British civil rights: Black and Asian politicians (1890–today)

Learning objectives

  1. Examine the value of photographs as evidence of the role that Black and Asian people played in British political and social life between 1890 and 2000.
  1. Analyse how people express their identity through photographic images.

There are now many British people of colour in the UK government, but this was not always the case. In the late 1800s, migrants from different parts of Britain’s Empire A group of countries or states that are controlled by one leader or government. played a small part in British political life. It is likely that many more would have done so, but racist ideas were widespread and very few parts of Britain would elect a Black or Asian Member of Parliament (MP) A person who has been elected to represent the people of a particular area in a parliament. . It was nearly a hundred years before four more Black and Asian MPs were elected. In 2022, Rishi Sunak became Britain’s first Prime Minister of colour.

I doubt if we have yet to go to that point of view where a British constituency would elect a black man.
Lord Salisbury, Conservative Prime Minister in 1886, speaking about Dadabhai Naoroji in the days after his first unsuccessful campaign to become an MP.

Dadabhai Naoroji

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    Dadabhai Naoroji,    by London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, published by  Messrs R.M. Richardson & Co,    circa 1892,    NPG x128698,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Dadabhai Naoroji, by London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, published by Messrs R.M. Richardson & Co, circa 1892

Dadabhai Naoroji was one of the first Asian MPs in Britain. This portrait shows Naoroji soon after he was elected. He won by just five votes.

    • He is dressed to fit a role in public office in Britain. He is wearing a dark-coloured suit with dark striped trousers, a waistcoat and a shirt and tie. 
    • He is not dressed in clothes that reflect his cultural heritage and the area where he grew up, in the state of modern-day Gujarat in India.
    • It was very common for men to wear hats at this time. Naoroji had been advised to give up wearing his distinctive, tall Parsi A member of a religious group whose ancestors originally came from Persia and whose religion is Zoroastrianism. hat and wear a European-style hat instead. It was thought this would make him more appealing to British voters.
    • Naoroji chose not to follow all the advice he was given to adopt European ways of dressing. He resisted and found his own way – by choosing to leave his head uncovered altogether, for example.
    • He appears to be looking directly at us. His Expression A look on a person's face that shows their thoughts or feelings. and Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. seem relaxed, confident and assured.
    • He is sitting on a simple wooden chair at a wooden desk, as if he is ready to work.
    • He has a white-grey beard and moustache and grey hair, which show us that he is an older man (he was about 67 years old when this photograph was taken).
  • The text reads:

    • Hon. Dadabhai Naoroji
    • M.P. for Central Finsbury
    • The first member for India

    It tells us that:

    • His title is ‘The Honourable Dadabhai Naoroji’
    • He is the Member of Parliament (MP) A person who has been elected to represent the people of a particular area in a parliament. for the Constituency A district that elects its own representative to parliament. of Central Finsbury in London
    • His work as an MP is concerned with matters relating to India.
    • This is a typical Victorian portrait photograph. Dadabhai Naoroji wanted to show that he was like any other MP.
    • This is emphasised by his jacket and trousers. He is trying to reassure voters that he is an anglicised Indian.
    • He is sitting on a simple wooden chair at a wooden desk, as if he is ready to work.
    • This is a ‘cabinet card’ – a sort of postcard that could be bought quite cheaply. At the time, these cards were a popular way for politicians and other celebrities to show people who they were and help build their reputation.

Look closer at Dadabhai Naoroji

Dadabhai Naoroji migrated to England from India in 1855. He became involved in British politics and was finally successful in becoming a Member of Parliament (MP) A person who has been elected to represent the people of a particular area in a parliament. in 1892.

Naoroji was from the Parsi A member of a religious group whose ancestors originally came from Persia and whose religion is Zoroastrianism. community of India. The Parsi A member of a religious group whose ancestors originally came from Persia and whose religion is Zoroastrianism. migrated from Persia to India from the 1700s onwards. They were a minority and many Parsis became close to the British, who offered greater protection to minorities during their rule in India.

This close relationship is reflected in the fact that the first South Asians to become MPs at Westminster Used to mean the British Parliament and government. all came from this minority group.

