White Memories, White Belonging: Competing Colonial Anniversaries in 'Postcolonial' East London

by Georgie Wemyss
Goldsmiths, University of London

Sociological Research Online 13(5)8

Received: 18 Jun 2008     Accepted: 10 Sep 2008    Published: 30 Sep 2008


This paper explores how processes of remembering past events contribute to the construction of highly racialised local and national politics of belonging in the UK. Ethnographic research and contextualised discourse analysis are used to examine two colonial anniversaries remembered in 2006: the 1606 departure of English 'settlers' who built the first permanent English colony in North America at Jamestown, Virginia, and the 1806 opening of the East India Docks, half a century after the East India Company took control of Bengal following the battle of Polashi. Both events were associated with the Thames waterfront location of Blackwall in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets, an area with the highest Bengali population in Britain and significant links with North America through banks and businesses based at the regenerated Canary Wharf office complex. It investigates how discourses and events associated with these two specific anniversaries and with the recent 'regeneration' of Blackwall, contribute to the consolidation of the dominant 'mercantile discourse' about the British Empire, Britishness and belonging. Challenges to the dominant discourse of the 'celebration' of colonial settlement in North America by competing discourses of North American Indian and African American groups are contrasted with the lack of contest to discourses that 'celebrate' Empire stories in contemporary Britain. The paper argues that the 'mercantile discourse' in Britain works to construct a sense of mutual white belonging that links white Englishness with white Americaness through emphasising links between Blackwall and Jamestown and associating the values of 'freedom and democracy' with colonialism. At the same time British Bengali belonging is marginalised as links between Blackwall and Bengal and the violence and oppression of British colonialism are silenced. The paper concludes with an analysis of the contemporary mobilisation of the 'mercantile discourse' in influential social policy and 'regeneration' discourse about 'The East End'.

Keywords: Bengal, Bangladeshi, Bengali, East End, British Empire, Postcolonial, Whiteness, Belonging, Jamestown, East India Company

Introduction: Blackwall 1606 - 1806

1.1 In late December 1606 three small ships, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery set sail, without fanfare, from Blackwall on the River Thames, down river from The City of London. The ships carried 104 colonists and 39 crew members, all male. The expedition was organised and funded by the joint-stock Virginia Company of London which had received its charter from King James I. The royal mandate specified that it was to settle and plant a colony in the environs of Virginia, where it was also granted a trading monopoly. It was instructed to search for and exploit gold, silver and copper mines and to propagate Christianity. The company was also seeking a route to the riches of Pacific Ocean (Price 2003:15). Five months later in May 1607 the ships landed and the colonists established 'James Towne'[1], the first permanent English colony in North America.

1.2 Blackwall had been important in shipping terms from the fifteenth century. It was a prised anchorage, victualling station and embarkation/disembarkation point for travellers who would save time by not sailing around the Isle of Dogs. It was also significant as an area for ship repairing and shipbuilding. Many expeditions set off from Blackwall, including Martin Frobisher in search of the fabled north west passage to Asia in 1577 (Hobhouse 1994: 548-52).

1.3 By 1783, one hundred and seventy six years after the departure of the Virginia Company expedition, Britain had lost its thirteen American colonies in the War of Independence. By then a far more powerful joint-stock company, the East India Company, which had received its charter in 1600 to trade with the East Indies from King James' predecessor, Elizabeth I, had become the dominant military and political force in the Indian subcontinent. The East India Company's victories at the Battles of Polashi and Buxar in 1757 and 1764 respectively had led to it taking tax collection rights and establishing political control over Bengal and marked the beginning of almost 200 years of British colonial rule in south Asia.

1.4 In 1793, almost seven million pounds worth of goods were imported into London from 'The East Indies' in heavily militarised ships. The ships usually unloaded downriver and the cargoes were transported to the East India Company warehouses in the City of London in smaller boats and by land. Following the opening of the enclosed West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs in 1802, the valuable East Indies cargoes had become more of a target for river pirates and pilferers who could easily sell teas, silks, saltpetre and spices on the black market.[2] It was estimated that two thousand one hundred pounds worth of tea was stolen annually from ships arriving from 'the East' at that time. To protect their profits enclosed docks were campaigned for and funded by merchants and shipbuilders with interests in the East Indies. The initial investors included twenty three of the twenty four directors of the East India Company, other East India merchants and owners of East Indiamen, shipbuilders and various bankers and insurance brokers. Large East India Company ships had been mooring in the deep waters, having repairs carried out and sailing from Blackwall since before the East India Company constructed their principal shipyard there in 1614. Construction of the East India Docks began in 1803 (Hobhouse 1994: 575-82).

1.5 Two hundred years after the downbeat departure of the Virginia Company ships a very different event took place at Blackwall. On 4 August 1806 up to twenty thousand people, including members of London's fashionable society, turned out to witness the opening of the East India Docks:

'The Grand Gate, on the land-side, was opened for the reception of visitors at half-past eleven, and by one, the place was crowded with genteel company.' After a 21-gun salute, the Trinity House Yacht, adorned with flags of all nations, entered the dock, preceding the East Indiaman the Admiral Gardner, followed by the City of London, the Lady Castlereagh and then the Surrey. The whole having entered, the band on the board the Admiral Gardner 'immediately struck up in excellent style, "God save the King", which was chorussed by a crowded Orchestra of charming Syrens on board'. It was estimated that 15–20,000 people were assembled within the dock walls, 'and as such exhibitions are always attractive of female curiosity, it is scarcely necessary to add, that the whole formed a lively coup d'aile, richly studded with beauty and elegance'. (The Times 5 Aug 1806: 3 quoted in Hobhouse 1994: 575-582).

1.6 To mark the event, a huge engraved plaque was mounted on the Grand Gate of the Import Dock, through which cotton, silk, tea, spices and porcelain from Bengal, South India, Indonesia and China continued their journey in wagons escorted by the East India Company's own militia westwards to the Company's fortified warehouses in the City of London. The plaque acknowledged the support of the King, Government and East India Company in the building of the docks 'appropriated to the commerce of India' and clearly proclaimed their significance:

The Grand Undertaking originated in the laudable endeavours of the managing owners of ships in the company's service and the important national objects of increased security to property and revenue, combined with improved accommodation, economy and despatch were thus early realised through the liberal subscriptions of the proprietors and the unremitting attentions of the directors of the East India Dock Company.[3]
You can see pictures of the plaques here, one of the plaque as it is today and one of the Grand Gate as it was before demolition. [External Links]

1.7 2006 was the anniversary year of the two Empire building events that took place on the River Thames at Blackwall described above. However, the grandeur of their respective anniversaries contrasted strongly with the original events. The subdued departure of the Virginia Company ships in 1606 was remembered in 2006 with extravagant fanfare and celebration marking the beginning of the official 400th anniversary events linked to the founding of America. In contrast, the bicentennial anniversary of the grandiose opening of the East India Docks passed almost unnoticed. Why is it that these two events - chronologically and geographically separate but politically and economically linked passages of Britain's Empire story - were remembered so differently?

1.8 Recent theories of memory as a social and cultural process understand memory as a contested terrain, a product of multiple competing discourses (Misztal 2003). Misztal summarises the theoretical perspective of the dynamics of memory as being where memory is conceptualised as 'a contingent product of social or political actions and as grounds or basis for further action' (Misztal 2003:73). In this paper I seek to identify some of the social and political actions and the multiple competing discourses that constructed how the British Empire was remembered at Blackwall in 2006. I analyse the dominant discourse about Blackwall's Empire histories and identify exactly which institutions it is associated with. I use evidence from previous related events to demonstrate the continuing dominance of that discourse in other contexts.

