Aftab Ali

Date of birth: 
01 Jan 1907
Precise DOB unknown: 
City of birth: 
Katalkhair, Sylhet
Country of birth: 
Current name country of birth: 
Precise date of death unknown: 
Date of 1st arrival in Britain: 
01 Jul 1939
Dates of time spent in Britain: 

July - August 1939


London; Dundee.


Although Aftab Ali never settled in Britain he was important in organizing lascars there. Furthermore his work in the late 1940s and early 1950s made it possible for thousands of migrant workers to settle in Britain.

Ali worked as a sailor in the 1920s gaining valuable first-hand experiences of the inadequate working conditions of lascars. This motivated him to work tirelessly for better working rights for South Asian seamen. In 1925 he became involved with the Calcutta-based Indian Seamen’s Union, soon becoming its General Secretary. In order to make South Asian seamen’s campaigns for better conditions more effective, he proposed to unite the various unions under the banner of the All-India Seamen’s Federation. He became its President in 1937.

He visited London in 1939 en route to the International Labour Organization’s conference in Geneva. Ali also participated in the Indian Workers’ Conference, organized by Surat Alley. Apart from London he also visited Dundee. While in London he was embroiled in the power struggle between Surat Alley and Krishna Menon. Suspicious of Alley’s Communist connections, he briefly supported Krishna Menon’s efforts in the East End of London and was considering Menon as the official representation of the All-India Seamen’s Federation. However, Menon quickly lost support among the lascar community and Ali switched his support back to Alley.

The work of Surat Alley and Aftab Ali was instrumental in breaking the deadlock between British ship-owners and striking lascars at the outbreak of war in 1939. Ali became Vice-President of the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) in 1939 and was a member of the Bengal Legislative Assembly from 1937 to 1944. In 1941 he broke away from the AITUC. He was appointed Honorary Lieutenant Commander of the Royal Indian Naval Reserve in 1942.

After the partition of India, he moved to Pakistan and sat as an independent MP in the Legislative Assembly. He proposed that Pakistani seamen should leave their ships in British ports and settle there, adding to the small South Asian community already settled in Britain. In the early 1950s, he formed the Overseas Seamen’s Welfare Association to campaign for the granting of British passports to distressed seamen and their families.


Ayub Ali, Nesar Ali, Surat Alley, Maulana Bashana, Dr Basu, Ben Bradley Hamidul Hoque Chowdury, Manfur Khan, Abdul Manan, Ayub Ali Master, Krishna Menon, Suruth Mia, Tahsil Miya, Abdul Mannan, Abdul Majid Qureshi, M. N. Roy, Reginald Sorensen.

Indian Seamen’s Union (Calcutta), International Labour Organization.

Involved in events: 
Published works: 

Address to Bengal Cabinet (Calcutta: Indian Seamen’s Union, 1937)

Secondary works: 

Broeze, Frank, The Muscles of Empire: Indian Seamen and the Raj, 1919-1939 (Bucharest: International Commsion of Maritime History, 1980)

Tabili, Laura, 'We Ask for British Justice': Workers and Racial DIfference in Late Imperial Britain (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994)

Visram, Rozina, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (London: Pluto, 2002)

Archive source: 

L/PJ/12/630, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

L/E/9/773, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

L/E/9/976, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras