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Bangladesh 50 Years

Identity and belonging in the East End before and after the Liberation War of 1971


2021 marks 50 years since the independence of Bangladesh. To mark the significance of this, Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives (THLHLA) and the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) are leading Bangladesh 50 Years, one of four projects that forms a part of the National Portrait Gallery’s offsite programme; Citizen UK, during its temporary closure to transform the gallery. 

Citizen UK is an exciting research and creative engagement project involving the borough archive services, local communities and contemporary artists. It is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The project will conclude with a Bangladesh 50 Festival taking place Feb-March 2021, marking Bangladesh Independence Day (26 March) and the related anniversary UN International Mother Language Day (21 February),  kicked off by the launch of a creative commission which will sit in the public realm in Tower Hamlets as well as a exhibition curated by Citizen Researchers, informed by historical materials from Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives and the National Portrait Gallery.

We are pleased to be working with a steering group made up of academics, historians and activists who critically engage with the project’ decisions.  Our steering group includes Ansar Ahmed Ullah (Swadhinata Trust/QMUL) Julie Begum (Swadhinata Trust), Shabna Begum (QMUL) Fatima Rajina (Nijjor Manush) Hajera Begum (Nijjor Manush)  Ruksana Kazi Begum (LBTH) Georgie Wemyss (UEL).

Bengali people and the local history of Tower Hamlets

Bengali people have lived in the UK since the 17th century. Most were seamen known as ‘Lascars’ who worked on board ships on trade routes around the world. When the merchant navy’s workforce was diverted to the Royal Navy during the First World War, seafarers from countries colonised by Britain took up vacancies in the merchant fleet. When ships stopped in port cities lascars found work and settled there.

After the Second World War, the British government advertised the readily availability of paid work in the post-war rebuilding project, and tens of thousands of migrants from across its empire took up the call.

During this period of mass migration, incomers were often drawn to settle in neighbourhoods which offered a degree of familiarity, and in the case of Bengali migrants from the Sylhet area, they may have joined older seafaring relatives in the cheap, bomb damaged East End who had settled close to the port of London in the decades prior. By the late twentieth century Tower Hamlets was home to a large, confident British Bangladeshi community which had overcome racism and poverty to play a major role in the local area’s economy, culture and politics.

The Liberation War of 1971 between Pakistan and the nascent nation state of Bangladesh was a foundational moment in the history of the local East End community even though none of its battles were fought in Tower Hamlets. The 50th anniversary of independence presents an opportunity to explore the impact of the 1971 war on Bangladeshi residents who had arrived in the East End from a country then called East Pakistan but whose lives in the East End would be influenced and shaped by the newfound, and hard won, independent nation of Bangladesh.


Previous Projects with the Bangladeshi community

In the last ten years Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives (THLHLA), through previous collaborative projects such as ‘Bengali East End’, ‘Poetic East End’, ‘Where I Belong’ and ‘Home Machinists’ has explored and collected a range of archives documenting the lived experiences of Bangladeshis in the East End. THLHLA continues to seek out collaborations and new collections that reflect the plurality of experiences of this diverse community, and aims through its work to provide a space for the exploration and sharing of critical historical reflections. This is work is anchored in the mutual exchange and dialogue between British Bangladeshis: for example considering their relationships to ‘home’ overseas, as well as locally within London and the UK; and their relationships to the East End’s other diasporic communities, past and present. 

How to get involved

Lead artist - Bangladesh 50 Years, Tower Hamlets, National Portrait Gallery. To apply click here [PDF]

Digital Producer – Bangladesh 50 Years [PDF]

Citizen Researcher [PDF Poster]

Are you interested in Bangladeshi community history in the East End and the impact of the 1971 Liberation War? A new artist-led project commemorating the 50th anniversary of Independence needs local people to get involved by exploring these histories with Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives and the National Portrait Gallery. Bangladesh 50 and Citizen UK are part of the National
Portrait Gallery’s Inspiring People project.

Please get in touch if you:

  • Are of Bangladeshi heritage
  • Live in Tower Hamlets or have a strong connection and familiarity with the borough
  • Can attend online events or be supported to get online at home
  • Are keen to do historical research or already have some experience
  • Can commit your time to the project from October until March 2021

What do you get out of it?

  • Collaborate with others to develop the Bangladesh 50 Festival exhibition + event programme
  • In-depth training in archival research and support from heritage experts
  • You will be compensated for your participation, this will be explained further during selection

You’ll be expected to:

  • Attend a series of online collections workshops + guided history walks (subject to health & safety risk assessment)
  • Participate in group work and share your experience throughout the project
  • Commitment: approx. 8 half days
  • Take responsibility for completing the tasks assigned to you

Sound good? Apply to be a Citizen Researcher

  • Email us explaining why you fi t the bill and want to be involved
  • If easier, you can email a video or voicenote instead
  • Find an image that you feel captures an aspect of British Bangladeshi identity and attach it to your email with a brief explanation
  • Elders supported by younger family members are particularly welcome

Deadline: Thursday 1 October 2020