“This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land”
A Brief History of Bengali Immigrants in America
Part A: Chikondars & Laskars (1880 to 1930)
According to a US Census report(1), in 2007-2008 there were 190,090 people in the US who spoke Bengali at home. This count did not includechildren who were five years and younger at that time. In all likelihood, by now the total number of Bengali immigrants in the US is over 200,000.
When did all these Bengali-speaking immigrants arrive in the US? Most Bengalis now living in the country would correctly guess that the vast majority came to the US after the country liberalized its immigration laws in 1968. Some with long memories may remember a few Bengali scholars and students who settled in America during the fifties. And history buffs may be familiar with the names of some of the Bengali intellectuals and nationalists who left or fled from India in earlier decades – and made US their home base to pursue their fight for India’s independence from the British rule. We may, therefore, surmise that the history of Bengali immigration in America dates back to some eighty years or so. In reality, it stretches over some 130 years, beginning with the arrival in the 1880s of a small number of traders from Bengali villages who came to American port cities on the east coast to sell embroidered silk goods. Over the next seven or eight decades the number of Bengali immigrants ebbed and flowed, and began its steady rate of growth only after the change in the American immigration laws in 1968.
Until very recently, virtually nothing was known about the first fifty years or so of Bengali immigration in America. In a recent book(2)based on meticulous research of steamship logs, immigration documents, census reports, newspaper articles, church records and marriage registries, Vivek Bald, an assistant professor at MIT, has given detailed and fascinating accounts of the lives and struggles of these early Bengali immigrants who called America their adopted home. His book, “Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America”, published in 2013 to critical acclaim, describes in detail two different but somewhat overlapping waves of Bengali immigrants arriving and settling in the US -- and the unusual ways the social and political lives of these settlers evolved in the ensuing years. Much of this part of my multi-part essay is based on this seminal work by Vivek Bald (2), and I gratefully acknowledge his invaluable work.
1885 to 1935 (?): Immigration of Bengali “Chikondars”
According to Vivek Bald’s research, starting around 1885, small groups of Muslim Bengalis from villages in the Hooghly District in Bengal (now West Bengal in India) began to arrive each year in port cities like New York and Baltimore with trunks and sacks laden with embroidered silk goods like shawls, tablecloths, pillow covers and the like. The silk items these Bengali “peddlers” brought with them to sell to Americans were called chikons or chikans, and the traders became known as chikondars or chikandars. The American elite at that time were enthralled by all things Oriental and found such “exotic” items hard to resist. The Bengali merchants slowly but steadily built a flourishing trade in New Jersey’s beach resorts such as Asbury Park and Atlantic City. Each year a few of the peddlers would go back to their villages in Bengal, load their trunks up with new goods and return to the American ports and cities to re-connect with the friends and relatives left behind in previous years. As the demand for these fancy Oriental silk goods spread from rich northern cities like New York to up-and-coming cities like New Orleans (LA) in the south, the Muslim Bengali merchants extended their networks to these places. New Orleans was a particularly attractive city for the chikondars. Bald reports that in 1910, in one neighborhood of New Orleans, Treme, where the Bengalis had established eight households, the number of such peddlers had reached more than fifty. India, China, Egypt and other “Oriental” countries captivated the imagination of the Mardi Gras parade organizers in New Orleans, and the Bengali traders’ silk goods were used heavily to decorate many floats each year. By 1917, these merchants had established outposts in not just New Orleans but also in Charleston (SC), Memphis (TN), Chattanooga (TN), Galveston (TX), Dallas (TX), Birmingham (AL), Atlanta (GA) and Jacksonville (FL). At one time this “Hooghly network” even reached Cuba and several other Caribbean islands, the Panama Canal Zone, and Costa Rica!
The Bengali chikon trade probably began to decline around 1925 and fade away by 1935. May be the Great Depression that began in 1930 drastically reduced demand for fancy goods from the Orient. May be the supply of chikons dried up as the silk craftswomen back in Hooghly area began to pursue other work options. In any case the Bengali traders who had settled in the US gradually got assimilated into the American society.
