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Marika Sherwood on race and exploitation at sea.

The prospect of the government approving large-scale immigration from Hong Kong has roused the (by now) usual chorus of xenophobic fears, not unlike what we heard at the time of the Ugandan Asian 'crisis'. Yet both the Asians and the highly-skilled Hong Kong Chinese, as well as previous immigrants from India and the Caribbean, were of British nationality (that is to say, they held British passports).

Why have the governments of the day permitted (and even invited) some immigrants and excluded others? Britain has never been the Mother Country welcoming her far-flung citizens: so why have some been allowed in at various times? Was – or is – Britain fulfilling obligations begotten in the days of Empire? Or is there a relationship between Britain's need for labour (and particular types of labour at any time) and the recognition of the nationality, and hence the right to immigrate, of 'coloured' British citizens? And once 'home' in the Mother Country axe such workers treated as equal citizens?

To answer these questions one could examine the whole history of such immigration to the UK, beginning perhaps with the forced migration of household slaves and the London denial of apprenticeships to Blacks in 1'?31. However, a much quicker route is to look at the history of one particular group of black (meaning non-Caucasian) workers.

The Indian seamen who sailed the fleets of the East India Company and other British traders in the East were commonly called Lascars. Being from the 'Territories of the East India Company' over which, ('by the Navigation Act of 1660) the Crown had sovereignty, they were 'English'. However, they were English with a difference, earning approximately one-seventh of a Caucasian sailor's wage.

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