Art in the British Parliament: Dadabhai Naoroji

Artwork of the Month: On 30 June 1917, Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Asian Member of Parliament died.

Dadabhai Naoroji

Dadabhai Naoroji was the first Asian Member of Parliament elected to the House of Commons.  He was born in Mumbai in 1825, and pursued a career as an intellectual and campaigner for Indian causes.  In 1855 he was the first Indian to be given an academic appointment, being appointed Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy for Elphinstone College.  In later years, after relocating to the UK, he was made professor of Gujarati at University College London.

During Naoroji’s lifetime, the Indian population made up four fifths of the British Empire, but its 250 million people were unrepresented in the House of Commons.  There was a general consensus that representation would have to be secured, if reforms to the governance of India were to be made a reality.  Naoroji had helped to establish the East India Association in 1867 – an organisation intended to combat prevailing views of the Asians as inferior.  The organisation eventually merged with Indian National Association, becoming the Indian National Congress – later the party of Gandhi, and still a prominent party in Indian politics.

Known by admirers as the “Grand Old Man of India,” Naoroji stood several times for election to the House of Commons, facing considerable racism each time.  Following his defeat in the 1886 general election, Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister, stated that Britain was not ready to elect a black man – from which remark Punch took inspiration, and published a cartoon depicting Naoroji as Othello, and Salisbury as the “Doge of Westminster.” 

Naoroji became a well-known public figure, with the support of both Florence Nightingale and suffrage campaigners.  He was eventually elected to the constituency of Central Finsbury with a majority of three votes.  As an MP he campaigned for Indian independence, but also supported votes for women, pensions for the elderly, Irish Home Rule and the abolition of the House of Lords.   He served as an MP from 1892-1895, but continued to campaign to the end of his life, being elected president of the Indian National Congress for a third time in 1906.  He died in Mumbai on 30 June 1917.

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Background

The history of non-white Members of Parliament probably begins with David Ochterlony Dyce Sombre, who was of mixed European and Indian descent. In 1841 he was elected as a Radical-Liberal to the seat of Sudbury, in Suffolk. In 1842, however, Parliament overturned the result citing ‘gross, systematic, and extensive bribery’ during the campaign, and he and the other Member for the Sudbury division, Frederick Villiers, lost their seats. It is possible that John Stewart, elected as MP for Lymington in 1832, was also from a mixed ethnic background.

The Artwork

The portrait was painted by V. R Rao and is likely a copy in oils from a photograph of Naoroji taken in 1906. It was presented to the House of Commons in 1939 by the Dadabhai Naoroji Memorial Fund.

Image: ‘Dr Dadabhai Naoroji, oil on canvas by V.R. Rao (WOA 1539)