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The British Empire’s Forgotten Lascars

Forgotten, undervalued and long misunderstood, lascars represented the first global workers in the age of empire.


19 November, 2021

This article is part of Project Empire, an editorial series designed to explore the history of the British Empire. See the full collection here »

For centuries, the Royal Navy represented the nucleus of British imperial power. Its distinctive nature, glory and might helped shape the character of Britain, giving to it an identity and reason to dominate the global seas. Fishing, foreign trade and economic prosperity were all tied to Britain’s waters, and inextricably linked to its development as a historical superpower. Indeed, it was through the Royal Navy that Britain demonstrated its dominance: its dominions stretched from Cape to Cairo, its linguistic, cultural and legal hegemony entrenched in the four corners of the world. “Rule Britannia! Rule the waves,” wrote the playwright James Thomson. “Britons will never be slaves!”

But to whom can we give such credit? In our popular imaginings of Britain as a great European power, we envisage the English as riding the high seas, battling storms and overcoming unforeseen challenges. Yet crucial to the British empire’s exploits were Indian men employed at their behest. These labourers — known as lascars — became the backbone of the British empire, their history intertwined with the wider history of Britain.

Few recollections, if any, are made of these critical workers. Lascars have been relegated to the dustbin of history, their contributions forgotten and their experiences of Britain over the centuries ignored.

Historical amnesia is a funny old thing. Few know how and when it arises, but its symptoms are visible throughout every population. Britain, in this regard, is no exception. “Our collective amnesia about the legacy of our colonial past is not getting any better,” says writer Afua Hirsch, in her podcast, “We Need to Talk About the British Empire.” “We’re engulfed in a sense of denial.”

Defining the typical lascar in the age of empire is an arduous task, least of all problematic historically. Lascars represented a diverse group of individuals: varying in religion, stature, intellect, occupation and nautical skill and experience. What they shared was a willingness to serve on a vessel, what united them was their status as subordinated labourers. Indian seafarers provided menial but essential work, bonding over a shared experience of marine life in a foreign land with foreign people.

How had the need for lascar labour arisen? A principal reason was cost. Voyages to India claimed many lives. Sickness and death were commonalities for British sailors, as was the possibility of desertion, often attracted by better prospects in India. During the East India Company’s first twenty years, less than half of its ships returned from Asia. Between 1700 and 1818, one hundred and sixty of its ships sank or were captured.

Obtaining fresh supplies of English soldiers was an expensive endeavour, costing fifty to seventy per cent more than sailors recruited in England. In attempts to bridge reoccurring labour gaps, the custom of employing Indian seamen — often lured by promises of comfort, high wages and rich experiences in foreign lands — became common practices among British crews. Over time, lascars represented the earliest group of global workers, “Prising open doors of insular societies long before multiculturalism became fashionable.”

An essential difference that marked out lascars from other seafarers was their method of recruitment. Black and European sailors were engaged individually; lascars were recruited in gangs. British officers, many of whom had broken Hindi, relied on middlemen — known as ghat serangs — to refill their supply of sailors for the journey back to Britain. Ghat serangs played a critical role in the global maritime industry: they negotiated contracts for the supply of lascars with captains for a fee, proportionate to the number of skilled lascars supplied to a ship. Ghat serangs were not, however, fiduciaries, acting in the best interests of lascars. The employment process laid forth by ghat serangs, from start to finish, was one riddled with corruption. Many sought to make their own profits, principally from bribes and commissions at the expense of the lascar himself.

The process of employment fundamentally changed with the involvement of the East India Company. A directive issued in 1730 stipulated that the Company’s ships were to sign agreements with lascar crews, detailing the conditions of employment and any rates of pay. Lascar salaries ranged considerably over time and specific economic conditions. Yet the general trend throughout the centuries was a simple one: lascars were paid considerably less than their white counterparts. The Penninsular and Orient Company, in 1897, reported that it paid lascars sixteen to eighteen shillings a month — British sailors, however, were paid four pounds a month. Lascars were also commonly paid in Indian rupees, meaning exchange rates placed them at a disadvantage. An article from the Shields Daily Gazette, written in 1896, highlighted the consequences. A lascar attempted to pay for a drink in a Westminster public house with a rupee. Perplexed, the landlord ejected the lascar from the premises. The story later circulated the neighbourhood, culminating in the lascar being abused, assaulted and later imprisoned.

