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Lascars in Dundee

Updated: Aug 12, 2023


Four Indian seamen from the Clan Farquhar trying to keep warm at Dundee West Station on a cold day in 1912 (from Dundee Courier 17/12/1912, used by kind permission of DC Thomson & Co Ltd)


In April 1882, the Evening Telegraph reported on the return to Dundee of the P&O steamer Teheran, built here by Gourlay Brothers eight years earlier: “The steamer has on board a crew of Lascars numbering about one hundred, and as they walked through the town yesterday they attracted a good deal of attention.”


By that time, the sight of ‘Lascars’ on Dundee ships was an increasingly common one, and would have provided many Dundonians with their first direct encounters with people from South Asia. So who were these Lascars and how were they received in Dundee?


The word ‘lascar’ comes from the Persian ‘laskari’ meaning soldier, adapted by the Portuguese into ‘lascarim’, meaning Asian soldiers or seamen. Large numbers of men from the Indian subcontinent were employed on Portuguese vessels in the 16th and 17th centuries and the British soon began doing the same, adopting the word ‘lascar’ to describe them. Although normally referring only to seamen from India (including modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh), the term was sometimes used indiscriminately to refer to any sailors recruited from South or East Asia, Africa or the Arab world.


In 1832 a series of Acts were passed giving British shipping companies the legal right to employ Lascars on lower wages than British crews, and to provide them with poorer accommodation and smaller provisions. The numbers increased dramatically and by the end of the 19th century Lascars accounted for nearly 20% of the crew of British ships. According to the Evening Telegraph, “men come from all parts of India… while Burma and the Maldive and Laccadive Islands also send recruits. Travelling agents tour the districts where the best men come from… the recruits are sent to Bombay, where they are shipped to the various companies.”


Lascars thus became a common sight in Dundee, particularly with the rapid development of the jute trade with Bengal in mid-19th century. The way they were treated, however, changed significantly over time. When the first Dundee Sailors’ Home opened in 1851, Indians seem to have been welcomed on equal terms. In 1853, it was reported that “a vessel from India, manned by a crew of Lascars, had all resided in the Sailors’ Home”, where they apparently enjoyed “cleanly appearance and orderly behaviour”.


Half a century later, reports were very different. According to the Harbour Engineer in 1897, “The Lascar crews were a disgrace to the men that brought them to Dundee. The respectable portion of the community were debarred from going near vessels on which there were Lascar crews from the foul sights that were to be witnessed.”


Some Indians took the opportunity to earn some extra money while in port, venturing ashore to sell coconuts, exotic shells and other items. Unfortunately this meant they were often subject to racist abuse from local residents, particularly children. The Evening Post frequently complained about this: “Systematic annoyance of foreigners on our public streets by youngsters has long been a blot on the escutcheon of Dundee… Lascars in particular”. On another occasion, they lamented, “the treatment to which some of these poor creatures are subjected by people who ought to know better as they pass along our streets calls for attention by the police.”


A few Lascars left their ships altogether and remained in Dundee but struggled to make a living. In 1863, a Courier reporter ventured into a lodging house in the Overgate slums, describing it as one of “the most horrible dens which tongue can describe or imagination conceive.” Such slums were said to be home to “the Hindoo and Mussulman [ie Hindu and Muslim] tract sellers”. In one room “we found in a bed two Bengalee Lascars; in another couch, not three feet from it, were another Bengalee and his wife, a bold-faced young Scotswoman” – if true, this was presumably one of Dundee’s earliest interracial marriages. Two weeks later, the same reporter found one of the same men in the Greenmarket “yelling out the merits of his ‘Compozishun’ for the hair, which he solemnly avers is composed of ‘cokey nut ile.’”


Each Lascar crew was managed by a serang (the equivalent of a boatswain), identified here by his uniform and whistle on a silver chain (from Evening Telegraph 13/9/1935, used by kind permission of DC Thomson & Co Ltd)

For some, even this life was presumably considered preferable to the appalling conditions they had to endure on ship. As well as the cramped living quarters and meagre food rations, accidents were common, and those happening while ships were in dock were frequently reported by the Dundee press. In 1924, for example, coal trimmer Hasson Hatinooli lost part of a finger when the plate from a stock-hole landed on it. He was treated on deck but many others had to be taken to the Royal Infirmary. In 1919, Azar Ali was rushed to hospital after falling over 30 feet down a hatch, causing a dislocated wrist and fractured thigh. In 1938, Dalwar Hoosein was admitted to the Infirmary after sustaining severe head injuries when he was struck by a piece of wood which fell from a derrick sling.


Tragically there were also deaths. In 1920 depute deck tindal (a Lascar boatswain’s mate) Aiym Misson died suddenly on board the Manoar at the Eastern Wharf after complaining of feeling unwell. In 1924, a serang (boatswain or deck overseer) on the Mangalore, Nookoo Meah Chowdhury, met his death trying to put out a fire that broke out in the jute-filled hold.


However the Lascars did not always meekly accept their poor working conditions. In 1901 a band of about 30 of them left the Ameer which had arrived in Dundee from Calcutta and made their way to the Post Office to lodge an official complaint against their treatment by the chief engineer, refusing to return to ship unless he was removed. They were directed to the police station where they made an official charge of assault. The case was taken to Court the next day but as few of the Lascars spoke English and they were unable to agree on the exact date the alleged assault had occurred, the magistrate dismissed the case with a warning to the engineer. The crew still refused to go back to ship and claimed they would rather go to prison. Eventually the engineer was sent ashore and the crew agreed to return.


As numbers of Lascars on British ships grew (25,399 in 1892 compared to 47,211 twenty years later), there was an increasing backlash at a national level, reported with interested by the Dundee press. In 1900 the President of the Board of Trade claimed to be “pressing this matter with a view to driving lascars out of British ships altogether… [The] increased employment of lascars meant naturally the displacement of British labour.”


