An Island of Immigrants

The identities which immigrants forge are shaped by the countries they call home. In Roots of the Future: Ethnic Diversity in the Making of Britain, Mayerlene Frow explains that:

A sense of belonging grows out of the recognition, by individuals and society as a whole, that people from Britain’s ethnic minorities are equally citizens, and equally part of British culture…It depends, too, on the ease and the confidence they have that they can fulfill their potential just as easy as anyone else.1

Mayerlene Frow asserts that, 'everyone who lives in Britain is either an immigrant or a descendent of an immigrant.' She explains:

Ethnic diversity is nothing new in Britain. People with different histories, cultures, beliefs and languages have been coming here ever since the beginning of recorded time. Logically, therefore, everyone who lives in Britain is either an immigrant or a descendant of an immigrant. Most of us can probably trace the immigrants in our own personal histories if we go back far enough.

People have come to Britain for many different reasons: some came peacefully as settlers, others were hostile invaders. Thousands arrived as refugees from wars, famines, or civil and religous persecution in their own countries. Some were invited by the monarch or the government to settle here because they had particular skills that were in short supply in Britain. Some were brought here against their will, as slaves or as servants. Throughout the ages, Britain has been a magnet for those seeking a better life, in much the same way as Britons have emigrated, in large numbers, to other parts of the world. International movement has always been a normal part of life…2

It is true that Great Britain’s demography has never been completely static, and that the movement of people to and from Great Britain has constantly shaped the identity of those who live on this small island.

There were Celts and Picts, Angles and Saxons, Romans, and Vikings who settled in Britain. In 1066, the Norman Conquest brought further changes to those who lived in the British Isles—changes ranging from legal practices to language. There was even some movement from Africa to Britain in medieval times. These immigrants were generally entertainers linked to royal entourages. However, with the conquest of the New World in the 1500s, and Britain’s involvement in the slave trade, people of African origin began appearing as slaves in wealthy English households. This practice was formally stopped only in 1833 when Parliament finally banned all slavery across the British Empire.

While immigration is nothing new, the period after World War II was different, with particularly large-scale nonwhite immigration to Great Britain. After the war, there was a huge labour shortage throughout the nation, and so the British government began looking for immigrants from its Empire to fill the work force.

The government placed advertisements in many countries, encouraging people to come to Great Britain to work. In response to this, large numbers of people from the Caribbean and South Asia moved to Great Britain to fill the labor shortage. The 1950s and 1960s were a period of mass immigration to Great Britain. In recent years, the movement of people has continued. Many people have come to Great Britain to flee political persecution, and there has been a growth in applications from asylum seekers.

Cultural psychologist Carola Suárez-Orozco writes:

Increasing globalization has stimulated an unprecedented flow of immigrants worldwide. These newcomers—from many national origins and a wide range of cultural, religious, linguistic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds—challenge a nation’s sense of unity. Globalization threatens both the identities of the original residents of the areas in which newcomers settle and those of the immigrants and their children.3

In Great Britain over 10 percent of the population are immigrants. Many immigrants have moved to this country in the past two or three generations. Amanda Huxtable, who grew up in Great Britain with her Jamaican parents, writes about the impact of migration on her family:

[M]y father was born in a place called Stone Henge in Jamaica which is quite unusual in St. James. My mother was born in St. Thomas in Jamaica and they came here separately as children. My mother was thirteen. That was in 1963. And my father was seventeen in 1961.

I can’t imagine my parents ever feeling British… My mum I think she did probably feel British before she came but when she came she realized she wasn’t….

At that time we are talking about the seventies. It was very rare to see anybody of any different colour. You could tell mum and dad used to reminisce and talk about people and things…

I didn’t eat anything else other than Jamaican food in my home. My mum used to giggle when I used to come home at six and my mother used to say, ‘what did you eat when you were at school?’ I’d tell her and she used to laugh her head off. You know, it was the only experience of other food.

As a child I valued Jamaica more than my parents did. That’s how I felt. I felt that Jamaica was a place I should be. That I was born here by accident and I didn’t belong here. All the racism and bad behaviour from other people wouldn’t have been necessary. I should have been born on the island that loved me…Whereas my parents, when I was younger, valued England for what it could give them in terms of economics and better life for their children…

I don’t think my father ever felt at home apart from when he was on a cricket field.4


  • 1 : Mayerlene Frow, Roots of the Future: Ethnic Diversity in the Making Britain (London: Commission for Racial Equality, 1997), 9.
  • 2 : Ibid., 8.
  • globalization : The increasing flow of people, ideas, commodities, languages, and traditions throughout the world. Modern transportation, migration, e-business, multinational companies, and trade agreements, as well as the use of the Internet and cell phones, speeds up this process and contributes to a “global culture,” which some fear threatens the diversity of human cultures.
  • 3 : Carola Suárez-Orozco, ‘Formulating Identity in a Globalized World’, Education and Globalization (Berkley: University of California Press, 2004), 173.
  • 4 : Amanda Huxtable, ‘Migration from a Second Generation Perspective’, Moving Here: 200 Years of Migration to England.

Connection Questions

  1. What skills do citizens need to be able to participate in an informed discussion about immigration and national identity with people whose background and politics are different from their own?
  2. If we are a nation of immigrants, how should this influence the way we perceive newcomers to Great Britain?
  3. Below is an example of an identity chart. Using this model, create an identity chart for Amanda Huxtable. What words does she use to describe herself? How would her identity chart be different from her parents’?
  4. What does Huxtable’s story suggest about the relationship between immigration and identity? What challenges did she face? How do you explain the differences between her perspective and that of her parents?

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