Thousands of refugees have arrived on the shores of Britain. Fleeing civil war and violence at home, they made the sea-crossing to Britain to find safety and a new life. In one week alone, 1,700 immigrants landed in Brighton and 1,300 in Eastbourne.
The year was 1789. The refugees were mainly from the wealthy, upper classes and they were fleeing the French Revolution. After arriving in England, the Marquis de Chevannes became a coalman, the Chevalier de Anselme a waiter and the Marquis de Montazet a window cleaner.
Four years later, after Britain had taken sides against France during the Revolutionary Wars, and fearful that French spies were entering the British Isles unhindered, the Tory government, under William Pitt the Younger, passed the Aliens Act of 1793. Under the act, aliens were required to register at their port of arrival and, if they failed to do so, were fined for illegal entry. Violators of the act could be held without bail or deported as punishment. In effect, this was Britain’s first immigration act and it legislated between ‘them’ and ‘us’, between the insiders and the incomers.
After this act and the Naturalisation Act of 1844, you were either a British Subject, or you were not. A strange concept perhaps, when you consider that the vast majority of the population will already have had a mixture of German (Anglo-Saxon), French (Norman), Italian (Roman) and Celtic ancestry. You only have to sit in a modern primary school class to see that we are a very mixed up bunch indeed – not just black, white and Asian, but blonde, brunette and red-head; fair-skinned, freckled and olive-complexioned. There is no ‘British’ eye-shape, hair colour or body type. We are, and always have been a country of mixed racial heritage.
Both before and since William Pitt’s immigration crisis of the 18th century, Britain has seen the influx of thousands of foreign people who arrived on our shores needing refuge and help:
- Between 1660 and 1714, it is thought that about 40,000 to 50,000 French-speaking Huguenots had made the perilous journey across the English Channel, fleeing religious persecution.
- The century afterwards, a Parliamentary report noted that 11,600 aliens had landed in Britain during 1842 alone.
- Britain became home to thousands of black African slaves, released after the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1843.
- It saw a huge influx of Irish peasants during the Potato Famines of 1845 to 1849, when between one and one-and-a-half million people fled starvation and poverty in Ireland.
- During the 1880s, after the assassination of Alexander II of Russia, thousands of Jewish people fled his anti-Semitic successor, and many of them came to the British Isles.
- This happened again in 1935 when Nazi laws were passed in Germany.
- Between 1939 and 1945, thousands of Poles fled to Britain after Germany’s invasion of Poland. Among them were 160,000 men of the Polish Army, who were attached to the British army, alongside British forces.
- During the late 1970s, thousands of Vietnamese people fled their war-torn homeland by boat, many of them arriving on Britain’s shores.
And by allowing these thousands upon thousands of ‘aliens’ into Britain over the centuries, have we really lost anything? Have we become essentially less British or been forced to give up our laws, our language or our beliefs? Is it not rather that we have grown as a nation, embraced new thoughts and customs, and welcomed the differences that other cultures have brought with them?
A Polish friend once told me that Poles believe the Brits to have a great sense of humour. ‘And they are very brave and kind,’ she said. ‘Very kind.’ If we are ever afraid of losing our essential ‘Britishness,’ let’s hold onto these characteristics, rather than some other arbitrary concept of nationality. Let’s be brave, and let’s be very kind.