Review: Southall’s Immigrant Communities 1900-2000 – Jaspal Singh Bhambra

Southall’s Immigrant Communities 1900-2000: A religious, political and socio-economic perspective by Jaspal Singh Bhambra (New Millennium, 2017) has been a labour of love and in some ways is autobiographical as the author, Jaspal Singh Bhambra was involved in so many of the events that feature in this book.

I had the pleasure and honour to meet Jaspal and his wife, Satnam, at their home before the book was published, thanks to his daughter Barjinderpal Kaur with whom I had worked when I was in education. Jaspal struck me as a man of clear vision and passion and this dominates the book, and it’s been good to see some of the paintings I recall hanging on his wall feature in this book – he is a man of many talents.

For those who do not know, Southall is a ‘town’ in the London borough of Ealing. It’s well known for its Asian flavour – Indian restaurants, colourful clothing and shoe shops and has a very different feel to other parts of London. It’s cosmopolitan, yes with its rough edges – where doesn’t? – but more so a place of coming together and celebrating diversity.

My last significant visit to Southall was to a Sikh Gudwara with an activist who was helping me understand the religion and culture for a piece I wrote on Sikh involvement in World War 1 Africa. Reading how the Gudwaras developed in Southall was therefore rather poignant, and a trip down memory lane.

But that was not all. Many of the residents of Southall had lived or worked in Kenya before moving to the UK. Some families dated far back, although most were post-WW2. That people from the Asian sub-continent were so mobile was an eye opener. I had been aware of the movements of families, but the extent was suprising. And how people worked together to make a difference.

There are a huge number of photos in the book, not all good quality but that’s to be expected given the exigencies of time and place. Although Jaspal is the author, this book, as with the development of Southall, has been a community project – many contributing memories and images I’m sure many had fogotten they had until asked by Jaspal for what they remembered. The style of writing (and spelling) is within keeping of the diversity that is Southall – don’t expect a polished product as this is a self-published book completed in a relative rush. That aside…

… it’s a valuable book for understanding the different Sikh communities, what they have in common and how they celebrate and put their faith into practise. As a Londoner, it provides insight into how one of London’s most colourful and dynamic areas came to be and as an historian of Africa and global movement, it’s testimony to how people moved about in a time before cheap flights to obscure locations and the drive and desire that motivated them. More than anything it’s a book about what can be achieved if people work together for a common goal.

To purchase a copy of the book, email

Faith in Action

The basis of what follows is the introduction I gave at the MFest event for The Unknown Fallen on Allied Muslim involvement in World War 1.

I was told to ‘speak from the heart’, so I did, feeling a need to clear the air on a few matters.

Firstly, I recently watched an interview conducted by Yusuf Chambers and have to correct one point. He said it was the work of Allah who had brought us all together on this project. I disagree, it was God who guided me, but thankfully, God, Allah, Jehovah, Nkosi, Mungu are all names for the same being. Behind the differences, are many similarities – we need to scratch for them.

Secondly, this seems the perfect opportunity to say thank you to my students who helped me see the world differently. Time has erased many of their names from memory and due to data protection, I can’t refer back to notes I would have kept to remind me – I don’t envy the historians of the future. Significantly, back in November 2000, I was asked by two relocated Muslim brothers from the old City of Jerusalem what all the fighting was about. ‘We are all brothers and sisters’, they said, ‘all children of Abraham’. My world opened and I was to learn that Apartheid which I’d lived through and seen the end of was not just about colour. It extended to religion too and was really about economics and self preservation of specific groups. People who were not white or black, were likely to be Muslim or Hindu and they lived, as blacks and whites did, in separate spaces so we couldn’t mix although in my home town there was a Muslim Indian family who owned prime property in the city centre and who by decree of Boer Paul Kruger could not be moved even at the height of Apartheid – and they’re still there today. Lesson: don’t take things at face value.

Thirdly, I need to confess that had I come to The Unknown Fallen cold post-publication, it’s unlikely I would have bought the book. Why? It’s only on allied involvement, therefore biased. Islam is contentious within its own communities and more widely. Why, for example, am I told that the Aga Khan whom I understand, from the documents I’ve used, to be the Islamic leader in East Africa isn’t Muslim? And given the divide between north and sub-Sahara Africa, the latter would be ignored and left out, as it often has been in general overviews of the war published before 2014.

At a conference in June 2017, Luc, Vera and I met. The conference organised by Diversity House aimed to Break the Myths around World War 1 in Africa and as a result of my challenging a statement made about Britain being racist by not giving black porters shoes at the start of the war, I was invited to speak at an earlier event and invited back to this one. About three months later, Luc got in touch – I hadn’t put him off by my ranting about Africa being ignored in remembrance events in Britain and how Africa will remember its involvement if Britain gives due regard to the sacrifices its Empire made. For Africa, World War 1 was just another war in a string of many, this one differed in length and that now black men were instructed to shoot and kill white men.