1.9 That the past does not exist independently from the present and that power is constitutive of the production of historical narratives has been comprehensively demonstrated in his studies of Haitian and USA histories by the anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot (Trouillot 1995). His analytical approach is useful in dissecting the competing processes involved in the production of contemporary discourses about Blackwall's past. I discuss how the Blackwall Empire anniversaries relate to other contemporary British anniversaries which also assert the selected histories of some whilst burying those of others. Through an analysis of how the historical links between Blackwall, Virginia and Bengal were remembered in the two decades leading up to 2006, I demonstrate how patterns of discriminatory amnesia about Empire in dominant discourses about British history work to ensure that people whose ancestors were subject to British rule in the Asian subcontinent, Africa and the Caribbean remain near the base of what I have described elsewhere as an unstable 'hierarchy of belonging' (Wemyss 2006a).

1.10 Trouillot compellingly described any historical narrative as a 'particular bundle of silences' (1995: 27). Each bundle is the result of a unique process that can be deconstructed and addressed through the use of a conceptual tool that identifies four significant 'moments':

Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of the sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of the archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of the narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance). (Trouillot 1995: 26).
Power can be tracked through investigating contesting groups and discourses involved in the production of histories at these often overlapping 'moments'.

1.11 In his studies of Haitian and North American histories, Trouillot demonstrated how different types of silences, identified at any of the four different 'moments' of historical production, 'criss-cross and accumulate' over decades or centuries. In this investigation, I focus on the silences that enter the production of history during the last two 'moments' - those of 'fact retrieval' and 'retrospective significance' - to deconstruct and problematise the silences about the British Empire in the production of narratives and events during the competing Blackwall anniversaries of 2006. In only considering these 'moments' there is much still left to be exposed and explained outside the confines of this article. However, for the purposes of the following discussion, it is understood that the first two conceptual 'moments' - the creation of the sources and of the archives on which the later historical narratives which inform the 2006 anniversaries depend, took place in the contexts of increasing British colonial power in seventeenth century North America and nineteenth century India. It is no surprise that there is plentiful archival material relating to both colonies [4] that can be used to tell the stories of the colonisers whilst the task of unmasking the silences of the colonised remains enormous.

1.12 Silences in historical narratives are deafening to those who are aware of them and infuriating to those who know that they are there, but have little knowledge of what exactly is missing. Exposing each 'bundle of silences' demands an interdisciplinary approach that mobilises a broad range of ethnographic, sociological, political and historical research. The theoretical fields, grown out of the specifically British experiences of Empire, that have exposed the discursive silences of Blackwall 2006 and driven me to investigate further, include those of postcolonial history and geography that examine the metropole and colony as an analytical whole; critical whiteness studies that deconstruct and name the normalising and exclusionary processes of dominant white discourses and political studies of the intersectional interplays of 'race', gender and nation. They are exemplified in the work of historians Catherine Hall (2002), Rozina Visram (2002) and Michael Fisher (2004), geographer Jane Jacobs (1996), sociologists Les Back and Vron Ware (2002), Caroline Knowles (2007), Paul Gilroy (1987, 2004) and Nira Yuval Davis (2006), and anthropologists Ann Laura Stoler (Cooper and Stoler 1997, Stoler 2002) and M-R Trouillot (1995). This paper is part of a broader investigation into what I name as the 'invisible empire', the central constituent of the dominant white discourse about Britishness. (Wemyss 2004, 2008 and forthcoming 2009). My theoretical approach is broadly encompassed in a research field that has recently and provisionally been labelled as 'third wave whiteness studies'. This field focuses on institutional and ideological arrangements and practices that maintain white privilege whilst challenged by competing movements. It investigates 'locally specific ways in which whiteness as a form of power is defined, deployed, performed, policed and reinvented' (Twine and Gallagher 2007:5).

1.13Although the constituents of any particular 'bundle of silences' is unique, I identify a single, flexible discourse that constructs both historical narratives and makes up the two separate 2006 Blackwall anniversaries. What I call the mercantile discourse (Wemyss 2004) constructs a British Empire where goods and profits are foregrounded whilst the lives and histories of those who produced them if not invisible, are peripheral to the central story. Euphemistic (but contested) keywords including 'settlers', 'plantations', 'merchants', 'freedom' and 'trade' effectively disguise the conflicts, violence and coercion of colonial projects. Anniversaries of events that precede or follow successful conquest are 'celebrated' unless contested by the conquered, when they switch to being 'commemorated'. The mercantile discourse enables the mobilisations of specific white memories in the US and London and the silencing of competing memories in both the 1606 and 1806 anniversary narratives and events. In the context of contemporary political debates on 'community cohesion' and 'social exclusion', I argue that the silences constructed through the mercantile discourse work towards 'white citizens' retaining their position at the pinnacle of the 'hierarchy of belonging' and the continuing marginality of belonging endured by those whose ancestors were subjects of the overseas British Empire.[5]

Blackwall 1990 - 2005: 'Regeneration' and White Memories

2.1 This section begins with a brief overview of twenty and twenty-first century Blackwall. I then examine how contrasting histories of the two Empire-building events of 1606 and 1806 and their respective colonial relationships with Virginia and India were mobilised in 'regeneration' activities during the 1990s.

2.2 From the mid-nineteenth century, significant trade shifted downstream from the East India Docks at Blackwall and the West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs to the Royal Victoria, Royal Albert, Tilbury and King George V docks (opened in 1855, 1880, 1886 and 1921 respectively), which had been built to accommodate larger steamships. The East India Docks continued to operate and were heavily bombed during the Second World War. The import basin of the docks complex was drained and used to build a floating harbour (called 'Mulberry') used for the 1944 allied invasion of France. After the war, the export dock was drained, filled and a coal fired power station built on the site. The import dock remained open for smaller, more local ships until 1967 after when it was filled in and used for an extension of the power station which was itself demolished in 1988 when the 'Regeneration' of Blackwall began.

2.3 'Regeneration' has been a keyword in national and local government policy discourses on urban poverty since the 1970s. Regeneration policies have enabled private sector organisations, including building companies, to invest in and profit from derelict industrial sites across Britain, whilst providing some benefits, such as low cost housing, to existing populations (Butler and Rustin 1996, Cohen and Rustin 2008). They frequently faced (usually unsuccessful) opposition from sections of local populations who had alternative, proposals for the use of land[6].

2.4 Today, Blackwall refers to the riverside area of Tower Hamlets opposite the Millennium Dome on the regenerated Greenwich peninsula and around the northern entrance to the Blackwall tunnel. Blackwall is currently part of a newly created council ward (Blackwall and Cubitt Town) that covers the whole of the eastern side Isle of Dogs and includes the adjacent eastern docklands area where the original Blackwall was located. Like the other docklands ward, Millwall, it has been represented by three white councillors representing the Conservative Party since the May 2006 local elections. Until May 2002, the Blackwall ward bisected the docklands peninsula horizontally, from Shadwell in the west to the River Lea in the east. In the past it was mainly represented by Labour councillors. Blackwall Reach is the focus of a new regeneration initiative focused on a small area west of the East India Docks (See http://www.blackwallreach.co.uk).

2.5 The Blackwall site where the 'First Settlers' set off for the 'New World' has been recognised as important by U.S. citizens and British property companies at several moments in the twentieth century. A 'First Settlers' plaque and monument was erected in 1928 by the U.S. organisation, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (established in 1889, now APVA Preservation Virginia, http://www.apva.org/aboutus ), and embellished with a mermaid, by the Port of London Authority, in 1951. Both were unveiled by the U.S. Ambassador of the time (Barratt 1998 and http://www.jamestowne.org - accessed 7 December 2006). At some point the mermaid vanished. 

