Lascars were sailors or militiamen from the Indian Subcontinent who were employed on European ships from the 16th century until the middle of the 20th century. They were present in London from the early 1700s. And, as they were among the first sailors on the first British East India Company ships to sail to India, they had a visible presence in “mainland Poplar”, Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs after the foundation of the East India Company in 1803. By 1813, there were more than 10,000 Lascars living in Britain.
Shahida Rahman, author of the novel Lascar:
The employment of lascars on British merchant ships began in the 17th Century during the early days of the British East India Company. Englishmen initially worked aboard these ships, but the rate of sickness and death was so high during these 3-4 month voyages that many abandoned their posts once they arrived in India. This left ships short of crew for the return voyage to England. Lascars were employed to replace them and led to believe they would enjoy comfort, high wages and rich experiences in foreign lands. They were also promised their passage home.
In reality, conditions were appalling. As lascars came from warm climates, it was believed they could stand intense heat so many stoked engines in rooms where temperatures could exceed 40 degrees. Others worked in the steamy bowels of the ship as cleaners, cooks, coal carriers and machinery oilers. It was their duty, once arriving in port, to unload the ship.
Health problems were also rampant. Lascars were fed rotten food, yet denied proper medical assistance when they fell ill. Others died of heat stroke, exhaustion, malnutrition and disease and some were brutally punished. This maltreatment prompted many lascars to jump ship in British ports. Others were abandoned without wages and left to fend for themselves.
Lascars were largely from Bengal, Assam, Gujarat and Yemen, as well as from Portuguese Goa, and virtually all were muslim (countries such as Mauritius, Réunion and the Seychelles still use the term Lashkar to refer to muslims). Those that settled in Britain and wanted to marry invariably married the local women. Unsurprisingly this led to some tensions. A magistrate of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets area in 1817 expressed “disgust” at how the local English women and girls in the area were…
…marrying and cohabiting almost exclusively with foreign Indian lascar seamen.
But, despite some individual prejudice or mistrust, there were no institutional barriers to mixed-race marriages. And unlike other waves of immigration to London, which involved both men and women, young and old, the Lascars did not form their own, separate community or “ghetto”.
Extract from the 1935 report of West India Docks sanitary facilities by the Medical Officer of Health for Port of London. Apparently these were segregated:
Shahida Rahman again:
Although many of these sailors lived in poverty and degradation in Britain, they opted for taking a chance on finding work in shipyards and railroads over the dangerous journey home. Many of these men failed to find employment and were sent to local workhouses. Those who were paid received less than their white counterparts.
Most lascars, uneducated and unwanted, eked out existences as musicians, street sweepers, peddlers, basket makers and even beggars in London’s dockland areas of Shadwell, Wapping and Poplar. A few set up cafes, restaurants and hotels. Locals saw these new residents as dirty which, given their living conditions, was hardly their fault. Poverty and prejudice went hand-in-hand, offering these misplaced people few opportunities to become respected members of society.
As well as living in gruelling conditions, lascars were ill equipped for the cold weather in England. They wore thin, pyjama-like garments and heelless shoes. Some lived in hostels in abysmal conditions, with no bedding, furniture or fireplaces and many were victimised by lodging housekeepers. Unable to find shelter from the British winters, many perished on the streets.
However, by the mid-nineteenth century some British citizens empathised with the lascars and missionaries were able to provide minimal shelter. Most of these sailors settled down and took English wives – a disgrace to society in many eyes.
By the eve of the First World War, there were over 50,000 lascars in Britain and many had no choice but to become involved in the war effort. Their loyalty was surprising, considering that lascars were fighting for a nation that didn’t embrace them.
The Lascars are a group of men who significantly contributed to the success of Britain’s mercantile trade with the rest of the world. They are largely forgotten about now, but are “commemorated” in the naming of a modern housing development. I’d call it ironic, but – ironically – I don’t know what that means.