The Armenian diaspora in Britain is relatively small when it is compared with those in the United States or in France. Although there is no consensus some Armenian sources claim that the Armenian population in Britain is about 11-19.000, mostly living in London and Manchester. The recent developments showed that the Armenian community in Britain has influenced the British public opinion beyond their population. As will be discussed in this study, the historical experiment about the Armenians in Britain also shows that this is not a new trend; for instance in the 19th century the Armenians, though their number was less than a thousand in England, could success to create an anti-Ottoman public opinion in this country. In this framework, this study first explores the secrets of the Armenian diaspora in Britain in affecting (sometimes manipulating) the British public opinion and press.
Second, the author of this article believes that the Armenian and the Turkish diasporas in Britain can play a crucial role in solving the Armenian problem since both should be open to dialogue, and both diasporas are far away from the problematic territories, namely the Caucasus. As a result of this belief the article examines the possible contributions of the Armenian diaspora in Britain to the possible solution of the Armenian question.
Finally, third aim of this study is explore the present situation of the Armenians in the United Kingdom.
I. Armenian Community in Britain: People and Institutions
Today the Armenians mainly live in London and there is a small Armenian community in Manchester. The Armenian population in London is estimated about 7.000-12.000 although the figures are not reliable. The London Armenians concentrate in the boroughs of Ealing, Hounslow, Brent and Haringey. The first serious Armenian immigration to the UK was experienced 150 years ago and the immigration continued in the 20th century. The Armenian immigrants are mainly from the former Ottoman Empire territories (Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus and Iraq), Iran and Russia. Recent arrivals have fled because of the economic, social and political problems from the former Soviet Union republics, including Armenia.
The early comers are relatively wealthy people and it can be argued that now they have no serious economic problems. The most formidable problem the Armenian community confronted is identity crisis. The homeland cannot provide a model for the diaspora and the Armenian identity is under the threat of the Western culture. Moreover, because the Armenians in the United Kingdom have come from a variety of different countries, there are different communities within the community. An Armenian from Iraq or Lebanon, for example, might have different cultural needs to an Armenian from the former Soviet Union or Iran. That is why religion and the historical tragedies are used in order to strengthen the relations among the Armenians. However, exaggeration of the religious feelings and the historical events cause extremism and hate against other ethnic groups. In other words, the Armenian ethnic identity is established on the historical hatred and hostility against the other ethnic groups notably against the Turks by this approach. As a result of this not only the relations between the Armenians and the other ethnic groups have been damaged, but also the Armenians themselves have suffered from the extremism. The Armenian youth in particular has faced pressure from their parents and the community. The elderly Armenians want to create an old - type Armenian youth, while the young people prefer to be a ‘normal’ part of the British society. For example, ‘instead of celebrating the traditional Armenian Christmas on 6 January, many young Armenians prefer to celebrate Christmas on 25 December, because they do not want to be different from their peers’. The Armenian youth organisation RBO’s ‘ideal London’ clearly shows the social pressure on the Armenian youth:
‘A world which exists to provide the Armenian youth of London what truly deserve. A world not polluted with daily drubbings over politics and religion. A world, to do the things that young people do. You can even swear and kiss in public without the fear of being judged by another... It’s time to be young again.’
These words prove that the British Armenian youth want to be depoliticised and to be a normal part of the British society.
Apart from the problems discussed above, the recent arrivals face the most serious problems. Many of them have come from the former Soviet Union and their main problems are employment, accommodation and social adaptation. Finally, the common concern of the Armenian community is the economic and political problems in Armenia. Some radical groups (nationalist or revolutionary left) in particular perceive themselves as a part of the politics in Armenia although they live in Great Britain and they are British citizens. Surprisingly they, with the other radical groups from the other Armenian diasporas, influence the balance of power in Armenia. As has been witnessed in the last presidential elections, the support of the diaspora Armenians helped to replace the moderate previous Ter Petrosian with the more strict and radical Kocharian. It can be argued that the Armenian diaspora, including those in Britain, increases tension and radicalism in the Armenian politics.
In brief, the British Armenians do want to help the homeland country, but they do not know how to do so, and as will be discussed, they damage the Armenian national interests by deepening the hostility between the Armenian and the Turkish people and by increasing radicalism in Armenia, although the Armenian Republic desperately needs stability and it needs to improve its diplomatic, political and economic relations with its biggest neighbour, namely Turkey.
Armenian Organisations in Britain
Social and Education Organisations: The British Armenians have three one-day schools in Eastern and Western Armenian languages. The Tantanian Sunday School was one of the first examples. In the 1980s, the Armenian Saturday Language and Studies School was established. Later the Martiza Soghnalian Armenian School was began in Kensington, London. The Armenian Community Playgroup was founded in May 1987. The Ealing Council, the Centre for Armenian Information and Advice (CAIA) and the London Armenian community have financially supported the organisation. The CAIA also runs the Armenian Community Pre-School Group, which was established in 1987. The school provides Armenian language courses four days a week.
The London Armenians also have their own cultural – religious societies, youth groups, senior citizen club and ladies committees.
The Armenian Community Centre: Opened on 27 November 1988 at West End Road, Middlesex. Sport facilities are impressive.
The Centre For Armenian Information and Advice (CAIA): In Acton, West London. It was formally opened in 1986. The CAIA was funded by the London Borough Grants Scheme. It has set up an Armenian playgroup, Armenian language classes for adults and children. It is compiling a telephone directory of Armenians in the Britain. The Centre started Hayashen Community Centre project in 1994. Now it aims to establish an Armenian – English Library in London. The Armenian broadcasts from Armenia can be watched in the centre.
