In a week when immigration again hits our front pages, let’s take a look at centuries of immigrants from the Romans to the Roma.
Indeed, the name Britannia was dictated to the innocent peoples of these isles by a relatively successful Latin tribe from the Etruscan hills. Angle-land describes the territory seized by expansionist Germans in the Middle Ages. The tongue of English has absorbed words from 350 other languages from Arabic to Finnish, Japanese to French. The exchange of ideas is essential to the development of any nation so let us track how immigrants sculpted the Britain of today.
Very little is known about the original Celtic inhabitants of Britain. They were not a literate people so much of our knowledge about them comes from the Romans. Divided into tribes and small kingdoms, they were driven north and west by the invading Romans who cultivated the fertile land and mined the precious metals. Less than a century after their successful invasion in 43 AD, Hadrian’s Wall was constructed to defend the outpost of empire from the dangerous Celts. The now-Roman Britons enjoyed being part of a trading network which stretched south to the Sahara desert and east to the souks of Arabia. Naturally a diverse collection of Roman citizens settled in Britannia and added their flavour to the seemingly saturated melting pot of the colonial outpost.
In 410 the Roman legions of Britain were summoned to the fortress of empire to protect the crumbling walls from wave after wave of Barbarian attacks. Covetous glances now fell upon the wealthy yet frail figure of Britannia. Over the following centuries the Angles, Saxons, Franks, Frisians, Norsemen and Jutes all visited. Some in smash and grab raids, others staying and weaving themselves into the colourful fabric of the British Isles. It was only towards the end of the ninth century that the entity of England was created by Alfred the Great when he strove to unite the seven unique kingdoms.
Ironically, traditional tales tells us that English history began with the Norman conquest in 1066. William led an army of French knights descended from Vikings who systemically destroyed Anglo-Saxon culture and government, none more symbolically than the horrific Harrying of the North in 1069. Following the destructive opening scenes of the Norman play, their feudal system brought stability and relative wealth to the troubled land. Trade links with Europe meant that English cities again became home to European immigrants for generations.
However it was with the Elizabethan expansion of empire from Asia to America that places such as London became truly multi-cultural. England became home to Native American princesses like Pocahontas, Chinese opium dealers, west African musicians and Irish labourers. During the time of Dickensian cockneys like the Artful Dodger, London’s east end was home to over one hundred thousand immigrants. Indeed, contemporaries complained that such was their influence one could no longer hear the dying English tongue on the grand thoroughfares of London.
It is said that necessity breeds evolution and this certainly occurred when seemingly unstoppable legions again conquered Europe. In Britannia the Second World War truly accelerated the pace of immigration. One in five of the plucky pilots who fought the Luftwaffe during the fabled Battle of Britain were Polish. In the years thereafter brash American soldiers, Jewish refugees and German prisoners of war settled in England.
It was when the bombed out cities needed to be rebuilt that Caribbean workers were called upon to help. Originally living in canvas tents on Clapham Common, they then settled around Brixton and Notting Hill. As the empire crumbled and colonies became nations, Britain now became home to Indian and Pakistani immigrants who came for similar reasons as the Angles and Saxons centuries before.
Without a doubt each generation of Britons is resistant to changes in what they see as their unique culture. Indeed one can picture Celts lamenting the death of their ‘British’ culture when the Roman legions arrived almost two millennia ago. During the Peasants Revolt of 1381 some Londoners took it upon themselves to attack Flemish merchants who were stealing English jobs. When Jack the Ripper brutally murdered prostitutes, mostly descended from immigrants, the mob then turned on Russian Jewish refugees in revenge. Those standing in the way of immigrants today are singing from an ancient hymn sheet just as the Celts, Britons, Romans, Picts, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians, Vikings, Normans, Tudors, Republicans, Georgians, Hanoverians, Cockneys, Caribbeans, Indian, Irish, Pakistani and scores others have before them. But just like their fore fathers before them, they cannot change which players tread the boards. The show must go on.