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For other uses, see Lascar (disambiguation).
"Lascars" redirects here. For the animated series, see Lascars (TV series). For the film, see Lascars (film).
Three lascar crew of the P&O liner RMS Viceroy of India

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.[1]


Sixteenth century[edit]

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. The Portuguese applied the term Lascar to all sailors on their ships who were originally from the Indies, which they defined as the areas east of the Cape of Good Hope.

Through the Portuguese and Spanish maritime world empires, some South Asian Lascars found their way to Britain, and were among the sailors on the first British East India Company ships to sail to India. South Asian Lascars and African crewmen are depicted on Japanese Namban screens of the sixteenth century.[2] The Luso-Asians appear to have evolved their own pidgin Portuguese which was used throughout South and Southeast Asia.[3]

Seventeenth century[edit]

When the British adopted the term Lascar, they initially used it for all Asian crewmen, but by the mid-seventeenth century, the term was used mainly to describe crewmen from South or Southeast Asia. Among other terms was "Topaze" to describe Indo-Portuguese naval militia, and Sepoy to describe South Asian military militia.

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.[4] Lascars were paid 5% of their fellow white sailors' wages and were often expected to work longer hours as well as being given food in small, and often inferior quality. [5]

Eighteenth century[edit]

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. On Captain James Cook's ill-fated second voyage to the Pacific, the HMS Resolution, has lost so many men (including Cook) that she had to take on new crew in Asia to get back to England. Among the crew was Calcutta-born Lascar Abraham Mohammed.[6]

Nineteenth century[edit]

The British East India Company recruited seamen from areas around its factories in Bengal, Assam and Gujarat, as well as from Yemen, British Somaliland and Portuguese Goa. They were known by the British as 'Lascars', and a number of them created small settlements in port towns and cities in Britain although minuscule. some of these sailors settled down and married local British wives, perhaps partly due to a lack of Asian women in Britain at the time.[7]:111–9,29–30,40,54–6,60–8,81[8]

By 1813, there were more than 10,000 Indian Lascars living in British port cities and towns.[7]: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 British ports. In 1872 and 1873, 3,271 Lascars arrived annually in Britain.[9]:35 Throughout the early 19th century, lascars from the Indian Subcontinent arrived in Britain at a rate of 1,000 every year,[7]:140,54–6,60–8,72 which increased to a rate of 10,000 to 12,000 every year throughout the late 19th century.[10]

Lascars served on ships for Assisted Passage to Australia, and on troop ships during Britain's colonial wars including the Boer Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. 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 working on British ships in Britain.[9]:37

In the nineteenth century the term "Lascar" was applied specifically to South Asian crewmen. The Term Krooman was applied to African crewmen in the Atlantic, especially those from the Kru ethnicity in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Krooman were also recruited from St.Helena which served as a base for the Royal Navy. Africans from the Indian Ocean, either from East Africa, Arabia or the Indian subcontinent were termed Siddi. Many of these were ex-enslaved Africans, freed by the Royal Navy. Others were free Africans. Siddis (also Sidhi, Seedie, and Seedhi and Lascars served together in the Royal Navy's East African Antislavery Slavery Campaign.[11]

Twentieth century[edit]

Lascars served all over the world in the period leading up to the First World War, Lascars 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.

The lack of Canadian naval manpower led to the employment of total of 121 Catholic Goans and 530 Muslim British Indians on the Empress vessels of the Canadian Pacific Railway, such as the Empress of Asia and Empress of Japan. These ships served in the Indian Ocean both as ANZAC convoy ships and in actions at Aden. The ships were placed under the British Admiralty as part of Canada's contribution to the war effort and all of the South Asian men were awarded medals by the admiralty, though none of them were delivered.[12]

Lascars in the Mascarene Islands[edit]

Presumably because Muslim Lascars, manned the "coolie ships" that carried Indian and Chinese Indentured Labor to the sugar plantations of the Mascarene Islands, the term Lascar is also used in Mauritius, Réunion and the Seychelles to refer to Muslims, by both Muslims and Non-Muslims. The preferred spelling in modern times is "Lashkar."

Lascars and multiracial Britain[edit]

Asian-British interracial marriage began in Britain from the 17th century, when the British East India Company began recruiting thousands of lascars (mostly Bengali Muslims, but also from Goa and Ratnagiri District in Maharashtra) to work on British ships and in ports, some of whom settled in British port cities and cohabited wiith British women.

