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Lascars (Indian Seamen)

In the 17th and 18th centuries, British sailors and dock workers had traditions of causing riots against impressment and other attempts to limit their freedoms. Insurrection in London during 1768 produced fears that not just white sailors were rising up, but also what was described as "wretches of mongrel descent," the "immediate sons of Jamaice," or "African Blacks by Asiatic Mulatoes."

The East India Company hoped that South Asian lascars would be a more docile workforce than the sometimes unruly English sailors. Substandard food and wages after the Seven Years' War led many English sailors to desert. As a result, the Admiralty began a reign of terror that led to hangings. An individual sailor who was found absent without leave could be given as many as 700 lashes as punishment.

Many westward bound shippers brought crews of lascars on boats filled with goods from India, but upon arrival in Great Britain, they left the South Asians rotting without work for weeks. There were reports of impoverished South Asian sailors wandering the streets of London in the 1780s. The lascars already received much lower wages and had to endure conditions inferior to those for their white British counterparts. Such a state of affairs led to desertions, and slowly a South Asian population grew in a few key port cities.

British shipping concerns increased their employment of lascars during the Napoleonic wars, and then their growth soared during the massive expansion of overseas trade in the 19th century. The communities of South Asian sailors slowly made their presence felt in the East End of London and in major seaport and shipping towns, such as Liverpool, England; Cardiff, Wales; and Glasgow, Scotland.

Lascars made up perhaps 20 percent of the British maritime labor force in the early 20th century, with their total exceeding 26 percent by 1938. At least 6,600 South Asian merchant seamen perished during World War II, which is a conservative estimate because some British shipping firms failed to report the names of lost lascars. Only a handful of South Asians are mentioned on the memorial at Tower Hill with the names of 26,833 seamen of the British Merchant Navy who died in the carnage of both world wars.

Over time a number of South Asian sailors abandoned the seafaring way of life. A deserting lascar often headed for one of the Indian lodging houses in the East End of London where they might soon begin the application process for a pedlar's license.

Warrants of apprehension of deserters were issued under the Merchant Shipping Act, XIII Section 680-683, and could result in the arrests of deserters. Where these records survive, they can be found at the London Metropolitan Archives, or in a few cases, are held at the National Archives. Some impoverished lascars made applications for relief from the Poplar Institutione, a dwelling place for many sailors. The records created by the Poplar Institution and the Strangers' Home (which was established in 1857) are found in the Town Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (277 Bancroft Road, London E1 4DQ, England).

If the lascars avoided prosecution by shipping companies for desertion, they seized the opportunity to obtain a certificate of nationality from the High Commissioner of India and the British Indian Seamen's Certificates of Identify, which came to be regarded as the equivalent of a passport by many of their holders.

Application would be made to the High Commissioner for India, proof would be provided of their identity, and pedlar's certificate would be obtained by naming the lodging house proprietor as a reference. If the authorities denied the certificate, the applicant faced the risk of being thrown out of the lodging house and often delivered to the local workhouse.

The Commissioner of Police then could issue a pedlar's certificate, which lasted one year from the date of issue. This annual ritual resulted in many renewals. The national Archives file MEPO 2/5064 contains correspondence on lascar deserters of 2937, warrants for the arrest of Indian seamen in 1938, and a list of Indians with pedlars' certificates issued in Reading between 1930 and 1933.

Record series HO 45/15000 provides a listing of the pedlars' certificates of 1932-33 possessed by the Indian lodgers at 138 High Street, Poplar, and 28 London Street, Reading. Record series HO 45 contains records on the Special Certificate of nationality issued to colored seamen. A keyword search can be conducted at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ using the surname of the person.

Indian Student Records

Indian students pursued a range of studies in Great Britain, particularly in Law, Medicine, and in technical fields. Although many individual colleges tried to keep their numbers down, Indians at first came manly to oxford, Cambridge, London, and Edinburgh universities. In the early 20th century the South Asian students also went to Glasgow University and the Manchester School of Technology.

Therefore, it may be useful to consult the admission registers of these universities. Oxbridge details are supplied in the ten volumes of John & J.A. Venn's Alumni Cantabrigienses (Cambridge University Press, 1922-54), and the eight volumes of Joseph Foster's Alumni Oxonienses (James Parker & O., 1888-91). From 1880 to 1913, the total number of Indian students in Britain expanded from approximately 100 to 1700.

Indian Civil Service (ICS)

As the Indian Civil Service examination could only be taken in London until 1922, Indian aspirants for a post had to journey to Great Britain. Lord Salisbury, the Secretary for India, reduced the qualifying age for the ICS Exam from 21 to 19 in 1876, an action that probably significantly reduced the number of Indians who might apply. Indian ICS candidates were put on probation and compelled to attend Oxford, Cambridge, or the University of London as a means of acquiring the requisite moral fiber. The records of the Civil Service Commission Department are held in the National Archives.

Servants and Ayahs (Nannies or Ladies' Maids)

British families who had served in India brought back servants and ayahs when they returned to Great Britain. Little is known about their lives and contributions, but some be traced through passenger lists. Some arrived in Great Britain and then quickly returned with another family on an eastbound ship. See the "Passenger List" information in the "Emigration and Immigration" article of this outline.

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  • This page was last modified on 21 June 2012, at 20:19.
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