Pioneers: The First Asian and Black MPs

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The history of non-white MPs probably begins with David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre, who was of mixed Indian and European descent. In 1841 he was elected MP for Sudbury, Suffolk. However, in 1842 he and the other Sudbury Member lost their seats due to discrepancies during the campaign.

 

The next minority ethnic MP, Dadabhai Naoroji, was elected in 1892. He was followed by two fellow Mumbai-born Parsis: Mancherjee Bhownaggree in 1895 and, after a further 27 years, Shapurji Saklatvala in 1922.

 

Despite these early pioneers, it took until 1987 for the next MPs of colour to gain seats. That year’s historic General Election resulted in the first ever black MPs – Diane Abbott, Paul Boateng and Bernie Grant – and saw Keith Vaz become the first MP of Indian descent for nearly sixty years.

Dr. Dadabhoy Naoroji, M.P. 1892-1895 Dr. Dadabhoy Naoroji, M.P. 1892-1895
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pc_woa_0774_square 'Sir Mancherjee Bhownaggree MP' (1851-1933) by Spy (Leslie Ward), 1897 (WOA 7592)

Businessman and academic Dadabhai Naoroji moved to Britain in 1855. From the early 1860s he campaigned for reform of British rule in India.

Returning to India in 1874, Naoroji held a number of political offices. A leading figure in the nascent self-rule movement, he was a founder of the Indian National Congress and served as its President in 1886.

Determined to pursue Indian grievances in the British Parliament, Naoroji unsuccessfull stood for the Liberals in Holborn in 1886. Explaining Naoroji's defeat, the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, stated that Britain was not yet ready to elect a ‘black man’.

Six years later, in 1892  Naoroji was elected Liberal MP for Finsbury Central. In the Commons he devoted himself to Indian affairs and spoke on related issues such as Irish Home Rule, before losing his seat at the 1895 General Election.

After standing without success in Lambeth North in 1906, Naoroji returned to India. He remained an influential figure in the independence movement and came to be known affectionately as 'The Grand Old Man of India'.

The Dhadabhai Memorial Fund commissioned this posthumous portrait from V.R. Rao, a successful Indian portraitist, and presented it to the House of Commons in 1939.

Mancherjee Bhownaggree arrived in Britain in 1882 to study law. He was called to the Bar in 1885 but returned to India the following year to remodel the government of the princely state of Bhāvnagar.

Between 1891 and 1894, Bhownaggree made two extended visits to Britain and began to regard London as his home. Although he associated with Naoroji, as a supporter of British rule in India Bhownaggree’s politics were very different.

At a dinner celebrating Naoroji’s election in 1892, Bhownaggree expressed the hope that an Indian Conservative would soon sit in Parliament. In 1895 he became that Indian Conservative when he successfully ran in North-East Bethnal Green.

In Parliament, Bhownaggree called for the resolution of Indian grievances before they could generate discontent with British rule. He also spoke out against the discrimination of Indians, particularly in South Africa.

A popular constituency MP, Bhownaggree was re-elected in 1900 with an increased majority. He lost his seat in 1906, and embarked on a career as an apolitical Indian elder statesman in Britain.