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Coffee and good words: How Muslims helped grow the British economy

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Who would have thought that Geoffrey Chaucer was into Muslim scholarship? As it happens, the works of that old literary genius meant that 24 Arabic words entered the English language in the 14th-century. What’s more, there are references to Islamic scholars in The Canterbury Tales (1386), showing how English intellectuals at the time were keenly aware of Muslim progress in the fields of science and philosophy.

As you might have guessed, this didn’t happen by chance – it was the product of long-standing international relations between Britain and the Muslim world.

Early Anglo-Muslim relations and the rise of the coffee house

In the 16th-century, the Ottoman Empire largely controlled the Mediterranean world and England was a small trading nation. The Protestant Elizabeth I actively sought to cultivate a good working relationship with the Ottomans. As a result, the Barbary Company, the Levant Company and the Turkey Company brought tastes home from an international trade in fabrics, food and munitions.

Coffee was a key part of trade and economic growth in England in the 17th-century. An English merchant turned up in London in the early 1600s with a Turkish counterpart who introduced the method for making traditional Turkish coffee. This led to the opening of the first English coffee house in 1652 – and 10 years later, there were more than eighty such establishments in the city.

The space in the coffee house provided room for debates and negotiations, and because of this, political parties, as well as industries like the stock market and insurance companies, had their birth in the coffee house!

The East India Company

The East India Company played a huge role in accelerating the growth of the British empire and increased the rate of immigration to Britain. Although initially formed to profit from the Indian spice trade, it went on to become both a commercial enterprise and a ruling power.

Sailors, known as “lascars”, were employed by the East India Company, and by 1855 more than 10,000 of them were living in Britain. They were mostly Indian, but a small number of them were Arab, Turk, Somali and Malay too.

The exploitative activities of the East India Company meant that many Muslim delegates and petitioners came to Britain to action their complaints regarding loss of land and property, but Muslim ‘noble’ visitors came too, including the much-respected Mirza Abu Taleb Khan who travelled through Africa and Europe between 1799 and 1803.

Since then, economy and migration has mushroomed, while integration and identity have become deep-rooted debates in Britain. Reports in recent years highlight how British Muslims contribute more than £31 billion to the UK economy and exert a spending power of £20.5 billion. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the rise of Middle Eastern trade all those years ago!

Read more here: Muslims in Britain: An Introduction by Sophie Gilliat-Ray (2010)

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