As Britain 's trade links with the East grew through the 18 th and 19 th centuries,
Indian sailors – called lascars – were employed on ships bringing cargoes back
to Britain . The lascars (and Chinese sailors, who were also used) were only
paid about a sixth of the European rate of pay, and probably for this reason
their numbers were limited by law to no more than a quarter of the crew of
any British ship. But in times of war or employment shortages these restrictions
were often ignored. During the Napoleonic Wars at the start of the 19 th century,
when British sailors were required by the Royal Navy, the number of lascars
arriving in London rose to around a thousand each year.
There were strict rules governing the employment of lascars on British ships:
they were to be paid a regular wage, given enough money to live on when they
reached Britain and guaranteed a return to India . However, these rules were
often broken. Lascars were frequently mistreated on board ship, often being
cruelly beaten; and at the end of the journey it was very common for them to
be abandoned in Europe or Britain without money to live on, or even without
their wages. Once there, they often had to wait months before their ship sailed
back to India .
As a result, even by the 1780's it was common to see lascars starving on the
streets of London . In 1785 five Lascars, one of them named in records as Soubaney,
managed to get legal assistance and successfully sued a shipowner for their
unpaid wages, but many more failed to get any help. Their plight attracted
attention: letters to newspapers in 1785 talked of “the number of miserable
objects, Lascars, … shivering and starving in the streets” and pointed out
that these men had a claim to much better treatment as they had been brought
here to serve British interests. It was concern about the lascars that led
businessman Jonas Hanway, in 1786, to set up a group to raise funds for them,
which soon became the “Committee for the Black Poor”.
The East India Company responded to criticisms of the lascars' treatment by
arranging for lodgings for them, but no checks were kept on the boarding houses
and barracks they provided, and the lascars were made to live in dreadful conditions.
In 1814 a Society for the Protection of Asiatic Sailors was set up, which found
several hundred lascars being crammed together in a single warehouse-like room
with no heating, being whipped or locked in cupboards for misbehaviour. Under
these conditions many died each year. By the 1850's there were regular complaints
that Lascars were being “herded like cattle”, in lodgings “unfit for human
In spite of these complaints, nothing was done to stop the appalling treatment
of the lascars until 1856, when a group of philanthropists launched an appeal
for a purpose-built boarding-home for them. With the aid of a £500 donation
from the Maharajah Duleep Singh, the “Strangers' Home” was finally opened in
Limehouse in 1857.