Homenetmen London: London branch of Homenetmen international organisation. Founded in 1979. Organises social and sportive events. Furthermore it organises political events with other organisations like its sister organisations HOM and Hamazgayeen.
RBO: Founded in 1995 by two Armenian young people. Aims to unite all Armenian youth in London. They further want more freedom for and less social and religious pressure on the London Armenian youth. RBO organises parties and concerts. They have organised about 20 ‘HOKIS events’, with an average attendance of over 100 youth.
The Branches of the International Armenian Organisations In Britain: Some European, American and Canadian Armenian organisations and political parties also have branches in London because the capital is one of the important, if not the most, political lobbying centres in the world. Some of these organisations work under subsidiary organisations to curtain their real names and aims. It is unfortunate that most of these organisations are political and extremist. They focus on the Armenian question and Turkish-Armenian relations rather than concentrating on the Armenian diaspora’s social, economic and cultural problems. Another effect of these organisations is that they politicise the diaspora. They speak before the British public and media in the name of the British Armenians though their representative power is quite low.
Churches: There are two important Armenian churches in Britain: St. Sarkis Armenian Apostolic Church (Kensington, London) and Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church (Manchester). Both serves as a cultural, social and religious centres.
Other Organisations: Some of the other important Armenian organisations in Britain can be listed as follow;
- ACPG, Armenian Community Pre-School Group.
- Aid Armenia, Land and Culture Organisation
- Anahit Association, London.
- The Armenian National Committee.
- Armenian Rainbow Coalition (London)
- The Armenian Relief Society of Great Britain (ARS).
- The Armenian Revolutionary Federation UK (The radical political group’s UK branch).
- Armenian Rights Group.
- Barbara Melinski Fund.
- The British Armenian Community.
- Church Council.
- Committee for the Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (CRAG)
- Hayashen Armenian Youth Club.
- Hayastan All-Armenian Fund (Manchester).
- K. Tahta Armenian Community Sunday School.
- Manoukian Charitable Foundation.
- Organisation for the Preservation of Armenian Schools and Churches in India (London).
- Social Democratic Hunchag Party
- Tekeyan Cultural Association, London.
- Tekeyan Trust.
Press: The Tekeyan Cultural Association publishes Erobouni, a bi-weekly Armenian – English newspaper. Gotchnag is another Armenin publication. It is published by the Nor Seround Cultural association affiliated with the radical Hinchak Party.
Aregak (1964-1966) and The London Monthly (1974-1976) were two good examples for the Armenian press in the United Kingdom. Another radical publication was Kaytzer (1978-1988) published by the London Branch of the Union of Armenian Students. Kaytzer defended armed struggle and terrorist methods against the Turkish diplomats to realise its political aims, and in order to get popular support it tried to terrorise the Armenian community in the country. For Kaytzer the Armenians had to support all illegal Turkish, Kurdish or Armenian groups against the Turkish state.
The Centre For Armenian Information now publishes Armenian Voice quarterly. The Centre delivers the magazine free of charge. Its circulation is about 3.000 copies.
Manchester and North West 3000-5000
London and the South 7000-12.000
Other regions 1000-2000 (?)
Source: Armenian Voice; Exile; The Institute for Armenian Research.
II. Historical Background
It is known that there were some Armenians in the British Isles as early as the 7th century though they were less than ten people. These people were a small part of the immigrants from Caucasia who escaped from the Mongol attacks. The first political contacts between the Armenians and English experienced during the Crusades. In these wars, the Cilician Armenians openly supported the occupying Christians against the local Muslims and the other peoples of the region. The letters exchanged between King Henry III and the Armenian King Hetoum, who called for assistance when the Crusaders were passing through Cilicia, proves this co-operation. It is also noted that the Armenian King Leo IV and King Richard Lion-Heart met in 1191 in Cyprus and this co-operation continued in the following years.
According to the British Orthodox Church, the first Armenian Bishop came to Britain in 1250 after the Tartar invasion. Though we do not have reliable evidence, it is also claimed that many Armenians settled in the Southern England, near Plymouth during the time of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). The similarity between ‘Armenian’ and ‘Arminian’ raised doubt whether these people were Armenian or not. According to the story Cromwell was passing through the Armenian quarter and his interest were raised by the people who lived there and called themselves ‘Armenians’. He asked the head whether they were Royalist or Nationalist. The head replied they obeyed the law of land, and the answer annoyed Cromwell, and these people had to leave all their houses and returned to Amsterdam, the Netherlands where they had come from. In brief, it is difficult to speak of a serious Armenian existence in Britain before the 17th century. In the 17th century, the Armenian traders became important in trade between East and West. These traders were Christian and spoke Eastern languages, like Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Indian, all were great advantage to them in the East-West trade. Many Armenian traders established an extensive network of commercial contacts in Britain, Iran and India. As a result of these economic relations, many Armenians visited England, and some settled there. Yet, their number was still tiny and they were far away from forming a significant community in Britain. The Armenians in India were crucial to English, because the English were trying to colonise India, and the Armenians were one of the Christian minorities of India who were very desirous to help the English against the Indians. Apart from the political co-operation, the Armenian merchants had come India before the English and they had trade bases in Calcutta, India. During the 17th century the Armenian merchants became one of the dominant traders in the route of Calcutta - Middle East - Italy and Manchester. As a result of their service to Britain the famous Armenian merchants were granted the status of Free Citizens of England in 1688 by a Royal Charter.
The next major Armenian settlers came from the Ottoman territories as the Armenians dominated trade between the British and Ottoman Empires with the Greeks. They were mainly from İstanbul, İzmir and Selanik. The majority of them settled in London, Manchester