Photo: First Settlers Plaque and Monument

2.6 During the 1990s the filled-in East India Export Dock was transformed by the building company, Barratt, into 'Virginia Quay'. The whole development was named to reflect that first English colony in North America – Newport Avenue[7] leads onto Jamestown Way and Pilgrims Mews. Barratt, restored and enlarged the monument and shifted it to a spectacular position on a paved terrace ('plaza' in the publicity brochure) across the river from the Millenium Dome and downstream from the nearby towers of the Canary Wharf business complex. There it stands flanked by three flagpoles that usually fly two stars and stripes and a union jack. This 'revitalised memorial to the Virginia Settlers' (Barratt 1998) was unveiled in 1999 in a ceremony attended by the U. S. Ambassador to Great Britain and supported by the Jamestowne Society – an exclusive organisation whose members have to prove they are descended from the original English 'settlers'.[8] The ceremony included a march past the monument by pikemen and musketeers (http://www.jamestowne.org - accessed 7 December 2006). 

Photo: March past Monument by Pikemen and Musketeers

2.7 The 'First Settler' identity was a slick marketing device for the 'Virginia Quay' developers who structured their sales promotion around their own interpretation of the English colonial story. The promotional literature echoed and embellished the wording of the plaque on the 1928 monument:

There are few places in the United Kingdom that hold such an eminent place in history as the area surrounding Virginia Quay … it was from this area, in 1606, that 105 Virginia Settlers set sail. Fair winds and brave hearts accompanied the adventurers across a vast ocean to establish the first permanent English colony in North America – at Jamestown in Virginia (Barratt 1998).

2.8 These remarks were followed by references to John Smith, Pocahontas and the Disney film. The 1928 plaque (that has been retained as part of the 'revitalised memorial' unveiled in 1999) had not used the term 'settlers' or decorative language of hearts, winds or oceans and had used the term 'adventurers' in inverted commas:

From near this spot December 19 1606 sailed with 105 "Adventurers" [lists names of three ships, their tonnage – 100, 40 and 20 tons - and names of Captains] arrived at Jamestown, Virginia May 13 1607 where these "Adventurers" founded the first Permanent English Colony in America [lists names of leaders] At Jamestown July 20 1619 was convened the first representative assembly in America … in commemoration.

2.9 The 1998 publicity brochure showed white families wandering around the monument and development. At that time the private development included no schools or shops. By 2006 there was a single shop and some social housing (not on the river front or overlooking the monument). Double yellow lines cover the entire estate. The 'plaza' is a public space, but with no direction signs and no parking, every effort being made to ensure that the 'public' do not intrude.

2.10 The American connections continued in marketing the adjacent Blackwall plot overlooking the river and developed by Ballymore through naming the 'luxury' estate 'New Providence Wharf' and the roads, Augusta and Fairmont Avenues after places in Virginia. The penthouse apartments cost one million eight hundred thousand pounds, its promotional material echoes that of Barratt:

Four centuries ago the first American settlers sailed from Blackwall Port to found the Virginian colonies. Taking its name with a nod to U.S. history the awe inspiring New Providence Wharf development shows just how times have changed (ELA Homehunter 23 November 2001)
The 2004 publicity again showed photos of white people using the private pool and gym.

2.11 In 2000, potential buyers visiting Virginia Quay were greeted by a signboard saying: 'Barratt, A Link with History 1606 - 2000+'. There was little to indicate that 'Virginia Quay' was the regenerated name for the area that had been the export dock of the East India Dock complex opened in 1806, heavily bombed in the 1940s and filled in to build a coal powered power station that opened in the 1950s. 1606 rather than 1806 was the marketable moment in history.

2.12 North of 'Virginia Quay', still in Blackwall, is a separate office development on the much larger site of the import dock of the East India Dock complex. The link with the past is visible due the remaining 1806 fortifications, or dock walls, that partially surround the office buildings and are preserved by conservation laws. The road names within the filled in dock area attempt to reflect the Eastern cargoes, using types of spices such as Nutmeg Lane and Clove Crescent, but also including Mediterranean herbs such as Oregano and Rosemary as the names of Drives. Modern office buildings relate to river and maritime trades: Lighterman House, Compass House, Anchorage House. The two local Docklands Light Railway stations are called East India and Blackwall.

2.13 When the import docks were regenerated in the 1990s, children in local primary schools made small brass relief panels that are stuck up around the inside of the dock wall. These plaques make reference to the local people who worked in the docks, the docks themselves, the ships and boats. One of them even refers to the Virginia story: 'The Godspeed setting sail for America from the (future) East India Dock 1603 (sic)'.

2.14 None of the panels refer to the content of the cargoes, the people who produced them, nor do they recall any relationship with 'East India' and what that meant or means, or to the reason for the docks being built.

2.15 It is not as if that information is unavailable. Unlike the small plaque on the Virginia Quay monument that dates back only to 1928, the original two hundred year old plaque that marked the opening of the East India Docks in 1806 (described in the introduction above), still exists in an inaccessible corner of the estate overlooking the traffic junction near the Blackwall tunnel, in the position where it and the impressive entrance to the docks had stood before being demolished in 1958 to build the northern approach of the tunnel. The hidden-away plaque is clear about the reason for the docks: The British monarch, government, East India Company and other ship owners and merchants all expected to benefit from the tax revenues and increased profits made from the trade with India. What is not mentioned on the plaque is that a major reason for profitability was the East India Company's control of terms of trade in the subcontinent, and for the past 40 years, the repatriation of Bengal tax revenues to Britain through traded goods (Marshall 1976, Marshall 2005: 243, Robins 2006).

2.16 When the Liberal Democrat local authority moved its Town Hall to an office building on this site in 1993 there was no publicity that related the site to the growing Bengali population of the borough – a migration that started in the 1600s with south Asian crews, known as lascars[9], on early East India Company ships. Although the East India Company bound lascars to return promptly, due to the trade imbalance (much more was imported from India than exported to the subcontinent) they were forced to remain in Britain for long periods before they found work on homebound ships (Visram 2002:17).

By 1765, an Indian visitor to Britain noted that the English were not 'unacquainted' with 'Chatgaon and Juhangeer Nuggur lascars' [Chittagong and Dhaka of modern day Bangladesh] (Visram 2002: 15).

2.17 By the 1850s, as industrialisation and global trade expanded, Visram estimated that between 5,000 and 6,000 lascars were crewing ships to Britain every year, and that sixty percent of the lascars were Indians (2002: 33). At the end of the First World War twenty per cent of seamen in British merchant ships involved in global trade were Indian. By 1938 this had risen to twenty-six per cent, over 50,700 men, a substantial percentage of whom will have passed through and lived near to the East India Docks.

2.18 In Virginia Quay, Blackwall, in the 1990s, a history that celebrated the colonisation of Virginia by English 'adventurers' and the creation of the USA was remembered in the regeneration and marketing activities of developers and with the support of U.S. organisations and government. During the same period the regeneration of the East India import dock largely silenced a history of the colonisation of the Indian subcontinent and the creation of present day Bangladesh, India and Pakistan and which would have linked modern east Londoners with the subcontinent. This pattern of remembering selective colonial links with the U.S. in parallel to the silencing of those with Bengal was repeated in the anniversary year of 2006

Blackwall 2006 - 2007: Transatlantic 'Celebrations'

3.1 Officially termed 'America's 400th anniversary' the remembering of the 'planting' of the first permanent English colony in America was a huge series of events in the USA that took place throughout 2006 and climaxed in 2007. Events in England were part of the official activities, with a British organising committee staffed by two Lords and with key involvement of 'VisitBritain' (the British tourist authority) and the counties of Kent, Suffolk and Lincolnshire. The VisitBritain campaign aimed to 'inspire and galvanise' United States visitors to return to the UK in search of their roots. British partner events in Kent include a visit by an 'official Virginia Indian delegation' to Gravesend, the grave of Pocahontas and Fourth July celebrations at Leeds Castle in Kent (www.jamestown2007.org/se-partnerevents.cfm and http://www.beginyouradventure.co.uk/ - accessed 15 September 2006).

