I am grateful to my party colleague Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera for pointing out that Dadabhai Naoroji wasn’t the first ethnic minority MP after all. Indian-born Naoroji (pictured), was elected Liberal MP for the old seat of Finsbury Central in 1892, and event that was shortly followed by the election of Mancherjee Bhownagree (Conservative, Bethnal Green North East, 1895). However the first ‘MP of colour’ was actually elected 45 years before Naoroji.
Anglo-Indian David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre (Liberal, Sunbury) was returned to Westminster in 1841, making him the first non-Jewish ethnic minority MP. Maybe Dyce Sombre is overlooked because he was kicked out of parliament less than a year later for bribery in the election and then classified as a “lunatic.” But facts are facts! The Guardian has a good profile of Dyce Sombre:
He was raised by a former Muslim courtesan but became a pious Roman Catholic; he ended his days as both a Knight Templar and a Knight of the Pontifical Order of Christ. Exiled to London, he was blackballed from gentlemen’s clubs and reviled in the streets as “a black bugger”, but succeeded in marrying a prominent viscount’s daughter, and became the first Asian, and only the second non-white, to be elected to the mother of parliaments.
Dyce Sombre was not the first ethnic minority MP, of course. That honour goes to Benjamin Disraeli, of Jewish extraction, who entered the Commons in 1837 (Conservative, Maidstone) followed by Lionel de Rothschild in 1850 (Liberal, City of London).
This debate has taken on added significance since the Lib Dems announced a Dadabhai Naoroji Award for local parties who have excelled at recruiting BAME members. This initiative has been successfully pushed by Watford councillor Rabi Martins. I am delighted that Rabi has achieved this.
Naoroji is certainly the first MP who had two parents of colour, and the first MP of colour who was born abroad. However in the 19th Century both Jewish politicians and those who had a trace of ‘foreign’ about them, such as Dyce Sombre, faced prejudice in a way that doesn’t exist in the same way today.
Queen Charlotte, in the 18th Century, had features that were a throwback to her African ancestry several generations previously, and this was remarked on negatively at the time.
I am all for the Dadabhai Naoroji Award to continue to honour this pioneer as symbol of early Black representation. The fact that both he and Dyce Sombre were Liberals adds extra poignancy while our party has an all-white Commons team.
Calling it the ‘Sombre Award’ wouldn’t have the same meaning, not least because Dyce Sombre was from the era of Rotten Boroughs were seats in parliament were purchased by bribing a small number of registered electors.
So, long live the Dadabhai Naoroji Award!