Screen Shot 2014-01-12 at 15.44.56

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,[1] 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.[2]

576px-POCAHONTAS_01My 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]

[1] Recent research by Sheffield postgraduate David Holland, discussed in this blog, examines the underreported immigration to British inland areas before the ‘landmark’ of Windrush.

[2] 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).

Tags : American influence on Europehistory curriculumindigenous American historyindigenous Americans in BritainMichael GovemigrationmulticulturalismNative Americans in Britain


  1. Clearly Farage (of Huguenot extraction) is a twit. And that Britain has always been multicultural and this is a point worth reinforcing (I’m also an immigrant, from New Zealand).

    However my reading of the problem of immigrants is that it is not simply worries about incomers. It is the scale of the migrations that set off people’s fears. Whether those fears are justified or not, this issue of the scale of the migrations is something glossed over in this blog. How does the scale of migration in the last 10 years compare with previous periods of migration? For example, you say thousands of indigenous Americans came to Britain but you were a bit vague on the time period (it was over some centuries wasn’t it?). And what was the population of Britain at the time? Was it a massive influx, or a negligible trickle?

    A related issue which the political spin doctors are doing their best to play down is our poorly performing economy. Only those with a vested interest are saying the worst is over. How does the present flow of migration seem in light of our difficult economic times. For example unemployment still at 7.4% (much higher amongst youth) and there is widespread underemployment due to such factors as zero hours contracts. I think we are right to worry on this score. Even if the argument that migrants are net contributors to the economy is true (and I broadly accept that it is) the short term impact of people coming here looking for work is a further squeeze on the unemployed.

    While I have no wish to echo either Farage, Dorries, or Powell there do seem to be conditions in the present that are historically unique. A relatively united Europe, freedom of travel amongst the working classes, a Europe-wide economic crisis. Or perhaps there are historical precedents or parallels to all this as well. If so it would be helpful to get an idea of what they are.

    I think it is facile to compare the importation of foreign commodities to concerns over large scale migrations. We could have better balance of trade figures, but really I don’t hear anyone complaining about levels of imports or new products coming from overseas. The focus is on improving our export levels and margins. The idea that if Britain had always been against immigration that we would not have had chocolate, coffee, chillies or tobacco in the UK is erroneous. Chocolate excepted perhaps, these commodities were not brought here by immigrants, but by various kinds of British profiteers who, often brutally, took or extracted the commodity from it’s native soil without asking.

    So, I like what you’re saying about the multicultural history of Britain. The past is full of incomers from all around (including myself). But there’s no real attempt to relate any of this history to the present. And while this kind of critique has it’s uses, it doesn’t really undermine what Farage et al are saying, at least not to the point of making them seem irrelevant to the British public.


    BTW I like that I have to answer a maths question to post on a history blog.

    1. Thanks for your comment. As I say in the blog, there is clearly a distinction between early modern and recent migrations. I am not a specialist in recent or contemporary immigration, and thus do not pretend to offer solutions or analysis on this specific issue. Perhaps a modern historian will be kind enough to offer a blog which responds to some of the specific points of comparison you make!

      My point is rather that there is a somewhat troubling rhetoric of exclusivity around British identity which contributes to the hostility which is often faced by immigrants. Whether current levels of immigration are desirable (and or sustainable) is a valid point of debate (whatever my personal feelings about it), but too much of it is conducted in a damaging and unhelpful tone which demonises and alienates ‘foreigners’ as being undermining of some kind of fictional ‘British’ identity. This is far from a magic bullet, but some historical challenge to the entrenched and largely invented parochialism of ‘Britishness’ can only be a good thing in my opinion.

      You may also be interested to know that my current research suggests that far more of the commodities, ideas, etc brought from the Americas to Europe may have been transmitted by indigenous people themselves than is often thought. For example, it is frequently assumed that chocolate and practices around the commodity are brought to Spain by missionaries, but my research suggests that there are significant numbers of Mexican nobility at court in the 16th century around the time it is being introduced to elite society. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to write more about this in future!

      Thanks again for engaging with the blog.

      1. I look forward to hearing more about the transmission of chocolate!

        And yes I understand what you are saying about attitudes here. Although I’m from New Zealand and therefore find it relatively easy to fit in here, I do sometimes feel uncomfortable with attitudes expressed about foreigners, because I’m clearly included in the generalised ill-will by virtue of not being born here (though all of my great-grandparents were).

        It’s a complex issue and given that the Daily Mail and The Sun are the two most widely read newspapers it’s going to be an uphill struggle to have a more nuanced debate about it.

  2. Farage is a French name and he admits that his family came from France. There have been a number of periods when there was a substantial number of immigrants. Two time periods spring immediately to mind that definitely changed Britain. The Roman conquest who brought in a great mixture of races & Norman Conquest. But even looking at British Navy in Napoleonic times shows a great mix of immigrants.

    1. Thanks for your comment! You’re quite right about Britain’s long ‘migrant’ history. Native Americans were, of course, a minority (though an interesting one I think!) but you could easily add the Anglo-Saxons and also the Huguenots to that list.