Pay was just one of the many arenas in which lascars suffered unequal treatment. Inequity also existed onboard the ship. The quality of food lascars received was subpar to that of their white counterparts, as was the accommodation space and option for voyage lengths. Mahomed Ali, a lascar, once recalled consuming stale rice and rotting fish while British sailors feasted on salt beef, biscuits, tea and sugar; lascars were locked into voyages for two years, while British sailors possessed options to travel for a year or less; and lascars faced inhumane sleeping arrangements, predicated on racial stereotypes that Indian men were more “stoic” and less susceptible to human suffering. “It would be absurd to expect Englishmen to be satisfied with the remuneration and sleeping accommodation that the Asian toiler is only too glad to get,” said John Rees, a parliamentarian and colonial administrator in India. The ship was a territory of division: on race, on resources and on the treatment of lascars.

The perception that pervaded many English minds was that of inferiority: Indian seafarers were cheap labour, ready to be exploited and help the maritime industry sustain its profits in an age of burgeoning imperialism. Racial dynamics dictated the physical and economic environment in which lascars laboured. In the engine room, lascars faced responsibility for the hot and heavy work of heaving the coal and stoking the fires, temperatures of which would exceed sixty degrees. On deck, they managed the anchor, steered the vessel, sounded lead, tended to the ropes, and scrubbed, washed and painted the wood.

Hierarchies exacerbated divisions. Asymmetrical power relations touched almost every aspect of life. Superiority was denoted by whiteness, masculinity and wealth; subordination was denoted by brownness, poverty and emasculation. Laura Tabili, professor at the University of Arizona, states that divisions of labour and power cut across perceptions of gender and masculinity. Lascars were appointed, in her view, to menial and unskilled jobs — those traditionally perceived as “women’s work” — while European officers were given titles of captains, master and engineers, roles typically seen as masculine and skilled. The intersection of race and gender became critical within the ship: itself a tyrannical and oppressive institution.

A select committee of the East India Company revealed the attitudes harboured towards lascars: “two lascars may be considered equal to one European; in a cold climate the lascar became of no value. Two lascars can keep watch more easily than one European, and do many small jobs; there is not much work on board a ship that requires great strength. The conditions of the Indian ship without European officers is as slovenly, dirty and ill-managed as possible.”

For all intents and purposes, lascars engaged in a form of indentured labour. Michael Fisher, Professor at Oberlin College, nearly summarised the position lascars found themselves in: “Indian seamen…may have been ‘free labour’ prior to boarding ship, but they were in many respects ‘unfree labour’ while at sea. They were unable to change jobs, to vary the amount of labour extracted from them, to increase their compensation or to quit — in short, to do much to improve their working conditions generally.” The very existence of lascars trapped them in artificial, isolated settings — ships, mines, and plantations — where they were a “minority vis-à-vis tine indigenous population, and dependant on European employers for the necessities of life.”

Marginalised by mainstream British society, lascars operated on its fringes; their cultural and economic contributions to the wealth of Britain sidelined. Britain did everything it could to render their presence invisible — regulating how they were employed, who they interacted with, and how they integrated themselves into British society at large, all in an effort to minimise the danger of political and cultural contact. “Sailors who were not British had a spectral quality,” writes Jonathan Hyslop, professor of sociology at Colgate University. “…their existence was ideologically anomalous…they came into focus when there was controversy about them, but otherwise, they were forgotten.” Lascars were perceived with elements of unearthliness. Outside moments of unavoidable contact, the presence of lascars during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries soon faded from British minds.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, however, Britain could no longer afford to ignore its Indian seamen. The Georgian and Victorian periods brought Britons into ever-increasing contact with lascars, the British empire itself brought to citizens’ doorsteps. A central question soon plagued the British state: how could it best deal with lascars abandoned upon their shores, given their inability to return back to India and their susceptibility to destitution?

For hundreds of years, Parliament played a key role in suppressing the return of lascars back to India. The Navigation Acts favoured those ships defined in law as British: vessels that were British-built, British captained and British-owned, including a crew at least three-quarters British. Ships arriving from India, however, were excluded from such restrictions. Parliament understood that vessels often relied on Indian seamen in the journey back to Britain, a consequence of higher mortality rates and levels of desertion from English sailors. But for those ships leaving Britain for India, the Acts limited ships which wished to be classified as British from employing Indians above one quarter of their crew.  Combined with an imbalance of imports and exports from India, the inevitable result was a surplus of stranded Indian men in Britain.

