Exploring Bengali history in London

| 13 April 2006
The scroll dates to around 1800. Courtesy of the British Museum.

A scene from the legend of Gazi - a scroll painting from Bengal around 1800. Courtesy of the British Museum.

"First I lived in British India, then I lived in East Pakistan, then I lived in Bangladesh and now I live in Britain."

This experience of one London man (now a Haringey councillor) nicely encapsulates the complexity of recent Bengali history; in the first three cases, his home country changed its name - the last, the move to London was in many ways a consequence of the long British Empire presence in that part of South Asia, and the political chaos of its departure.

The Bengali region now spans two countries - on one side Bangladesh, which has existed since 1971 when it gained independence from Pakistan; on the other side West Bengal which remains part of India. Although West Bengal is largely Hindu and Bangladesh predominantly Muslim, both communities have many customs and traditions in common - not least the day of their New Year which falls on April 14th.

Bengalis have been coming to Britain first as sailors, then as ayahs (nurses), servants, students and political radicals since the 18th century. The Port Cities website gives a good potted history of the Bengali presence in London.

Then there was a large immigration of Sylhetis from what is now Bangladesh in the 1950s. Sylhetis had long taken the role of ship's cook on the voyages between Britain and Asia - now many set up in the restaurant business. Around 80% of "Indian restaurants" in the UK are actually more accurately Bangladeshi restaurants - Bangladeshi owned, and selling food based on what's eaten in the region.

photo shows yellow goddess with six arms

Many thanks to the Bengali Cultural Association of London for letting us use this picture of Durga from their 2005 Durga Puja.

West Bengali life in London is not so identified with a single area, though there are many around Harrow, Finsbury Park and Redbridge. Until recently little work has been done in Britain to trace their lives. However a new film by Bithika Raha At Home In London includes stories of British Bengalis from both sides of the divide.

So, where can you go to get a sense of Bengali history in London?

photo shows eighteenth century building

The mosque on Brick Lane - originally built by French Huguenots as a Protestant church. Photo: K Smith

Brick Lane and Spitalfields

The most obvious stopping point is not a museum, but the Brick Lane area of Spitalfields. The writer Anne Kershen recounts how in the 1950s and 60s there was a drop in population in the area, when the large Jewish population whose presence meant that the place was dubbed "little Jerusalem" began to move out to other areas. Then gradually, the first Sylhetis began to arrive.

Many of the first incomers had relatives who had worked on the shipping lines between Britain and Asia. Today the length of Brick Lane is crowded with Bangladeshi restaurants. Though a bit technical Sean Carey's 2004 report on Brick Lane gives a vivid picture of the place and the aspirations of its many restaurant owners. There is a large festival in the area around April or May each year.

Also operating out of offices in the area is the Swadhinata Trust, a secular group aimed at bringing Bangladeshi culture and history to a new generation of children. Their site combines poetry, history and ambitious long-term plans for a cultural centre. They have also created an oral history of three generations of Bengalis in the UK, which you can read online here.

The Swadhinata Trust have also produced a Spitalfields walk - you can download a guide here.

photo shows wooden sign saying lascars only

This "lascars only" sign was found in the attics of what is now the Museum in Docklands.

Bengali history in Museums

East India at the Museum in Docklands

The Museum in Docklands has been created from an old warehouse that used to store goods from all over the Empire. During the renovations they found this sign sitting in one of the attics. It was probably a sign for toilets. It also has obvious overtones of segregation.

The Museum frequently holds events for children that relate to Bengali experience in the Port of London - particularly storytelling by actors portraying lascar seamen.

photo shows man on tiger

Another image from the storytelling scroll of the legend of Gazi. Courtesy of the British Museum. These beautiful pictures are not currently on display - but let's hope the museum brings them out for their Bengali season a little later this year.

The British Museum

In August 2006 the British Museum held two major exhibitions and a 'Durga Puja' in collaboration with Bengali Hindus from Camden Town. Durga is a Hindu goddess representing female power - you can find out more about the myths associated with her here.

The Museum created a giant image of Durga in their Great Court. Durga was then processed through the streets of Camden to a Hindu temple for the Puja ceremony to take place. The museum also be hosted art and storytelling exhibitions associated with the region.

You can still see many objects in the South Asian rooms of the museum relating to Hindu worship in India, particularly religious statues.

photo shows many guns in gallery

The museum Firepower! at Woolwich Arsenal.

Firepower!

Like most parts of the subcontinent, Bengalis have a complicated history of fighting both against the British in an attempt to gain freedom, and for the British in the First and Second World Wars.

Firepower! the Royal Artillery museum based at Woolwich Arsenal holds a large amount of material relating to Indian campaigns - since Indians have a long history of fighting with and alongside the Royal Artillery. The displays include a large collection of guns belonging to the Rajhas and a uniform belonging to the Bengal Horse artillery.

Backrooms and Archives

If you want to search a little deeper for Bengali history in London, here are a few places to try.

Tower Hamlets Local History Library is full of relevant information about the story of Bengalis in the Brick Lane area.

Eastside Community Heritage is a factory of local history for East London. Its website Hidden Histories includes stories from around the Green Street area, including a mulplicity of Bengali voices.

The V&A of course have a wide range of objects from South Asia, but little on display that relates to Bengal. Tucked away in their Indian Study Room however, they have one of the finest collections of Kallighat painting (from Calcutta) outside India. It's open to the public, but you need an appointment to see it. Alternatively, click here for a flavour of this kind of art.

photo shows old man with long white beard

Sir Rabindranath Tagore, the most famous Bengali poet, painted by W. Fearon Halliday. Copyright National Portrait Gallery.

Poets, Radicals and Blue Plaques

Britain ruled the whole Bengal region from 1858 - 1947 when India won independence. Throughout the period there were calls for greater power for Indians in their own country - ranging from greater autonomy and equal justice to the outright independence that was ultimately achieved. Many Indian activists therefore operated in London, and other great figures also visited.

Syed Amir Ali settled permanently in Britain 1904 - and became the first Indian in the privy council until Lord Sinha in 1919. A Muslim, he is often credited with the political awakening of Muslims in India and founded a number of influential political organisations. Amongst other campaigns, he called for the foundation of a mosque in Central London. This was finally realised long after his death when land was set aside in Regent's Park for what is now London Central Mosque.

Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet was also an artist and a short story writer. The Indian Nationalist movement used readings from Tagore and other cultural events to keep the drive for Indian independence in the public eye in Britain. He also stayed in London for some time as a visitor.

The National Portrait Gallery hold three pictures of him - sadly not on display at the moment. Croydon Museum Service also hold two drawings by Tagore. During his brief stay in London he lived at this house in Hampstead.

A number of other famous Bengalis lived in London in the 19th century - blue plaques mark the houses of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, and Swami Vivikananda. The tomb of Rabindranath Tagore's grandfather, Prince Dwarkanath Tagore is in Kensal Green Cemetery.

This scattering of notables along with many more ordinarily employed Bengalis indicates the range of Bengalis who have been present in this country for a couple of centuries.

Further reading

This very brief overview can't do justice to the multiple stories of Bengali life and culture in this country, and picks out only a handful of historical figures. Here's a short further reading list for those who would like to know more.

Rozina Visram - Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: The story of Indians in Britain 1700 - 1947

Strangers, Aliens and Asians: Huguenots, Jews and Bangladeshis in Spitalfields 1660 - 2000

The Swadhinata Trust website contains many articles about the Bangladeshi experience in Britain.

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