From the 17th through the 20th century, Britain’s empire spanned the globe, giving this small island an outsized role on the world’s stage. But while Britain was making an impact in India, New Zealand, Canada, and elsewhere, these nations were having an impact on Britain. Explore the ethnic and cultural diversity in Britain today.
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The Influence of China on Britain
In addition to the growing popularity of tea, a fashion for Chinese art and objects developed in the 18th century. The most distinctive Chinese building in Britain is the pagoda at Kew Gardens. It was designed by William Chambers.
At Lord Verney’s Claydon House in Buckinghamshire, a talented wood-carver named Luke Lightfoot created a fanciful Chinese Room in the 1760s, elaborately covered in scrolls, towers, screens, bells, Chinese statues, all designed to give the appearance of ivory. It’s one of the most striking rooms anywhere in Britain.
British potters like Wedgwood were quick to adopt Chinese styles for the domestic market. Even today, one of the most common patterns on cups and plates is the blue-and-white “willow pattern,” which features Chinese birds, boats, trees, fences, and buildings.
The Influence of India on Britain
After the fashion for Chinoiserie, came a taste for India. The nabobs were men who made fortunes in India in the late-18th century, brought them back to Britain, and used their money to buy landed estates and political influence.
Sezincote House in Gloucestershire, built in 1805, is an example of Indian style adapted to an English setting. It was designed by Samuel Cockerell for his brother, one of the nabobs, using a mixture of Hindu and Muslim designs. Its copper onion-shaped dome is now green with weathering; it has minarets, and the long orangery is decorated with windows that look like peacocks’ tails.
George the Prince Regent, the man who would eventually become George IV, visited Sezincote in 1807 and admired it. He asked the architect John Nash to extend his house in Brighton in the Indian style. The result was Brighton Pavilion, which he completed in 1823. Topped with oriental domes, the Pavilion seems comically out of place among Brighton’s rectangular Georgian houses.
During the First World War, the Pavilion was used as a military hospital for Indian soldiers who had been wounded on the Western Front. The practicalities were more difficult since Hindus, Muslims, and Sikh all needed different arrangements. Nine separate kitchens were required so that food could be prepared by appropriate cooks. Today, the Brighton Pavilion attracts nearly 400,000 people each year.
Egyptian Influence on Britain
While George was building his pavilion, Britain was given an ancient pharaonic monument by Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman governor of Egypt and Sudan. This was Cleopatra’s Needle, misnamed since it had already been in existence for 1,000 years by the time Cleopatra met Caesar and Mark Anthony. Back in the year 12 B.C., the Romans had moved it from Heliopolis to Alexandria. The gift was an expression of gratitude to Britain for defeating Napoleon’s armies and navies in Egypt. Since 1878, Cleopatra’s Needle has stood on the Embankment beside the River Thames, just downstream from the Houses of Parliament.
Best of all, Britons built plenty of pyramids, though none was on the scale of the Great Pyramids at Giza. There is one at Blickling, in Norfolk, built in 1794 as a mausoleum for the Earl of Buckinghamshire. Another one, from the same decade, was built by the Charteris family near Edinburgh, also as a mausoleum. A third pyramid is the tomb of an eccentric Sussex squire, “Mad Jack” Fuller, and stands in the churchyard of the village of Brightling.
Mosques and Temples in Britain
Enough Indian people were coming to England to justify the building of a mosque. The first one, which the Munshi himself attended when the Queen was at Windsor, still stands in the town of Woking and is named after Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal. Beautifully restored and brightly painted in green, gold, and white, its dome and minarets make it instantly recognizable.
The first mosque in London itself was the Fazl Mosque, also green and white, which opened at Southfields in 1926 and was paid for by donations from supporters in India. Probably the most impressive, architecturally, is the mosque at Regents’ Park in London, built in 1978. It was designed by an English architect Frederick Gibberd has a glittering golden dome, and an interior large enough to contain 5,000 worshippers.