Without maintenance, shelter or prospects of return to their homeland — nor an understanding of the English language and the customs that followed — Indian seamen faced great levels of destitution. Unable to receive relief under existing Poor Laws, lascars were forced to beg on Britain’s streets.

“Lascars on British ships: the question of their retention” in The Illustrated London News: 27 October 1906, London

Yet lascars found some comfort in comradery. In the Limehouse and Shadwell areas of London, many lascars formed communities in the Oriental Quarter, areas where they could form connections and retain degrees of fellowship. Conditions in the quarter, however, were no better than that of the streets. Joseph Salter, a Christian missionary known for his work with lascars, once stated that “We are now fairly in the Oriental Quarter; there are several houses here devoted to Asiatics, presided over by Chinese, Malays, and Indians according to the country of the Asiatic seeking companionship, how shamelessness has its premium and admirers, and honestly truth and self-respect are trampled in the dust. Here disease and death decked in gaudy tinseled robes allure the victim to the grave.” Overcrowding in dilapidated accommodation was all too often a sight; slime, dirt and excrement a common experience of life in the Oriental Quarter.

Without means to survive, many lascars were left with little choice but entrepreneurship or crime. In 1900, lascars in Glasgow were recorded “selling or trying to sell mats and carpets as well as corals, trinkets and native curios,” while in 1881, three lascars were charged with smuggling tobacco and cigars into Liverpool. Reports also surfaced of lascars selling curry powder in bottles.

Although many lascars attempted to integrate into mainstream British society, public opinion on lascars was mixed. One the one hand, there was clear concern and sympathy for distressed lascars. On the other, attitudes of racial and religious inferiority plagued public thought. Lascars were deemed “destitute of moral capacity” and as “heathen others”. In a general meeting of the London Missionary Society in 1814, lascars were deemed extremely depraved, idol worshippers and deluded followers of a false prophet, with a propensity for prostitutes and poverty.

Religion, alongside race, was also a key distinction in the public mind. As non-Christians, lascars were ranked low according to Western values and civilisation. Yet the distinction between Islam and Englishness — maintained through imperialist ideologies — meant little to Muslim Indians, who saw Islam as a universal religion. According to the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1806, there was a “Mohammedan Jubilee”, where “lascars of the Mohammedan persuasion at the East end of town had a grand religious festival”, with drums, tambourines, dances and chants from the Qur’an.

For some Muslim lascars, Islam was a proselytising religion, and this meant persuading British citizens to convert to Islam. According to one London missionary, Islam was in fact “Islamo-Christianity”, since Muslim lascars appealed to English Christians by stressing the similarities between the two religions. But while Islam may have been tolerated, for Diane Robinson-Dunn, “the missionaries and other middle-class Victorians who came into contact with them did not consider them to be English, not only because they had been born outside of the country, but ironically because their circumstances and lifestyles resemble[d] those of other English people who seemed to threaten the social order and were, therefore, considered outsiders existing beyond the pale of the true English nation.” Robinson-Dunn continues: “For contemporary reformers these people were an ‘alien nation’ living in the heart of the city in areas that were ‘unexplored, uncivilised’ and even ‘colonial’…like the underclass in general, lascars were thought to inhabit spaces that existed in England physically, but were removed from it culturally.”

Paradoxically, lascars were also perceived with an element of exoticism. Indian lascars were seen as novelties, alongside spices, textiles, tea and other commodities brought in from the new world. At the core of British opinion on lascars, therefore, were too strands: the idea that lascars were unworthy of unequal treatment, and the notion that lascars were foreign peculiarities.

The failure of Britain to deal with large numbers of lascars on its shores was a primary cause for Indian destitution. The reluctance to help Indians was mixed, but it was a consequence of contentious understandings of what legal rights were owed and by whom. For Hannah Muller, associate professor at Brandeis University, the “legal and popular understandings of subjecthood” were expansive yet ambiguous in the eighteenth century, but while “many subjects assumed they were entitled to certain rights, very few of those rights were formally recognised.”

Original responsibility for lascars belonged to the East India Company, but with dwindling finances and an end to its monopoly of trade in India during the latter half of the nineteenth century, parliament “legally absolved the Company of responsibility for Indians in Britain.” Responsibility soon shifted to the India Office, newly established in 1858, a year after the disaster of the Indian Rebellion.  Though consisting of several units, no singular department within the Office had obvious authority over Indians in Britain. Control later fell to the Judicial and Public Department, accountable for justice, law and order.

