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“We got into our boats in the dead of night and floated quietly over to this side with nothing but our beating hearts in our hands. We couldn't carry anything for fear the boat might sink. There were fifteen of us in it huddled together in terror.”
Anwara describes her journey to East Pakistan from India in the 1950s

“It was published in the newspapers that the British government was giving voucher visas. I went to Sylhet Town and filled out the form. I collected the voucher at the end of 1963 and came to this country on 15 January 1964.”
Mohammed Shamuz Mia explains how he came to Britain

Woman with photo of relatives
© Annu Jalais

Learn how to interview members of your own family

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Moving People Changing Places

1600s
Bengal under the rule of Jahangir, India’s Mughal Emperor.  The British East India Company establish a trading settlement in Calcutta in 1690.

Flag of British East India Company
Flag of the British East India Company

1700s
The East India Company control Bengal from 1757.  Bengali seamen (lascars) are employed on ships trading between Calcutta and London. Traders and colonial administrators arrive from Britain, and Indian servants and aristocracy make the journey westwards.

1800s
By the middle of the century more than 10,000 lascars a year are recruited by the British merchant navy.  Many are abandoned in British ports, particularly London’s East End.

1900s
India gains independence in 1947, and is partitioned into two states: Pakistan (with a mostly Muslim population) and India (predominantly Hindu).  Pakistan includes large parts of Punjab in the West and Bengal in the East.  In 1971, following a civil war in Pakistan, the eastern part gains independence and the nation of Bangladesh is formed.  Partition and the creation of new borders leads to mass migration. 

Post-war Britain
Estimates suggests there are 2,000 mostly male Bengalis in Britain by 1951, 6,000 by 1961 and 22,000 by 1971. Women and children join them in the 1970s.  By the 1990s, a third generation of British-born Bengalis has emerged for whom Islamic identity is more important than the Bangladeshi politics and local left-wing activism of previous generations.

Bangla mobility

For many groups of migrants the motivations to move to a new location are mixed.  Political but also environmental events may force them out, and the promise of a better life, offering work, wealth and security, may attract them. The people of Bengal in north-east India and what is now Bangladesh have experience of all these factors. Driven from home by the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and then in 1971 by the formation of Bangladesh, many sought refuge across the border or further afield. But natural changes to the landscape and ecology of the Ganges delta have also forced many to move.

The British established a base in Bengal from the late-1600s, and the region became important as a trading and administrative hub for the Empire. This colonial relationship opened up local opportunities, and Bengali seamen were one group whose lives changed significantly. Serving on British ships, they were the region's most active migrants until after 1947 when so many were displaced following Partition, when India split into two states: India and Pakistan.

Pakistani camp, Dhaka
© Annu Jalais
From the 1950s, many male migrants from this area travelled to Britain to work in trade and industry, with women and children joining them from the 1970s onwards.

Researchers from Cambridge University and the London School of Economics examined the migration of Bengali Muslims in depth to understand more about their histories, what factors influenced their movements, and what skills and resources they acquired from migrating and settling. Researching in eight locations (four in the UK, and four in India/Bangladesh), they explored archives, recorded interviews, used visual methods, and observed everyday life. Nearly 200 life histories of migrants were collected, and some of these can be read on their Bangla Stories website.

The different migrant locations are also described.  One of these is Satkhira, a district in south-west Bangladesh, where refugee camps were established for Muslim migrants who fled riots in Indian West Bengal in the 1950s. Another is Oldham in north-west England which was settled by Bengalis who came to work in the textile industry in the 1960s. They adopted a small area now known as 'Bangla Para' where they had access to shops and services and could support one another when attacked or abused by racist members of the National Front and, more recently, the British National Party.

Man and child on sandbar, BangladeshOldham
© Annu Jalais
For over a century Bengali Muslims have had mobile lifestyles. Many families have a history of migration, and have relatives in different parts of the world.  They have 'mobility capital', those skills, resources and networks that they have acquired as a result of having to cope with displacement, difficult journeys, new living conditions and few material possessions.