Luc wanted information on Muslim involvement in sub-Sahara Africa during World War 1. Thankfully I’d been working on the topic for a journal article. The challenge was I couldn’t use the same material for copyright reasons and as I didn’t know when the article was being published, couldn’t cross-reference it. As it turned out, the article wasn’t published as I refused to discuss how the campaign in East Africa had influenced the development of Islam and I had stated that the German Governor had declared a jihad. This was not possible, I was told, as he had no authority. I couldn’t argue – Islam is not my specialism; World War 1 Africa based on documentary evidence is.

But isn’t life amazing? The day I met with Luc and Vera to discuss my contribution, researching at the British Library I came upon a telegram from the Muslim League of Southern Africa to the Governor General Lord Buxton. It expressed sympathy on the loss of his only son and gave reassurance that the Muslim community was fully behind the British war effort. There was the new information I required which could be built on.  But that was not enough.

Over the years, I have learnt to check assumptions and to do so carefully. For this I have my phd supervisors to thank. I challenged the view of Lord Kitchener which they would only accept with documentary evidence, which I found. What a pity he hadn’t been allowed to return to Egypt at the start of the war, although I also believe he was the best man to head Britain’s war effort but that’s all for another day. Lesson: Dig down, till you find the truth.

So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered the Cape Corps, comprising Cape Coloureds, were not Muslim. How did I get to that assumption? Dr Abdurahman of the African People’s Organisation had written something like 32 letters offering to raise a contingent of 500 Cape Corps for service in the war, and he was Muslim. Documentary evidence though pointed out that the Cape Corps was Christian – important for dietary provisioning. So, I learned only last year (2017) of the difference between the Cape Coloured and the Cape Malay – people of my own country. I now wonder how many Muslims renounced their faith in name to serve in the two Cape Corps. There’s no mention in the white officers’ memoirs of the two corps of any religious differences, or of religion being mentioned at all that I’m aware of.

In fact, the absence of any mention of religion in most memoirs suggests it was not an issue – remarkable when you know that the majority of Indian, Arab and black troops were likely to be Muslim based on where they were recruited from – tribes or micronations along the African coast and slave routes. We know there were Christians, Hindus,  Sikhs, men of Jewish faith and ‘pagan’ as they were referred to then, all serving together with Muslims – all suffering together from ration shortages and surviving on what got through and was scavenged. Yet, no one mentions religious requirements, and neither do they feature in the ration allocations recorded in the Pike report into medical conditions. In fact ration quotas are based on function and ethnicity, not religious.

Men served together, loyal to their commanding officer, the one who would ensure their safety and security, not ideals of right and wrong and this is why the jihad declared by the German Governor failed. Neither did his instructions to fly the crescent moon above the German bomas or forts attract British soldiers away from their fight. They had all confidence in their leaders. As a result, I had no issue writing about Muslim involvement on both sides of the war and had to have Luc explain the impact of doing so on the overall project. Entering the realms of politics would be messy – this together with the comments received on my article reconciled me to The Unknown Fallen being about the Allied involvement. We cannot run before we can walk and within one camp, that of the Allies, there is much to discover about the diversity of contribution and the humanity of man – that is mankind.

The book appears unbalanced. In all, there are at least 4 sections on Africa, three contributed by myself and I’m conscious I’ve not said anything today about West Africa – it’s in the book. Luc was addressing knowledge gaps, looking at what would entice people to become engaged. And it’s worked as I’ve subsequently been hearing from non-Muslim people I’ve introduced to the book.

We argued over the images which are meant to be ‘unique’ – I instantly recognised Juma, but none of Luc’s invisible (to me) experts had – everything was double and triple checked to ensure appropriateness of language and content. I’ve said on numerous occasions, this is the most thoroughly reviewed and rigorously checked book I know.

Now, looking at the book, it’s good to see Juma’s familiar face, those of the South African Native Labour Corps and the West African Frontier Force. It feels like home in some ways. But I’m constantly awed by the image of the Christian service taking place at the same time as Muslim prayers, the vast sky over Verdun and the regalness of some of the portraits.

Isn’t it sad though, that I felt I had to ask Luc to include a disclaimer that the original author was describing people as he saw them – with an artist’s eye – in admiration. I think he,  the artist, would be horrified to learn that what he’d written was seen as hurtful and derogatory by some today. We can’t apply today’s criteria to assessing the past. We need to understand the past as those who were there lived it and interpreted it – warts and all. Only in this way will we truly understand the sacrifices all made in their attempt to make our world slightly better.