  3. Nice article Caroline. I would only add that you, like many commentators raising the issue of the politicisation of immigration only highlight the role of the usual suspects on the right, such as Nigel Farage and Nadine Dorries. However, the Labour Party has often played a key role in fostering xenophobic hostility to immigration and migrants. Historically Labour has a record every bit as unpleasant as the parliamentary right. In 1968 Labour cynically altered the terms of the already racist 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act to exclude British Asians expelled from Kenya. Moreover, it went on to improve the effectiveness of the exclusion of the Commonwealth’s non-whites with the introduction of the 1971 Immigration Act. It was also, shamefully, the party that introduced virginity testing for Asian brides arriving at Heathrow airport in the 1970s, until it their ‘dark age prejudices’ were exposed in 1979 (ironically by the Guardian’s then social services correspondent Melanie Philips).(

    In the current furore about Roma migrants in Sheffield’s Page Hall area, David Blunkett has been instrumental in raising the temperature of the debate. A local issue of a small numbers of migrants hanging about in the street has been stoked into a national issue indicative of the problems the nation would face with further ‘mass immigration’ of Roma people. Blunkett’s prophetic warning, is to my mind, in much the same style as Enoch Powell’s 1968 speech in which he proclaimed: ’as I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.
    Blunkett’s statement, although a little more prosaic, is just as inflammatory: ‘we have got to change the behaviour and the culture of the incoming community, the Roma community, because there’s going to be an explosion otherwise. We all know that.’ What this explosion might specifically entail, he did not explicitly clarify, but his his obvious intent was to raise the fear of some kind of immigrant provoked, catastrophic, social breakdown and violence. (

    Blunkett’s argument is based, like the arguments you critique in your article, on the idea that British ‘culture’ and identity is homogenous unchanging and without previous, external influence. This is ironic considering that his constituency contains one of the city’s largest populations of non-white Sheffielders including those of Pakistani, Yemeni and Somali origin. Not surprisingly, Blunkett was praised by Nigel Farage of the anti-immigration party UKIP saying that he ‘should be admired for the courage he has shown by speaking so plainly on this issue’. (

    The ‘plain speaking’ displayed by Blunkett has historical precedents in Sheffield too. In November 1954, the Labour MP for Attercliffe John Hynd almost single-handedly kicked off the ongoing parliamentary debate about immigration in his defence of the imposition of ‘colour-bars’ in his constituency to the House of Commons. Defending local dance halls that had imposed a ‘part colour bar’ against ‘people of a certain colour or type’, Hynd went on to explain how one club had imposed ‘the restriction (so) that no coloured persons will be allowed in without partners of their own’. The immigration issue was raised several times by Hynd and his comments bear a striking resemblance to some of those made in the current Page Hall/Roma controversy. Referring to ‘virile young men removed from all social restraints, family, religious and others, in a foreign country, where they require relaxation, association with their own and the opposite sex’, Hynd’s concern was that ‘having lost all the restraints and restrictions which apply to them in their own family and religious circles, they are inclined to get into trouble’. ‘Of course’ he continued ‘there are incidents’.

    The issues being discussed around migration to Sheffield, and Britain in general, are longstanding, and the terms of some of the debate today remain strikingly similar to those in the mid-twentieth century. The current intensity of the debate is no doubt fuelled by the perceived failures of the last Labour government. In the wake of the chaos around the last Labour administration’s immigration policy and the collapse of the UK Border Agency it seems that the party’s policy makers are now making a concerted effort to build the party’s reputation as being tough on immigration. (

    My point (as I have tried to demonstrate) is that ‘lefties’, especially in the parliamentary Labour Party, both historically and in the current debate, have played as much a key role in politicising immigration and fostering discontent around the issue as their right-wing ‘opponents’. Unfortunately, the type of nuanced approach to immigration debate suggested by Kenan Malik is hindered by suggesting, by omission, that it is only Conservatives or those to the right of them that demonstrate a willingness to opportunistically use immigration to bolster their own political fortunes.

    1. Certainly anti-immigration remarks are not only given out by Conservatives and Left wing groups. Fear of outsiders has been long used as a vote catcher. And in present statements from all parties there has been more reaction to people’s fears and very little putting forth the actual facts of the case. The Governments own advisers analysis of the impending threat of large numbers of Rumanians and Bulgarians as minimal. Farage quoted numbers of immigrants that were far in excess of the actual population of the 2 countries put together and yet other parties did not pick him up on it. This is not about academic arguments it says more about the insecurity of the political parties. It is more about psychology than history. There is plenty of evidence that immigration has proved stimulating to a countries economy. There was a study of the Kenyans who came in when they were thrown out by the new Nationalised government over 10 years and in general few had ever claimed benefit and most had not only got employment, many had started businesses which created employment. The Kenyan suffered badly to the extent that they started special schemes to encourage people to come back. I well remember the arguments and the horror that Harold Wilson had let them in. Our civilisation would collapse. We would be overcrowded. Overcrowding in Britain in itself is a strange concept in that we have a huge amount of unoccupied land in this country if you look at the acreages. It is all about feeling and not about fact. I long for the time we get media and politicians that look at the facts the figures and the history. Sheffield is an extremely strange city to suggest that immigration would result in civil unrest. When the riots spread across the country not one person in Sheffield joined in. Sheffield has a long history of outsiders coming in and seems to assimilate new populations better than other cities. That isn’t to say there aren’t racists in Sheffield only that they don’t have a very loud voice.

      1. I agree with your comments Joyce. The issue of housing and ‘overcrowding’ is pretty central to fears about immigration. This was the case in the 1950s but then more about immigrants and council housing than todays worries about soaring house prices.

        I do feel though, that the housing component of the immigration debate shows that some anxieties have a basis in the real world rather than just in people’s deep seated psychological makeup. Housing is becoming more and more unaffordable and it is currently very easy for opportunist politicians to blame immigrants for taking up precious resources rather than addressing the structural problems of the economy. More optimistically, it also means that by building new homes this particular argument is a solvable problem.

        Your description of Labour as a ‘Left wing group’ also made me smile.

Leave a Response

fifteen + 15 =