1910 to 1930 (?): Immigration of Bengali Laskars
A decade or two after the Bengali chikondars started arriving in the US, small bands of Indian steamship laborers began to desert British vessels and melt into the crowd in major eastern seaports like New York. Bald notes that as early as 1900, a New York Postarticle mentioned a “colony” of “Indian seamen living in the sailors’ boardinghouse district”. He goes on to say that “While this was likely a transient population of men moving on and off the ships, in the 1910s some of the seamen began to make their way inland to work factory jobs in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, upstate New York and beyond”. These “ship jumpers” were mostly Bengali Muslims from rural areas in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) such as “Sylhet, Noakhali and Chittagong”. These poorly educated Bengalis were employed, mostly in British ships, as lascars (better known to today’s Bengalis as laskars or khalasis) or low-level laborers.
The trickle of ship-jumping Bengali Muslim laskars that started around 1910 grew into a steady stream during the First World War. Like the network established two decades earlier by the chikondars in the eastern and southern tourist havens, the laskars created their own network of support in many cities spanning a number of states in the industrial north. The ship-jumpers found employment in steel plants, ship yards, automotive assembly lines, munitions factories and the like. The War efforts could absorb plenty of immigrant Bengali (and Punjabi and other Indian – Muslim and Hindu) labor because most American young men had joined the military and were not available for industrial jobs.
It is not clear exactly when the Bengali laskars stopped “jumping ships” and gaining entries into the US. The Great Depression in the 1930s was probably the main reason why the Bengali seamen decided to stay away from American ports and look to other countries for opportunities to better their lives. Like the chikondars before them, the number of ship-jumping laskars stopped increasing, and over time they also got integrated into the patch quilt of the American society.
Lives and Struggles of Early Bengali Immigrants
Most Bengali immigrants currently in the US are well-educated, earn good money and live in decent homes. It would be hard for most of us to imagine the way the early Bengali immigrants lived and struggled in this country to survive, let alone prosper. These early settlers had little or no education, had very little money, had to brave months of arduous voyages in horribly hot and humid conditions as deck or steerage passengers, or had to work inhumane hours in the boiler rooms of ships under abusive rule by British officers and sailors. In India and elsewhere within the British Empire, they were treated as British subjects, and upon arrival in the “free country” of the US, they were greeted with suspicion, surveillance and isolation. While living under constant threat of detention and deportation, these tenacious, clever, diligent men managed to outsmart the authorities, establish beachheads, earn livings, gain grudging acceptance, build extensive support networks, and form families. Total number of Bengali chikondars and laskars in the US probably never exceeded 1000, yet they managed to grow in strength by being creative and supportive and being able to adapt to new circumstances, no matter how foreign or harsh they were.
The early Bengali immigrants, especially the chikondars, had to face a broad array of discriminatory immigration laws and practices at the Federal, state and local levels which began to get enacted in the 1890s. Because the chikondars mainly settled in the southern states, they also had to endure a pervasive and cruel regime of racist “Jim Crow” rules and etiquette that were being put in place throughout the South. Jim Crow forced the Bengali traders to live in black or “colored” neighborhoods only.