The central argument put forward by the Office was a simple but consequential one: that it did not have the legal, moral or financial responsibility to provide relief to Indians. The Office was concerned with the social and political ramifications that would ensue in helping destitute Indians, since “a proposal for repatriation originated here might be regarded as an admission of a moral obligation to deal with such cases…” But the Office also evoked language of liberty. Arguing that any involvement “would be regarded as an interference with the liberty of the Subject”, the Office pushed forward the narrative that destitute Indians were really just “adventurers”, all of whom had travelled of their own accord and were therefore responsible for their own outcomes. In their view, destitute Indians were better served in charitable houses: institutions set up by Christian missionaries to provide a safe space for foreigners.

It was the Christian missionaries who, believing that Britain had a moral responsibility to protect its colonial subjects, became involved in providing safe houses for foreign visitors. Failures of the East India Company and the British state in protecting lascars led to a vacuum, one which later became filled by various philanthropic institutions. Among them included the Society of Friends for Foreigners in Distress, the Distressed Sailors’ Asylum, the Society for the Destitute, the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity, and the Society for the Protection of Asiatic Sailors — set up in 1814 “to ensure the protection of these strangers in the peaceable enjoyment of their privileges under British laws in this Kingdom”.

“The presence of such public and religious philanthropic societies, eager to provide aid to those in need, point to a widespread belief that Britons had a moral responsibility to imperial subjects, part of a shift toward British-middle class ideals of respectability and morality,” writes historian Raminder Saini. “If doing charitable deeds was good Christian behaviour, then what could be more charitable than aiding a ‘helpless’ group of strangers from the empire?” The presence of destitute Indians in the metropole damaged the image of Britain, itself the protector and ruler of its vast empire. For the Sunday Magazine, writing in 1872, the conditions of lascars was “an outrage on humanity; a scandal to our country and a disgrace to our religion.” For missionaries, philanthropic homes “saved the country from…dishonour” and acted as a way it could regulate lascars in Britain.

The language of aid was not the only type of dialogue present, however. Christian missionaries also expressed an overly paternalistic attitude, “couched in a language of imperial responsibilities” in the desire of “cleaning up Britain’s streets.” While aiming to avoid suffering, institutions such as The Strangers’ Home took aim in repatriating lascars back to India. Lascars, in so far as they were staying in Britain, would “receive Christian instruction”, and would be guided through correct standards of morality and ways of living in an effort to avoid the negative vices of society. Lascars were “children of tropical climes”, ready and willing to be guided by Christian morality.

The Strangers’ Home, and many other like it, were not therefore long-term solutions to lascar homelessness. The Home was a temporary lodging house, one willing to provide sanctuary until lascars found further employment on Britain’s ships, or until they could return back to their homelands. Lascars were required to leave after sixty days of admission if they were unable to find employment, or if any payments to the house ceased. In the late 1850s, the Home reported that it had shipped three hundred and twenty two lascars and servants back to India, “the transfer of some having been arranged by the agent at the request of the owners or captains of the vessels they belonged to.” In 1859, seven thousand and seventy three lascars and servants were “engaged and shipped from the Home,” and the numbers had further increased by the mid-1860s.

In 1864, an excerpt from the Home’s annual report noted that more lascars were needed for ships leaving from Britain than could be supplied. By 1868, the Home’s later reported a statement of success, noting that “nearly every variety of Asiatic…have come within the influence of the Home.”

“Whether intentional or not, the Strangers’ Home became a place in which imperial subjects were scrutinised, recorded and ultimately controlled,” writes Raminder Saini. But the ultimate motivations for Christian missionary involvement with lascars is mixed. While there were certainly elements of racial paternalism, there were also moments of “sympathy within a classical Victorian approach to philanthropy.”

Lascars in Britain ultimately resided in a world marked by difference. Outside of marine life, Indian seamen were largely sidelined from Britain’s imperial past. “Neither peasants nor proletarians, palpably committed neither to ship nor harbour, sea nor land, port nor hinterland, town nor village, urban nor rural, industry nor agriculture, Asia nor Europe, modern nor traditional”, writes Gopalan Balachandran, “Indian seamen were distant stragglers…”. Yet the fundamental contribution lascars made to Britain’s cannot be overstated. While the lives of lascars were only deemed valuable in so far as Britain could strengthen its imperial hand, the truth is that lascars represented the first global workers underpinning transoceanic trade.


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