Uncovering the lives of ‘pioneer’ British Asians

British Asian culture is an integral part of life in the UK. There are more than three million British Asians in Britain, making this the biggest minority population in the country. But how did this rich community, which has contributed so much, begin?

Dr Yasmin Khan, an expert in Asian history who teaches on Continuing Education’s MSt. In Historical Studies and MSt. In Literature and Arts, among other courses at Oxford, has worked with BBC2 to create a major three-part social history series to be screened in August. Passengers, presented by Dr Khan, traces the lives of arrivals to Britain from the Indian subcontinent between the 1930s and 1960s.

Dr Khan pieced together individual life stories using the passenger lists of ships that sailed to Britain from the Indian subcontinent from 1878 to 1960. Painstakingly tracking down individual passengers and their descendants, in the series she discovers how their untold stories shed light on our wider history, revealing how Britain changed them and they changed Britain. ‘It’s been incredible to travel around Britain with the BBC and meet so many new people, to hear stories from people who experienced setting up a new home in a new place,’ says Dr Khan.

Passengers will be screened as part of The Big British Asian Summer, a pan-BBC season of programmes which will celebrate British Asian life and the union of two cultures, taking in everything from Bollywood to Sharwood’s.

A British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship

Dr Khan has recently won a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship which will give her more time to research the lives of ‘the pioneer generation’ of British South Asians who made new lives in Britain after the second world war and Partition.

Dr Khan plans to use the year-long fellowship, which starts in October, to think, read and ultimately write a book about the life histories of these pioneers.

Yasmin Khan’s career at Oxford began in 1996 as an undergraduate reading modern history at St Peter’s college. Having grown up in London in a British Pakistani family with many global links, British Asian history caught her interest at this time. After a DPhil at St Antony’s, and stints teaching at the University of Edinburgh and Royal Holloway at the University of London, Khan returned to Oxford, where she is Associate Professor of British History. Her research focuses on the history of the British in India, the British Empire, South Asian decolonisation, refugees and the aftermath of empire. She has also written about the Second World War and the imperial dimensions of the conflict.

History teaching is changing

Khan, who lives in Wallingford and has two children, loves teaching at Continuing Education. She says: ‘the Mst. in Historical Studies is in its second year and it’s been a privilege to be part of teaching this since it began – the students have done some amazing work in archives including one, Chris Piggott, who recently went to regional archives in Bihar, India, to examine papers relating to the Indian uprising of 1857.’

For Dr Khan, ‘it’s important to bring a global aspect to history taught [at Continuing Education] – that’s one of the things that has changed in history teaching since I came to Oxford as an undergraduate in the 1990s. Global history is becoming more central to the way that the University approaches courses and I love being able to link British history to the wider imperial world that Britain was part of – after all, the empire once included over a fifth of the world’s population.’

Published 27 June 2018