3.2 The Museum in Docklands, located in a sugar warehouse in the nearby West India Docks, ran a six month long exhibition titled 'Journey to the New World: London 1606 to Virginia 1607' supported by the U.S. Embassy. A replica of the smallest ship, the Discovery, was docked directly outside the museum, a gift from the Governor of Virginia. The Museum closed for half a day on 19 December 2006 in order to host a high security VIP reception that honoured the departure of the colonisers (now named 'settlers'- no longer 'adventurers') 400 years earlier. It was attended by the US Ambassador, the Governor of Virginia, a Virginian Indian chief, Stephen Adkins, Jamestowne Society members, the local Member of Parliament, other British and American dignitaries and members of favoured local organisations. The reception was followed by a small wreath laying ceremony downstream at the Virginia Quay monument. Wreaths were left by the VisitBritain British Tourism Commemoration Partnership, The Jamestowne Society, Families of Virginia 1607 -1624, the Governor of Virginia on behalf of the people of Virginia and another wreath listed the names of all those who had sailed on the boats. A local community project also 'celebrated' the events.[10]

3.3 Official 400th anniversary publicity material in the U.S. was careful to use the term 'commemoration' rather than 'celebration'. Contesting voices from Virginian Indian and African American organisations and individuals in Virginia has ensured that the story of the English colony was not narrated as solely celebratory in North America. Chief Stephen Adkins who was present at the VIP event and wreath laying ceremony in Blackwall, had been instrumental in changing the official title of the 400th anniversary from 'celebration' to 'commemoration'. [11] Official partner organisations in England also referred to 'commemoration' events or committees. However, in the English context, both Americans and British slipped back into the celebratory talk. Most significantly, the website of the US Embassy reported:

19 December 2006 Ambassador Tuttle celebrates the origins of Jamestown (my emphasis)

Ambassador Tuttle attended the ceremony to mark the 400th departure of the settlers from London who went on to found Jamestown, the U.S.'s first English-speaking settlement, at the Museum in Docklands on Tuesday "It is a great honour for me to be standing on the banks of the Thames on this historic occasion which marks the start of America as it exists today. I pay tribute to the brave voyagers who crossed the Atlantic in winter to seek a new world, and who formed the origins of modern America"

(see http://london.usembassy.gov/ukamb/tuttle052.html which includes photos of the event).

3.4 On its own U.S. based website, the exclusive Jamestowne Society did not feel pressurised into reporting the 19 December events in Blackwall as 'commemorations' either:

English Celebrations of the Departure of the Three Ships (my emphasis)

The fleet of three ships that arrived in Jamestowne in May, 1607 departed from London on December 19, 1606. The 400th Anniversary Celebration of the Founding of Jamestowne began, appropriately, with ceremonies in England to commemorate the departure of the three ships.

Representatives of The Jamestowne Society participated in those ceremonies.  Lieutenant-Governor Carter Furr and Attorney-General Ken Bass both laid wreaths at the Virginia Monument located in the docklands area of London.[12]

3.5 The specialist tour company that managed the itinerary of the 'Jamestowne' tourists also advertised 'celebration':

Day 6: Tue Dec 19 - Today we join in the 400th Anniversary Ceremony and Celebration of the Departure from Virginia Quay [sic] for the New World of the Three Ships. Visit famous Blackwall and Virginia Quay. This evening we take part in a 400th Anniversary Banquet
(see http://www.tours-international.co.uk/ - accessed on 7 December 2006)

3.6 The Museum in Docklands 'Journey to the New World: London 1606 to Virginia 1607' (23 November 2006 to 13 May 2007) exhibition referred to 'celebrations', excluded narratives about African slavery and marginalised Indian experiences. London and Londoners' (as 'settlers') impact of 'the emerging nation' were the focus of the exhibition's publicity material:

Journey to the New World: London 1606 to Virginia 1607 is a major new exhibition which marks the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in America at Jamestown, Virginia.
Archaeology, artefacts, documents and stories come together in a tale of daring survival that charts the crucial role of Londoners in the founding of the United States of America. Coinciding with anniversary celebrations on both sides of the Atlantic, Journey to the New World is a unique glimpse into the history of an emerging nation.[13]
(see http://www.museumindocklands.org.uk/English/EventsExhibitions/Past/JourneyNewWorld.htm)

3.7 The accompanying talks, for example one on the 29 April, included some references to 'native Americans:

From Jamestown to genocide: the fate of the native peoples of North America
When Jamestown was established as the first permanent English settlement in America the lands and way of life of its indigenous peoples were changed forever. Talks and film will explore the plight of the Native Americans from colonisation to the present day.

3.8 This talk suggests that the contesting voices of 'native Americans' had forced a shift in the mercantile discourse. African slavery, however, did not intrude on the story of Virginia as told in England. The Museum exhibition highlighted the labour shortages of the early years of the colony, the English indentured labourers and the triumph of Virginia tobacco. However, apart from three short references to African slaves in the 17th century chronology (on the back of a leaflet), the final solution to the labour shortage – African slaves – were absent.[14]

3.9 This is in glaring contrast to the dominant discourses in Virginia, where on the 25 February 2007, the Virginia General Assembly became the first US state to apologise for the state's role in slavery. It also expressed regret for 'the exploitation of Native Americans' and linked the apologies directly to the 400th anniversary events. (See http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp524.exe?071+ful+HJ728ER).

3.10 A further reason to 'celebrate' the specific interpretation of the Jamestown story became clear in several contexts that linked partners in Britain and Virginia. At the VIP wreath laying ceremony on the 19 December at Virginia Quay, a VIP made a speech that referred to 'democracy and the freemarket' having started right there. Three days later, the curator of the Museum exhibition was interviewed on BBC London News. In front of the replica ship and beneath the towers of Canary Wharf, she said that 'venture capital from London' had been important in the establishment of the USA (22 November 2006 at 13.30 GMT). The report finished by saying that 'London is central to the story of America'. This message reached a wider audience when, in May 2007, the British Queen Elizabeth made a state visit to the USA to mark the 400th anniversary.[15] In his welcoming speech to the British Queen, President Bush continued on the theme of celebration of both the Jamestown colony and their contemporary shared political goals:

Based on our common values, our two nations are working together for the common good. Together we are supporting young democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Together we're confronting global challenges such as poverty and disease and terrorism. And together we're working to build a world in which more people can enjoy prosperity and security and peace. Friendships remain strong when they are continually renewed, and the American people appreciate Your Majesty's commitment to our friendship. We thank you for helping us celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement. We're confident that Anglo-American friendship will endure for centuries to come. (See http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2007/05/20070507-13.html)

3.11 Events and discourses described above demonstrate that the 2006 anniversary events at Blackwall can only be understood in the context of USA and Virginia State government sponsorship of '2007: America's 400th anniversary '. The 'partnership' between Rolfe and Pocahontas, 'settlers' and 'Indians' celebrated by the Jamestowne Society is echoed by President Bush addressing the British Queen, espousing and celebrating the 'common values' and 'friendship' needed to win the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Blackwall 2006: East India Amnesia

4.1 The 1806 Blackwall anniversary had no equivalent super-power patronage. However, that does not explain a silence about a key moment in a historical relationship between Britain and the Indian subcontinent in a borough where, according to the 2001 census, thirty three percent of the population have ancestral links with Bengal (see http://www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/data/discover/data/borough-profile/index.cfm). Moreover, twenty-one of the fifty elected borough councillors have their offices and debating chamber in the Town Hall within the East India Dock walls, yet there was no parallel public acknowledgement of significance of 'East India', 'trade' or 'partnerships' in the development of the City of London. Neither was there any attempt to use the 'moment of retrospective significance', the anniversary, to advance the sense of belonging experienced by local Bangladeshi residents. The anniversary of the opening of the East India Docks passed almost unnoticed. The Museum in Docklands held meetings to talk about organising anniversary events, but rather than a big event, a series of lunch time public talks took place during the latter part of the year. These were each attended by between twenty-five and forty predominantly white people over fifty-five, who indicated by the questions they posed, that they had a largely uncritical view of the British Empire. The corruption and violence of the East India Company in Bengal and beyond was the subject in a talk given by Nick Robins, who had been actively involved in earlier meetings about how the museum should remember 1806 and other East India links.[16] However questioners were more concerned, for example, about the exact size of tea chests than the experiences of the colonised. Other talks ignored the oppressions of the East India Company by focusing on accessing the archives of the East India Company, one white family's involvement in the Company over time and how to trace relatives through the East India Company official records. Apart from Nick Robin's contribution, the talks all focused on the relationships of white British people to the East India Company. None of the talks addressed the four hundred year relationship between Britain and Bengal or the long presence of Bengalis in London. There was no evidence that publicity had been targeted specifically at the local Bengali population.

