5 websites for tracing your Bengali ancestors like Sunetra Sarker

By Guest, 22 February 2017 - 2:05pm

Inspired by Sunetra Sarker’s episode? We’ve put together a brief roundup of online resources that can help you trace your Bengali ancestors and understand their lives

Casualty star Sunetra Sarker reconnected with her Bengali roots in her 2017 episode of Who Do You Think You Are?

At the end of her emotional Who Do You Think You Are? journey, Sunetra Sarker remarked that she had “never felt more Bengali”.

However, the Bengal region itself has a complicated history, with its traditional boundaries falling within those of several states that have since been abolished.

Politically speaking, today Bengal comprises the modern Indian state of West Bengal (including Kolkata), along with the People’s Republic of Bangladesh (formerly East Bengal and East Pakistan).

As a result of 20th-century upheaval, it can sometimes be tricky to research ancestors who hailed from the region. However, a number of online resources can help you get started…

1. Ancestry (link)

No matter where your ancestors came from, you should always start with the present day and piece the story together by working backwards in time.

Therefore, if you know your ancestors emigrated from Bengal to Britain, it’s worth checking to see whether there are any passports or immigration papers lurking in your family archive. These may give clues about exactly where in the region they were born.

However, if they arrived between 1890 and 1960, you may also find details in the incoming passenger lists from series BT 26 at The National Archives. Handily, these have been digitised and made available to search on Ancestry.

The genealogy website also holds records of ‘aliens’ (non-British citizens) arriving in the country between 1810-11 and 1825-1869, plus naturalisation records from 1870-1912.

If you don't have an Ancestry subscription, naturalisation and denization records can also be found on TheGenealogist.

2. Findmypast (link)

Since 2014, Findmypast has provided online access to millions of historic records from the extensive India Office Collection at the British Library.

Dating back to the 17th century, the material can help family historians trace individuals who lived and worked across India during the days of colonial rule, including baptism registers, wills and Civil Service papers.

While the most of the records relate to British expats, you may be able to find information about Anglo-Indian marriages and broader Anglo-Indian relations.

3. Endangered Archives Project newspapers (link)

Who Do You Think You Are? researchers were able to investigate the political activities of Sunetra Sarker’s great grandfather, Naresh, through historic newspapers including Amrita Bazar Patrika, which was published in both Bengali and English.

In a deleted scene from the episode, an article from the newspaper even reveals how a boycott of British goods by Bengali students affected Sunetra’s home city of Liverpool.

Thanks to the British Library's Endangered Archives Project, historic copies of Amrita Bazar Patrika, along with Bengali-language title Jugantara Patrika, were digitised and placed online in 2014.

Thousands of digital images created during the project can be accessed free of charge by clicking here.

4. 1947 Partition Archive (link)

This excellent digital archive has been set up to record the first-hand accounts of individuals whose lives were affected by the Partition of India in 1947. It includes people from East Bengal, which became East Pakistan and then Bangladesh following the conclusion of the Indo-Pakistan War in 1971.

Oral testimonies can be accessed via an interactive map, ‘pinned’ on the relevant cities, towns and villages. If you’re lucky, you may find a story relating to the place that your ancestors hailed from.

5. National Archives of Bangladesh (link)

Located in Dhaka, the National Archives of Bangladesh looks after thousands of historic documents from the modern-day republic of Bangladesh and the geographic area that it covers.

The main drawback is that while archival material was divided equally between East and West Bengal following Indian Independence in 1947, attempts to secure material held by the Pakistani authorities concerning East Bengal (East Pakistan) after 1972 were less successful.

Despite being somewhat basic, the National Archives of Bangladesh website contains useful information about the records that it does hold. A detailed breakdown of collections can also be found here.

Once you have found a relevant record set, you can contact the archives for further advice.

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