Bengal’s fertility made it an extremely prosperous region in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Bengal was the 'bridgehead' from which the British empire expanded over the rest of India. Calcutta, its main city was the capital of the British Indian empire until 1912; and Bengal itself was a province of great economic and political importance to that empire. Through Bengal’s great rivers flowed much of the trade between India and Europe, and throughout the Indian Ocean region. That trade was mainly in textiles, since Bengal’s fine textiles were in great demand in the western world. Its rivers and ports were the arteries of this growing trade, and the traditional skills of its boatmen were a vital resource for a commercial and maritime empire which came to span the world.
In the twentieth century, jute and tea were also vital commodities produced in Bengal and its neighbouring province, Assam. Bengal had a world monopoly in the production of raw jute, a fibrous plant used to make rope and sacking. Darjeeling and Assam teas competed with Chinese tea for dominance in the world market. Bengal was also a significant producer of paper, leather goods, chemicals and dyes; and it has continued to produce marvellous textiles, mainly woven saris, which are highly prized by women of South Asian origin.
By the middle of the twentieth century, over-population and over-cultivation had eroded the fertility of the soil. British interventions into its economy – particularly heavy taxes on the land and policies that favoured British goods over Indian-made goods – contributed to its stagnation and decline. Famine once again began to stalk the land, and between 1943 and 1945, three million people are thought to have died of starvation and disease. The partition (division) of the province between India and Pakistan in 1947 was also a great shock to the economy of the whole region, since factories were cut off from the agrarian hinterlands where the raw materials they needed were grown. Some scholars argue that the region has yet to recover wholly from these setbacks to its economy, although there are some recent signs for optimism.
Bengalis mainly came to Britain as labour migrants in the 1960s and 1970s and many men came to work in the textile and steel mills across England. Many of these industries closed from the 1970s onwards and Bengalis had to find alternative work. Many turned to the restaurant industry – it is estimated that there are around 12,000 'Indian' restaurants and takeaways in Britain, 90% of which are owned and run by Bengalis. The restaurant sector employs over 85,000 people and is worth an estimated £3.2 billion.
Today, a high proportion of Bangladeshis work in hotels and catering (65%). Large numbers of Bangladeshis are also still found in textile industries or in occupations associated with printing. Many Bangladeshis are self employed. However, they had the lowest percentages of all ethnic groups in higher managerial professions (2.1% compared to 6.1% for the population as a whole). Many Bangladeshi women are employed as 'home workers' as well as in the hotel, catering and restaurant sectors (20%).
Bangladeshis have one of the lowest employment rates among both men (61.7 %) and women (23.4 %). Bangladeshi men had the highest unemployment rate in the UK at 20% – four times that for white men. Bangladeshi women had the highest unemployment rate at 24%, six times greater than that for white women (4%).