THIS ISLAND'S STORY ; Modern Immigration Began When the ' Windrush' Arrived at Tilbury from Jamaica in June 1948, but Britain Has Been Attracting Settlers since the Romans. by Michael McCarthy and Sam Henderson IMMIGRANT NATION

Article excerpt

It's older than you think. The impact of immigration on Britain goes back far, far longer than many people realise, and in fact has been a major shaping force in the structure of the nation. It's quite a history.

A date that's often given for immigration's start is 22 June 1948: the day that the ex-troopship Empire Windrush pulled into Tilbury docks bringing 492 Jamaican men and women to the UK. That date is indeed significant, because it does mark the start of the post-war immigration movement from the Commonwealth, and was officially commemorated as such by the Government on the 50th anniversary eight years ago.

But as to immigration's true beginning, let us quote Winston Churchill and a famous sentence from his History of the English- Speaking Peoples: "In the summer of the Roman year 699, now described as the year 55 before the birth of Christ, the Proconsul of Gaul, Gaius Julius Caesar, turned his gaze upon Britain." It was the Romans wot started it.

When Caesar crossed the Channel, Britain entered into history, and when a hundred years later the Emperor Claudius began a full- scale colonisation, Britain became part of the civilised world. For 367 years the people from Italy shaped the life of this island (until they pulled out abruptly when Rome collapsed in AD410) and although they took their language back with them, in contrast to France, Italy and Spain, they have left substantial traces: a capital in London (it was Colchester before they arrived), the outline of the road system, the siting of many cities.

When they had gone, other immigrants, waves of them, mainly from north Germany, took their place: a tribe called the Angles, a tribe called the Saxons, a tribe called the Jutes. They eventually gave us the beginnings of our native language' they gave us the name of England' they gave us a settled agricultural society, in the post- Roman vacuum, and they adopted Christianity. Remember: they were foreigners when they came here. And they were by no means the last.

When Anglo-Saxon England met its bloody end on the battlefield of Hastings in 1066, yet another flood of foreigners swept in: the Norman French. They too were resented by the original inhabitants, as newcomers often are, but what they brought was positive in the extreme: civic order in the form of a tough, efficient, centralised government (the feudal system), access to the opening currents of architecture and literature in Europe, and a language which eventually merged with Anglo-Saxon to give English its wonderful richness of vocabulary.

(For example, we have two sets of words for farm animals, one for looking after them, and one for eating them. Pig, cow and sheep are all Anglo-Saxon in origin' pork, beef and mutton are all Norman- French. The Anglo-Saxons did the looking after' the Nor-mans did the eating. It was a tough life, at first, for the Saxons.)

But eventually integration took place, as it always does: in 1272, for the first time in two centuries, a king came to the throne who spoke Anglo-Saxon as well as he spoke French, and who had a Saxon name: Edward I. And in the following century the two languages merged into English, with French vocabulary overlaying Saxon grammar: you can see the process taking place when you read Chaucer.

All these waves of immigrants had fused to produce the English nation by about 1400, when English started to be used in official documents, but since then there have been numerous subsequent immigrant waves.

A fascinating one was that of the Huguenots, the French Protestants who were driven out of France by Louis XIV after 1685. …