History of Bangladeshis in the United Kingdom

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Bangladeshis are one of the largest immigrant communities in the United Kingdom. Significant numbers of ethnic Bengali and ethnic Sylheti peoples arrived as early as the seventeenth century, mostly as lascar seamen working on ships. Following the founding of Bangladesh in 1971, a large immigration to Britain took place during the 1970s, leading to the establishment of a British Bangladeshi community. Bangladeshis were encouraged to move to Britain during that decade because of changes in immigration laws, natural disasters such as the Bhola cyclone, the Bangladesh Liberation War against Pakistan, and the desire to escape poverty, and the perception of a better living led Sylheti men bringing their families.[1] During the 1970s and 1980s, they experienced institutionalised racism and racial attacks by organised far-right groups such as the National Front and the British National Party.

Early history of Bangladeshis in Britain[edit]

Part of a series on the
History of Bangladeshis in Britain
Brick Lane
History of Asians in Britain
Demographics of Bangladeshis
Demographics of Asians
Sylheti · English · Bengali
Baishakhi Mela
Culture of Bangladesh
Channel S · Bangla TV
East London Mosque
Brick Lane Mosque
Islam in England
List of British Bangladeshis
List of British Asian people

Throughout the 17th to early 20th centuries, the British East India Company employed thousands of South Asian lascars and workers, who were mostly Sylheti Muslim and Punjabi Sikh, to work on British ships.[2] Due to the majority of early Sylheti settlers being lascar seamen, the earliest Muslim communities were found in port towns. Naval cooks and waiters also came. One of the most famous early Bengali Muslim immigrants to Britain was Sake Dean Mahomet, a captain of the British East India Company. In 1810, he founded London's first Indian restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House. He is also reputed to have introduced the practice of champooi, or therapeutic massage, to the United Kingdom.[3] There are other records of Sylhetis working in London restaurants from at least 1873. At the beginning of World War I, there were 51,616 South Asian lascars working on British ships, the majority of whom were of Bengali descent.[4]

Due to the lack of Sylheti women in Britain at the time, partially due to restrictions on South Asian sailors on British ships, some early Bengali sailors settled down and took local white British wives.[2] As a result, most early British-born Bengalis were usually 'mixed-race' ('Anglo-Indian' or 'Eurasian'), with notable examples including Albert Mahomet and Frederick Akbar Mahomed.[5] Most of these mixed-race individuals assimilated into British society through marriage with the local white population, thus there was never a permanent British Bengali community until Bangladeshi women began arriving in large numbers in the 1970s. From the 1970s onward, a majority of Bangladeshis chose to marry among one another, leading to the establishment of a permanent British Bangladeshi community.

Causes of immigration[edit]

A large number of Bangladeshi men emigrated to the UK for employment during the 1950s and the 1960s, and they are regarded as the first generation Bangladeshi settlers. They settled in industrial cities and towns such as Birmingham, Luton, Bedford, Oldham, Haslingden, Rochdale, Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Liverpool, Scunthorpe, Kidderminster, Sunderland and the London boroughs of Camden, Westminster, Hackney, Newham, Redbridge and Tower Hamlets, particularly around Spitalfields and Brick Lane for security of employment and better pay.[6] A majority of Bangladeshi people in the UK immigrated from the Surma and Barak Valleys of the Sylhet region, which is located in the north-east of Bangladesh.

The Immigration Act of 1971 came to force in 1972 and imposed myriad restrictions on the flow of immigration from Bangladesh to the UK; it allowed only wives and children under sixteen years of age to join their husbands and fathers, who were already settled in the UK. As a result, most new arrivals following the act's implementation were family members of men who already lived in the United Kingdom. In the mid-1970s, economic decline in the UK discouraged men from bringing their families to join them. In the last part of the 1970s, the privatization and collapse of companies in the heavy industries led to mass-scale redundancy in the British Sylheti community. This led the Sylheti people opening their own restaurants and takeaways throughout the country. This trend was followed the Pakistani and Indian communities in the UK. From this point onwards, curry houses known as Indian restaurants spread to every corner of the country, and several Sylheti chefs and restaurant owners have since gained fame and wealth. Brick Lane and the surrounding areas in Tower Hamlets became famous for curry houses.[6]

Bangladesh Liberation War[edit]

During 1971, East Pakistan (known today as Bangladesh) went to war against West Pakistan (Pakistan) for independence, in what was known as the Bangladesh Liberation War. The Pakistani infantry occupied the Sylhet region, which led some people to join the Mukti Bahini to defend themselves against the Pakistanis.[7][8] Large numbers of Sylhetis also fled the fighting, arriving in the UK during the 1970s.

