Learning Zone Home > schooLMAte > Black and Asian Londoners > Timeline > The Lascars
Learning Zone
London Metropolitan Archives The Archives of the City of London
Theatreland Look at London schooLMAte Archive Work Data Online Learning Zone Home
   Black and Asian Londoners  |   French Community  |   Irish Community  |   City Communities  |  Teachers' Notes
   Maps  |   Stories   |   Images  |   Documents   |   Timelines   |   Audio Gallery   |   Related Links
The Lascars
<< Back

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 habitation”.

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.

<< Back
  Black & Asian Londoners: Other things to see and do
 Site Map    |   Disclaimer    |   Terms and Conditions    |   Privacy Policy    |    Credits