4.2 Neither can the silence surrounding the 1806 anniversary be explained by the arguments that a dock opening is not a marketable anniversary or that the East India trade is not of interest to the culture industry. A related dock anniversary had been remembered in 2000 when the Canary Wharf Group (owners of the Canary Wharf estate located within the old West India Docks) sponsored events and a monument to celebrate the opening of the West India Docks in 1802. Also, between 2000 and 2004 there were several events and exhibitions tied to the 400th anniversary of the charter granted to the East India Company.[17] Why was the East India Docks' opening not remembered in 2006 whilst only six years earlier the West India Docks had been celebrated? To be sure, at their opening the docks were described by The Times as a 'great work' but 'not of such magnificent dimensions as the West India Docks' (The Times, 5 Aug 1806, p.3). In the following section I draw out some themes from an earlier study of the West India Docks anniversary to examine how the mercantile discourse associated with the Canary Wharf Group in 2000 worked to erase the histories and marginalise the experiences of belonging of local African Caribbean populations. I then demonstrate how the same discourse works in silencing the histories of Bengalis in Britain.

The West India Docks 2000: Mercantile Discourse, The Silence of Slavery and Invisible Bengal

5.1 In an earlier paper (Wemyss 2006b) I examined a shift in the dominant discourse about the adjacent dock area of the Isle of Dogs between 1990 and 2000. I demonstrated how, in 1990, the area was constructed as a repatriated, postcolonial 'Terra Nullius' an empty land ripe for 'development' by the Canary Wharf Group and others. In 2000, that discourse had shifted to include the white Isle of Dogs population represented as a long term settled, working class, white community and local African, African Caribbean and Asian populations as recently arrived settlers with obscure relationships to the histories of the docks. I argued in the introduction above that the mercantile discourse constructs the Empire in terms of goods and profits whilst silencing the violence of Empire and the lives of people who produced the goods. The 200th anniversary of the West India Docks was celebrated in the mercantile discourse that downplayed the centrality of the slavery of Africans and profits of slave owners and traders to the existence of the docks. George Hibbert and Robert Milligan, the anti-abolitionist slave owners and traders who were behind the building of the docks were celebrated as hero-merchants. Slavery was not ignored in that discourse, but it was written about without reference to violence and was constructed as a natural and uncontested practice in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The local African Caribbean working class residents were not represented as having had ancestors who contributed to the docks whilst the local white working class population were represented as the descendents of dock workers and dock builders.

5.2 In 2007, with the national focus on the 1807 British abolition of the slave trade it is hard to imagine that the West India Docks' anniversary would be 'celebrated' in the same way as it had been in 2000. Whereas in 2000, slave owners Milligan and Hibbert were constructed as heroic, in 2007 the Museum in Docklands had a debate about what should be done about the statue of Milligan that stands in front of the museum and the hidden history of slavery. (See http://www.museumindocklands.org.uk/English/EventsExhibitions/Events/RobertMilligan.htm). Moreover, in late 2007, the museum opened a permanent gallery that focuses on the relationships between London, sugar and slavery and is explicit about the relationship between the docks and the slave trade. Significantly, in contrast to exhibitions elsewhere the gallery received no corporate sponsorship. (See http://www.museumindocklands.org.uk/English/EventsExhibitions/Special/LSS/)

5.3 Despite the greater visibility of the histories of enslaved Africans in 2007, the mercantile discourses of the Journey to the New World exhibition in the Museum in Docklands (discussed above) continued to elide English involvement in trading and owning African slaves in Virginia through similar language and silences as the discourses of 2000 about the building of the docks (also examined above). The African labour force on tobacco plantations was essential to the 'development' of Virginia. I showed above that in February 2007, the Virginia General Assembly apologised for Virginia's role in slavery. In contrast, the role of the descendants of English colonists ('settlers') in slavery remains invisible in the English 'celebrations' of America's 400th anniversary. Even amidst the 2007 celebratory clamour that surrounded the 200th anniversary of British abolition of the slave trade, the mercantile discourse reinscribed the venture capital of London as central to the story of the creation of the U.S. whilst the links between venture capital, colonisation and slavery are silenced.

5.4 During the same time period, the mercantile discourse was working in different but familiar ways to obscure the links between capitalism, colonialism and the histories of British Bengalis. In 2000, the 200th anniversary souvenir programme sponsored by the Canary Wharf Group that celebrated the opening of the West India Docks reported that a representative of the High Commission of Bangladesh had been present at the opening ceremony of the rebuilt West India Dock 'Main Gate'. However, it provided no context to indicate why an 'East India' nation should be represented at a 'West India' event. The only other reference to possible links between the docks and the Indian subcontinent was in an introduction to an exhibition panel headed 'The Asian Community':

The East India Company's ships needed large crews and from 1600 onwards Asian "Lascars" were crewmen on the ships transporting everything from tea to tiger skins. The exhibition describes their settlement in Aldgate and the role of British Asian people through the war (2000 souvenir programme p.7).

5.5 In this example of the mercantile discourse, the lives of those who transported the goods of Empire remain peripheral the goods themselves. This discourse had also dominated in historical reports in two local newspapers that I analysed during the 1990s.[18]

5.6 The history of the docks and empire when narrated in the local newspapers excluded any mention of the East India Company, its military power, its colonisation of Bengal and its consequences for the Bengali population. When trade in tea or textiles was mentioned, it was in relation to the wealth it generated for merchants in the East End, and never in relation to the displacement or coercion of the labour of Bengalis and others. The forced cultivation of indigo and opium in Bengal, the bonded labour of weavers and spinners, the repatriated tax revenues and the British role in creating the famines of the eighteenth and twentieth centuries were never referred to (Bolts 1772, Hossain 1988, Sen 1981, Davis 2001, Robins 2006). The thousands of lascars, including those from Bengal, who worked on ships that landed in London between 1650 and the Second World War (Visram 2002, Fisher 2004) were invisible apart from a single picture of lascars drinking tea in a report in East End Life (EEL) about an exhibition at the Museum of London in December 1993.

5.7 An East End Life article on the development of part of the old East India Dock demonstrates how the mercantile discourse defies challenge through ostensibly not being about the population of the East End. It is about flowers not people:

Britain's seafaring past has left an unlikely legacy … when the Beckton extension to the DLR was built, it disrupted the soil bringing hundreds of seeds, buried for years, to the surface, where they found the perfect environment. The plants had stowed away on ships coming from all over the globe. 140 species were discovered in a survey (East End Life 9 June, 1994).

5.8 The discourse gives life, body and legitimacy to the 'unlikely legacy' of plants. Yet the likely legacy of Britain's seafaring past, the descendants of men whose lives were consumed by British colonialism, who travelled legally on board the same ships and who found a hostile environment onshore, is rendered invisible when mercantile discourse is deployed.

