Elleke Boehmer has written an important volume which covers a series of themes revolving around the elite Indian migrants she studies who settled temporarily in the British mainland, above all London, Oxford and Cambridge, in the decades leading up to the First World War, with a coda focusing especially upon the importance of Indian troops in preventing German victory, or at least breakthrough, in the first year of the Great War. Evolving from a large Arts and Humanities Research Council grant, the book builds upon the work of a series of scholars who have already written about the pre-1945 history of Indian settlement in Britain, including the much broader seminal approach (in terms of chronology and social groups examined) taken by Rosina Visram. Unlike some of her predecessors in this field, Boehmer approaches this subject as an English literature professor rather than, as in other cases, a social historian. This becomes clear in the methodology and approach to the subject that she takes. The focus remains overwhelmingly upon elite migrants, even though they did not constitute the majority of Indians who lived in Britain in the period which she examines. Lascars receive scant attention, even though they would fit into the ‘network’ approach suggested in the subtitle of the book, as all migration operates upon some type of network. The focus upon the Indian elites partly evolves from the ultimately literary approach which Boehmer takes. This means that she can read the texts produced by the individuals whom she studies, as well as those with whom they interacted: in contrast, lascars have left few traces in their own words. Throughout, Boehmer constructs a series of portraits both of the Indians whom she studies and of those people in the heart of Empire with whom they interacted. The strength of this book lies in the depth of the research rather than the breadth. From the perspective of a historian, Boehmer has used a narrow range of manuscript sources. On the other hand, Boehmer also uses recently-published novels to help us understand the ideas she wishes to put forward, which works in most cases, although I found the use of a book published in 2011 by Michael Ondaatje (The Cat’s Table) reminiscing on a journey from Colombo to Tilbury during the 1950s highly problematic as a metaphor for the passages through Suez in the decades leading up to the First World War. This unnecessarily dominates Chapter One: Boehmer should have simply used more contemporary sources here, as she tackles important themes including the role of the journey in the migrant experience (all transnational humans can recall the passage to their new home). The chapter focuses especially upon the Suez Canal and its importance as a crossing-point from East to West. As we would expect, Boehmer is especially good at extracting meanings from the texts which she examines throughout, beginning with the opening poem by Toru Dutt, ‘Near Hastings’, from 1876. However, the depth of her analysis creates a dense text in places. In the introduction, Boehmer tells us that her chapters progress along an essentially chronological structure, beginning with the ‘Passage to England’ following the opening of Suez and ending with the Edwardian period. In fact, she does not adhere strictly to this chronological breakdown, as the chapters also deal with different sets of characters—with the second concentrating more on scholars and political figures, and the third (on the 1890s) dealing exclusively with poets and writers. The section on the Edwardian era examines a wide range of personalities. Here Boehmer points to something of a breakdown of the generally positive reception (usually tinged, however, with orientalist undercurrents) which Indians had experienced in the previous decades, caused by a range of factors including relative decline in Britain vis à vis Germany and the USA and the increasing visibility of migrants in London, especially Eastern European Jews. However, this does simplify a rather complex situation: pre-1900 lascars did not meet with the same reception as the poets who interacted with Oscar Wilde and Yeats. Boehmer’s book makes two important contributions to our understanding of late imperial Britain, linking with current wider academic developments. First, using her case-study of Indians in London, her narrative moves towards a portrait of imperial Britain in which exchange played a central role in creating a type of collective consciousness. Some of the people whom Boehmer studies, including Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu, became central in the development of Indian independence politics, but their sojourns in Britain reveal a deep interaction with the Britons (including the Irish Wilde and Yeats) with whom they came into contact. One might argue that this focus on elites ignores the racist realities of imperial rule (which would have affected lascars in the East End) but this appreciation of the complex identities and interactions at the height of British imperialism broadens understandings of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century imperialism. The British Empire has left an extraordinary range of legacies. Boehmer’s study of London (in particular) in the decades leading up to the First World War demonstrates elite imperial inter-ethnic interaction. As the subtitle suggests, Boehmer also makes an important contribution to our understanding of imperial migrant networks, focused especially upon the global metropolitan heart of the Empire. Ultimately, Indians formed only a small part of cosmopolitan London before the First World War and, in view of their numbers, have probably received as much attention as any other migrant group in this global capital in this period. The writing that Indians produced has allowed Boehmer to construct an important narrative which one hopes that other scholars, engaging especially with the theme of what might broadly be described as cultural transfer, will follow. © Oxford University Press 2017. All rights reserved.
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 21, 2017
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