Hindu temples, as well as mosques, are now familiar features of the urban landscape. The grandest is in Neasden, North London, opened in 1995 and celebrated at the time as the biggest Hindu temple outside of India itself. Its curators welcome visitors of all faiths. The stone, from quarries in Italy and Bulgaria, was shipped first to India to be carved in the traditional way, then sent back to Britain for the building, more than 26,000 blocks, each carefully numbered. The temple’s five domes and seven pinnacles give it a dramatic profile.
Afro-Caribbean Influence on Britain
Since World War II, Britain has witnessed a large-scale immigration from Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados. The arrival of the ship Empire Windrush from Jamaica in 1948, bringing 500 immigrants, is often taken to be the moment that Britain began its transition to a multi-racial society.
The Notting Hill Carnival, founded in 1959, was an attempt to emphasize the positive side of Caribbean culture, and it has become an important annual event. It became an outdoor event in 1966 and grew rapidly from year to year, with carnival floats, steel bands, elaborate costumes and dancing, and huge audiences. It now takes place on the last weekend in August, the equivalent of Labor Day, and attracts more than a million people to the area, northwest of central London.
American Influence on Britain
By 1970, Britain had granted political independence to virtually all of its former colonies. One colonial area had gained its independence a lot earlier and is now known as the United States of America. Throughout Britain, you will come upon signs of Anglo-American connections, which bear witness to the debts each country owes to the other.
Start at Sulgrave Manor in Northamptonshire, the ancestral home of the Washington family, George Washington’s forebears. It’s a distinguished gentleman-farmer’s house, built by Lawrence Washington in the 1540s or 1550s, and occupied by his descendants until they emigrated in the 1650s. Another farming family bought it, but in 1914 it was turned into a museum to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the War of 1812.
Grosvenor Square in Mayfair, London, is largely American territory. Today the old U.S. Embassy occupies the whole of one side of the square. Built by the modernist architect Eero Saarinen in 1960, it is jarringly out of character with the square’s Georgian buildings, most of which date to the mid-18th century. A golden eagle with a 35-foot wingspan looms over the entrance, and the white concrete building projects an aura of power, authority, and bureaucracy.
Also in Grosvenor Square are statues of Franklin Roosevelt; Ronald Reagan; and Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose wartime headquarters were in the square. Near the statues stands a memorial to the Eagle Squadrons. Finally, a memorial garden to the victims of the 9/11 attack stands close to the embassy, dedicated on the second anniversary of the attack, September 11th, 2003.
At Duxford, about 10 miles south of Cambridge, is the aviation branch of the Imperial War Museum. A related place is the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial, located just west of the city. A memorial wall runs adjacent to a reflecting pool, which links the chapel to a raised plaza where the “Stars and Stripes” flies. The windows of the chapel are decorated with stained-glass versions of the seals of all 50 states.
Harmonious relations among the many different ethnic and racial groups in Britain bears witness to Britain’s readiness to give up its imperial role after the Second World War. Its transition to a multi-racial democracy, though far from frictionless, has been comparatively successful. Its immigrant communities, meanwhile, have brought a new vitality and a welcome broadening of Britain’s cultural life, especially in the cities.
Interactive Map of All Locations Mentioned in This Lecture
Suggested Online Reading About Britain’s History
British Imperialism in China A legacy of Commerce, Addiction, and Gunboat Diplomacy
Let’s Eat Together: How Immigration Made British Food Great
A Case Study of British Imperialism in India
Sulgrave Manor – Ancestral Home to of George Washington – Glessner House
Images Courtesy of:
Kew Gardens Pagoda, By Rafa Esteve [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Notting Hill Carnival, By David Sedlecký [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Shah Jahan Mosque,By RHaworth [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons
By The original uploader was Nikkul at English Wikipedia. [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Plate with Willow Pattern, pyramid at Gosford House, near Longniddry, East Lothian, Scotland