5.9 What was edited out of the mercantile discourse about East End histories, what the historian Catherine Hall refers to as 'the amnesia of empire' (Hall 2002: 5), illustrative of what the anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1995) describes as 'bundles of silences', is therefore as significant as the images and memories which were mobilised. There is no context to challenge something that is not there.

White Memories, White Belonging

6.1 The two events that took place in Blackwall two hundred years apart both form part of a 'British Empire story'. Their anniversaries could have been mobilised to tell very many different stories: for example about genocide in North America, violence and dispossession in Bengal or about processes of global migration. However, in 2006, Blackwall was remembered primarily because it played a small bit-part in 'America's 400th Anniversary commemorations' and a local museum received funds from the U.S. government to fund an exhibition that linked Blackwall to the birth of the super-power. The significance of that relationship to contemporary military and political partnerships was made explicit in the USA when the British Queen visited Jamestown in 2007 and was entertained in Washington DC by President Bush.

6.2 2007 was a year of many more potential 'Empire' anniversaries in Britain. Events that could somehow be remembered in a positive light were funded and remembered through exhibitions, books, TV and radio programmes whilst those that are negative, or more open to contestation were less noticed. Empire related events that allowed for 'celebration' to overshadow 'commemoration' dominated. For example, many of the 1807 British abolition of the slave trade events focused on Briton's roles as Abolitionists rather than as slave traders or owners. Anniversaries of the 1947 independence of India and Pakistan celebrated the end of British rule and the subcontinents progress over the previous 60 years rather than the repressions of the period of colonisation. In contrast, anniversaries such as the 1757 battle of Polashi in Bengal, the 1857 Indian Liberation War or 'Mutiny' that marked the beginnings and extension of colonial rule and irrefutable oppression were less visible outside minority communities.[19]

6.3 The silencing of specific histories in the mercantile discourse used by land developers, council planning officers, museum curators, the Jamestowne society and U.S. government examined in the Blackwall regeneration and anniversary events and other contexts contributes to the highly racialised politics of belonging in the East End. White belongingness reached beyond national boundaries through emphasising the links between Blackwall and Jamestown. At Virginia Quay and through involvement in America's 400th anniversary, white English people were able to claim a role in the creation of the 'freedom and democracy' of the modern USA.[20] Similarly, through ancestral links and monetary donations (the Virginia Memorial, the Discovery ship replica, sponsorship of the Journey to the New World exhibition) white North Americans were able to stake a claim to belong to the England where these ideas and 'settlers' were said to have originated. This mutual white belonging was emphasised by President Bush and Ambassador Tuttle. In contrast, the same discourses worked to exclude the experiences of people of African descent, British, Caribbean or American, in the development of the USA or in building its 'freedom and democracy'. Moreover, there was no opportunity to foster belonging to a shared British history at the anniversary of the opening of the East India Docks.

6.4 The mercantile discourse associated with the two 2006 anniversaries expressed by the regeneration projects and in the local newspapers exemplify how histories that legitimise the implicit right to belong of the dominant group and their allies are promoted, so that white people remain at the top of the hierarchy of belonging. Histories, such as those of the thousands of lascars, subjects of the British Empire, who arrived on ships at Blackwall, which could legitimise the claims of subordinate groups to share local or national space were excluded. As a result these non-white people remain near the bottom of the hierarchy of belonging.

The Mercantile Discourse and 'The New East End'

7.1 This discourse, however, is not only dominant in the public and private institutions and organisations examined above. In 2006, it was also used in the telling of the backstory to the contemporary East End social policy concerns in 'The New East End: Kinship, Race and Conflict' (Dench, Gavron, Young 2006), a book that received wide media and political coverage when it was published.[21] The study has been critiqued from many angles (notably during in the British Sociological Association conference in April 2007 and in Rising East May 2006). None of these criticisms focus on the book's historical narrative about early Bangladeshi arrivals in Britain. However, I argue that the book's analysis of more contemporary white and Bengali working class lives in Tower Hamlets builds on the same accumulated 'bundle of silences' about colonial Bengal analysed in the previous sections. I will not detail the book's analyses of conflict between 'Bangladeshi' and 'white working class', but will exemplify how the mercantile discourse and accumulated silences informs this example of social research.[22]

7.2 The New East End claimed to be a history of immigration and contemporary politics and yet most of the references to historical research about immigration were from the 1980s.[23] Since then, there has been significant new studies that, if mobilised by the authors, would have challenged some of the silences in earlier historical narratives (for example Visram 2002, Lahiri 2002, Bayly and Harper 2004, Fisher 2004) Consequently, the mercantile discourse retains its dominance in this retelling of East End history. It includes many characteristics of that discourse.[24] The one that I am concerned with here is of the British Empire being primarily referred to in terms of trade whilst the oppression and violence of colonial rule is erased. The following three scene-setting excerpts illustrate the discourse:

The East End of London has always been the door of Great Britain: it was haven for Huguenots fleeing persecution in France and Irish escaping from famine, and has welcomed Jewish refugees from Central and Eastern Europe ... their descendants have been joined in Tower Hamlets by Bangladeshi immigrants (frontispiece).

Migration of Bangladeshis ... goes back to the end of the eighteenth century, when lodging houses were set up in East London for Indian seamen from ships owned by the East India Company. Administration of the Sylhet district had been assumed by the 'John Company' [East India Company] in 1765, more than a hundred years before it became part of Assam and almost two centuries before it became part of East Pakistan ... The growing trade contacts between Sylhet and Calcutta (and thus the rest of the world) and the easy river access to Calcutta provided an environment where young men were well positioned to become entrepreneurial migrants (page 37).

The main factor encouraging migration from Sylhet was the pull of economic opportunity, rather than the push of oppression as experienced, for example by the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe and Russia. But one push factor that did promote migration from Sylhet was the partition of India in 1947 (pages 38-39).

7.3 The assumption that easily arises from this construction of migration and the British Empire is that colonial subjects did not suffer famine or oppression and were marginal to the wealth of London or to the sufferings of the Second World War. The tone is established in the euphemism of the East India Company 'assuming' the 'administration' of Sylhet, without reference to the years of conflict between the armies of the Company and the existing rulers in the subcontinent. Neither does it explain that 'administration' meant the collection of tax revenues from the peasants of Sylhet and Bengal, that after being converted into traded goods, were repatriated, plus profit, to Britain. Forced tax collection following crop failure in 1769 -70 led to a famine that killed between a quarter and a third of the Bengali population (Robins 2006: 93).

7.4 During the Second World War, in 1943, an estimated three million Bengalis died in a famine that resulted directly from decisions made by the British government and Allied forces. It was caused by a combination of a decline in rice imports from Burma after Japanese occupation, the requisitioning of transport by the British for the war effort on the Assam-Burma border, a scorched earth policy by the British in Bengal to prevent Japanese advance, the export of rice to the Middle East and the reluctance of the British government to act once they knew that Bengalis were starving (Bayly and Harper 2004: 282-291, the conservative ex-MP Michael Portillo presented a programme on the invisibility of the famine on BBC Radio 4 http://www.open2.net/thingsweforgot/thebengalfamine.html). In 1974 famine in newly independent Bangladesh killed an estimated 26,000 people. In both 1943 and 1974, Sylhet was identified as one of the districts worst affected by the famines (Sen 1981).[25]

7.5 Countless other examples of persecution and oppression against Bengalis under British and Pakistani rule occurred in the period covering their migration to Britain. Whilst the 'easy river' access from Sylhet to Calcutta is suggested as a factor for encouraging 'entrepreneurial migrants', the effects of economic depression and repressions of the British Indian government during, for example, the 1930s and 1940s is not posited as a push factor (see Bose and Jalal 1997: 146-164, Bayly and Harper 2004: 244-253).