Bengalis in Britain also took part in the War of Independence. In August 1969, Bangladeshi settlers in Birmingham formed the East Pakistan Liberation Front. Its was led by Abdus Sabur Choudhury and Azizul Hoque Bhuia. The group published a fortnightly called Bidrohi Bangla that reported on the war's developments. Getting the news of Pakistani military action on 25 March 1971, there was a movement in Birmingham Smallheath Park. Over 10,000 Bengalis were present there. In that gathering, the East Pakistan Liberation Front was renamed the Bangladesh Action Committee. Actions and Movements: - 5 March 1971 - Demonstration in front Pakistan High Commission in London. Flag burning and memorandum handover to high commissioner for liberation - 7 March 1971 all Party Gathering in Smallheath Park Birmingham renounce of deceleration of Independence, - 28 March uplifting Bangladesh Flag in Smallheath Park Birmingham. - 3 May 1971 300 MP of British Parliament agreed to support Bangladesh movement - 21 June 1971 120 Bengali went to Paris to demonstrate against Pakistan Aid Consortium of 12 developed countries. Pakistan did not get any Aid. - 30 June 1971 Pakistani ship Padma full of arms and ammunitions was in the jetty of Montreal sea port Canada. Bangladesh Action Committee demonstrated in front of Canadian High Commission and finally Canadian government ceased it.

Bengalis in Britain played a significant role in the independence of Bangladesh by bringing visibility to the country and its struggles in the Western media.

First Bangladeshi settlers[edit]

First-generation Bangladeshis arrived and settled mainly in the area of Brick Lane and Spitalfields
Early second generation Bangladeshis in Whitechapel, 1986

Bangladeshis first started arriving in the UK in large numbers in the 1970s and mostly settled in and around the Brick Lane area of East London.[9] However, some Bengalis had been present in the country as early as the 1920s, although minuscule. Author Caroline Adams records one instance in 1925 when a lost Bengali searching for other Bengali settlers in London was told by a policeman: 'you better go on until you smell curry'.[10] At this time, there were many more Jewish people in London than there were Bengalis. Some of these were Sylhetis who came to Britain by sea after working as lascars on ships.[10][11] One of the earliest Bengali immigrants to Britain was Sake Dean Mahomed, a captain of the British East India Company. In 1810, he founded London's first Indian restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House. He is also reputed for introducing shampoo and therapeutic massage in Britain.[3]

Bangladeshis who came to the UK anticipated they would find great opportunities there. However, many experienced various problems. They lived and worked in cramped basements and attics in Tower Hamlets. Centuries earlier, these same properties had housed Huguenot immigrants who weaved silk and worked for very long hours in badly heated and poorly lit workshops. The Bengalis found they could not interact with the English-speaking population, and therefore could not enter higher education.[11][12] There has been a decline in business throughout East London, which has led to unemployment among Bangladeshi workers. The garment manufacturing industry was part of this decline. The Bangladeshis instead became cooks, waiters and mechanics, but their progress up the social and economic ladder was a slow one. The men were often illiterate, poorly educated, and spoke little English. They became easy targets for some of their ruthless compatriots who seized control of their housing in Whitechapel in the 1970s and sold the properties onto other Sylhetis, many of who had no legal claim to the buildings.[11][13]