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 in the area were marrying and cohabiting with foreign Indian lascar seamen. Nevertheless, there were no legal restrictions against 'mixed' marriages in Britain.[7]:106,11–6,9–20,9–35,40–2,54–8,60–8,72,81[9]:58[13] Indian lascar sailors established some of England's first settled Asian-British interracial families in the dock areas of major port cities.[14] This led to a growing number of "mixed race" children being born in the country. The number of ethnic minority women in Britain were often outnumbered by "half-caste Indian" daughters born from white mothers and Indian fathers.[15]

Lascar immigrants were often the first Asians to be seen in British port cities and were initially perceived as indolent due to their reliance on Christian charities.[16]

The Port of London Authority mentions lascars in a February 1931 article stating ''Although appearing so out of place in the East End, they are well able to look after themselves, being regular seamen who came to the Docks time after time and have learnt a little English and know how to buy what they want.''[17]

Lascars in Canada[edit]

Lascars were on board late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century ships arriving on the Pacific coast of Northwest North America. In most cases the ships sailed from Macau, though some came from India. When the Gustavus III arrived at Clayoquot Sound on the coast of Vancouver Island, the ships crew included three Chinese, one Goan and one Filipino among its crew.[18] Lascars were barred from entry to British Columbia and other Canadian ports from 1914 until the late 1940's therefore they seldom occur on landing and embarkation records, though they were frequenting the ports and remaining on board the ships.[19]

Lascars in North America[edit]

Lascars were on board early British voyages to the Northwest coast of North America. These sailors were among the multinational crew arriving from Asia in seek of furs. Among these was the Nootka in 1786 that arrived at the Russian port of Unalaska and sailed on to Prince William Sound in Alaska. There were ten South Asian and one Chinese lascars on this vessel. Three Lascars died in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The Nootka sailed back to Asia via Hawaii and the Lascars became the first recorded South Asians to sail to Alaska and Hawaii.[20]

Portrayal in literature[edit]

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.[21][22] Amitav Ghosh's book Sea of Poppies portrays the British East India Company and their use of lascar crews. Shahida Rahman's Lascar (book) (2012) is the story of an East Indian lascar's journey to Victorian England.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Butalia, Romesh C (1999), The evolution of the Artillery in India, Allied Publishers, p. 239, ISBN 81-7023-872-2 
  2. ^ Namban - O Dia em que o Ocidente descobriu o Japao. By Luiz Carlos Lisboa & Mara Rubia Arakaki. São Paulo, Brazil. 1993
  3. ^ The Portuguese in the East. A Cultural History of a Maritime Trading Empire. By Shihan De Silva Jayasuriya. London, UK. 2008.
  4. ^ Pp 6-9 A South-Asian History of Britain, By Michael H. Fisher, Shompa Lahiri and Shinder Thandi. Oxford, Uk. 2007
  5. ^
  6. ^ Robson, John. Check |url= value (help).  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. ^ a b c d Fisher, Michael Herbert (2006). Counterflows to Colonialism. Orient Blackswan. ISBN 81-7824-154-4. 
  8. ^ Halliday, Fred (2010). Britain's First Muslims: Portrait of an Arab Community. I.B. Tauris. p. 51. ISBN 1848852991. Retrieved 30 December 2015. 
  9. ^ a b c Ansari, Humayun (2004). The Infidel Within: The History of Muslims in Britain, 1800 to the Present. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers. ISBN 1-85065-685-1. .
  10. ^ Robinson-Dunn, Diane (February 2003). "Lascar Sailors and English Converts: The Imperial Port and Islam in late 19th-Century England". Seascapes, Littoral Cultures, and Trans-Oceanic Exchanges. Retrieved 13 January 2009. 
  11. ^ Pereira, Clifford. "Black Liberators: The Role of Africans & Arabs [sic] sailors in the Royal Navy within the Indian Ocean 1841-1941" (PDF). UNESCO 2007. 
  12. ^ Research by Clifford J Pereira, Vancouver, 2016, British Columbia. Canada.
  13. ^ Fisher, Michael Herbert (2006). "Working across the Seas: Indian Maritime Labourers in India, Britain, and in Between, 1600–1857". International Review of Social History 51: 21–45. doi:10.1017/S0020859006002604. 
  14. ^ "Growing Up". Moving Here. Retrieved 2009-02-12. 
  15. ^ Rose, Sonya O.; Frader, Laura Levine (1996). Gender and Class in Modern Europepublisher=Cornell University Press. p. 184. ISBN 0-8014-8146-5. 
  16. ^ Fathom archive. ""British Attitudes towards the Immigrant Community". Columbia University". 
  17. ^ "Lascars In The Port of London - Feb. 1931". Retrieved 2016-01-22. 
  18. ^ Pg. 294. Snow, Captain E. Adventures at Sea in the great year of sail. Five firsthand narratives. Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 1986
  19. ^ research by Clifford J Pereira. 2015. Vancouver. BC. Canada.
  20. ^ Pg. 122. A new complete, and genuine history of the interesting voyages from Bengal and China to the Northwest coast of America, London, England, 1790.
  21. ^ Michie, E (Winter 1992). "From Simianized Irish to Oriental Despots: Heathcliff, Rochester and Racial Difference". NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 25 (2): 125. doi:10.2307/1346001. 
  22. ^ Tytler, G (1994). "". Brontë Society Transactions 21 (4): 137–148. doi:10.1179/030977694796439250.  External link in |title= (help)

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