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    Dadabhai Naoroji,    by London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, published by  Messrs R.M. Richardson & Co,    circa 1892,    NPG x128698,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Dadabhai Naoroji in 1892, recently elected as one of the first Asian MPs in Britain.
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    Dadabhai Naoroji,    by Lock & Whitfield, published by  W.H. Allen & Co,    published 1889,    NPG Ax28706,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Dadabhai Naoroji, by Lock & Whitfield, published by W.H. Allen & Co, published 1889

Compare the 1892 photograph of Naoroji with a photograph of him taken three years earlier, in 1889. The photograph from 1892 was taken just before he was elected as an MP. The photograph from 1889 was taken following his return to Britain after spending over ten years in India, working in Indian politics.

  1. How does he present himself differently in each photograph? You can refer to both his clothes and demeanour.
  1. The hat he is wearing is part of the traditional dress for Parsi men. Why do you think he chose not to wear his traditional hat in the photograph of 1892?
  1. His title in the 1889 portrait is very simple. Find out what ‘Esq.’ means.

Dadabhai Naoroji (1825–1917) came to England in 1855 to join the first Indian-owned trading company in Britain. He later started his own company and became a professor at University College London. He entered politics and was chosen as a Liberal Party A former British political party with a particular interest in personal and economic freedom. candidate for the 1886 British general election, but he was not elected. After Naoroji lost, the Conservative Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, said:

…however far we have advanced in overcoming prejudices, I doubt if we have yet to go to that point of view where a British Constituency A district that elects its own representative to parliament. would elect a black man.

Opinion was strongly divided over Salisbury’s remarks. Although many people accepted his logic, others were outraged at his racism. Later, in the 1892 election, Naoroji won the seat of Finsbury Central, and the Manchester Guardian newspaper reported:

It is an honour in England because … it has been proved possible for a popular constituency to disregard wide differences of Creed A set of principles or religious beliefs. and race, to recognise the political equality of our Indian subjects among Englishmen and on English soil.

As well as working for his London constituents and also supporting the cause of Irish Home rule The right of a country or region to govern itself, especially after another country or region has governed it , Naoroji saw himself as a representative of India’s interests in the British Parliament The group of people who are elected to make and change the laws of a country. .

Pioneering politicians

It was almost one hundred years before more people of colour were elected to Parliament The group of people who are elected to make and change the laws of a country. . In 1987, four Black politicians were elected, including Bernie Grant and Diane Abbott.

Bernie Grant and Dadabhai Naoroji were both pioneering politicians in Britain’s Parliament because they were not of white British heritage. Their presence in the House of Commons was a powerful visible symbol of migrant people. Both men came from places that Britain controlled, or had controlled, as part of the British Empire The countries ruled by Britain starting in the late 1400s and peaking around 1920 when the British Empire included around a quarter of the world's population. .

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    Dadabhai Naoroji,    by London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, published by  Messrs R.M. Richardson & Co,    circa 1892,    NPG x128698,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Dadabhai Naoroji, 1892
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    Bernie Grant,    by Geoff Wilson,    May 1987,    NPG x76445,    © Geoff Wilson
Bernie Grant, 1987

Compare and contrast the photographs of Bernie Grant and Dadabhai Naoroji after they became MPs.

  1. Write a simple list of what they have in common, based on their clothes, pose and expression.
  1. What are the differences in the way the two men are shown?
  1. What do you think these portraits are aiming to say about the two politicians?

Look closer at Bernie Grant

Bernie Grant was born in 1944 in British Guiana in the Caribbean. At this time, it was a British Colony A country or an area that is governed by people from another country. . His parents were both Caribbean. He migrated to Britain in 1963. He became leader of Haringey Council in 1985 and that same year became a key negotiator following a large-scale anti-racism uprising in that borough.

The 1980s was a decade when migrant groups, particularly Black communities, protested against racist police practices. Grant refused to blame his community for the chaos that followed. He became a hate figure in some parts of the British press.

In 1987, Grant was elected as MP for Tottenham, which he remained until his death in 2000. He positioned himself as a Black politician who campaigned for the progress of Black people in British society, as well as representing all the people of his north London Constituency A district that elects its own representative to parliament. .

