An Unexpected History Lesson

We’re delighted to have taken part in Dialogues of Diaspora’s new series. Especially as it meant spending time and chatting with our dear friend, the brilliant and effervescent, Shalina Patel. You can watch the first episode here, and she’s also kindly taken a quick moment to share more on ‘unexpected’ moments in South Asian and British history below.

Enormous thanks to Shalina for her wonderful words.

When Shamil approached me to be part of this project with Dialogues of Diaspora, it was an absolute no-brainer. Created by a group of incredibly talented British South Asian creatives, their aim is to provide a platform for the sort of dialogues we rarely see in the mainstream. It also was a chance to capture on camera the kind of conversations Shamil and I invariably have around identity and history.   

I’ve always loved history, despite the fact that when I was at school, I was never taught about the historical contributions of anyone who looked like me. Now as a history teacher, I love to seek out stories that have been hidden from traditional historical narratives and then conjure up new and interesting ways to share these with my students. During lockdown I also decided to start sharing these stories publicly via the @thehistorycorridor Instagram page.

What particularly interests me is teaching about South Asian presence in contexts that seem ‘unexpected’. One of my favourite topics to discuss since I started teaching over a decade ago was the suffragettes, a classic story dominated, of course, by window smashing and the Pankhursts. So imagine my surprise when I discovered there was a prominent suffragette who also happened to be an Indian princess. Sophia Duleep Singh grew up in Victorian England and joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1909, the militant group wishing to seek ‘Votes for Women’ by virtually any means necessary. Sophia badgered the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill about ensuring the police were held responsible for the violence her fellow suffragettes faced whilst protesting in Westminster in 1910, an event that left many women injured and coined ‘Black Friday’ as a result. She was photographed selling the suffragette newspaper outside Hampton Court Palace, no doubt a deliberate choice to embarrass her godmother, Queen Victoria who was staunchly against extending the franchise to women. She also participated in several other ‘classic’ suffragette methods of protest such as graffitiing on her 1911 census and refusing to pay her taxes. Sophia proves that South Asian women have played significant roles in some of our most well-known historical periods and is a figure that I believe all students, irrespective of their background, should be taught about. 

I wonder how many of you learnt about Noor Inayat Khan at school? In 1940, during World War Two, the  British government formed a secret organization called the Special Operations Executive (SOE), aiming to sabotage the Nazis from within as their occupation of Europe spread rapidly. The SOE was the only way women could play a combat role in WW2. Like so many women living in Britain during this period, Noor (whose family had ties to Indian ruler Tipu Sultan) volunteered and was eventually trained as a wireless operator. 

It was this skill that piqued the interest of the SOE in 1943. Noor was put through gruelling training and was soon flown into Nazi-occupied France, becoming the first woman from the UK to do so. Her job was to send and receive messages about sabotage operations. Noor was betrayed to the Nazis a few months after her arrival. She was arrested and interrogated for 11 months, but never revealed any information, before she was taken to Dachau concentration camp in September 1944 and executed. Her last word is reported as ‘liberté’, the French word for freedom. Noor gave her life for this country and her sacrifice, alongside those made by other SOE agents, is estimated to have cut the war down by up to 6 months, saving countless lives. Noor’s memorial bust in Gordon Square, London, is the first for either a Muslim or Asian woman in Britain. I visit it often, and encourage you to do the same. Noor is one of the reasons why I wear a poppy every November, alongside a marigold, the flower of remembrance chosen by India. 

I also still remember the moment one of my Year 9 students put up his hand and asked, ‘Miss, was there halal meat in the trenches?’ whilst teaching a lesson on World War One. The question really struck me because I realised this student was placing himself on the Western Front in 1914 and wondering if he would have been able to eat the tinned ‘bully beef’ I’d just taught the class about. I made it my mission to find him the answer. One of the images I came across whilst doing so is what I refer to as the ‘breaking bread’ photo. 

One of the most fascinating elements of this photograph is the ‘meal’ that’s been prepared – and, not least, the fact that 1.3 million Indian soldiers served in World War One, the largest contribution from across the British Empire’s colonies at the time. And no, your eyes are not deceiving you; the Indian soldiers have clearly been making chapatis. Whilst we wouldn’t normally equate chapatis with the trenches, Indian soldiers were in fact given atta for this very reason. They were also given daal and ghee and yes, my year 9 student was right; halal meat (goat and mutton) was provided for Muslim soldiers. 

There is so much irrefutable evidence about the figures I’ve discussed here; things we can physically touch, like photographs, medals and memorials. Yet, these are not well-known stories, despite them all being such a crucial part of Britain’s. Their contributions deserve to be part of our collective understanding of historical contexts like the world wars and suffrage movement. This is our shared history, and shows why widening the lens is crucial. This re-examination of our past can then help to include all who were there, rather than just some.

Where can we start to address this imbalance? Well, you can all start at home. This is something I encourage my students to do, but with a warning of being mindful that some family migration stories can be wrapped in trauma and pain, as many with links to the partition of 1947 will understand. If you don’t ask now, one day it might be too late. Speak to your families about their migration story. Record them. Write it down. Start simple; how did you get here? You can then start to navigate how far back does your family's collective memory goes. Do your families have connections to those familiar school history contexts like the World Wars? You won’t know unless you ask… and I implore you to. How else would I have found out that my grandad convinced a fellow passenger to pay for them both to go on a tour of the pyramids during a stopover in Cairo before flying to Britain for the first time in 1967. 

If you want to know more about the amazing men and women of the SOE, listen to a BBC podcast episode I did for ‘Teach Me A Lesson’ called ‘How did exploding rats help WW2?’ You can also follow my Instagram page @thehistorycorridor for more historical content. 

Watch Shalina and Shamil in conversation here
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