This is the story of how two brothers, Ayub Ali Master and Shamsul Haque, helped establish the Bangladeshi community in the East End.
In 1919, two young brothers jumped ship at Tilbury docks, then the beating heart of the British Empire. They had travelled via New York from a small village called Achol in Sylhet. Ayub Ali and Shamsul Haque jumped ship in London to find a better life. But their remarkable story demonstrates the strength of the Bengali community.
The pair had been working as lascars (sailors) in the merchant navy, most likely as coal shovelers. In London, Ali and Haque worked hard. They started in Petticoat Lane market and eventually saved up enough money to open a restaurant called Curry House on 76 Commercial Street in 1920. In 1935, they opened a café in the same location called Shah Jalal.
They were successful, and Shah Jalal became a hub for South Asian politicians such as Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan. But Ayub Ali and Shamsul Haque had bigger ideas. They wanted to help other lascars escape indenture and settle in London.
Lascars were what is known as indentured labourers. They were contracted for a long period of time, often more than a year, and they would only be paid at the end of their contract. Professor Clare Anderson has identified indentured labour as part of the long history of colonial labour exploitation.
Tam Hussein, 44, is Ali’s great-nephew and Haque’s grandson. He is an award-winning journalist at ITV. Hussein lives in South London but his father still runs several businesses and restaurants on Brick Lane, continuing the family’s long legacy in the area.
Hussein explained why they wanted to help other lascars. ‘They weren’t doing this because of politics. [In] the Bangladeshi community, you feel obliged to help each other, it’s like a tribe. This was not because of money. This is something they felt obliged to do.’ There wasn’t much thought about it.
Hussein also explained why the Ali and Haque didn’t share the same family name despite being brothers. Historically, Bengali families didn’t go by family surnames, this was a relatively new introduction due to British Empire bureaucracy.
The pair set up a boarding house on 13 Sandy’s Row, where they had been living. Now the site of an upmarket Italian restaurant in the City, there’s little evidence of the building’s inspiring history other than a small plaque with Ayub Ali’s name.
Here Ali and Haque helped lascars who had jumped ship, just like they had in 1919. Lascars would come to Shah Jalal Café first. They would be taken to India House to be registered. They were then provided with accommodation and food at 13 Sandy’s Lane. Many lascars were hiding from the police or shipping companies until their ships left port or their contracts ended.
Ayub Ali would also help write letters to families back home, earning him the epithet ‘Master’. ‘Master’ has a different definition in Bengali, meaning ‘teacher’.
They didn’t stop there. Ayub Ali Master and Shamsul Haque set up Crescent Travel back in Sylhet and Orient Travel in 13 Sandy’s Row. These travel agencies helped thousands of Bengali lascars settle in Britain.
The pair also had a fundamental role in funding the Brick Lane Mosque and the East London Mosque. The Mosques were originally founded for Muslim lascars, demonstrating the long legacy of colonial trade networks.
Ayub Ali and Shamsul Haque should be remembered for their crucial role in helping the Bangladeshi community establish itself in the East End before the bigger wave of migration in the 1970s. And they demonstrate the strength of that community, even thousands of miles from home.
But Hussein argues that they should also be remembered because their story shows something more. ‘Maybe in ten years’ time, the East End will be full of hipsters. I don’t want the Bengali community to be a footnote. We’re here. We’ve been here for a long time.’
If you enjoyed this, you may like to read our history of the Bengali squatters movement.
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