7.6 In another example in 'The New East End' (page 43), the violence, loss of life and unstable aftermath of the 1971 war, which resulted in the independence of Bangladesh, were referred to as having influenced migration to London. However, there was no reference to the targeted killing of an estimated three million Bengalis by the Pakistani Army and their local allies during the nine month war. Unlike the Huguenots, Bengali migrants were not constructed as 'fleeing persecution' (Bhattacharyya 1988, Rummel 1997, Sisson and Rose 1991).

7.7 In the final chapter of 'The New East End', echoing the 'parallel lives' discourse of the Cantle Report (2001), the authors remark that because there is very little social mixing between 'ordinary members of the Bangladeshi community and white neighbours', 'myths and prejudices' about each other 'survive unchallenged' (page 231). The first challenge needs to be aimed at the accumulated 'bundles of silences' in regeneration and social policy discourses that have dominated the re-telling of East End and British Empire histories.


The core research and writing of this paper was carried out during a Postdoctorate Fellowship granted by the Economic and Social Research Council (PTA-026-27-1250) at the University of Surrey (Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Migration). I am grateful for comments received following its presentation at the British Sociological Association's annual conference in April 2007 and for the questions raised and suggestions made by the anonymous reviewers.


1 Originally called James Towne or Jamestowne after King James the First, the modern city in the US state of Virginia is Jamestown.

2 See Peter Linebaugh 2003 The London Hanged: Crime and civil society in the eighteenth century. London: Verso, for a discussion on the wider context of the increased security of surrounding imported goods in the eighteenth century.

3 The full text of the plaque reads: 'Under auspices of our most gracious Sovereign, George III, the sanction of his majesty's government and the patronage of the East India Company, these Wet Docks appropriated to the commerce of India and ships in that employ were accomplished in those eventful years MDCCCIV, MDCCCV, MDCCCVI [1804,1805,1806]. The first stone being laid March IV, MDCCCIV [1804]. They were opened by the introduction of five ships from 1,200 to 800 tons with valuable cargoes on IV August MDCCCVI [1806]. The Grand Undertaking originated in the laudable endeavours of the managing owners of ships in the company's service and the important national objects of increased security to property and revenue, combined with improved accommodation, economy and despatch were thus early realised through the liberal subscriptions of the proprietors and the unremitting attentions of the directors of the East India Dock Company. Joseph Cotton Chairman, John Woolmore, deputy chairman, John Rennie, Ralph Walker, engineers.'

4 For example the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, the Virginia Historical Research Library in Virginia and the East India Company /India Office archives at the British Library.

5 The 'Invisible Empire' is a core constituent of the dominant white discourse about Britishness. It constructs histories of the British Empire in ways that obscure violence, coercion and exploitation. It is manifested in subtly different ways in different contexts, one of its manifestations is through the mercantile discourse.

6 For example the Isle of Dogs community plan which was used to oppose the London Docklands Development Corporation.

7 Newport is named after Captain Christopher Newport who was appointed the Admiral of the voyage of the three ships by the Virginia Company in 1606. He exemplified the now obscure links between Britain's colonies, as in 1615 he captained a ship that delivered Sir Thomas Roe, Britain's first Ambassador to the Moghul court to Surat in India.

8 A prospective member must demonstrate descent to the Society's registrar- genealogist from one qualifying Jamestowne Ancestor (http://www.jamestowne.org). 

9 Lascars were men from Africa or Asia employed on European commanded ships. Seamen from the Indian subcontinent (many from Bengal) were employed in increasing numbers on East India Company (EIC) ships travelling to England from at least 1685 (Visram 2002). The Strangers' Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders opened in Limehouse, east London in 1857. It served as a hostel, repatriation centre and evangelising mission to lascars (Ibid 59-60).

10Taken from the website of SPLASH: 'SPLASH, set up the East Meets West project in 2005 to research the Virginia Settlers story and celebrate the 400th Anniversary of the departure of three ships from Tower Hamlets' Blackwall docks to America, on December 19th, 1606. Money raised from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Isle of Dogs Community Foundation, State Street Bank and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets funded work with children and families in the Blackwall and Limehouse Community for eighteen months, raising awareness of our historical roots, and the richness and diversity of our mixed population. The work culminated in an afternoon's celebration in St.Matthias Community Centre on Tuesday 27th February 2007 … a good time was had by all'. (http://www.splashcd.org/events.php?catid=event)

11 Stephen Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy Indian tribe and a member of the Jamestown 400th Commemoration Commission ensured the change of the event's official title from 'celebration' to 'commemoration'. He argued that '[Jamestown] marks the beginning of the diminution of our culture,' and within a century, 90 percent of Virginia's Indians would be gone. Many Indians initially wanted no part of the 400th anniversary. The founding of the first permanent English settlement, Adkins explained, 'represents the start of the greatest nation of Earth.' Moreover, Indians were important in the very survival of the settlement in the early days. In an interview he defended his involvement in the 400th anniversary events through using them as a world stage to tell the Indian's story. He was involved in an anniversary conference 'Virginia Indians: 400 Years of Survival'. Adkins argues against the use of words like 'savages' and 'massacre' when a straightforward reading of events puts less blame on indigenous Indians than on the intruders. The Europeans took land, which Indians had always shared (http://www.inrich.com/cva/ric/news/jamestown_2007.apx.-content-articles-RTD-2006-12-07-0001.html)

12 http://www.jamestowne.org This page was accessed in January 2007. However it is not currently available on the website. The report continued: 'That evening, the American participants joined their English colleagues in a magnificent dinner in the Great Hall of the Middle Temple, the London Inn of Court that Sir Walter Raleigh belonged to where much of the planning of the Virginia Company took place. The dinner was attended by the Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, the Lord Chief Justice of England and numerous luminaries. Prior to the ceremonies in London, the delegation spent two days touring various historic sites in Kent County, which has formed a close partnership with the Jamestowne 2007 American entities and is heavily involved in planning the celebrations in America. The highlight of that tour was a visit to St. Georges Church in Gravesend, the burial site of Princess Matoaka, perhaps better known as Pocahontas. Suzanne Flippo, a member of The Jamestowne Society and a member of the Federal Jamestowne 400th Commemoration Commission , laid a commemorative rose at the base of the statue of the Indian Princess who embodies the partnership of the early settlers and the original inhabitants. The delegation included . Chickahominy Tribe Chief Stephen Adkins. Tagged on the end of the report, Stephen Adkins had justified his involvement in the 'commemoration events' as an opportunity to tell the story of Jamestown from an Indian perspective on the 'world stage'. However, although he had contributed to the replacing of 'celebration' with 'commemoration' in some public contexts, the experiences of the colonised inhabitants remained marginal in the UK based anniversary events and discourses of 2006.

13 The publicity material continued: 'Journey to the New World brings to life the hidden story of the first pioneering group of settlers who sailed from Blackwall … the exhibition charts the history of Jamestown and its links with London. The exhibition tells a story of hope and despair, conflict and failure, tragedy and triumph, and shows how ordinary and extraordinary men, women and children helped to create a new nation. It also tells of how the expedition changed forever the lives and culture of the Native American Indians already living in what was to become Virginia. Through bodices and beads, coins and cups, prints, charts, maps, astronomical and maritime instruments, visitors will discover startling new evidence about the colonists' diet, health and lifestyles, their relationship with the local indigenous peoples and their attempts to manufacture goods for trade. Tracing the story of Jamestown and the Virginia colonies from their birth to eventual prosperity with the development of the tobacco trade, Journey to the New World is a captivating look at the hidden story of hardship, adventure and big business behind the founding of the United States.' (http://www.museumindocklands.org.uk/English/EventsExhibitions/Past/JourneyNewWorld.htm)

14 1619 Twenty Africans arrive on a Dutch ship and are bought by some of the settlers in exchange for victuals. 1661 The Virginia Assembly introduced new laws to weaken the rights of slaves 1687 By this date 732 Africans had been transported to Virginia.

