Early Emigration to the UK


‘Lascar’ is derived from the Persian word for ‘soldier’. Eventually, the term came to denote any seaman of Asiatic descent in Europe. The employment of Lascars aboard British ships began in the earliest days of the East India Company.


In the early 20th century, the crew of a British merchant or military ship consisted of approximately 80 to 130 men – many more than a typical crew on a similar-sized ship today. This was due to the labour-intensive nature of sea travel at that time. Engine rooms required more hands-on supervision and cargo was loaded onto the ships by hand. Lascars were usually a large part of the crew, valued over their British counterparts for their ability to perform monotonous tasks without complaint but also for their endurance in the fierce temperatures generated by the stoke room fires. Not only were they preferred for difficult physical work, but Lascars who spoke English were often employed as officers’ servants or cooks.

Where the Lascars were not wanted was in the officer corps. British naval officers received navigation and engineering training in Britain, which was not an option for Lascars. Officers on a ship, along with the doctor and electrician, were certain to be European. The Lascar crew had the same rank structure as the British crew, but could advance no further than petty officer. The serang, or bosun, was the highest level a Lascar could attain. This position required him to liaise with a ghuatserang who would recruit men from the home country. The serang found placements for these recruits aboard ships. Both the serang and the ghuatserang received payment for this service but that didn’t stop the corruption involved. Lies and bribes were often used to take advantage of the potential sailors. Lascars were promised that they would enjoy reasonable comfort, adequate wages and the opportunity to visit rich, foreign lands. Aboard ship, the serang was in charge of the Lascar crew and mediator for the British crew.

The welfare of the Lascars was of some interest to the British government, particularly if it wanted to keep its market for cheap labour. While some Lascars were stuck in stoke rooms where the temperature could easily reach above 40 degrees, the threat of cold weather conditions was of greater concern to British lawmakers. British legislation required special heating and provisions for Lascars on ships travelling through the colder regions of the globe.  As most Lascars came from tropical regions, cold weather was often harsh and nearly unbearable. During wartime, this was problematic for ships requisitioned by the Navy as the special provisions for the Lascar crews proved a time-consuming and costly task.


Aboard ship, the Lascars – mostly Muslim – were usually allowed to practice their own customs. Many wore brightly coloured turbans and openly observed their religious rituals.  Holidays and dietary restrictions were also followed by Muslim and Hindu crew aboard most ships. This continued even when the ships were requisitioned for military use.


The naval conflict during the First World War did not bring a decisive victory to Britain, much to the Navy's chagrin. While public opinion demanded just such a victory from Britain's Grand Fleet, it was not to be found in any of the sea skirmishes with German naval forces.


Perhaps the most effective tactic employed by the British Navy during the First World War was not military, but economic. Early in the war, British ships blockaded the entry to the North Sea, preventing German ships and neutral vessels from passing. This effectively stopped the flow of food and supplies into Germany, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths by starvation. This blockade is often considered a key reason for the British Navy’s finally gaining ground over its adversary.


The German response to the British blockade was unrestricted submarine warfare. Any ship entering British waters was often subject to torpedo attacks. Only when the number of attacks on ships averaged one in four, and the number of deaths climbed to well over ten thousand, did the British Navy finally introduce a convoy system to protect ships entering territorial waters.   


The Lascar-manned merchant navy was particularly hard hit by German submarine warfare.  The merchant fleet was an important part of the eventual British naval victory, often carrying supplies and transporting troops. The Lascars aboard these merchant ships often endured perilous conditions while engaged in military operations. Many had not bargained for military involvement when they signed on for work and the death toll amongst Lascars was high. Around one-fifth of the fifteen thousand deaths from the merchant navy were Lascars.


During the war, Asian Lascars’ loyalty to their ships was well-known. In countless instances, they remained at their posts even when the battle was hopeless. Many Lascars received military awards for their service aboard ships in the merchant navy. Stories of Lascar loyalty may seem romanticised, but the recorded observations of the men who sailed with them points to a sense of duty beyond reason. Their loyalty is particularly surprising as Lascars were not fighting for their own countries, but for a nation that embraced them only as a source of cheap labour.


This loyalty intensified during wartime. A British naval officer reported an event during the First World War that typified the sense of duty displayed by the Lascars. One night, a ship was torpedoed as it entered British waters. Afterwards, when an officer climbed to the deck to assess the damage, he found a group of Lascars gathered by their serang. They had been forgotten during the attack and had stood motionless throughout the ordeal, waiting for orders. Such stories illustrated how fortunate the Navy was to have these men working on merchant ships that doubled as military vessels.


Lascar loyalty was quickly forgotten after the war and most were laid off. This is not surprising considering the historical white European tendency to overlook the nation-building contributions of non-whites. The actuality is that many Lascars settled in England as early as the 17th century. They often lived in extreme poverty, but their impact on the nation was felt nonetheless.


Due to the harsh conditions aboard ship, some Lascars left their vessels illegally to try to make their own way in London. The inequality they faced drove them to begging on land rather than continuing their life at sea. Lascar desertion was a constant problem for merchant ships. The British government ignored the problem, concentrating mainly on preventing Lascars from gaining British citizenship as this would mean they would earn the same pay as a British sailor.


Nevertheless, a community of Asians developed in Britain – mostly in London’s East End and other seaport towns. In the early 20th century, one-fifth to one-quarter of the maritime labour force in Britain was made up of Lascars. By the 1930s, homes for stranded Lascars had popped up all over the East End. On the surface they seemed to want to help Lascars but many sought to send them back to their country of origin in hopes of eliminating them from London’s streets.


After the First World War, many British sailors were laid off and the Lascars’ cheap wages were under scrutiny as the cause of high unemployment. This incited bitter racism, often directed at Lascars who had settled in London.


By the end of the 1930s, the employment of Lascars had dwindled dramatically. Briefly, when the Second World War began, cheap labour was again a necessity aboard ship and a new influx of Lascars arrived. But over time the presence of Lascars aboard British sea vessels became less prevalent. Even so, in the 1970s, non-white sailors were paid substantially less than British sailors. Despite strikes and demonstrations by former Lascars, this continued for many years. However, their efforts eventually did much to improve the living conditions for Lascars still employed on merchant ships.