Bengali-speaking community in the Port of London
|Bengalis in the East End|
Origins of the East End Bengali community
Calcutta became the Indian terminus of the P&O line in 1842 and Bengali Lascars started arriving in London on the P&O mail and passenger ships.
There is evidence of a Muslim Bengali community in the East End before 1850. This consisted mainly of Lascars who had either been abandoned in the port or had voluntarily left their ships.
Few single Asian women arrived in England. However, at least one woman described as a 'dark girl of Indian Portuguese class' kept a lodge with the help of two or three English friends.
The first Bengali British
Many Bengali Lascars and destitute servants found it difficult to gain employment in England and became musicians playing Indian drums, tambourines and sitars in the streets of the East End. Some eventually entered into relationships with local English women and a generation of Bengali-British children was born.
Perhaps the most famous child of Bengali-British parentage was Albert Mahomet. He was born in 1858 at Sophia Street in Bow, East London, to an English mother and an ex-seaman from Calcutta. Mahomet grew up in a world of crime and poverty that claimed many of his siblings. Eventually, he moved to the city of Wells and became a respected Methodist preacher and photographer.
Lascars in the Merchant Navy
By 1873 there is mention of a lodge run by an Englishwoman called 'Calcutta' Louisa and another run by 'Lascar' Sally, for Indian Lascars at the riverside of the High Street at Wapping.
'Lascar' Sally’s real name was Sarah Graham. These English women lived with their Indian partners and often even spoke Bengali or Hindi.
Bengalis in late 19th-century London
Not all Bengalis in 19th-century London were part of the East End working class. There were Bengali students of medicine at London University, and numerous members of Bengali aristocracy.
One Hindu Bengali from Calcutta by the name of Lal Mohan Ghose (1849-1909) was educated as a barrister in London. He stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate at Deptford in 1885 and 1886.
Early 20th-century experiences
In the interwar depression years there were a number of Sylheti seamen in London, selling cheap articles. At least one ex-sailor Sylheti, Ayub Ali, arrived in London and established a restaurant at 76 Commercial Street in Whitechapel. Another Sylheti ex-sailor, Syed Tofussil Ally, opened the British Indian Sailors' Home and seaman's outfitting shop at 32-3 Victoria Dock Road, in Canning Town.
The Blitz forced Syed Ally to move out of the docks and he eventually ended up in Glasgow. In 1943, Ayub Ali and Shah Abdul Majid Qureshi established the Indian Seaman’s Welfare League at 66, Christian Street. The membership of this organization was largely Sylheti.