A lascar was a sailor or militiaman from the Indian Subcontinent or other countries east of the Cape of Good Hope, employed on European ships from the 16th century until the middle of the 20th century. The word (also spelled lashkar, laskar) derives from Persian لشکر laškar, 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. Lascars served on British ships under "lascar agreements." These agreements allowed shipowners more control than was the case in ordinary articles of agreement. The sailors could be transferred from one ship to another and retained in service for up to three years at one time. The name lascar was also used to refer to Indian servants, typically engaged by British military officers.
Indian seamen had been employed on European ships since the first European made the sea voyage to India. Vasco da Gama, the first European to reach India by sea (in 1498), hired an Indian pilot at Malindi (a coastal settlement in what is now Kenya) to steer the Portuguese ship across the Indian Ocean to the Malabar Coast in southwestern India. Portuguese ships continued to employ lascars from the Subcontinent in large numbers throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, mainly from Goa and other Portuguese colonies in India.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 British 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 number of Indian seamen employed on UK ships 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 Committee's existence, it was found that only 35 of the 250 recipients of aid were Lascars, while the remaining recipients were Africans and former slaves from the Americas.
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 a lack of Asian women in Britain at the time.:111–9,29–30,40,54–6,60–8,81 By 1813, there were more than 10,000 Indian Lascars living in Britain.:140,54–6,60–8,72 By 1842, 3,000 lascars visited the UK every year, and by 1855, 12,000 lascars arrived annually in Britain. In 1872 and 1873, 3,271 Lascars arrived annually in Britain.:35 Throughout the early 19th century, lascars from the Indian Subcontinent arrived in Britain at a rate of 1,000 every year,:140,54–6,60–8,72 which increased to a rate of 10,000 to 12,000 every year throughout the late 19th century. Lascars served on ships for Assisted Passage to Australia, and on troop ships during Britain's colonial wars including the Boer Wars. In 1891 there were 24,037 Lascars employed on British merchant ships. For example the ship "Massilia" sailing from London to Sydney, Australia in 1891 lists more than half of its crew as Indian Lascars. On the eve of World War I, there were 51,616 Lascars in Britain.:37. 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. In World War II thousands of Lascars served in the war and died on vessels throughout the World, especially those of the British India Steam Navigation Company, P&O and other British shipping companies.
Asian-British interracial marriage began in Britain from the 17th century, when the British East India Company began bringing over thousands of lascars (mostly Bengali Muslims, but also from Goa and Ratnagiri District in Maharashtra) to Britain, most of whom married and cohabited with local British women and girls.
This later became an issue, as 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. Nevertheless, there were no legal restrictions against 'mixed' marriages in Britain.:106,11–6,9–20,9–35,40–2,54–8,60–8,72,81:58 Families with Indian lascar fathers and English mothers established interracial communities in Britain's 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 were often outnumbered by "half-caste Indian" daughters born from white mothers and Indian fathers.
Portrayal in literature
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a lascar foil to Sherlock Holmes in "The Man with the Twisted Lip". Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel A Little Princess features a lascar named Ram Dass. Also, Caleb Carr portrays two lascars as bodyguards for a Spanish diplomat near the end of The Angel of Darkness. In Wuthering Heights, it is speculated that Heathcliff, the main character, may be of lascar origin. Amitav Ghosh's book Sea of Poppies portrays the British East India Company and their use of lascar crews. Shahida Rahman's Lascar (2012) is the story of an East Indian lascar's journey to Victorian England.
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