Lascars In East India Company

Although the word Lascar is presently outmoded, it points to a rich and unique aspect of world history. The Europeans attributed the name Lascar to the non-European sailors. It is derived from the Persian word Lashkar meaning military camp or army and Al-Askar, the Arabic word for guard or soldier. Lascars originated from the Indian Subcontinent or other countries east of the Cape of Good Hope; this was the initial East Indies. They came from Africa, the Middle East and Eastern India. By the 1860s, the word Lascar described people from Eastern India to Southern China. Eastern India is present day Bangladesh. The employment of Lascars on merchant ships trading with Britain began in the 17th century during the early days of the British East India Company. This company was set up to establish trade routes and to discover and bring back new goods, such as tea, coffee, spices, sugar, silk, cotton and porcelain. Not only did this remove geographical barriers, but the Lascars were led to believe that they would enjoy a comfortable life, earn good money and visit rich foreign lands. Many had no intention of settling in England permanently, but were promised their passage home.

English men initially worked aboard these ships, but the sickness and death rate amongst these seamen was so high during these 3-4 month voyages that many deserted ship once they arrived in India. This left ships short of crew for the return voyage to England, so Lascars were employed to replace them. Lascars worked in engine rooms stoking the engines, where temperatures could easily reach 40 degrees and more. They were considered able to stand the intense heat because they came from hot countries! Others were cleaners, cooks, coal carriers and machinery oilers, but very few worked on deck because of the language barrier. Once arriving in port, it was their duty to ensure that the ship was unloaded.

Many were fed rotten food, which resulted in health problems, yet those that fell ill were denied proper medical assistance. Others were mistreated and died of heat stroke, exhaustion, malnutrition and disease and some were brutally punished. This prompted many Lascars to jump ship in British ports to escape maltreatment and their inferior employment conditions. Others were abandoned without wages and left to fend for themselves by their unscrupulous employers. Although many of the seamen lived lives of desperate poverty and degradation in British ports, they opted for the opportunity of a better life working in shipyards and railroads over the dangerous journey home. Many of these men became destitute and were sent to local workhouses, but those who were paid received less than their white counterparts did. Unfortunately, however, the majority of the Lascars, uneducated and unwanted, eked out existences as musicians, street sweepers, peddlers, basket makers and even beggars in Londons dockland areas of Shadwell, Wapping and Poplar.

A few set up cafes, restaurants and hotels, hence the birth of the first Indian restaurants. Local men saw them as dirty, which given their living conditions was hardly their fault. Poverty and prejudice went hand-in-hand and offered them few opportunities for socialising. Many saw them as wicked people who followed a false prophet. Aside from their meagre employment and housing opportunities, Lascars were ill equipped for the cold weather in England. They wore only thin, pyjama-like garments and heelless shoes. Unable to find shelter from the British winters, many perished on the streets. The most notable deaths of Lascars occurred in 1850; 40 Asian men, also known as sons of India, were found dead from cold and starvation on one single day. Some lived in hostels in appalling conditions, with no bedding, furniture or fireplaces and many were victimised by lodging housekeepers.

However, missionaries sympathised with Lascars, which prompted the founding of the Strangers Home in West India Dock Road, Limehouse, London, by The Society for the Protection of Asian Sailors, a missionary group led by Joseph Salter in June 1857. This sheltered up to 200 destitute Lascars and was a safe haven for them, although many more still were unable to find shelter. Sadly, due to lack of funding, the shelter closed in 1937.

Some British women also provided lodging for the displaced seamen; a lodge run by an Englishwoman called Calcutta Louisa and another run by Lascar Sally, (Sarah Graham). Most of these sailors settled down and took local white English wives, due to a lack of Asian women in Britain at the time. This was viewed as unacceptable to many - but not all - and a disgrace to society. Some missionaries referred to the growing Lascar population as The Asiatic in England and The East in The West. For over 350 years, Lascars played a crucial role, ensuring goods from India reached British ports safely in times of peace and war. By the eve of the First World War, there were over 50,000 Lascars in Britain. Many had no choice but to play a role in the war effort, which they had not anticipated. Their loyalty was surprising, considering that Lascars were not fighting for their own country but for a nation that didnt embrace them. Small settlements of Lascars grew in London and other port cities, contributing a great deal to the British economy.

Shahida Rahman
Author of 'Lascar'

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