Bernie Grant chose to wear traditional African dress at the official State Opening of Parliament The group of people who are elected to make and change the laws of a country. in 1987, his first year as an MP. He received many compliments for this, including from the Speaker of the House of Commons Bernard Weatherill. Grant recognised the simple power of expressing his complex Identity Who or what somebody is, including their characteristics, feelings or beliefs. through his choice of dress and continued to do so throughout his parliamentary career.

  1. Both men represented the interests of non-white British people. What was different about what they chose to focus on?
  1. Why might people think that their identities were complicated? 

Black and Asian women in British public life

Black and Asian women often face challenges on many fronts, including their race, their gender and their social class. For example, women of colour have to struggle against the same sort of racism experienced by men, but they also have to struggle against widespread discrimination experienced by women.

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    Cornelia Sorabji,    by Lafayette,    20 June 1930,    NPG x70451,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Cornelia Sorabji, by Lafayette, 20 June 1930
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    Diane Abbott,    by Geoff Wilson,    April 1992,    NPG x76443,    © Geoff Wilson
Diane Abbott, by Geoff Wilson, April 1992

Look closer at Cornelia Sorabji

Cornelia Sorabji was the daughter of Parsi A member of a religious group whose ancestors originally came from Persia and whose religion is Zoroastrianism. Christians and became one of the first women to graduate from Bombay University in 1888. She migrated to London in 1889 to complete her law education.

Sorabji was supported by a number of notable Liberal People who have political ideas that emphasise the importance of liberty and equality, and who are concerned with people’s rights. people in Britain, including Florence Nightingale. They helped her gain permission to study at the University of Oxford, and she became the first woman to take a law exam there in 1892. She did not go into politics, but used her knowledge of law to fight for justice. In 1894 Sorabji returned to India where she applied her skills as a lawyer to support women. She returned to Britain in 1929 and died in north London in 1954.

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    Cornelia Sorabji,    by Lafayette,    20 June 1930,    NPG x70451,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Cornelia Sorabji, by Lafayette, 20 June 1930

Look carefully at Cornelia Sorabji’s portrait, particularly her Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. , Expression A look on a person's face that shows their thoughts or feelings. and clothes.

  1. What is your overall impression of Sorabji from this portrait?
  1. Sorabji sat for this photograph in London. Why do you think she chose to wear traditional Indian clothing?

Look closer at Diane Abbott

Diane Abbott (born 1953) became the first Black woman to be elected as an MP in 1987. Abbott’s parents, originally from Jamaica in the Caribbean, migrated to Britain in the early 1950s.

In 1987, she was elected as a Labour MP for the London Constituency A district that elects its own representative to parliament.  of Hackney North and Stoke Newington. She became known as a supporter of people who were suffering injustices, and for fighting against inequalities in the criminal justice system. Between 2016 and 2020, Abbott served as Shadow Home Secretary under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Throughout her political career, Abbott has made many controversial statements, several of which have been about race. In April 2023, she was expelled from the Labour Party and became an independent MP.

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    Diane Abbott,    by Geoff Wilson,    April 1992,    NPG x76443,    © Geoff Wilson
Diane Abbott, by Geoff Wilson, April 1992

This photograph was taken in 1992, just after Diane Abbott had been re-elected to Parliament The group of people who are elected to make and change the laws of a country. as MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, increasing her share of the vote by nearly 10%.

Look carefully at Diane Abbott’s Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. , Expression A look on a person's face that shows their thoughts or feelings. and the background.

  1. Notice that her hands are blurred. What does this tell us about her?
  1. What message is this photograph trying to convey about her?

Compare the portraits of Cornelia Sorabji and Diane Abbott

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    Cornelia Sorabji,    by Lafayette,    20 June 1930,    NPG x70451,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Cornelia Sorabji, by Lafayette, 20 June 1930
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    Diane Abbott,    by Geoff Wilson,    April 1992,    NPG x76443,    © Geoff Wilson
Diane Abbott, by Geoff Wilson, April 1992
  1. What do you think each woman’s dress, pose and location suggest about how they wanted people to see them?
  1. How do you think each photograph captures the success of each woman in her own time?
  1. How much control do you think each woman had over how she was presented in the photograph?
  1. Compare the overall impression that we get of these two women in the photographs. How are they the same or different?

Reflections

Look back over the images of the four leaders in this resource.

  1. In what ways was each of them a pioneer in British society?
  1. How far do their portraits show that?