Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: 400 Years of Settlement

East India House by Thomas ShepherdBritain's Bangladeshi/Bengali community is often seen as having arrived relatively recently. In fact there is evidence of migration from Bengal to Britain for over 400 years. This movement happened because of the trade in spices between Britain and India from the 1600s onwards through the East India Company.

The East India Company opened its first factory in India in 1615, while Britain was under the rule of King James I and India was ruled by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir.

Ships trading in the EastBy 1757, after the Battle of Plassey, the British East India Company ruled Bengal and employed Bengali seamen – known as lascars – on their trading routes from Calcutta to the docks of East London. The ships also brought to Britain Indian servants, nannies and nursemaids, known as ayahs, who came with the senior British families returning from the Raj (as the British Empire in India was known) as well as members of Indian royal and aristocratic families who came for education purposes. Later on, the ships brought the Indian wives of middle-class British traders, colonial administrators and adventurers.

Central Asian trade routesLascars, many recruited from Sylhet, (a region in the north-east of Bengal), were employed on the Imperial trading routes between India, Burma, China, the Malay archipelago and East Africa, as well as Britain. The history of travel for Bengalis is long established and world wide. From the middle of the eighteenth century, there are records of unemployed and poverty-stricken lascars who had been stranded in London by a series of laws called the Navigation Acts. These Acts meant that many Indian sailors arriving in London from India could not be re-employed on return journeys and were abandoned. By the end of the eighteenth century, public concern about these lascars led to the setting up of hostels and seamen's homes Regent's Canal, Limehouse, 1823close to the docks. This situation continued throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century – for example, in 1855, the British merchant navy took on 10,000-12,000 lascars every year - half of them were brought to the UK and dumped here to fend for themselves. In 1850, 40 'sons of India' were found dead of cold and hunger in London alone, and by 1857 Joseph Salter's (a missionary) 'Stranger's Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders' was opened in Limehouse, East London. In 1867, Salter found small numbers of Asians in Birmingham, Brighton, Southampton, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Sunderland, Durham, Glasgow, Hull, Stirling, Leith, Bath and the Isle of Wight.

Gandhi in 1891At the same time, there were signs of the beginning of permanently settled Asian communities across Britain. Asian festivals and burials became part of the British social scene, with the setting up of a Parsi chapel and cemetery in Woking in 1861 and the opening of the first mosque, also in Woking, in 1889. Gandhi (who led the non-violence movements protesting against British rule in India) studied here from 1887-90, followed by Jinnah and Nehru (who were the first leaders of Pakistan and India after Independence in 1947). In 1892, Dadabhai Naoroji was elected as Liberal MP for central Finsbury (the first Asian MP), while Sir Mancherjee Merwangee served as Conservative MP for Bethnal Green from 1895 to 1968.

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