Although the word ‘Lascar’ is presently outmoded, it points to a rich and unique aspect of world history. Translated directly, the word means ‘sailor from East India’. However, the term bears a wider applicability and was regularly used in reference to non-Europeans who served on British sea vessels. Lascars were recruited for work aboard British ships from Bengal, Yemen, Assam and Gujarat.
The Lascar experience was defined by two overriding factors: performing work in a servile capacity and remaining in ceaseless activity while at sea, be it maintaining a particular vessel or working on a variety of crafts.
The Lascars, who were instrumental in the expansion of the British Raj during the 19th and 20th centuries, were employed on ships ferrying cargoes back to Britain, with some 3,000 Lascars visiting Britain annually. Calcutta became the Indian terminus of the P&O line in 1842. In 1856, Calcutta became the headquarters of the British India Steam Navigation Company (BINSC). Bengali Lascars thus entered into the British Merchant Navy working on steamships in large numbers. These Bengali Lascars began arriving in London on the P&O mail Clan Line Steamers, British India Steamship Company vessels and passenger ships. Between 1830 and 1903, approximately 40,000 foreign seamen sailed with British merchant and war ships, the majority spending some time in British ports, either in transit or discharged. Some English men, however, resented the employment of foreign seamen on British ships. Many were robbed of their earnings and were not treated as humans because of the colour of their skin.
Tragically, many Lascars did not survive the inhumane conditions and barbaric treatment to which they were subjected. Those who did survive were often cruelly abandoned in Britain, left penniless and starving, whilst others were savagely beaten and crammed like animals into lodgings that were unfit for habitation. Although many of the seamen lived lives of desperate poverty and degradation in British ports, they chose the chance for a better life working in shipyards and railroads over the dangerous journey home. Those who were paid received very low wages. Unfortunately, however, the majority of the Lascars, uneducated and unwanted, eked out existences as street sweepers, peddlers, and even beggars in London’s dockland areas of Shadwell, Wapping and Poplar. Many were also victimised by keepers of lodging-houses. Some houses became opium dens.
Aside from their meagre employment and housing opportunities, Lascars were ill equipped for the cold weather in England. They owned only thin, pyjama-like garments and heelless shoes. Unable to find shelter against the British winters, many perished on the streets. In the winter of 1850, 40 Asian men, also known as ‘sons of India’, were found dead of cold and hunger on the streets of London.
This prompted the founding of the Strangers home in West India Dock Road, Limehouse, and London by The Society for the Protection of Asian Sailors, a missionary group, in June 1857. This sheltered up to 200 Lascars and was a safe haven for destitute Lascars.
Moreover, many British women gave lodging to the displaced seamen and even ended up marrying them. A lodge run by an Englishwoman called ‘Calcutta’ Louisa and another run by ‘Lascar’ Sally, (Sarah Graham) for Indian Lascars at the riverside of the High Street at Wapping were both founded by 1873. These English women lived with their Indian partners and were fluent Bengali or Hindi.
The most famous child of Bengali-British parentage was Albert Mahomet. He was born in 1858 at Sophia Street in Bow, East London. His mother was English and his father was an ex-seaman from Calcutta. Mahomet grew up in a life of crime and poverty that claimed many of his siblings. He became a respected Methodist preacher and photographer after moving to the city of Wells.
Some missionaries referred to the growing Lascar population as “The Asiatic in England” and “The East in The West”. These Lascars were the first to settle in East London in places such as Commercial Road and Whitechapel Road in the late 19th century and early 20th century.