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In 1936, Mark Bracegirdle, who has died of a stroke aged 86, arrived in Ceylon from Australia, and for seven months worked on the Relugas estate, Madulkelle, as an apprentice tea planter. The workforce was Indian Tamil; their hours were long, their wages low, their living conditions shocking - and they were illiterate.
Bracegirdle was openly sympathetic to the workers. So his employers booked him on a return steamer to Australia; but Bracegirdle would not go. Instead, he joined the Lanka Sama Samaja party (equal society party) and denounced conditions on the plantations.
The governor, Sir Reginald Stubbs, responded by invoking an order-in-council to force Bracegirdle to quit the island. Again, he would not go. So the governor ordered his arrest, pending deportation. A storm of protest ensued and Bracegirdle went underground. In May 1937, he addressed a 50,000-strong protest meeting in Colombo, although soon afterwards the police detained him.
Meanwhile, the state council pointed out that the governor had acted unconstitutionally and the colonial supreme court ruled that Bracegirdle had been illegally detained and must be released.
Thus did he become a key figure in the anti-imperialist movement, focusing attention within the country's educated classes on the need to end colonial rule. The case highlighted such issues as freedom of the individual, the role of the judiciary, the power of the governor and the rights of workers.
Bracegirdle came from a family of artists. His mother, Ina, was a suffragette, who had studied at the Slade school of art and was a member of the Independent Labour party. In 1928 Bracegirdle emigrated to Australia with his mother and brother. He joined the young Communist league in Sydney and during the depression worked on outback sheep farms, where he developed what became a lifelong friendship with Cynthia Reed, who later married the artist Sidney Nolan.
After the conclusion of the Bracegirdle case, he returned to England, and in 1939 married Mary Vinden, a young nurse and member of the Communist party. A wartime conscientious objector, he was involved in clandestine refugee work, helping to smuggle Jewish women out of Berlin. After the war, he qualified as an engineer and settled in Gloucestershire, where he developed friendships with Rutland Boughton, the composer, and Wogan Phillips, later Lord Phillips. A committed Labour party member, he was also an Aldermaston marcher.
In the 1970s, Bracegirdle worked as transport manager for the Zambian flying doctor service. He ended his career lecturing in engineering at North London polytechnic.
Bracegirdle knew about fungi, the history of Chinese script, Darwinism, the history of science, Marxism, Roman glass, ornithology, farming, art, design, aviation, beekeeping, Aboriginal history - and cookery. In retirement, he worked voluntarily for the extra-mural department of archaeology at London university.
His sharp, inquiring mind and sense of humour never deserted him. Days before he died, rendered speechless by a stroke, he was still writing down ideas for inventions, inquiring about the war in Kosovo and checking how his grandchildren had done in their exams.
He leaves three daughters, a son and five grandchildren.
• Mark Anthony Lyster Bracegirdle, anti-colonialist, born September 10, 1912; died June 22, 1999
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