Lascars Who are they

A Lascars (lashkars, Laskar) was a sailor or militiaman from the Indian subcontinent, employed on European ships from the 16th century until the beginning of the 20th century. The word comes from the Persian Lashkar, meaning military camp or army and al-askar, the Arabic word for a guard or soldier. The Portuguese adapted this term to lascarim, meaning an Asian militiaman or seaman, especially those from the Indian subcontinent.

The term Lascar is inextricably linked with the history of the Indian Ocean but has been more than often ignored by historians, deliberately. The roots of the Lascars can be traced to the western coast of India some hundred years after the advent of Islam. The Arab soldiers, who were on frequent trade expeditions to this area, were encouraged by the Indian princes and rulers of southern India to settle on the coastal area in order to impart their skills and knowledge in navigation, ship building and maritime affairs to their natives. Since the 7th century, the close interaction of the Indian rulers with Arab sailors made them realize that they could wield tremendous power and authority through trade and maritime activities. The indo-Arab partnership was consolidated by a relationship that over years produced a class of people of Indo-Arab blood, Known as lascars.

In 1342 when iben Batuta, the famous Arab globe trotter visited India, he witnessed Calicut (today known as Kozhikode) as a prosperous and busy commercial port flanked with minarets and temples. By the 15th century, the lascars had attained good reputation of their expertise in seamanship, shipbuilding and port activities and successive Europeans Powers, batting to hold their grip in the Indian Ocean region, relied heavily on the services of the lascars. In 1498 Vasco da Gama , the first European to reach India by sea , sought services from the Arab navigator jbn Mazid and hired a lascars at Malindi (a coastal settlement in east Africa) to steer the Portuguese ships across the Indian Ocean to Calicut on the Malabar coast of India. Portuguese ships continued to employ lascars in large numbers throughout the 16th & 17th centuries mainly from Goa and other Portuguese colonies in India The need for employing the lascars arose because of high rates of sickness and death of European sailors of Indian-bound ships and their frequent desertions in India, thus leaving the ships short of crew for the return voyages. The European preferred the lascars because of their daring spirit, hard work, resilience, skills and knowledge of the Indian Ocean currents and winds.

In 1810 when the British took over the possession of Mauritius from the hands of the French, they had retained the services of hundreds of lascars to help them in the naval battle. The term lascars is also used in Reunion and Seychelles to refer to Muslims just like in Mauritius, which has a coastal place by the name of Pointe des lascars, Seychelles and Rodrigues also have geographical points known as Anse Lascars and Baie Lascars, respectively. The lascars have shed their sweat and blood in shaping the destiny of many countries in the Indian Ocean and East Africa as the entire history of he Indian Ocean has been distorted and has been written from an Eurocentric view , the contribution of the lascars have been ignored .

Through the Portuguese and Spanish maritime world empires , Some of these lascars found their way to Britain , and were among the sailors on the first English East India Company ships to sail to India . Lascars are depicted on Japanese Namban Screens of the Sixteenth century. The Luso- Asians Appear to have evolved their own pidgin Portuguese which was used throughout south and southeast Asia.

The English East India Company (EIC) had factories and forts across south Asia and held a monopoly on the lucrative maritime trade between Britain and the East. During this period , over 220 EIC ships sailed from Britain to the east returning manned by predominantly Asian and Africans crews 138 lascars arrived in British ports in 1760 , rising to 1403 in addition lascars worked on EIC ships travelling around the Indian Ocean, to China and to Australia.






Thousand of Lascars moved throughout many places during their voyages (from port to ship , From the Indian Ocean to Britain and back). Their seafaring work required them to go through many diverse social , political and geographical space . Onboard ship relations between European crew and lascars were complicated due to linguistic and cultural difference . Few South Asian sailors signed on directly as crew members on English ships. Instead , the EIC utilized the maritime labour gang system well-established in the Indian Ocean . Men were recruited by ghat serangs in south Asian ports, who supplied groups directly to individual EIC ships which complicated European shipboard regimes further. These two distinct labour systems the serang system and the EIC faced difficulties throughout the18th century, This system survived , and before the hardening of British imperial power in the 19th century , the serang system provided the potential for a level of communal independence for lascar groups in ports and on board ship as well as support during their time in Britain.

The number of Indian seaman lascars employed on British ship was so great that the British tried to restrict this by the Navigation Acts in force from 1660 , which required that 75 percent of the crew of a British registered ship importing goods from Asia had to be British. Initially the need arose because of the high sickness and death rates of European sailors on India-bound ships, and their frequent desertions in India, which left ships short of crew for the return voyage Another reason was war when conscription of British sailors by the Royal Navy was particularly heavy from company ships in India.




In 1786 the committee for the Relief of the Black poor was originally set up thanks to concern over Lascars left in London. However, in a report made after one month of the committees existence it was found that only 35 of the 250 recipients of aid were Lascars, While the remaining recipients were Africans and and former slaves from the Africa .

The British East India company recruited seamen from areas around its factories in Bengal, Assam , Gujarat and Yemen, as well as from Portuguese Goa , They were known by the British as Lascars, and a number of these created small settlements in port towns and cities in Britain . Most of these sailors settled down and married local white British wives, perhaps partly due to lack of Asian women in Britain at the time . By 1813 , there were more than 10,000 Indian lascars living in Britain at the time By 1842,3000 Lascars visited the UK every year , and by 1855 , 12000 lascars arrived annually in Britain. Throughout the early 19th century , lascars from the Indian subcontinent arrived in Britain at the rate of 1,000 every year which increased to a rate of 10,000 to 12,000 every year throughout the late 19th century . lascars served on Australian immigrant or assistant passage ships , and on troop ship during the Britains colonial wars including the Boer wars. In 1891 , there were 24,037 Lascars employed on British merchant ships. For Example the Ship Massillia sailing from London to Sydney , Australia in 1891 lists more than half of its crew as Indian lascars. On the eve of world war 1 , there were 51,616 Lascars in Britain . Lascars also served all over the world in the interwar period though they were barred from landing at some ports such as in British Columbia .


The term Lascars is also used in Mauritius , Reunion and the Seychelles to refer to Muslims, by both Muslims and Non Muslims. The preferred spelling in Modern times as Lashkar.

Interracial marriage was fairly Common in Britains from the 17th century , when the British East India Company began bringing over thousands of Sylheti scholars, lascars and workers (mostly Bengali Muslims) to Britain , most of Whom married and cohabited with local English Women .

This later became an issue , as a magistrate of the London Tower Hamlets area in 1817 expressed disgust at how the local English women in the area were marrying and cohabiting almost exclusively with foreign Indian lascars seamen. Nevertheless, there were no legal restrictions against mixed marriages in Britain. Families with Indian Lascars fathers and English mothers established interracial communities in Britains dock areas.

This led to a growing number of mixed race children being born in the country, which challenged the British elite efforts to define them using simple dichotomies Of British Versus Indian , ruler versus ruled. The number of women of colour in Britain was often outnumbered by half-caste Indian daughters born from white mother and Indian fathers.


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