6 December, 2022


Persons Of Colour Who Preceded Sunak

By Dash De Soysa

Dash De Soysa

On October 24, on the day of Diwali (the Hindu festival of lights), Rishi Sunak, a first generation Britisher of Indian descent became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He is the first non European, Asian and the fist non Anglican to become prime-minister of the UK. Interestingly, three of the four Great Offices of State are currently held by those of foreign origins; Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister and Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary descend from Indian ancestors that had migrated to Africa. James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary is of mixed (British-African) origin and Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is married to a Chinese.

In 2002, Paul Boateng became the UK’s first Black Cabinet Minister and in 2014, Sajid Javid, the first Asian. Prior to this, Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881), a person of Italian-Jewish origins, had been elected prime minister in 1874. Former prime minister Boris Johnson, baptised as a Roman Catholic was the great-grandson of the Ottoman Empire’s last interior minister, Ali Kemal. His great great grandmother was reputedly of slave origin. Interestingly, the current Prime Minister of Ireland (Leo Varadkar) and Portugal (António Costa) are also of Indian origin.

It appears that long before those of Indian origin, there were those of Ceylonese and African origin that made the initial forays into the helms of power when the British Isles created what was considered the ‘Greatest Empire’, controlling one fourth of the world’s landmass. These pioneer Asians and Africans preceded Sunak when it was more difficult for non British to gain recognition.

Samuel Ajayi Crowther

James Townsend (1737 –1787)) is considered to have been the first ‘coloured’ member of parliament (1782) and the first ‘black’ Lord Mayor of London (1772). He was the son of London merchant and MP Chauncy Townsend and his mixed-race wife Bridget Phipps, the daughter of James Phipps (Captain-General of the Royal African Company – prominent in the Atlantic slave trade) and a mulatto daughter of a Dutch soldier and an African woman. George William Nicol (1810 -1884) was the first ‘African’ Colonial Secretary of Sierra Leone in 1859 and had served on the Governor’s Council. His father George Nicol was a Scottish carpenter and his mother Jane Small was of mixed African-European descent. In appearance though, neither Townsend or Nicol had betrayed any African features or colour.

Sir James Peiris

Samuel Ajayi Crowther (1809 –1891), was a Nigerian linguist, clergyman, and the first African Anglican Bishop of West Africa.. Ordained in London (1841), Crowther was installed as the first African Bishop of the Anglican Church in 1864 by Charles Longley, Archbishop of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral.

Sir James Peiris (1856 –1930), the pioneering leader in the Sri Lankan independence movement was the first native Governor of Ceylon (Acting) in 1928, a first in the British empire. In 1882, he was elected the first non European President of the Cambridge Union. No other person of colour was elected president of Oxford or Cambridge Union for nearly another fifty years. In 1924, he was elected the Vice President of the Legislative Council, (the post of President was held nominally by the Governor) and presided over the Council and acted as Officer Administering the Government.

Whilst Oxford and Cambridge Universities seem to have started to accept black students in the 1860s and 1870s, the same period as the Inns of Court, it appears that non-denominational University College London commenced almost 30 years earlier. London University’s first (quarter) black American student, an emancipated slave called Moses Roper, was admitted to UCL in 1838, whilst Indian students appeared in the admission registers from at least the 1840s.

Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy

Oxford educated Bryan Mackey is credited as the first Black British clergyman in the Church of England. Ordained in 1794, he was born in Jamaica to a white father and a Black mother. In 1791, Charles Butler was the first Catholic to become a barrister. In 1833, Sir Francis Henry Goldsmid was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn, the first Jew to become an English barrister. In 1847, Robert Morris became the first African-American barrister. Sir Harry Dias Bandaranaike was the first Asian called to the bar at the Middle Temple in 1848. Likewise, Sir Muthu Coomaraswamy became the first Hindu barrister in 1856 and the first Tamil to have been knighted (1878). Sir Richard Francis Morgan was the first Ceylonese (Eurasian/Burgher) to receive a Knighthood in 1874. In 1888, Sir Edwin Arnold became the first Buddhist to have been knighted. The first Black recipient of a knighthood was William Conrad Reeves (1889) and in 1892, Lady Catherine de Soysa, became the first Sinhalese to be knighted (widow). In 1861, Maharajas Duleep Singh (Sikh-Christian) and Jayajirao Scindia (Hindu) and several others were knighted along with Nawab Sikandar Begum, the first Asian woman (Muslim). In 1842 Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy, an Indian Parsi became the first Asian to be knighted, in 1857 he was awarded a baronetcy.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 4

    Persons Of Colour Who Preceded Sunak.
    Any significance. Can anything useful to Sri Lanka be drawn from this collection.
    Tamils, more Indian-like than Sunak himself, have risen in our political spectrum for well over a century. No Sunak. Will there ever be?

  • 2

    “He is the first non European, Asian and the fist non Anglican to become prime-minister of the UK.”
    Are we sure?
    Benjamin Disraeli, a Jew, got round the question of religion by swearing allegiance to the crown, also the Head of the Church of England (something that a Roman Catholic could not do then). He showed the way out for our Donoughmore Buddhists, may I say?
    There have been other Christian deviants from the official faith but the first Roman Catholic was Boris Johnson. Tony Blair (true to his nature as in being a Tory in the Labour Party) switched to RC faith after his period as PM.

    • 2

      It did puzzle me that the author, after that sweeping statement in his first paragraph, proceeded to contradict himself in the second.

  • 2

    When will a Tamil or Muslim be President or even Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, just wondering?

    • 1

      In the last century, prior to independence, residents of Anuradhapura elected F. R. Freeman a white man, as their representative. The election / selection of a so called “Non-majority” citizen to positions generally occupied by “Majority” citizens depends on many factors, the public recognition matters most derived from outstanding contribution. The behavior too counts, namely, to act as if he/she was any other citizen. It is important not to lose hope and be dejected. Be with the people.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.