Darryl Telles describes the challenges faced by South Asians who moved to East Africa during British colonial rule
It has been sixty years since the post-war Labour Government passed the Nationality Act giving British citizenship to every person in the Empire. In that year, the first to accept this offer came from the Caribbean.
1968 is often remembered as the nadir of Britain’s goodwill. Many recall Enoch Powell’s rallying cry to the Tory right, which began a struggle within the Conservative Party between the reactionaries who harped back to Empire and a strain of liberals. Powell was today’s Farage and for his Monday Club followers as the group was known within the Tories, he was the equivalent to UKIPs leader. Xenophobic, anti European and hatred of immigrants besmirched his now infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech that spring. As students were rioting in Paris and on US campuses, for a moment, it looked like Britain was forsaking its international obligations.
Far less remembered is why Powell’s speech was so popular. What was the reason for his break with the consensus on immigration? Known as ‘The Exodus’, springtime 40 years ago was a traumatic time for the Kenyan Asians, who for a while seemed to be stateless. I was one of them. At the time I was a 4 year old born in Nairobi as a British citizen only a year after the former colony’s independence. Asians, mostly from India’s Gujarat, Punjab and like my parents from Goa, had settled in Kenya since the end of the second World War, as Britain encouraged immigration from the subcontinent. Many helped to build the railways and others, like my father, filled posts in the civil service. After independence, it was recognised that at some stage there would be a day of reckoning with the need for Black Africans to fill these posts. In light of this my parents visited London in 1962 and settled in Shepherds Bush but the reality they starkly encountered was one of foreboding and unwillingness to accept them as British. Direct discrimination was lawful and many shops as well as landlords maintained an overt colour bar.
By the end of the 1960s the Kenyan government gave a choice; become Kenyan citizens and stay, or forever be British foreigners. This was not Uganda in 1972: there was no indiscriminate violence or looting against East African Asians. It would, as per usual, be the British government that would turn something into a political and social crisis. With Powellite sentiment increasing and the Labour Government suffering a series of damaging strikes, it seemed that the Home Secretary, James Callaghan, a future Prime Minister, would bow to racist pressure and do the unthinkable, take away British passports from the East African Asians thus denying a promise made just twenty years earlier. This was seriously considered and even India was asked if it would repatriate those born in their country.
This uncertainty led many in Kenya to leave before the doors were closed. My mum was the first of our family to leave in order to gain a foothold in case laws were rushed through. My Dad, my brother and I moved a few months later, just in time to avoid the imposition of a draconian visa system, whereby people would have to wait in a queue before emigrating to the UK. No such queue would be imposed on British passport holders who were white and originated from South Africa, Canada and Australasia. They could come and go as they pleased. Not many in Labour’s cabinet disagreed. To his credit Roy Hattersley has since apologised for this racist act but only one minister resigned in disagreement, George Thomas, the future Speaker of the House of Commons.
The results for those caught up in the exodus were devastating. Families were split, such as my grandmother who had to wait another four years before she was allowed to come over and join us. The strain of leaving, experiencing a dramatic fall in living standard, encountering issues of racial discrimination, had many side effects on those that hurriedly departed prior to the visa system coming into fruition.. It took us a year to be able to move from a one-room bedsit to a house. Even then, we were only nominally British. We were and still are, seen as immigrants.
Even today when I’m asked where I’m from, when ‘London’ is offered as a reply, it’s often accompanied by an uncomfortable silence. When I probe myself to say Kenya, there follows a quizzical look – the assumption that I’m too Asian. Indeed, part of my family those that chose to take up Kenyan citizenship are still in Kenya and are contributing to the country’s growth as Kenyan citizens. The same way I have family who chose to take up British citizenship and are contributing to the country’s growth as British citizens. And yet, when I say that I was born in Africa but my parents are Goan, people immediately refer to Idi Amin’s Uganda.
It’s important that people know the difference in history here, specifically about voluntary migrants like my family who, although were given the choice, were pressured to move because of systemic changes to immigration versus involuntary migrants in Idi Amin’s Uganda, that were evicted from their homes and chased out of the country.
Well now you’ll know there is a difference, 50 years on.
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Darryl Telles is author of We’re Queer and We Should be Here, a memoir of his campaign against racism and homophobia in football. He’s of Goan descent, born in Kenya and now lives in Hove.
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