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Bengali-speaking community in the Port of London

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Partition and Civil War

Partition and its effects

Brick Lane
View full size imageBrick Lane. © NMM
After the British left India the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947. A Hindu-dominated India was created together with two predominantly Muslim areas known as East and West Pakistan.

One of the most affected areas was the Assam Province of British India. The Muslims of Sylhet had given this area a Muslim majority.

Hindu politicians feared that this would lead to the entire northeast of British India becoming part of a Muslim state. They decided to divide Assam and Sylhet became part of East Pakistan, today’s Bangladesh.

Beginnings of mass migration

The insecurity over the autonomy of areas of East Pakistan led many seamen from Chittagong, Chalna and some towns on the Brahmaputra River, to leave their vessels in the Port of London.

There is further evidence that in the 1950s and 1960s the Sylhet area was targeted by British officials seeking workers in London’s post-war boom. These workers and ex-seamen subsequently brought their families to Britain.

By 1964 some of the streets off Brick Lane were more than 60% Asian, with predominantly Sikh and Pakistani Muslim households.

Civil war on the subcontinent

The Great London Mosque on Brick Lane.
View full size imageThe Great London Mosque on Brick Lane. © NMM
The Muslim state of Pakistan existed in two culturally and historically very different areas of the subcontinent, separated by thousands of miles of Hindu-dominated India.

After nine months of civil war the state of Bangladesh was created in 1971. A flood of refugees and immigrants arrived in East London to join friends and relatives. They formed the largest Bangladeshi community in Europe. 

Many of the early arrivals were from the rural areas of Sylhet and Chittagong. It is worth noting that the early seamen, including cooks and galley-men, were from these same areas. It is one reason why the Bengalis were able to move into the 'Indian' restaurant trade throughout the capital.

In 1976, a building on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street, which had formally been the Great Synagogue, was opened as the Jamme Masjid or Great London Mosque.

Local hostility

Asian School at Wellclose Square.
View full size imageAsian School at Wellclose Square. © NMM
The new Bangaladeshi community did, however, face local hostility. The first skinhead violence was reported in 1969.

The 1970s saw the growth of support for the National Front in East London. This culminated in violence at Brick Lane in 1978. By 1990 it was estimated that there were 15,000 Bangladeshis in the borough of Tower Hamlets.

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