When the chikondars began to arrive, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had already been enacted, and it barred Chinese and other Asians from working in the US. Unionized American workers were getting increasingly intolerant of foreign labor. They began to complain bitterly when, in 1903, bands of Punjabi Sikhs started crossing into Washington State from Canada and working in lumber and railroad industries at significantly lower wages than their American counterparts. In 1905, Asiatic Exclusion League was formed in San Francisco (and a sister organization was established in Vancouver, BC in Canada in 1907) with the avowed objective of keeping Japanese, Korean and Indian workers out of American factories and farms (3). A major riot against the Sikhs erupted in Bellingham, WA in 1907, and it succeeded in evicting some two hundred Indian workers from the town (4). – Bengali chikondars in the south apparently avoided these types of violence by lying low and operating “under the radar”, so to speak. However, notwithstanding these cruel indignities, Indian immigrants could apply for naturalization – and in some instances, get US citizenship. (For example, Abdul Dolla, a trader of Afghan descent from Calcutta, obtained citizenship in 1910 as a “white Caucasian”, and Abdul Hamid before him in 1908.) That important privilege was taken away in 1917 as the final act of legalized hostility when the US passed the Immigration Act of 1917 and created “Asiatic Barred Zone”. People from the countries within this zone such as India could no longer apply for US citizenship even if they and their ancestors had lived in the country for decades. In fact, in a landmark case in 1923 (U.S. Vs Bhagat Singh Thind), the Supreme Court denied citizenship to Sindh and retroactively stripped citizenship from Indians who had already been naturalized in the past. -- And in 1924 the government enacted another act that established a country-by-country quota system for new immigrants, and it completely excluded countries from Asia. These laws created a legal basis for open and outright discrimination against Indians and other Asians. They were not even allowed to buy and own property without marriage to a person with that right. Unfortunately the US Supreme Court, on several occasions, held these laws constitutional and thus aided and abetted the discriminatory practices of the authorities and the white Americans. President Teddy Roosevelt, among others, was a strong proponent of these anti-Asian acts.
One of the most interesting results of Bald’s research on early Bengali immigrants in America is the discovery of how the Bengali chikondars and laskars formed families. Since these men could not marry white women and had to live in black and “colored” neighborhoods, they married or partnered with black and “creole of color” and other mixed race women. Bald’s research (and the book) began from his investigations on the ancestry of the grandchildren of some of these Bengali Muslims who are now living in the Harlem area of New York City. Hence the name, “Bengali Harlem”, for his book.
Most Bengalis living in the US now will probably find it puzzling that virtually all of the early immigrants from their part of India were Muslim men. Going through Bald’s book, I could find references to only two Bengali Hindu men. Why so? Probably because the majority of the chikon weavers in Bengal were Muslim. Also, Hindu society in those days had strictures against crossing the oceans (kalapani), and Hindu Bengalis were probably afraid of being scorned by their society for going abroad.
Bald's research has unearthed a few amusing facts about American understanding of and attitudes towards Indians in the period under review. First, all Indians, be they Sikh, Muslim or Hindu, were called “Hindoos” by the authorities and the common folks alike. While most Bengali settlers wore Muslim attires, the press always described their outfits as “Hindoo clothes”. Second, the American society was never quite sure on how to racially classify these foreigners. Indian immigrants were sometimes classified as white, and at other times as coloreds, and in many cases as East Indians or Orientals or even Turkish! Third, white Americans, especially in the South, were openly intolerant of black people, they took less offense to the “Hindoos” and accepted them as “people from India”, an exotic land somewhere in the Orient. Fourth, unlike the Sikh immigrants arriving in California and neighboring states around 1903 from Canada, Bengalis did not come as large groups or build places of worship – nor did they create community enclaves. Bengali immigrants maintained a low profile, and because of the nature of their occupation, did not need to fight American workers, thus avoiding visibility and notoriety. That may be one reason why the history of the Bengali chikandars and laskars was forgotten while the history of Sikh immigration is well known to historians.
Vivek Bald's research did not address one key question: Did immigrants from other states in India come before or around the time Bengali chikandars began to settle in America? Bald should not be blamed; his research was initiated at the urging of the descendents of the Bengali Muslims who arrived in the US at the beginning of the twentieth century. He had no reason to investigate immigration by Indians from other states like Kerala or Andhra Pradesh or Maharashtra. May be some day we will learn of other men from other parts of India who came to the American shores many, many decades ago – even before the brave and tenacious Bengali chikondars and laskars.
A Bengali translation of this article by Sujan Dasgupta can be found at http://www.abasar.net/UNIbibidh_Bnegali_immigrant.htm
(1) Press Release from the US Census Bureau, April 27, 2010. For the specific table citing the number of Bengali speakers in the US in 2007-2008, see http://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/language/data/other/detailed-lang-tables.xls
(2) “Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America” by Vivek Bald, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013
(3) “Asiatic Exclusion League”, Wikipedia. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asiatic_Exclusion_League
(4) “1907 Bellingham Riots”, Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, see http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/bham_intro.htm
(Posted January 28, 2014)
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