British folk could go their whole lives without meeting a Huguenot. The 350 ‘Black Tudors’, even if we accept that this only represents those we know about, is a drop in the ocean compared to total population of 2.5 million in 1500, rising to 5.5 million 1650. Remember 350 is a total number for the whole period, not the number that were in England at any one time.

Eighteenth-century London, then as now, was the most multicultural city in Britain, but its black population still only represented around 1-2% of the total.

The historical picture, then, is a confusing one. I think we need to be honest with ourselves and admit that – whilst Britain has a long history of accepting migration – the scale of modern globalization has meant a big shift in sheer numbers. This doesn’t make it ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but I think we have to accept that it’s basically historically quite a new thing. Like proper democracy or the polio vaccine.

But where does this leave the other implication of the ‘nation of immigrants’ idea – that Britain has always been multicultural?

John Blanke, African trumpeter at the court of Henry VII
John Blanke, African trumpeter at the court of Henry VII

I think the problem here is that we’ve been looking for specifically modern multiculturalism. We’ve been looking for the kinds of global movement of people that we get in the modern world. And sure, when we do find cases of people crossing oceans and cultures, they are fascinating, but they are unusual: fireworks in an otherwise monochrome sky.

And yet, if we boil multiculturalism down to its core: the idea that people with different cultural outlooks can live together whilst still accepting that variety, then a different picture starts to emerge. Quite simply, given what we might expect from an age in which it took half a year to get from London to Bombay, pre-modern Britain was quite amazingly multicultural.

It’s not just the existence of separate nations: England, Scotland, (many Irish, of course), Wales, and arguably Cornwall. Each county saw itself – to a point – as culturally different. So much so that before the 19th century when people spoke of their ‘country’ they usually meant their county.

Or it could refer to even smaller units: the Barony of Kendal, the Forest of Sherwood, both of these were referred to as ‘the country’ by local people, and each country was held to have different traditions, even a different culture.

Even within the county of Wiltshire, it was said in the 17th century that there were huge cultural differences between those who came from the ‘chalk’ country and those who lived in the ‘cheese’ country, with ‘chalk and cheese’ referring to different farming types, which helped dictate your cultural outlook – from your religion, to your politics, right through to what kind of football you played.

When cultures meshed in places like London, Oxford, or Cambridge, people brought their own distinctive identities from home. The Welsh in London celebrated St David’s Day; Oxbridge colleges retained associations with particular regions. And, by and large, people got along just fine.

Religion was a part of this. Britain has a long tradition of religious difference, particularly since the 1650s. Most people in 1700 would not have met a French Huguenot, but there was a good chance they would know Anglicans, Catholics, Baptists, and Quakers. Voltaire is said to have quipped that England had sixty religions but only one sauce: he thought this was one of the country’s great strengths.

So, by the eighteenth-century, Britain had already become a multi-faith, multi-cultural mishmash of religions, nationalities, and local cultures (not to mention the growing non-white population in London). And, let’s be totally honest about this, it didn’t do us any harm as we merrily trotted around the globe painting it pink while simultaneously inventing modern capitalism.

And then, of course, there is trade. Trade which brought Brits into constant contact with worlds far distant from their own. Trade which meant that an eighteenth-century English town dweller may not have met a French Huguenot or seen many Africans, but she had drunk Indian tea from Chinese cups flavoured with Caribbean sugar while looking enviously at her neighbour’s cotton curtains made in Bengal.

Even before the modern age, Britain was a cultural sponge, absorbing things – quite literally in the case of food – from across the world.

Multiculturalism has a long and – let’s face it – broadly successful history in Britain. It’s not a product of the late 20th century, nor is it something which has been imposed on us by some shady political masters. It’s part of our island story.

Modern international migration is just the latest chapter.

– – –

Five Quintessentially British Things that are Surprisingly Multicultural

Tea. Everyone knows that curry is our national dish, but there’s still nothing more British than a cup of tea, brought in massive quantities from India and China since the eighteenth century.

In fact, it’s been our first port of call in a crisis ever since. It was probably a bigger contributor to victory in World War Two than radar. When Putin finally flips and starts shooting his nuclear arsenal at us, the first thing we’ll all do is put the kettle on. The only reason Drake played bowls as the Armada coasted up the Channel was because he’d run out of milk. And tea is a damned sight more authentically Indian than Chicken Tikka Masala.

Redcoats. Those quintessentially British uniforms, worn as Our Boys tonked the Frenchies at Blenheim and Waterloo, coloured the world pink in the nineteenth century, and now as they wander aimlessly up and down outside Buckingham Palace, are known best for their bright red colour. But the famous red coats were originally dyed with madder, a cheap dye that originated in Asia, north Africa, and southern Europe.

Redcoated Soldiers at Waterloo
Redcoated Soldiers at Waterloo

Fish and Chips. This used to be our national dish before we got a taste for non-spicy curries invented in Glasgow. The fish tended to come from Newfoundland. The potatoes were grown more locally, but the vegetable itself, just a few centuries earlier, was only found in Peru, on the other side of the world. Yet by 1680 potatoes were becoming so common in England that they had their own dedicated market. In Wigan.

Our landscape. We don’t say this enough, but the wonders of the British landscape are in its astonishing variety. Seasoned by a complex interplay between geology and economic history, in each area it’s grown to reflect the culture that created it. The tight-packed medieval fields of Devon reflect a very different cultural history to the straight enclosures of Northamptonshire.

Local architectural styles are astonishingly varied, from the thatched houses of Dorset to the flint cottages of Berkshire to the whitewashed farmhouses of the Lake District. Anyone who thinks diversity is something new to British history has clearly never been to the countryside.

The Monarchy. Despite the efforts of a socially-awkward Scot to make this a ‘British job for British people’ (in 1603), the position of Head of State has proved just too challenging for us to actually do properly. And so we’ve turned to migrant labour to help us out. The thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland have been held by a string of Danes, French, Germans, and a Dutchman. Monarchical spouses have come from literally everywhere in the universe, from Portugal to France to Denmark. No-one actually knows the location of the cave Prince Philip grew up in, while in a couple of generations we’ll actually have a Queen from Berkshire.

But not just this, our monarchy has also had the wonderful habit of, how shall I put this, ‘enjoying other countries’. Enjoying them so much that they took them. Indeed, their Empire resulted in some ace official titles. My favourite is from when King Alungpaya of Burma wrote to George II in 1756. He addressed him as ‘The King of England, Madras, Bengal, Fort St David and Devikottai’.

He’d clearly not heard of Scotland.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. PKG says:

    Great article and funny too. Especially liked Norman Nigel and sinister Farage! Apols for nitpicking – typo in ‘Redcoats’ – ‘dyed’ not ‘died’ unless pun intended!

    1. Typo noted and edited, thanks!

  2. MattC says:

    Thanks – illuminating post! I’m basically going off memory and wikipedia, but would it be fair to say that mass immigration started a little earlier than I guess ‘globalisation’ suggests? I think 19thC mass Irish & later Jewish immigration was very substantial (wikipedia insists London was 20% Irish at one point), so just as multiculturalism (in the sense of large immigrant groups) doesn’t date back as far 1066, it equally doesn’t start with 1945.

  3. Brian Johannesen says:

    English is my second language, so I might be wrong but shouldn’t there be an “in” between history and Britain, in Multiculturalism has a long and – let’s face it – broadly successful history Britain?

  4. Zainabasma says:

    Reblogged this on Shards Of Contemplation and commented:
    Very interesting. Glad I could read it, disappointed that I’ve just discovered it :). Definitely enlightening and the direction I hope my blog will take.

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