In a week when Nigel Farage endorsed the ‘basic principle’ of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, and Nadine Dorries warned of a ‘tidal wave’ of immigrants from Yugoslavia [sic!], I’m sure I’m not the only historian (or dishonest, wishy-washy, Leftie as Boris would presumably have it) who has got rather hot under the collar at the sheer lack of historical context and understanding which seems to characterise political rhetoric around immigration.
My current research focuses on indigenous American travellers to Europe (particularly, and unsurprisingly for those who know my work, Aztecs). Whilst this might not seem the most ‘impactful’ (ugh, but I didn’t come up with it) topic at first glance, the more I read, the greater my sense that the multicultural roots of British society run far deeper than is popularly recognised.
The history of multiculturalism in Britain is traditionally told in terms of the Raj, the Commonwealth, Windrush and postwar immigration, but our history as a cosmopolitan nation stretches back much further. How we teach history, and the narratives we privilege, have been very much in the news recently and, if we wanted, we could tell a blended history of the British Isles which reached all the way back to 55BC and the arrival of the Romans via Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans.
My own interest in this really starts, however, in Tudor times, when Britain’s ‘Special Relationship’ with America began. In the years following 1492, thousands of indigenous Americans made their way across the Atlantic. Lots of people have heard of Pocahontas, who arrived in England in 1616, though few probably know that she died and was buried at Gravesend (where a statue now commemorates her) on her voyage home. But how many remember Henry VIII’s meeting with a ‘savage king’ from Brazil in 1531? Or the Inuit who were brought to England by Martin Frobisher in 1577? One man, Calicough, demonstrated his skill with a harpoon by spearing ducks on the Avon from his kayak, to the fascination of observers. His death a month later (followed by that of a female) is believed to be the first time the death of a non-Christian was recorded in an English parish register.
Now I am not silly enough to claim that sixteenth-century and modern migration are equivalent, or to pretend that these vignettes of early encounter are the same as the mass migrations of the modern age. What worries me are the underlying arguments which paint immigration as the source of all Britain’s ills, threatening the dissolution of national identity and an end to our ‘common culture’.
I am far from the first historian (not even the first on this blog!) to point out the cosmopolitan origins of British ideas, and the nebulous and largely mythical nature of some kind of ‘indigenous Anglo-Saxon’ identity, but in working on early American connections with Europe, I have come to ponder on the ways in which the migration debate is informed by a poorly understood sense of the long-standing transnational origins of our culture.
In purely practical terms, the so-called Columbian Exchange (the transmission of people, plants, animals, microbes, resources, commodities and ideas across the Atlantic) flooded Europe with novel tastes and sensations. Can you imagine a world without chocolate? Or chillies (contrary to popular belief, American not Asian in origin)? Or tobacco? (Some of us might like to imagine that one. Actually, shamefully for a Mexicanist, I’d be equally happy to imagine a world without chillies!)
Many things we think of as ‘European’ are actually American. Tomatoes are seen as quintessentially Italian, where in fact they’re Mexican in origin; potatoes are seen as Irish, not Andean. Somewhere in the back of our national imagination is a vague sense that Walter Raleigh might have had something to do with potatoes and tobacco, but their international identity has been lost. They have been appropriated as part of our national character, as British as a Sunday roast of meat and potatoes (which weren’t widely eaten in this country until about 250 years ago).
Transatlantic influences are just one of the many global impacts which have profoundly shaped British life and culture over the past two millennia, and the more I read, the clearer it becomes that much of the relentless rhetoric of hostility towards migrants (Asian, Eastern European, student – discrimination does not seem to discriminate) is based in a limited and short-term understanding of the fundamentally cosmopolitan nature of all modern identities. There seems to be a feeling that this is a ‘recent’ development, a product of postwar mobility and a unified Europe. Even Kenan Malik’s measured call for a more nuanced sense of how changes to working-class identity in recent decades have been (wrongly) attributed to immigration saw that immigration largely as a twentieth-century phenomenon, a modern (largely postwar) element of British life.
I can’t see a magic bullet to Britain’s current migration malaise, but while we’re reframing our curriculum to be more narrative (thanks Michael), perhaps we could remember to embed the inherently plural nature of that narrative. A wider understanding of the deep roots of our multi-ethnic, multicultural, transnational ‘British’ identity isn’t going to address practical concerns about migration and infrastructure, but I wonder if it might start to dispel some of the myths about our exclusive island identity on which parochialism and insularity, and therefore tribal hostility, thrive.
Caroline Dodds Pennock is Lecturer in International History at the University of Sheffield, specialising in Aztec history. Her current project on Aztecs Abroad focuses on early indigenous American connections with Europe. You can read Caroline’s other History Matters blogs here, and find her on twitter @carolinepennock.
Header image: Inuit depicted in a German woodcut about Frobisher’s third voyage of 1578 [Wikicommons]
Inset image: Statue of Pocahontas at St George’s Church, Gravesend, where her burial is recorded [Wikicommons]
 Although still with a preponderance of modern material, this is the route taken by Robert Winder’s well-known Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain (2004).