Bengalis in London’s East End

It was a baptism such as happened in City and East End churches thousands of times each year, if rather grander than most, as the Lord Mayor of London was in attendance. The year was 1616 and the venue St Dionis Church, the only extraordinary thing was that the child was Bengali and his given name of ‘Peter’ had been personally selected by King James I as his ‘Christian’ name.

The changing ethnic mix of Lodon and the East End is often presented as a simple, linear process. Huguenots arrive in the late middle ages, followed by the Irish and then the Jews in the 19th century. Enter the late 20th century and the Bengalis and Somalis come. History, thankfully, isn’t that tidy, though the major arrivals often accompany seismic historical change. So, William I’s invasion of England brought Jews to settle in London, and the East India Company’s economic annexing of India from the early 1600s brought Bengalis to London. A new book, Bengalis in London’s East End*, weaves the disparate strands of Bengali life in London back together, and the pattern that emerges is more complex still.

Bengalis seem to have been in the East End even before the East India Company got going. There is even evidence that Bengalis were on the early Company ships that headed out to India to establish stations and factories. Many of them were probably returning to a subcontinent they had never seen, the children of Bengalis who had settled in Portugal following Portugal’s own, earlier, expeditions to India. In 1607, the first East India Ships out of Wapping were recruiting crew and up stepped four ‘Indians’ – Marcus, John Mendis, John Rodrigoe and John Taro. An English first name (frequently John) followed by a Hispanic surname was common for these ‘Portuguese Lascars’.

As the decades wore on, more and more Bengalis settled in the East End. Some, of course, were slaves, many of them ‘earning’ their freedom, many of them escaping. Owners would post notices offering rewards for the return of their ‘property’, rather as people today would post a bill for a missing cat. Many more were Bengali seamen settled in London as free men, perhaps sending for their families or more likely setting up home with local women. Conditions were frequently appalling and the East India Company in 1782 records lascars arriving at its Leadenhall Street offices ‘reduced to great distress and applying to us for relief’. Charities sprung up, and as early as 1786 there was a ‘Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor’.

Increasingly the men were housed in barracks or hostels – although the numbers grew there didn’t seem to be Banglatowns to match the Chinatowns of Limehouse and the other port cities. The East End does seem to have been more welcoming than many ports though. Seaman Sona Miah describes coming to London in 1937, having jumped shipped at Glasgow, because ‘London very good … people were respect coloured people’.

The historical links between London and Sylhet are beautifully outlined in words and pictures – you’ll discover as much about the East India Company as you’ll ever need to know – and the writers entertainingly depart from the historical timeline into social history. A trip down Brick Lane today confirms the incredible vibrancy and colour of Bengali dying and textiles, but the authors confirm it goes back centuries. Daniel Defoe was one of many grey-clad Englishmen who protested at the shocking colours and fabrics that arrived from India including the ‘diaphonous muslins of Bengal’ which ‘cost little pay and are tawdery gay’.

Meanwhile, the massive offices constructed in the East End by tea merchants such as Lipton’s (whose warehouse dominated the corner of Bethanl Green Road and Shoreditch High Street before it was bombed in World War II), Brooke Bond (on Whitechapel High Street), Kearly and Tonge and many others bore testament not just to the British love of a brew but to the movement back and forth between Bengal and London of goods and people. The Bengali city of Kolkata (Calcutta in post-partition India) is today a city of 15m people. Extraordinary to think that it was founded by English sailor Job Charnock as a village back in 1687. It soon became a port for the East India Company, and by the 1850s would be dispatching tons of the fragrant teas of Darejeeling, Assam and Chittagong to London.

There are some lovely anecdotes too. The authors note what was (possibly at least) the serving of the first curry in Britain, in 1809. Provincial administrator Robert Lindsay had distinguished himself in Sylhet first by antagonising the local people with his tax-collecting activities and then dealing with an angry mob by taking refuge in the local mosque and shooting a holy man. Returning to England he might have hoped to forget the past, but it was reawakened by a visit from Syed Ullah, one of the holy man’s followers. A potentially uncomfortable encounter seems to have gone rather well, with Ullah returning to Lindsay’s home to cook curry for the company.

Back in the Indian subcontinent, Britain’s often bloody and brutal rule reached a conclusion of sorts in 1971. Having suffered brutal subjugations in the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion against British rule, the terrible famine in 1943 that cost some 3m lives, and then the 1947 partitioning of Bengal between India and Pakistan, East Pakistan successfully fought for its independence in 1970-71, emerging as Bangladesh. In the years before and after independence, Bengalis arrived in the East End in greater numbers, and so was born the modern Bengali East End, centred around Brick Lane. East Enders of all colours and creeds would do well to remember it’s about a lot more than just curry though.

The immaculately researched and constructed Bengalis in London’s East End charts this long and usually buried history. My only complaint was the frustrating message ‘not yet available’ when I searched for the title on Amazon. It’s a huge oversight that must quickly be rectified. For anyone wanting to understand one of the strongest cultural threads in the fabric that is modern Britain, this book is an essential, combining good scholarly research, assiduously sourced material and a hugely entertaining read. And that shouldn’t be limited to those of us who can pick it up from the bookshops of the East End.

*Bengalis in London’s East End by Ansar Ahmed Ullah and John Eversley, published by Swadhinata Trust, ISBN 9780956574503.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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