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River of Tea

Tea has occupied a special place in British culture for centuries. The tea industry has played a leading role in connecting Britain and the Asian subcontinent. However, behind Britain's cup of choice is a fascinating story rarely told, of how the early tea trade sparked a migration that has had a huge impact on modern-day Bangladesh and Britain. Over 500,000 British-Bangladeshis now live in Britain. Over 90% are from the Sylhet region, a district that was once part of Assam, the first tea growing region in British India. This is an exploration of how the early tea trade led to Sylhetis first coming to Britain and establishing communities that maintain strong links between Sylhet and Britain today. These connections were first forged when the British established tea plantations in Assam in the 1830s. They relied on river shipping to get the tea from plantations to Calcutta for export. It was the Sylhetis, master sailors and shipbuilders, who first provided this transport. In the early 1800s Britain had to buy tea, the nation's most popular drink, from China. China's monopoly kept prices high. Searching for cheaper tea, the British came across a wild plant used to make a drink by local people in Assam in northeastern India. The plant turned out to be a new variety of tea, and the British quickly established tea plantations across Assam Province which, in British India, included Sylhet. Once harvested the tea needed to travel hundreds of miles from the remote plantations to the port of Calcutta, the headquarters of London's East India Company.

Sylheti sailors had been moving cargo between Sylhet and the coast for centuries, navigating the vast rivers flowing from the Himalayas towards the Bay of Bengal. They began to use their wooden ships to transport tea for the British. Later the British used paddle steamers to ship tea, but continued to rely on the Sylhetis as pilots and crew. These sailors established their own community in Kidderpore, the dockland area of Calcutta. In the late 1800s the British built railways which provided a fast, reliable way to get the tea to the ports and many Sylheti sailors lost their river based jobs. Instead they began to work on ocean-going ships taking tea to Britain. Known as lascars they were generally given the hardest, dirtiest jobs, stoking coal in steamship engine rooms. When they returned home they recruited others, and successive generations of Sylheti men signed up to work on British ships.

After the Second World War coal-fired ships were replaced by a diesel fleet. As stokers' jobs disappeared, Britain's post-war industrial boom created a huge demand for unskilled labour and sailors were able to find work ashore in Britain. As Sylheti sailors got jobs and settled into new lives in Britain, they encouraged other men in their families to join them. During the 1960s their wives and children migrated too and large communities began to develop. During the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, many refugees arrived to join friends or relatives already in Britain.

British Bangladeshis keep close links with Bangladesh, sending back money and visiting their extended families there. Remittances sent to Sylhet District have transformed the area. Sylhet City is now one of the richest places in Bangladesh, with investments in hotels, shopping malls and housing. In some areas land has become so valuable that local people have been priced out of the market, which has led to falling food production. Many British Bangladeshis also support charities or community developments in Sylhet, particularly in education and healthcare.

Drinking tea has become an important part of British, Indian and Bangladeshi culture. Yet it is not just the story of our national drink that has been shaped this story of migration from Bangladesh to Britain. The British love of curry has long been fed by this same process. During their time in the British Merchant Navy, some Sylhetis became ship's cooks. When they settled in Britain many of them entered the catering trade, with the result that over 80% of 'Indian' restaurants in Britain are actually run by British Bangladeshis, selling food based on their own regional cuisine.
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