The faces of four Indian seamen from the jute liner Mulbera (from Evening Telegraph 7/3/1938, used by kind permission of DC Thomson & Co Ltd)

Many unions complained about the issue, often using derogatory racial stereotypes to do so. In 1914 the National Transport Workers Federation stated: “The life of the Asiatic is low… his clothing is scanty, and along with his food costs next to nothing. He is squeezing the white man out.” In response, one Dundee shipbroker reminded Courier readers that as citizens of the Empire, Indians were British subjects. They were also, it seems, simply better at the job. “The shipowners looked upon a native crew as being better than a white crew in that the natives were always about when they were required, and that they were never addicted to drink, which was, on the other hand, a very common failing of the British seaman”. Another Dundee shipowner explained that “native crews were more able to work under the trying conditions of the East and the Tropics than the white man” and that “the ships were kept in better condition when manned by a native crew.”


During the Great War, many of those who had served as Lascars joined the Royal Indian Marine and their service on behalf of the ‘mother country’ may have led to them being treated more sympathetically after the war. In the 1920s and 30s we see more positive stories appearing in the Dundee press. In 1924, for example, a crowd of up to 3000 people gathered at the harbour to be entertained by a group of Lascars performing acrobatics and rope tricks. Concern was now being shown for their welfare, particularly in winter. In 1937, a crew of 58 Lascars had to leave ship at Dundee and catch specially chartered buses to Birkenhead to join their next vessel. The Evening Telegraph’s reporter observed:


“At 5am the men breakfasted of their usual rice and then got thoroughly oiled – but not in the colloquial sense. Each man anoints himself all over to keep out the cold; he needs it. Dressed only in thin gaudy-coloured cotton, the men seemed to feel little of the biting wind… Clasping to them very individual items of comfort, the men trooped off in the darkness and whirling snow to the waiting buses, and under the watchful eye of the imperturbable serang. Few overcoats were seen and only an occasional hat.”


Religious occasions were also recorded. In 1936, the Evening Telegraph described Lascars on board the Mulbera celebrating the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr (marking the end of Ramadan) in a sympathetic if occasionally patronising way:


“Early to-day the celebrations began. Under the supervision of their priest, the men donned festive and indigenous costumes, and prayed towards Mecca… Native foods of barbaric quality were to be had in abundance, and also more recognisable dishes such as huge basins of rice, turkeys, &c. The Lascars, of naturally ebullient disposition, gave vent to their real feelings, and cheerful pandemonium reigned in the foc’sle, which was decorated in typical Indian fashion.”


There was even a report in the Courier of a Lascar fireman in 1923 seeking to marry “his Dundee sweetheart”, a mill girl “whose difference of colour, race and outlook she considers no bar to matrimony”. Although Matha Lakha had lived in Greenock since 1914, he had not learned to read or write English, so the marriage could only happen if a suitable interpreter could be found. No marriage certificate has been traced, unfortunately, suggesting it may never have taken place.


Only once did a Dundee reporter succeed in speaking directly to one of the Lascars, for an Evening Telegraph feature in 1935:


“I walked into the cook’s galley of another liner and found the cook making tea. This grinning Lascar could talk the hind leg off a donkey in his fascinating broken English. This was a surprise for most lascars and silent when it comes to English. His name, he told me, was Chotoo, and before I could ask any questions he gave me to know that he was a Christian and the ship’s first cook besides”. Chotoo claimed to have visited Amsterdam, Rotterdam, London, Glasgow, New York and Buenos Aires but liked his home in Calcutta best. “We have everything in Calcutta, sahib. Finest market place in the world. You can buy everything from anchor to pin in one place – elephant, tiger, monkey, silk, anything you like. We have ‘talkies’ just like you have here.’”


By that time the number of ships docking in Dundee was rapidly diminishing, and the Lascar became a rarer sight. In 1963 the Lascar Acts were finally repealed and the word fell into disuse.


According to Magdalena Schedl of Royal Museums Greenwich: “The contributions of lascars to the success of Britain’s maritime empire has often been forgotten, deliberately overlooked, or downplayed in collective memory”. In Dundee, certainly, where the Lascar made such a colourful contribution to the life of this international port, they deserve to be remembered.


Written by Matthew Jarron, University of Dundee Museums


Sources:


Dundee Advertiser 11/2/1853, 7/12/1897


Dundee Courier 11/12/1863, 25/12/1863, 26/11/1902, 17/12/1912, 2/5/1914, 9/1/1923, 28/1/1924, 14/5/1938


Evening Post 4/5/1901, 30/12/1901, 26/6/1902

Evening Telegraph 3/4/1882, 14/1/1904, 21/3/1919, 7/5/1920, 8/2/1924, 20/3/1924, 13/9/1935, 16/12/1936, 28/1/1937, 7/3/1938


Lloyd’s List 3/3/1900


Dean Broughton, ‘Unfortunate Strangers: Lascars in the British Maritime World c.1849-1912’ (unpublished Master’s thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2018)


Ceri-Anne Fidler, ‘Lascars, c.1850-1950: The Lives and Identities of Indian Seafarers in Imperial Britain and India’ (unpublished PhD thesis, CardiffUniversity, 2011)


Hassan Mahamdallie, ‘Uncovering a history of Black and Asian people in Britain’ (2016) at www.rmg.co.uk/stories/blog/library-archive/uncovering-history-black-asian-people-britain


Magdalena Schedl, ‘Naval dictionaries on the High Seas’ (2021) at www.rmg.co.uk/stories/blog/naval-dictionaries-on the high-seas


‘Lascar’, Wikipedia entry at wikipedia.org/wiki/Lascar






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