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History of Sikhism in Britain

Origins
Most of Britain's 500,000 Sikhs have their origins in immigration either from the Punjab in Northwest India in the 1950s and 60s, or from East Africa slightly later.

The First Settler
The first recorded Sikh settler in Britain was Maharajah Duleep Singh.
Duleep Singh was the last ruler of the Sikh kingdom of Punjab. The Maharajah was dethroned after 6 years rule, and exiled to Britain in 1849 at the age of 14, after the Anglo-Sikh wars. There is a statue to the Maharajah at Butten Island, Thetford, Norfolk, near the Elveden Estate where he lived in Britain. The statue was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1999.

Despite the early arrival of the Maharajah, the first Sikh Gurdwara (temple) was not established until 1911, at Putney in London.

The Main Immigration of the Sikhs
The first Sikh migration came in the 1950s. It was mostly of men from the Punjab seeking work in British industry, which had a shortage of unskilled labour. Most of the new arrivals worked in industries like foundries and textiles. These new arrivals mostly settled in London, Birmingham and West Yorkshire.

The first batch of Sikh migrants usually removed the outward religious symbols (turban, hair and beard) as racist prejudice in Britain would have kept them out of work.

Why Did They Leave the Punjab?
There was a shortage of industrial and agricultural jobs, but also because of the chaotic aftermath of the 1947 division of "British" India into the secular but largely Hindu state of India and the Muslim state of Pakistan. The frontier between India and Pakistan ran through the Sikh homeland of the Punjab. There was bloodshed and destruction as millions of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs tried to cross the border to the safety of their own communities. The Punjab changed from a settled and prosperous area to a violent and overcrowded frontier zone. Many Sikhs left the area that was to become Pakistan to move to the Indian section of the Punjab, while others left India altogether.

The Sikhs from East Africa took a robust attitude to the outward symbols of Sikhism and continued to wear them.

Since they had been living as an expatriate community in Africa for over 70 years they were accustomed to being a highly visible minority. They also had the further advantage of usually being highly skilled and employable, in contrast to the humble labourers from the Punjab.

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