15 The contemporary political importance of her visit was made clear before the visit by President Bush who said: 'The United States and the United Kingdom enjoy an extraordinary friendship that is sustained by deep historical and cultural ties and a commitment to defend freedom around the world …We look forward to Her Majesty's State Visit as an occasion to celebrate these enduring bonds.' http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/ 1/hi/uk/6151124.stm (Published: 2006/11/15 15:39:43 GMT).

16 This talk was the launch event for Nick Robins' book: The Corporation that changed the world: How the East India Company shaped the modern multinational. London: Pluto Press 2006.

17 For example, Trading Places at the British Library (http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/features/trading/exhibition1.html), Encounters at the V&A museum (http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1196_encounters/exhibition/exhibition.html), a conference 'The Worlds of the East India Company' at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

18 Between August 1993 and the end of 1994, I analysed all discourse of the weekly editions of the paid for East London Advertiser and of East End Life the local authority produced free newspaper.

19 A conference and associated events remembering the battle of Polashi (Plassey) 250 years earlier were organised by the Brick Lane Circle in Tower Hamlets in June 2007 (http://files.bricklanecircle.webnode.com/200000023-a44fea549e/battle_of_plassey_events_-_250_years_-_finals.pdf).

20 For example Martin Kettle referring in The Guardian to the Virginia colony: 'Yet it is hard … them, not to be struck by two powerful thoughts: first, to wonder what it was that made the people who came all the way from Europe to these places get up in the morning and do such things; and, second, to acknowledge that, without knowing what they had started or where it would lead, these ancestors of ours initiated a historical process which has been to the net benefit of humankind rather to its net loss. Nevertheless, even the horror, shame and persistence of slavery itself can't shake my view that the building of the 21st century Americas - and above all the building of the modern United States itself, a society that after much struggle was eventually a pioneer of law, democracy and freedom - has proved to be the single greatest collective human achievement of the past four centuries.' ( Martin Kettle The Guardian 31 March, 2007 http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,2046969,00.html#article_continue)

21 The Guardian 8 February 2006, 18 March 2006, 25 April 2007, The Economist 16 February 2006, The Observer 26 February 2006, Prospect March 2006, Muslim News, 28 April 2006.

22 This argument is examined in greater depth in Wemyss, G 'The Invisible Empire: white discourse, tolerance and belonging' Ashgate forthcoming

23 1980s studies that would have challenged the mercantile discourse but were not refered to include Sen (1981) and Visram (1986).

24 Including in the construction of Bengalis as 'passive'. This discourse is discussed more fully in a different context in Wemyss (2006c). Also in the reluctance to analyse histories of Britain and its colonies as an analytic whole.

25 Famine death rates are always hard to enumerate. However, that there were famines is not disputed.


BACK, L and Ware, V. (2002) Out of Whiteness: Colour, Politics and Culture. University of Chicago and London: Chicago Press.

BARRATT 1998 (publicity brochure)

BAYLY, C.A. and Harper, T. (2004) Forgotten Armies. The Fall of British Asia 1941-45. London: Allen Lane.

BHATTACHARYYA, S.K (1988) Genocide in East Pakistan/Bangladesh: A Horror Story. A. Ghosh Publishers.

BOLTS, W (1772) Consideration of Indian affairs; particularly concerning the present state of Bengal and of its Dependencies. London

BOSE, Sugata and Jalal, Ayesha (1997) Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy, London: Routledge.

BUTLER, T and. Rustin, M. (editors)(1996) Rising in the East: The Regeneration of East London. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

CANTLE, Ted (2001) Community Cohesion (Enquiry Panel Chair: Ted Cantle), London: Home Office.

COHEN, P. and Rustin, M.J. (editors) (2008) London's Turning: The Making of Thames Gateway. London: Ashgate.

COOPER, F. and Stoler, A.L. (editors) (1997) Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World. Berkeley: University of California Press.

DAVIS, Mike (2001) Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World. London: Verso.

DENCH, G. Gavron,Young (2006) The New East End: Kinship, Race and Conflict, London: Profile Books.

FISHER, M (2004) Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain, 1600–1857. Delhi: Permanent Black.

GILROY, Paul (1987) 'There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack': The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation. London: Hutchinson.

GILROY,Paul (2004) After Empire: melancholia or Convivial Culture? Abingdon: Routledge.

HALL, Catherine (2002) Civilising Subjects: Metropole and the Colony in the English Imagination 1830-1867. London: Polity Press.

HOBHOUSE, Hermione (1994) Survey of London: volumes 43 and 44: Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs pp. 575-82. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=46535 Date accessed: 16 January 2008.

HOSSAIN, H. (1988) Company's Weavers of Bengal: East India Company and the Organization of Textile Production in Bengal. 1750-1813, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

JACOBS, Jane M. (1996) The Edge of Empire: Postcolonialism and the City. London: Routledge

KNOWLES, Caroline (2007) 'The landscape of post-imperial whiteness in rural Britain', Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol.31, No.1, pp 167-184.

LAHIRI, S. (2002) 'Contested Relations: The East India Company and Lascars in London'. In Bowen, H.V, Lincoln, M. and Rigby, N. (editors) The Worlds of the East India Company. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.

MARSHALL, P.J. (1976) East Indian Fortunes: The British in Bengal in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

MARSHALL, P.J. (2005) The Making and Unmaking of Empires: Britain, India and America c.1750-1783. Oxford: Oxford University Press

MISZTAL, Barbara A. (2003) Theories of Social Remembering. Maidenhead and Philadelphia: Open University Press.

PRICE, David A. (2003) Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas and the Heart of a New Nation. London: Faber and Faber

RISING EAST (2006) Debate: The New East End. Issue 4, May http://www.uel.ac.uk/risingeast/archive04/debate/hudson_marriott_owens_dench.htm

ROBINS, Nick (2006) The Corporation that Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational. London: Pluto Press.

RUMMEL, R.J.(1997) Death by Government. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.

SEN, Amartya (1981) Poverty and Famines: An Essay in Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

SISSON, R and Leo E. Rose (1991) War and Secession: Pakistan, India and the creation of Bangladesh. Berkeley: University of California Press.

STOLER, Ann Laura (2002) Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. Berkeley: University of California Press.

TROUILLOT, Michel-Rolph (1995) Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press.

TWINE, France Widdance and Gallagher, Charles (2007) 'The future of Whiteness: a map of the 'third wave' Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol 31, No.1, pp 4-24

VISRAM, Rozina (1986) Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain 1700-1947. London: Pluto Press.

VISRAM, Rozina (2002) Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History. London: Pluto Press.

WEMYSS, Georgie (2004) The power to tolerate: contests over Britishness and belonging in East London. Unpublished D.Phil thesis. University of Sussex.

WEMYSS, Georgie (2006a) 'The power to tolerate: contests over Britishness and belonging in East London' in Patterns of Prejudice Vol.40, No. 3 pp 215-236.

WEMYSS, Georgie (2006b) 'Terra nullius, White Histories and Muslim Minorities: Shifting Post colonial discourses about the isle of Dogs 1990 to 7/7'. International Sociological Association, Durban, South Africa (unpublished)

WEMYSS, Georgie (2006c) '”Outside Extremists", "White East Enders", "Passive Bengalis": Tracking Constructions, Mobilisations and Contestions of Racial Categories in Media Discourses'. In Sage Race Relations Abstracts Vol.31, No. 4, pp21-47.

WEMYSS, Georgie (2008) 'The Invisible Empire: British citizenship, whiteness and belonging'. Paper given at CRONEM conference, Nationalism, Ethnicity and Citizenship: Whose Citizens? Whose Rights? 30 June – 1 July.

WEMYSS, Georgie (2009 forthcoming) The Invisible Empire: white discourse, tolerance and belonging. Ashgate.

YUVAL DAVIS, Nira et al (2006) The Situated Politics of Belonging Sage: London.