It’s time to get rid of all this ‘colonial’ and ‘decolonising’ speak, recognising that the world view of Africans is different to that of Europeans and that within each group there are other differences. It undermines honest discussion of the war and its legacy. And I believe we have a lot to learn from Africa in this regard. There were no nationalist agendas impacting on the war in East Africa. Nationalist ideas came later evident in the Rwanda genocide,  Nigeria’s Biafran war, Idi Amin’s policies in Uganda and the current strife in Sudan amongst others. We can’t recreate the World War 1 context and in many ways I don’t think we want to, but I do believe we can learn a lot from how people worked together because of a common understanding and faith which was not nationalist or religious based, a situation where mankind realised the value of others because of who they were as individuals.*

I’m constantly reminded of this in my research and it’s what makes The Unknown Fallen a special book. It’s been, and remains, an honour. And I’m the proud owner of a copy of The Unknown Fallen – ask anyone who’s had to be subjected to me showing the book off.

Baraka Allahu fika (May God’s blessings be upon you). Shukran.

Reflecting on the talk, slightly changed above, and the huge interest the French instruction on Muslim burial received, I started thinking about the burials in Africa – I don’t know how many CWGC headstones there are representing the different religions, although we know there are cenotaphs for the Indian soldiers and Askari Monuments for the Carriers, Porters and local soldiers some of whom might have a headstone (if they were known to be of one of the major religions). So I did a simple search on the CWGC website and discovered the following ‘war dead records’ in WW1:

Christian  – 407 (19 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Muslim – 7 (15 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Jewish – 0 (90 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Sikh – 2 (1 cemeteries and memorials, both wars across the Empire)
Further investigation proves that all relate to first or family names… It’s obviously going to take some more digging to identify the religious breakdowns as depicted on the headstones than a simple search. If anyone gets there before me, please share your findings.

* I don’t usually listen to recordings but this one by Ben Okri caught my eye and supports exactly what I feel about ‘colonising’ and ‘decolonising’. A legace of the British Empire is the British Commonwealth of Nations – something else Okri addresses and appropriate to be included here.

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Untold Friendships: A journey with The Unknown Fallen

Every now and then a challenge comes along – well, working on World War 1 in Africa, it’s more often than not as so little has actually made it into the public domain and some archives remain a challenge to access. Having managed to contribute a piece on Sikh involvement in the East Africa campaign, I started gathering information on Muslim involvement. Did you know that the Governor of East Africa called a jihad? This is a passing comment in some literature but had little, if no impact, on what happened. I was intrigued. Using primary source material I was able to write an article charting Muslim involvement in World War 1 only to have it declined as I refused to go into detail on how the different Islams were affected or developed (a minefield I am still trying to navigate and understand). I also didn’t challenge how the Governor, being a German, could declare a jihad – that wasn’t my purpose. I was more interested in why the Governor had made such a statement; it suggested that there were far more Muslims involved on both sides than existing literature had us believe. Here was another group of people whose contribution had been glossed over and who needed a voice.

Not long after submitting the above article for review, I was approached by Luc Ferrier to contribute something on Muslim involvement to The Unknown Fallen. Keep it simple – this is an introduction to the topic, were the instructions. It soon became apparent that thoughts of focusing on East Africa, the central theatre where most of the troops served from 1917, would not work and that separate pieces would need to be written on East, West and South Africa. Others were looking at the north and French involvement. Back to my task, the first two were ‘easy’ enough, as ground work had been done, but with the article in the publishing pipeline, I had to beware of potential copyright infringements so a different angle to the war in East Africa was taken in particular. South Africa proved the challenge – but through fortuitous discoveries, assumptions were shown up for what they were and a new little window has opened on another micro-nation or two. Job done!

Not so. Meeting with Luc and Vera to discuss feedback on my contributions, more was to come – editing, proofreading through my role as a publisher and supporting students with academic writing. And finally to assist with translations from French to English. Thankfully, technical translation had been done. My role, if I could do it, was to capture the feel of the original author. And by all accounts, we achieved this. I use ‘we’ on purpose. I have never known a book to be so thoroughly checked and reviewed by so many people to ensure that what has appeared in print does not offend but educates and respects – as well it should.

Initially, I had issues with the fact that this book only focuses on Allied Muslim involvement (and I know a few people I spoke to felt the same), but I soon came to see why it should. To do anything else, as my article experience proved, would require more complex explanations and enter into a world of politics which would distract from the aim – to show the diversity of men and women who worked together for a common goal.

