In August 1972, Idi Amin, the leader of Uganda, gave the order that Asian people living in Uganda had 90 days to leave the country.
This triggered the mass movement of almost 80,000 Ugandan Asians, seeking refuge in countries all over the world. Boarding planes, most could only take what they could carry or were permitted to carry. Just over 28,000 came to Britain to start new lives, often leaving family, friends, businesses and possessions behind.
This month our Outreach team, led by my colleague Yasmeen Haji, organised a day to reflect, remember and at times celebrate the lives and experiences of those who left Uganda for Britain. Around 100 people from the British Ugandan Asian community came to The National Archives for a day to take part in cultural workshops, discussions and performances to mark the events of 40 years ago.
The National Archives holds many documents relating to this turbulent period in Ugandan history and the lives of those forced to leave. We wanted to share these records with those who experienced it firsthand and hear their memories.
Dealing with a man like Idi Amin, files held here reveal the difficulties faced by the British government in navigating an often turbulent relationship. Despite attempts to negotiate with the leader, the expulsion of the Asian community came as a surprise to the British government and plans were quickly drawn up by the newly established ‘Ugandan Resettlement Board’ as to how to cope with so many immigrants.
However, despite all this, the Ugandan Asian population in Britain flourished, overcoming the adversity thrown their way. As my colleague, Karim Hussain, said in his talk at the Outreach day: ‘The Ugandan Asians themselves were of a people greatly celebrated for their spirit. Starting from scratch, they overcame racism and the cultural divide to set up new lives, businesses and communities which helped change the face of Britain and what it meant to be British.’
The Outreach day was a fantastic success, with displays of music, dancing and pottery by participants, telling their stories of expulsion, both harrowing and uplifting at different times. It was a chance for staff, participants and other attendees to learn about the documents we hold, alongside the personal stories which together painted a much fuller picture than the official records could alone provide. I even found myself heading up a pottery workshop – a first for me and one I’ll be looking to repeat whenever possible!
Karim, who presented a talk on the history of the Ugandan Asian expulsion and the documents we hold, will be giving another talk on the subject during our ‘Diversity Week’ on Wednesday 14 November at 14:00. The talk is free and all are welcome. Have a look at our events page for more information.