British Shipping (Assistance) Act (1935)

01 Jan 1935
Precise date unknown: 

The British Shipping (Assistance) Act of 1935 aimed to subsidize the British shipping industry in the context of the economic depression of the 1930s. While one of its purposes was to safeguard seamen’s jobs, it did so only for white British seamen, thus discriminating on the grounds of race. One of the requirements for payment of the subsidy was that the ship employed only ‘British seamen’. Thus, in the wake of the Act, many ship-owners sacked all but their white employees, and numerous Indian lascars found themselves suddenly without employment.

This discriminatory Act was met with considerable resistance. The Colonial Seamen’s Association, which brought South Asian seamen together with their black, Arab and Chinese counterparts, was formed in reaction to the Act, in order to better mobilize against it. They held numerous meetings in which the Act was denounced. In May 1935, Shapurji Saklatvala gave a speech decrying the Act at the Coloured National Mutual Social Club in South Shields. Opposition to the Act was also voiced in India where there were even threats of retaliation against white workers there. With protest against the Act coming from the India Office and Colonial Office as well as the CSA and other organizations, the discrimination was removed in March 1936.

People involved: 

Surat Alley (secretary of the Colonial Seamen’s Association), Aftab Ali Chris Jones (Braithewaite) (led the Colonial Seamen’s Association), George PadmoreShapurji Saklatvala (spoke out against Act),  Rowland Sawyer.

Secondary works: 

Tabili, Laura, ‘We Ask for British Justice’: Workers and Racial Difference in Late Imperial Britain (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1994)

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

Archive source: 

MT 9/2737, National Archives, Kew

L/E/9/955, India Office Records, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras

Special Restriction (Coloured Alien Seamen) Order (1925)

18 Mar 1925
Event location: 

The Order was originally carried into effect in the port areas of Glamorgan, Cardiff, Newport, Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Liverpool, Salford, Newcastle-on-Tyne, South Shields, Middlesbrough and Hull. In January 1926, it was extended throughout Britain.


The Special Restriction (Coloured Alien Seamen's) Order is described by Laura Tabili as 'the first instance of state-sanctioned race discrimination inside Britain to come to widespread notice' (p. 56). The work of the Home Office Aliens Department, the Order was issued under Article II of the Aliens Order of 1920 and stated that 'coloured' seamen who did not possess documentary proof of their status as British must register as 'aliens' in Britain 'whether or not they have been in the United Kingdom for more than two months'. Police were to apprehend 'coloured' men disembarking from ships and report them to the police if they failed to show their documentation. In practice, it was not easy for 'coloured' seamen to prove that they were British subjects because sailors were not required to carry passports and, unlike those of their white counterparts, 'coloured' seamen's discharge certificates were not considered proof of their nationality because of allegations of trafficking in these papers.

Reasons for the issue of the Order are various and debated. In a letter dated 14 August 1926, the Under-Secretary of State cites the demands made at the end of the First World War by the National Sailor and Fireman's Union that 'steps should be taken to restrict the admission to this country of coloured seamen who could not establish that they were British subjects, since they competed in the overstocked labour market for seamen and were a source of grave discontent among British sailors', and claims that the accumulation of 'coloured seamen' in certain ports 'was a continual source of irritation and...likely to lead to a breach of the peace' (HO 45/12314). However, by the mid-1920s, employment in the shipping industry was beginning to pick up, which calls these reasons into question. Further, historians have recently questioned the role of the Union in pushing forward this piece of legislation, arguing that it was the state that played a more significant role.

State officials, determined to deport 'coloured' seamen, interpreted and enforced the rules rigidly, depriving these men of their citizenship. The India Office and Colonial Office received numerous protests from seamen who claimed that police were using the order to target men who were obviously British subjects. Further, officials erroneously applied the rules to non-seamen, for example registering 63 Glasgow-based Indians, most of whom worked as peddlers and labourers, as 'aliens'. Indians in Liverpool protested in the form of a public rally and through founding the Indian Seamen's Union, led by N. J. Upadhyaya. The India Office, fearful of the public outcry triggered by the Order in India, reprimanded the Home Office, even suggesting that all Indians should be issued with passports - a suggestion that was not received favourably by the Home Office. Finally, it was agreed that Indian seamen registered as 'aliens' could apply to the Home Office to have their British nationality verified. They would then be issued with a Special Certificate of Identity and Nationality which would enable their registration to be cancelled. The Order was finally revoked in 1942.

People involved: 

P. S. R. Chowdhury (Secretary of the Glasgow Indian Union which contested the registration of the 63 Glasgow-based Indians), Home Secretary Joynson-Hicks (passed the Order), N. J. Upadhyaya (founded the Indian Seamen's Union as a result of the Order).

Secondary works: 

Lane, Tony, 'The Political Imperatives of Bureaucracy and Empire: The Case of the Coloured Alien Seamen Order, 1925', Immigrants and Minorities 13.2-3 (July/November 1994), pp. 104-29

Little, Kenneth, Negroes in Britain: A Study of Racial Relations in English Society (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, [1948] 1972)

Rich, Paul B., Race and Empire in British Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 122–30

Sherwood, Marika, ‘Race, Nationality and Employment among Lascar Seamen, 1660–1945’, New Community 17.2 (January 1991), pp. 234–5

Tabili, Laura, ‘The Construction of Racial Difference in Twentieth-Century Britain: The Special Restriction (Coloured Alien Seamen) Order, 1925’, Journal of British Studies 33 (January 1994), pp. 54–98

Tabili, Laura, ‘We Ask for British Justice’: Workers and Racial Difference in Late Imperial Britain (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1994)

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


Letter from the Under-Secretary of State to the Chief Constables of scheduled areas, 23 March 1925, HO 45/12314, National Archives, Kew


The file contains correspondence and reports by state and police officials relating to the Special Restriction (Coloured Alien Seamen's) Order, 1925.


I am directed by the Secretary of State to inform you that he has recently had under consideration measures to facilitate the control of coloured alien seamen at present in this country and to prevent more effectively the entry of others into the United Kingdom without proper authority; and he has come to the conclusion that in order to deal with the problem presented by these aliens – particularly those of them who are ‘Arabs’ – it is necessary that they should be required to register in all cases, including those where the alien has hitherto been exempt under Article 6(5) of the Aliens Order, 1920, by reason of the fact that less than two months has elapsed since his last arrival in the United Kingdom or that he is not resident in the United Kingdom.

…The difficulties [of the present situation] arise mainly from the fact that the racial resemblance between many coloured seamen is such that there is no satisfactory means of identifying individuals; and the primary object which the Secretary of State has in view is to remedy this deficiency by requiring every coloured seamen…unless he is able to show that he is a British subject, to provide himself immediately with a document by which he can be readily identified and on which his entry into the United Kingdom (if duly authorised by grant of leave to land) can be recorded.


The language used in this passage - in particular the words 'control' and 'aliens' - is indicative of the perceived threat posed by 'coloured' seamen to the nation. The vagueness of the words 'problem' and 'difficulties' is suggestive of the concealment of some of the unmentionable reasons for the entrenchment of barriers to these sailors' entry into Britain (i. e., racism) - which are however hinted at with the mention of the 'racial resemblance' of the seamen. In general, the passage is illustrative of the strategies of control used in an attempt to maintain the racial and cultural homogeneity of Britain - and also of the failure of this.

Archive source: 

HO 45/12314, National Archives, Kew

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