One of the things that struck me, and still does, is that religion didn’t matter. If it did, the officers and those who wrote diaries and memoirs would have made an issue of it, but they didn’t. Few mention religious aspects. It was traditional for the British army to keep religious and ethnic groups separate for dietary purposes, but in East Africa, the nature of the campaign meant this didn’t happen and the delivery, or rather non-delivery of rations, meant that men had to eat what got through or what they could find. If anthing would cause religious unrest and ill-feeling, this would have been it. To date, I’ve not found mention of issues around having to eat foods not in keeping with religious practice or that men could not do their work becuase of the need to fulfil religious duties – be they Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jewish, Hindu or other locally practised belief. There were differences, I don’t deny – and after the war in particular, politics reared its ugly head, but that’s all for another discussion.

There are so many gems in this ‘little’ book. [‘Little’ refers to the amount of text given the size of the book. It’s light reading but intense – so much packed into so few words.] I cannot say what my favourite part of the book is – there are too many different ‘pulls’.

  • Working with it, I became quite attached to some of the characters depicted by the artist Eugene Burnand – the diversity of soldier is incredible, and not just those of the Muslim faith.
  • What has been revealing working on The Unknown Fallen was the care and interest taken by the French government, in particular, the French War Minister Alexandre Millerand, in ensuring that Muslim soldiers were buried correctly. I’ve subsequently found a British reference which needs further investigation (thanks to Nick Ward, The Black Titanic).
  • Another highlight is the night sky of Verdun on 4 September 1914 – a double page spread of peace and tranquility, ignorant of the carnage going on below.
  • 28 statements of what Islam is – an eye-opener and in many ways a reiteration of the Christian and Jewish Ten Commandments.
  • Images to challenge stereotypes: Muslims praying in a forest or wood juxtaposed with an image of a Christian chaplain conducting mass. Brothers in Arms, Standing Together.
  • The walls of remembrance.
  • Stories of those who sacrificed their religion in name to fight for what they believed was right.

This is a book which goes beyond war to look at the human-ness of mankind. It won’t be to everyone’s liking but it certainly achieves what it set out to, and far more. Something is bound to grab at your heartstrings.

It’s been an incredibly humbling experience and honour to be a small part of The Unknown Fallen journey; a project which lays the foundation for more to come.

And for anyone wondering about the title of the blog – Untold Friendships – this caught my eye only days before I sat down to write this piece. It’s the ‘title’ of the back cover and an unexpected reward for having embarked on a journey to stand shoulder to shoulder with men of women of all faiths and backgrounds then and now in an attempt to make the world a slightly nicer place for all.

Misconception 4: Indian troops were not up to scratch

Doesn’t it strike you as odd, that if the Indians had really performed poorly in Africa they would have been withdrawn sooner rather than later?  The record of the Indian service in East Africa speaks for itself, and should not be compared with their experiences in Europe as the conditions and circumstances under which they served were different.

The Indian forces received a bad press for their perceived performance at Tanga as they were an easy scapegoat. This doesn’t mean that they were perfect. As JM ‘Jimmy’ Stewart who commanded IEF C (which fought at Longido) recorded about the attack on Tanga when he heard about it:

“Many of us who knew India had anticipated that the troops detailed were not good enough, but this was further complicated by a want of secrecy about their intentions, undue confidence and a lack of determination.” (Jimmie Stewart: Frontiersman, p69)

The Indian troops rapidly expelled all concerns in their abilities when they held their ground and showed the raw South Africans how to fight the Germans at the Battle for Salaita Hill on 12 February 1916.

The Indian forces served through most of the campaign, only being replaced in late 1917. Harry Fecitt has written short articles on a number of the Indian contingents involved. Apart from troops, India supplied sappers and miners (for example the Faridkots) and medical forces (incuding 250 Indian stretcher-bearers from South Africa). Doctors who have written about their work with the Indian Medical Services include Temple Harris in Seventeen Letters to Tatham, NP Jewell and the author Francis Brett Young in Marching on Tanga. Andrew Kerr has written about Jammu and Kashmir involvement.

In addition to the Indians who came over from India, there were Indians resident in East Africa who played their part. Mention has already been made of the South African Stretcher Bearers. Those from British East Africa served on the railways whilst others served in a military capacity (Uganda Railway Corps). The diversity of role of the East African Goans during the War is explored by Clifford Pereira.

The centenary of the war and the focus on India has given impetus to students of the war to find out more. Watch this space as there are sure to be more accounts of Indian bravery and steadfastness. A summary of Sikh involvement has recently been published and work is being done on the Muslim contribution. India and the Great War has a few articles which mention East Africa. The most definitive publication to date, The Indian Army in East Africa by SD Pradhan (1991) is unfortunately no longer in print although limited copies can be found in the second-hand market.

Indians had served in Africa before, particularly during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), for which their services are commemorated with a memorial in Observatory, Johannesburg.