By 1970, Brick Lane, and many nearby streets, had become predominantly Bengali. The Jewish bakeries were turned into curry houses, the jewellery shops were turned into sari stores, and the synagogues into dress factories. In 1976, the synagogue at the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane became the Jamme Masjid (community mosque).[11] The building that now houses the Jamme Masjid represents the history of successive communities of immigrants in this part of London. In 1743, this same building had been built as a French Protestant Church. In 1819, it became a Methodist Chapel, and then in 1898, it was used by Jewish people as the Spitalfields Great Synagogue.[14] Following the increase in the number of Bengalis in the area, the Jews migrated to outlying suburbs of London, as they integrated with the majority British population. They sold off the synagogue, which then became the Jamme Masjid or 'Great London Mosque', which continues to serve the Bangladeshi community to this day.[13][15] A film released in 2007, named after the street of Brick Lane itself, is based on a novel by author Monica Ali.[16][17][18][19]

Racial violence[edit]

1970s and Altab Ali[edit]

A demonstration against the National Front members in Brick Lane, during June 1978

In the 1970s, there was a large rise in the number of attacks on Bangladeshis. Racial tensions in the area had been simmering for 40 years, since Oswald Mosley incited attacks on the older Jewish communities in the 1930s. White power skinhead gangs began to roam the Brick Lane area, where they vandalised property and spat at Bengali children. In Bethnal Green, National Front members handed out leaflets on the streets and assembled people at a pub in Cheshire Street. Bengali children were allowed out of school early, with their mothers walking to work in groups to shield them from potential violence. Parents began to start imposing curfews on their children for their own safety. Later, the Tower Hamlets council fitted their flats with fire-proof letterboxes to protect Bangladeshi tenants from racially motivated arson.[11]

Residents began to fight back by creating committees and youth groups such as the Bangladesh Youth Movement, which was formed by young activists led by Shajahan Lutfur. On 4 May 1978, Altab Ali, a 25-year-old was murdered in a racist attack, as he walked home from work. The murder took place near the corner of Adler Street and Whitechapel Road by St Mary's Churchyard. The killers were three teenage boys, Roy Arnold (17-year-old from Limehouse), Carl Ludlow (17-year-old from Bow) and unnamed mixed race 16-year-old boy who killed him,[20] and they left a message on a nearby wall which said, "We’re back".[11][13][21][22] This then led to over 7,000 Bangladeshis including others to take part in a demonstration against racist violence and marched behind Altab Ali's coffin to Number 10 Downing Street. Then in September 1978, the National Front moved its headquarters from Teddington in West London to Great Eastern Street, a few minutes' walk from Brick Lane.

The name Altab Ali became associated with a movement of resistance against racist attacks, and remains linked with this struggle for human rights to this day. His murder was the trigger for the first significant political organisation against racism by local Bangladeshis. Today's phenomenal identification and association of British Bangladeshis with Tower Hamlets still owes much to this campaign.[21] A park on Whitechapel Road is named after Altab Ali. The park is the main destination for demonstrations for the local people as of today. At the entrance to the park there is an arch created by David Peterson, developed as a memorial to Altab Ali and other victims of racist attacks. The arch incorporates a complex Bengali-style pattern, meant to show the merging of different cultures in East London.[11][21][23]


Incidents of racial violence started to occur in 1993 as a result of the British National Party (BNP). Several Bangladeshi students were severely injured in violent incidents. Racial violence started to occur again against the Bangladeshis and other ethnic groups, when during 1993 the BNP won a seat in the Isle of Dogs, Tower Hamlets. The party started to sell their newspapers in Brick Lane, and later that year, some party members attacked young Bangladeshi students. Both were seriously injured and were in a coma. Demonstrations later started to occur against the party, calling for a shut down, and led the party to abandon their normal paper-sell proceedings.[11][24] One of the two Bangladeshis attacked was Quaddas Ali in September 1993, a 17 year old who was a student at Tower Hamlets College. In February 1994, Muktar Ahmed aged 19, was savagely beaten by a group of 20 white youths in Bethnal Green. This was followed by an attack by white youths the next day who were armed with iron bars and dogs, attacked students from Tower Hamlets College who were taking their lunch break in the nearby park. The next day another 14-year-old Bengali boy was stabbed in the face by four men on Bethnal Green Road.[25]

