Bengali Brick Lane, and the ‘Indian’ restaurant trade, have their roots in the British Empire and the mass movement of peoples and goods around the world which accompanied the imperial project.
What we now know as Bangladesh was once part of a united India. The establishment of the British East India Company in 1600 opened trade routes and early migration passages between Bengal and Britain. The Company sent its first trading ships to the Indian subcontinent in 1607. These ships transported cargoes of goods, including spices, cotton, silk, jute, indigo, tea, porcelain and opium, to London's docks. By the 1720s, the Bengal province contributed over half of the East India Company’s imports from the Indian subcontinent.
In 1757, after the Battle of Plassey, Bengal became virtually an East India Company province, where Company officials made a fortune from land titles. The port city of Calcutta, which later became the capital city of the British Raj, was one of the East India Company’s most important bases.
In 1857, after the Great Indian Rebellion, the East India Company was abolished and the British Crown took direct rule of India. From this point onward, Britain began to export greater volumes of tea from Assam and from British tea estates in the hills of Sylhet. Britain also exported jute cultivated in Sylhet and processed in the mills of Calcutta. Sylhet, then a district in the province of Assam, was also strategically very important to Britain because of its network of waterways which allowed for the easy transportation of tea from Assam to the port of Calcutta.
Along with imperial goods came imperial subjects. Between 1900 and 1947, 50,000 or so Indian seamen passed through British ports each year. Sylheti seafarers, known as lascars, were among the earliest Bengali settlers in East London. From as early as the seventeenth century, the East India Company increasingly crewed trading vessels with seamen from different parts of the empire, including Bengal. Young seamen from Sylhet were employed to work as deckhands and cooks on East India Company ships, carrying them from the port city of Calcutta to the docks of East London.
From the mid-nineteenth century, lascars became crucial in the workforce of the imperial merchant marine. Adams, in her oral history of pioneer Sylheti settlers in the East End, writes
‘the heyday of steam shipping, the 1850s to the 1950s was also the heyday of the lascar seamen.’ (Adams, 1994:16)
By the 1850s, between 5,000 and 6,000 lascars were employed on ships sailing to Britain every year, and by 1938, over 50,700 lascars crewed British merchant ships worldwide, often in hazardous conditions and for less pay than their European counterparts. When their seafaring contracts expired, many were abandoned by their employers in ports in London, left destitute to fend for themselves. Others jumped ship, in the hope of finding better employment ashore. These men ended up settling near the docks, in the East End of London, forming the first small, settled community of Sylhetis in the area.
One Bangladeshi-born Brick Lane restaurateur told us his grandfather was a merchant seaman who had spent a few years living in the Whitechapel area when his contract expired:
‘When he came to the UK port his contract ended. So, he had to get another contract to go into the same ship […] Somehow the contract got delayed, so he kind of stayed. But he didn't stay long. I think he stayed about a year or two. Then my dad came. He actually brought my dad.’
The British Royal Navy also recruited men from Sylhet as galley chefs. Some of these men, upon landing in the East End, found work as cooks in Brick Lane’s earliest curry cafés.
During the First World War, British shipping companies employed greater numbers of lascars on merchant ships. By the end of the war, in 1919, Indian seamen constituted roughly 20% of the British maritime workforce. Following service in the war, increasing numbers of ex-lascars began to settle in the East End, increasing the size of the small existing pre-war community of Sylheti seafarers. Their numbers steadily grew until 1945.
At the start of the Second World War, there was a settled community in the East End of around 200 merchant seamen from Bengal. During the war, 50,700 Indian seamen were recruited to work in the British Navy, making up 26% of the labour force. Indian records show that 6,600 lascars were killed during the Second World War, another 1,000 wounded and 1,200 taken prisoner, many of them Bengali seamen from Sylhet.
Lascars were not the only imperial subjects who found their way to London’s East End by sea. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries Indian nannies, or ayahs, and domestic servants arrived in London with their employers - men who were returning to Britain having made their fortunes in India as employees of the East India Company. These ships also brought a handful of Indian royals and aristocratic families, many of whom came to study at English and Scottish universities.
Those who arrived in East London from India in the years between 1857 and 1947, lascars and otherwise, did so as subjects of the British Crown. As British imperial subjects, they, in theory, had the freedom to live, work and settle in Britain. In practice, however, these freedoms were compromised by various policies, including the Lascar Act of 1823, the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 and the Coloured Alien Seamen’s’ Order of 1925, which were designed to make it as difficult as possible for lascars to jump ship and forge new livelihoods ashore in Britain.
Nevertheless, Sylheti lascars formed the first sizeable South Asian community in Britain. Although numbers were small, these early patterns of migration provided the template for later migration from Bengal in the post-1945 years. Many of these early seafaring settlers, by establishing ‘Indian’ coffee-houses and cafés in the East End, laid the foundations for the curry restaurants we see in Brick Lane today.