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British identity was forged by imperial overseas encounters

As the United Kingdom debates immigration and assimilation, what does it mean to be British? This column explores the formation of British identity during the early twentieth century, when British multinational enterprises constituted an informal empire engaging many foreign cultures. History shows a far more complicated sense of “Britishness” than some assume.

Current social and political debates on immigration and assimilation of different ethnic groups, many from former imperial territories, into British society often invoke the idea of “Britishness”. This norm is presumably white, but concepts of Britishness were formed by cross-cultural encounters with non-British peoples in the imperial era. The idea of Britishness can therefore be seen to be both defined and undermined as British by these encounters. Britain's diverse past in other countries – through both formal empire and commercial encounters –helped form the notion and reality of Britishness in Britain today.

Formal and informal Empire

In a recent paper, I examine the substantial foreign footprint of British multinationals in the heyday of formal and informal empire in the early twentieth century, when employees of business formed an important population of British abroad.1 These British expatriates were in direct contact with non-Europeans, principally through the direct employment of tens of thousands of local people. Their cross-cultural encounters form a significant, previously untapped body of evidence on the nature of “Britishness”.

One of the great attractions of the British Empire for British companies at the turn of the twentieth century was the perception that it offered a comfortingly familiar British universe. As Lord Milner, High Commissioner for South Africa, summed it up, “every white man of British birth... can be at home in every state of the Empire from the moment he sets foot in it...He hears men speaking his own language, he breathes a social and moral atmosphere which is familiar to him."2

British companies overseas tapped into this familiar world where it existed, adopting British social mores found in areas of formal Empire. They appointed former colonial and government officials to their Boards. They recruited staff of a certain “character”, who would fit in to colonial life: athletic, public school and Oxbridge educated. They socialised with other whites, playing British sports and eating British food.

In informal Empire, where this world did not pre-exist, companies tended to create it, building a “British culture” based on norms often associated with ideas of Empire. They built British-style houses, imported British plants to make British gardens, creating a little England outside England in what has been called “a colonialist fantasy of the colonies as part of Britain.”3

In this way, British company expatriates sought to create and affirm their British identities overseas. But on further examination, it can be seen that this approach used “British” norms that were in fact not British at all, but which were themselves often the product of previous colonial encounters, hybrids of adaptation and compromise to a foreign environment. My research shows that British identity was forged from transnational interaction with non-British peoples overseas, whose own cultures and identities influenced and helped to form ideas of Britishness.

Foreign encounters

A good example of this is the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, or BP, as it is now known. Formed in 1909 in order to develop a huge oil find in southern Persia (now Iran), the company looked first to India, jewel of the British Imperial crown and on the border with Persia, for a model as to how to run its operations. The company took the imperial culture and hierarchical relations it found in the familiarity of British India, and introduced them to its company town and operations in Persia.

The influence from India was indeed pervasive. From India came both white management staff, steeped in imperial experience and, crucially, Indian skilled and semi-skilled workers, viewed by the company as loyal and trustworthy. These Indians worked in the oil field operations, but Indian influence was not confined to the workplace. In the domestic sphere, household servants were often Indians, many ex-Indian Army. Indian terms and borrowings from Indian languages were used so frequently in everyday company correspondence that staff in London complained that they could not understand them.

Indian influences were also evident in physical culture. In its choice of housing for staff, the company chose the Indian bungalow, as well as housing estates inspired by imperial architect Edwin Lutyens' work at New Delhi. Over time, Anglo-Persian developed a lifestyle that resembled life in the British Raj more closely than that of its headquarters city, London.

These cross-cultural encounters, which seem on the surface to be traditionally dominant ones of coloniser over colonised, were in fact far more complex and compromised. In reality, there was input from coloniser and colonised and adaptation to changing circumstances over time, so that the “British” culture underwent a process of continuous reinvention.

Corporate experience on the peripheries of Empire informed and altered company culture overseas, which was then, crucially, transferred back to Britain. Staff in their thousands formed a constant stream back and forth, to and from Britain and from periphery to periphery. The classic idea of a British central metropolitan culture radiating out to the imperial peripheries is a false one – it ought to be replaced by the idea of networks of circulating personnel, cultures and influences.


From this emerges the paradox of British identity, the very nature of which was both defined and undermined as British by these cultural encounters. Current debates on citizenship, identity and Britishness need to take into consideration the fact that in reality, Britishness has historically been a hybrid that has always included in its very definition the different cultures to which it has been exposed.

The implications are far-reaching. In particular, much current discussion on Britishness, identity and ideas of citizenship still stems from an assumption that there is a “norm” of Britishness that is essentially white. There has been recent work around the role of historical archives in creating and sustaining community and group identity for non-white British citizens, but much of it tends to be in terms of the role of non-white British as immigrants. An obvious example is the website history resource, Moving Here.4

Though these kinds of resources fill an important gap in providing means for black and minority ethnic British to explore and express their own history,5 they still in many senses identify them as “different”. Policymakers could consider whether there is a need to replace this divisive idea of “Britishness”, which assumes a white norm into which Asian or black immigrant communities need to assimilate, with a new idea of Britishness based on inclusiveness.

This research shows that “Britishness” has never been the isolated, white, parochial idea of nostalgic myth. Non-white communities have for centuries made sure that Britishness is much bigger than this. Recent work in the field of history6 and archives7 show that there is growing recognition of this within the academic sector.

An awareness of the nature and construction of the idea of Britishness could lead to a new concept of Britishness, one with which all can identify, promoting social cohesion in twenty-first century Britain. We are all too aware of the consequences if this cohesion breaks down.


1 Johnson, Valerie (2008). “Empire, England and the Paradox of British Identity” presented at the Economic History Society's 2008 annual conference at the University of Nottingham.

2 G. Bennett (ed.), The Concept of Empire: Burke to Attlee 1774-1947, 2nd ed. (London: A. & C. Black Ltd, 1962), 352-3.

3 James Duncan, 'Dis-Orientation: On the shock of the familiar in a far-away place' in James Duncan and Derek Gregory (eds.) Writes of Passage: Reading travel writing (London: Routledge, 1999), 156.

4 See website http://www.movinghere.org.uk/

5 See discussion for example, by Louise Craven, 'Epic: Group Identity and the Archive in the Modern World', Archives, 32, 117 (October 2007), 144-58, particularly 148-9.

6 For example, Michael H Fisher, Shompa Lahiri and Shinder Thandi, A South Asian History of Britain: Four Centuries of People from the Indian Sub-Continent (Oxford: Greenwood, 2007), see in particular, p.214.

7 For example, Andrew Flinn, 'Community Histories, Community Archives: Some Opportunities and Challenges', Journal of the Society of Archivists, 28, 2 (October 2007), 151-76.

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