Two World Wars
As subjects of the British Empire from the colonies, Indian soldiers and sailors fought in both World Wars. In World War I (1914-1918), India sent over 1,300,000 soldiers to fight in Europe. Many Bengalis worked on the merchant ships, often working in the depths of the ship in the engine rooms in appalling conditions and for very low pay. In 1914, Indian deckhands earned between 16 and 22 rupees (£1.00-£1.50) a month and firemen (who worked with the engines) 20 rupees (less than £1.50) compared to wages of £5.10 per month for their British co-workers. By 1919, their wages had stayed the same, while the British seamen's wages had nearly tripled to £14.00 a month. Nearly 3,500 Indian seamen were killed in World War I and another 1,200 were taken prisoner. By 1919, Indian seamen made up 20% of the British sea-going labour force.
After World War I, a number of Indian soldiers and sailors settled in Britain. However, there were race riots in 1919 in the port cities of London, Liverpool, Glasgow and Cardiff, where the small 'coloured' communities were attacked by White Britons angry about competition for jobs and over fears of racial mixing between 'coloured' men and white women. In Cardiff, unarmed Black and Asian settlers were fired on by local mobs led by colonial troops from South Africa and Australia, and three men were killed. There were failed attempts to send back Black settlers in 1919 and 1921. In 1925, lascars were targeted by the Special Restriction (Coloured Alien Seamen) Order, which said that all 'coloured' seamen had to register with the police, even though many of them were British subjects.
In spite of all this, the small communities of Bengali settlers in the 1920s and 1930s were very important in providing support and shelter to new arrivals. Individuals such as Ayub Ali and Shah Abdul Majid Qureshi, who set up the 'Indian Seamen's Welfare League' in Aldgate in 1943, were early community contacts, and helped new arrivals find work either back on the ships or in the local clothing and hotel businesses. They also ran Bengali 'coffee shops' – an early form of the Bengali restaurant trade.
In World War II (1939-45), Indian soldiers and sailors were again called into service, with over 2,500,000 servicemen fighting on Britain's side in Europe, North Africa and South-East Asia. When World War II began, there were 50,700 Indian seamen in the British Navy, making up 26% of the labour force. There were still big differences in pay, with White seamen earning on average seven times as much as lascars. This caused widespread unhappiness amongst the lascars, and led to strikes, running away and the setting up of seamen's unions. By the end of the war, lascar wages had increased by 500% to over £9.00 a month, but still stood at less than half the wages paid to White seamen (£20.00-£24.00 a month).
Conditions for the merchant ships were very dangerous and thousands died (see Mohammed Shamsul Haq’s story). Indian records show that 6,600 seamen were killed during World War II, another 1,000 wounded and 1,200 taken prisoner, many of them Bengali seamen from Sylhet. However, it is likely that larger numbers died without being recorded.
Like Jubair Ahmed’s father, several of our interviewees had relatives – uncles and fathers – who had travelled to Britain working on Merchant Navy ships. These were important links for new arrivals from Bangladesh, in terms of finding travel, accommodation and work.
Nurunnobi Miah (Bradford)
Nurunnobhi Miah migrated to Britain in 1963 to join his older brother in Bradford. When he first arrived in London, he went to stay with a relative who had worked on the ships. He told us:
One distant relative lived in East London. My brother gave me his address… We went there. He was a seaman. Through being a seaman, he became a citizen of this country. Most of the old people were seamen. They worked on the ships. When any ship anchored here, many escaped to this country. They didn't have permission. Many people came this way and became citizens.
Wahid Uzzaman (Newham)
Wahid Uzzaman came to Britain in 1978 to join his father. His father had been in the UK since 1947, and had earlier worked on the ships. Wahid told us:
My father first came to London in 1947 after World War II. First he was in Birmingham. He faced a lot of problems: racism was one of the big problems, food was another problem. Now many Bangladeshi items are available here – once these things weren't available. He told me that the main problem was economic. At first he worked with the East India Company. They shipped goods from Calcutta to Singapore, the UK and America. I heard someone criticise him, saying that my father wanted to settle in the UK. That wasn't true. As I understood from him, he never wanted us to settle here permanently. He always wanted to go back home after saving some money.
Mojibur Rahman (Tower Hamlets)
Mojibur Rahman, aged 74, came to London in 1959 to join his uncle, Somjid Ali, who had arrived after World War II. He recalls:
My uncle was working in Calcutta port at that time. From there he went to Burma and then came to this country. He went back home in 1960. He got sick and died. He helped me quite a lot… In the old days, people helped each other. There was a house in Arthur Street that was partially damaged by bombing during World War II. People used to live in the other side of the house. There was no one in the Bengali community who didn't know about that house. It was a kind of shelter that was open to everyone. Whenever new people came from Bangladesh, they would go to that house and could stay there. … Anyone could come to stay and eat there without any kind of obstacle or questions. My uncle spent his life helping people like that.