The Bangladeshi Community

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The many paths taken by the Bangladeshi settlers in Britain, involve stories of adventure and courage - revealing aspirations and a passion for a new life which would involve both dreams and fears.

Before we can begin to retrace the historical path of many of these people, especially those who came to Gloucestershire, we must first establish that many were not immigrants but were serving as merchant seamen.

Many of these people were born under British rule and therefore did not migrate through choice. Instead, as a nation governed by the British, they were asked to represent what was considered as the 'Mother Country'.

During the 1920's, 48 countries had joined forces with Britain, for Britain. A large proportion of these men were from Bangladesh.

Considering the contribution of these men in war, it is sad to reflect at the way in which they were soon afterwards merely looked upon in the wider community as anonymous Asians. Many however are heroes within their own communities with tales of courage and their hopes for a country they once believed was a nation with equal claim to a land they had fought for.

As communities of Bangladeshi people grew in size, it was not just the veteran seamen that had tales of adventure to tell. Every Asian living in these ever-expanding communities has shared experiences most of which are unique journeys which are untold to the wider community.

This project tries to uncover some of these untold stories, invoking reason for why so many people from Bangladesh came to Britain and what they found on arrival. Was Britain all that was expected of it?

Undoubtedly a readjustment to new surroundings was to be anticipated, but nothing new to the many who had knowledge of the differences between religion, language and so on. What was not expected was the bigotry faced by new settlers. As the number of migrants grew, followers of racist organisations also grew at an alarming rate.

This book will uncover some of the stories of those who have traveled across seas, with journeys and experiences to share. A migrant population that has brought colour and diversity to this country.

Bangladesh, East Pakistan, was previously part of West Pakistan until the 25 March 1971. The liberation movement was the product of an unrelenting battle for independence. However the newly-liberated country was born into chaos and despair, with a collapsing economy and a disrupted communications system. The war which followed the liberation movement had left Bangladesh in disarray and many had wondered if this was to be a permanent state of disorder.

Pakistan's plan to eliminate the intellectuals in East Pakistan, had left the new country without an educated class. All 'subversives' were to be 'taken outside the city' and shot in cold blood by the Pakistani army. The new-born country was set back further by a famine from 1973 -74. The 'world's 139th country' was declared a ravaged land. Sheik Mujib became President but shortly afterwards he and his family were murdered in one night. Many leaders followed, following a similar pattern of assassination.

Research and interest in Muslim communities did not really start until 1985 when a Muslim presence began to be really established in Britain. Academics, social scientists began looking at patterns of migration, culture and religion. Many of those who contributed or even began the series of studies which are used for reference now, were British Muslim scholars.

This highlights how the image of many Asians, especially Bangladeshi people, is presumed. The myth is that they all work in the catering industry. However this a misleading stereotype. Many Asians are working professionals in diverse fields.
In the following chapters there are a number of interviews with people from Gloucester. The project and the interviews reflect generations of people from Bangladesh as well as those born and brought up in Britain. Many of whom would resist a career in the restaurant business as unstable and unsatisfactory.

Before we begin our journey into the history of Bangladeshi settlers in Gloucester it is important to mention the lack of information about such a growing community. Perhaps this reflects ignorance or neglected interest on the part of those in institutional power or as I found on arrival at the records office in Gloucester, the lack of information provided by people from the Bangladeshi community.

Many of the Bangladeshi settlers in Gloucestershire are from the Sylhet, a district situated in the north-east corner of Bangladesh. The Sylhet district is approximately half an hour's journey by air from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.

The district is segmented into areas of thick foliage. Towards the east, especially on high ground, there are mass regions of jungle. The culture, lifestyle and traditions of this region create a colourful and diverse land.

It is evident that the arts play an important role across the boundaries of Bangladesh. The arts, including dance, fine art and poetry all reflect a passion for the country's history. Bangladesh is known notably for it's literature. The people of the land believe they are particularly blessed by the passion in which they write deep and sensitive poetry. The most well known writers in Bengali history are Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam. Both were and still are, highly respected. From the Bangladeshi elite to those who hang their photo's up in barber shops and restaurants, people hold up Tagore as being one of the most gifted writers in Bangladesh. His books have reached international awareness. Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his book 'Gintanjali' in 1913.

Music and dance also plays a captivating role in the arts of Bangladesh. The classical music, combined with the fluidity of the dancers was an artistic form of expression, where the passion of every step and note, played out a story to those who would watch. The music was mainly of a folk origin, which is the traditional style of music in Bangladesh. Besides this there is classical music, which is culturally dominated by Indian music.

The family unit plays an important role within Bangladesh. Often the family is the foundation for both the 'social and economic life'. Dependency is placed upon the eldest, whose responsibility is to care and provide for the others in the family. The family will reside in one household and when the son marries the wife will be brought to his home. The family is the basis from which the family might socialise. It is a protective and closed circle where duty, respect and love are key factors.

Traditional clothing has brought diversity and colour to those who maintained a form of identity through their clothing in this country - particularly the women who wear the 'sari'. This is a long piece of material which is wrapped around the woman's body and fashioned as an elegant dress. The six-foot long material, is worn by women from all backgrounds as daily wear, business and evening wear. The many different designs and colours are never-ending.

The phenomenon of this flattering style of dress was documented in an article in the local Gloucester newspaper under the headline: "IT'S KIND TO EVERY FIGURE". The article from 1955 describes the costume as being worn by the 'ladies of the East'. It describes the first sight of a sari worn at a formal dinner by an Asian doctor from Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. As many of the men from the East have adapted to Westernised clothing, the majority of the women have chosen to remain loyal to the sari.

Those from Sylhet are very proud of their heritage. They speak in Sylheti. Many of those who had arrived in the earlier years of migration had come with business proposals, many of which were directed towards establishing restaurants within Gloucester city centre.

These people, many of which were men, had come alone in order to earn money to give their families back home a better life. They came with a passport and a work permit but found a lack of jobs and security.

In 1965, the British government sent five delegates to Sylhet to gain a better understanding of the new arrivals who were scattered around parts of Britain. They specifically went to the villages in which the families of those who were working in Britain remained. The government then gave permission for these families to join their husbands.

p83 - At the time, there were a few Bangladeshi families living in Barton Street, the majority of the community being from India. From 1961-63 Barton Street's Asian population started to expand. However some of the senior members of the community remember not wanting to reside in Barton Street as there seemed to be nothing there for them. The only attraction was that there was an Asian store to buy food from. The Bangladeshi children were part of a minority at the time, in comparison to now. Communication was also a real problem due to the language barrier.

In a positive light, it is important to establish how well Bangladeshi children are doing in schools today. The pass rates of A Level, GCSEs and so on are getting better every year. The children are maintaining their cultural roots by learning their mother tongue as well. Girls are now following their academic studies with professional jobs, while maintaining a respect and understanding of the traditions and cultures of where they came from. In Gloucester there is not only a Bangladeshi Men's Association but also a Bangladeshi Women's Association - the two often working together to develop understanding and awareness.

Culturally the community is ever-expanding and developing. If we look back ten years ago, the Bangladeshi people would not have been recognised by anyone as a community. But slowly, people are recognising the Bangladeshi people for their cultural traditions. For example, the New Year which is now celebrated in different schools.

Children performing a Bengali drama at Widden Primary School

Our Untold Stories is a series of three award winning local history books - find out more...