‘The past is steeped in shame, but tomorrow’s fair game’
Lloyd’s of London, the global insurance market, recently pledged to fund opportunities for black and minority ethnic groups, after issuing a formal apology for its “shameful role in the 18th and 19th Century Atlantic slave trade.” Better late than never was a common and not unreasonable reaction. My first thought however, was to wonder if this would draw more attention to the East India Company.
The “inside-out” modernism of the Lloyds’ building in the heart of the city of London occupies the same site as the 200-foot long classical monolith that was the headquarters of the East India Company before being demolished in 1861. No plaque was put up to commemorate the EIC office. This is astonishing given its location and the Company’s impact, and was highlighted as such by author Nick Robins on an East India Company history walk about his book The Corporation That Changed the World, first published in 2006.
It takes a lot of imperial amnesia and colonial chutzpah for such an omission to occur in a metropolis full of museums, archives, and heritage tours. Especially within the Square Mile of the city of London, which takes pride in its privileged powers and old traditions, which include (uniquely and undemocratically) giving businesses a vote in local corporation elections. That walk was organized by Muhammed Ahmedullah, secretary of the Brick Lane Circle, a voluntary group that hosts events and seminars on a wide array of topics but is best known for its Bengal history projects on muslin and publications on the legacy of Plassey.
Named after the street in Whitechapel famous for being a historical centre of immigration long before it drew British Bangladeshis, from 16th century Huguenot refugees to the East End’s once much larger Jewish community, the group’s events generally take place in libraries and community centres around Brick Lane within easy walking distance of the city. Ironically, ever since Tower Hamlets council renamed one of its 20 council wards from Spitalfields to Spitalfields and Banglatown, and the area gained added fame via Monica Ali’s bestseller, the titular road itself has lost many of its famed Bangladeshi businesses.
Thanks to the development of new galleries, fashion emporiums and trendy nightclubs around the former Truman Brewery since the 1990s, the (pre-pandemic) area has become a bustling tourist hotspot. While the tsunami of cash that has followed is largely not spent in British Bangladeshi businesses, some have profited by selling up or renting out. The biggest driver for this is not local gentrification, but the development of London’s derelict Docklands into a global financial services centre. Ever since the transformation of Canary Wharf, the area between it and the city, historically neglected for its association with low wage dock labour and immigrants, has inexorably attracted property developers.
While new money and opportunities have moved to the area, soulless and insensitive development proposals have also regularly descended on Brick Lane. This is not the slow gentrification of “doing up” cheap houses familiar to generations of Londoners, but the rapid mushrooming of blocks of the type that can afford to advertise one room student flats starting from 600 pounds a week. Less regeneration helping locals and more a land grab by the unusually wealthy.
It would be natural at this point, especially given the grim death toll and economic hardship wrought on the local Bangladeshi community by Covid-19, to just be downbeat. But if there is one thing attending BLC’s history talks has taught me, it is to take the long view. Not the very long view which would include stories of Sylheti lascars and cooks from Bengal sailing with the East India Company and settling in London, but the more recent century.
Forty years ago, British Bangladeshis had already made their mark on the rich folklore and history of the East End. In the middle of Brick Lane, the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, built as a church in 1743, was refurbished by the local community as a mosque in 1976. Pioneering community activists in groups like the Canon Barnett Football Club and Bangladesh Youth Front played a vital role in some of the key local housing and nationally significant anti-racist campaigns of the 1970s.
But in the early 80s, a lingering fear of random racist attacks like the murder of Altab Ali in 1978 remained tangible in the air. Good housing and schools were sorely lacking. Much of England’s Jewish community once centred around Whitechapel for over a century had prospered and moved away altogether. The East End was not seen as a good place to live. Since then, the area has become fashionable as the centre of gravity of London’s economy and population has moved eastwards.
It is now considered a good thing for over a third of the entire British Bangladeshi community to be concentrated in and around inner London, even as many are moving to the outer suburbs of London and Essex. Next year’s census will be of huge interest to those seeking to pin down trends and get up to date percentages. In secondary school exams, students of Bangladeshi heritage, once near the bottom of such league tables, are now (like other minority groups) consistently doing better in secondary school exams than the UK average.
While high levels of unemployment and poverty remain a blight for the community, rising aspirations and improved educational opportunities will help many to flourish in ways previous generations rarely imagined. Not that most non-Bangladeshis will care or notice. British Bangladeshis are just a small part of the UK’s non-white, mixed, and religious minorities. A minority even within the partly overlapping sub- groups of British South Asian and British Muslim.
Big enough to see, but small enough to overlook. So, while it can be disheartening to see hordes of well-heeled Sunday brunch-goers and gallery patrons walk by completely oblivious to even the existence of the Kobi Nazrul Arts Centre off Brick Lane, it is not very surprising.
While people who study history may be just as doomed as those who ignore it to repeat the mistakes of the past, I do hope recent pronouncements help public debates on the legacies of colonialism and slavery start to get the attention they should in the UK. As Roddy Frame once sang in Good Morning Britain, understanding the past can help improve the future. “The past is steeped in shame, but tomorrow’s fair game.”
Niaz Alam is London Bureau Chief of Dhaka Tribune.