Official recognition[edit]

In April 2001, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets council officially renamed the 'Spitalfields' electoral ward to Spitalfields and Banglatown. Surrounding streets were redecorated, with lamp posts painted in green and red, which are the colours of the Bangladeshi flag.[9]

In 2004 Channel S, a free-to-air television channel targeting the British Bangladeshi community, was established.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Murshid, Ghulam. 2008. The call of the sea: History of Bangali in Britain [in Bengali: Kalapanir hatchani: Bilete Bangaleer itihash] (Dhaka, Abosar).
  2. ^ a b Fisher, Michael Herbert (2006). Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Traveller and Settler in Britain 1600-1857. Orient Blackswan. pp. 111–9, 129–30, 140, 154–6, 160–8, 172, 181. ISBN 81-7824-154-4.
  3. ^ a b "Curry house founder is honoured". BBC News. 29 September 2005. Retrieved 2008-10-09.
  4. ^ Ansari, Humayun (2004). The Infidel Within: The History of Muslims in Britain, 1800 to the Present. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers. p. 37. ISBN 1-85065-685-1.
  5. ^ "Bengalis in the East End". PortCities London. Retrieved 2009-01-14.
  6. ^ a b "BBC London: Faith - Bangladeshi London". BBC. Retrieved 2005-05-27.
  7. ^ Ahmed, Helal Uddin (2012). "Mukti Bahini". In Islam, Sirajul; Jamal, Ahmed A. Banglapedia: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh (Second ed.). Asiatic Society of Bangladesh.
  8. ^ Khan, Muazzam Hussain (2012). "Osmany, General Mohammad Ataul Ghani". In Islam, Sirajul; Jamal, Ahmed A. Banglapedia: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh (Second ed.). Asiatic Society of Bangladesh.
  9. ^ a b Gillan, Audrey (2002-06-21). "From Bangladesh to Brick Lane". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2002-07-21.
  10. ^ a b "A glimpse of the UK Bangladeshi community". New Age. Archived from the original on September 26, 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-02.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h "Sukhdev Sandhu: Come hungry, leave edgy, Brick Lane by Monica Ali". London Review of Books. Retrieved 2003-09-10.
  12. ^ "Immigration and Emigration - London - Banglatown". BBC: Legacies - UK History Local To You. Retrieved 2008-08-03.
  13. ^ a b c "Bangladeshi London". Exploring 20th century London. Retrieved 2008-08-02.
  14. ^ "Brick Lane Jamme Masjid Trust". Archived from the original on 8 November 2009. Retrieved 2008-07-27.
  15. ^ "London Jamme Masjid, London". Sacred Destinations. Retrieved 2008-07-30.
  16. ^ "Brick Lane Movie". Yahoo!. Archived from the original on December 17, 2007. Retrieved 2008-08-05.
  17. ^ "Brick Lane Review (DVD)". Future Movies. Retrieved 2008-08-05.
  18. ^ "BBC Entertainment". BBC - BBC News. 2007-10-08. Retrieved 2007-09-08.
  19. ^ "Brick Lane protestors hurt over 'lies'". BBC - BBC News. 2006-07-31. Retrieved 2006-07-31.
  20. ^ Troyna, Barry; Bruce Carrington (1990). Education, Racism, and Reform. Taylor & Francis. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-415-03826-3.
  21. ^ a b c "Indymedia: Altab Ali". Indymedia. Retrieved 2007-09-19.
  22. ^ "Bangladeshi London - Exploring 20th century London". Exploring 20th century London. Retrieved 2008-07-11.
  23. ^ "Altab Ali Arch". Whitechapel's Free Art and History. Archived from the original on 2008-03-28. Retrieved 2008-07-15.
  24. ^ "Stopping the BNP in Tower Hamlets". Youth Against Racism in Europe. Retrieved 2008-08-22.
  25. ^ Esther Saraga (1998). Embodying the social: constructions of difference. Routledge. page. 121. ISBN 978-0-415-18131-0
  26. ^ Channel-S TV to air programme in Bangladesh The Daily Star