How Lascar seamen were viewed

Lascars were probably the largest group of South Asian workers in Victorian Britain. The majority were Muslim, although there were significant Hindu (Suratis) and Catholic Goan minorities.  They came principally from East Bengal (Bangladesh), particularly Chittagong and Sylhet, and were recruited from the port of Calcutta. The port of Bombay recruited seamen from along the Malabar Coast of Western India. The introduction of railways to India enabled recruitment from inland areas such as the Punjab.

The Annual Register 1805
April 11th. Last Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, and this day, the Lascars of the Mahommedan persuasion, at the east end of the town, had a grand religious festival. The first day they went in slow procession along the New-road, St. George's in the east, Cannon-street, Ratcliff-highway, Shadwell, and other streets, wilh drums and tambourines. Part of them were selected, performing pantomimical dances, with drawn swords, cutting the air in various directions; then followed four blacks, in long white robes, holding emblematical figures in their hands. Another held a vase, in which was a fire; and a man in a white vestment, treading backwards, threw incense into it; another, with a handkerchief, fanning their faces; when, at every turn of the streets, a group of the same people lifted up their hands and heads to the canopy of Heaven, hymning some passages out of the Koran. They conducted themselves with great propriety, although a multitude of people followed them. On Monday and Tuesday they made a visit in solemn procession the same way; and on Thursday another succeeded, which closed their religious revelry, back to their place in Ratcliff-highway. We understand this was a kind of jubilee in honour of the commencement of their new year, and of the translation of Mahommed into Paradise, and imploring him to give peace to the suffering world, and them a safe return to their own country.

The History and Antiquities of London, Westminster, Southwark and other parts adjacent 

INTERMENT OF A LASCAR. — The following ceremony, observed in performing the burial rites of this description of foreigners, took place in the month of January, 1823, in Britton's burying-ground, Church Lane, Whitechapel. The remains of the deceased (a man) were wrapped up in a sheet, and deposited in a plain wooden shell, painted black, and carried with the lid loose upon it in a blanket, by four of his countrymen, and followed close in the rear, by several others, from the Lascar Barracks, Cannon Street Road, St. George's in the East*, to the place of interment, where it arrived about eleven o'clock. On approaching the grave, which was about five feet deep, they laid down the coffin, and having formed themselves into a circle round it, took off the lid, uncovered the corpse, and and having sprinkled several handsful of fine earth over its face, replaced the lid, and fastened it down by three common nails only. They then took away the blanket, and lowered the coffin down into the grave, which they instantly commenced filling with clay, some by means of shovels, and others with their hands, for they would not allow a gravedigger to take any part in the transaction. As they filled the grave they sprinkled water over it, from an earthen vessel, and burying a shovel at the feet of the corpse, poured down upon it the remains of the water. A handkerchief was then spread at the head of the grave, and on that was placed a paper containing about half a pound of moist sugar, and several apples cut into square pieces. Over this they all stood muttering some words, as if by way of prayer, and thus the ceremony ended, without the attendance of a priest of any persuasion whatever. They sat up in rotation, two at a time, provided with lights and implements of defence, for several nights.

* The East India company paid contractors 10s. per week per head to house and feed lascars, and from 1804 this was held exclusively by Abraham Gole snr. and Abraham Gole junior, who built a barracks locally - see more about this family here. An 1814-15 Parliamentary Committee on Lascars and other Asiatic Seamen (for which Wilberforce, among others, had campaigned) paid a surprise visit, and reported severe overcrowding.

The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction vol XXXII (1838)
Considerable crowds were on Wednesday, October 3, 1838, attracted to the burial-ground adjoining Trinity Church, in Cannon-street-road East, to witness the singular ceremony of the interment of a Lascar who had recently arrived in this country by one of the East India ships, and who died shortly after the vessel had put into the St. Katharine's Dock. The body of the deceased, which was merely rolled up in a piece of thin calico, was placed on a rude and temporary bier formed of a few pieces of cane-wood, and decorated with several turbans unfolded, and carried on the shoulders of four of his countrymen, being followed by about twelve or fourteen Lascars. The singularity of such a procession, as well as the manner of those who formed it, which appeared any thing but serious or solemn (as most of them smoked their paper cigars, and indulged in what, to an English spectator, appeared great levity), caused a considerable mob of persons to follow it from the vicinity of the docks, so that by the time it had reached Cannon-street several thousands had assembled, and it required the interference of the police to clear a passage to enable the bearers of the body and their followers to enter the church [sc. churchyard]. On getting in, however, some considerable delay took place before the interment of the body could be effected, no preparation whatever having been previously made for its reception. It was some time before the Lascars could be prevailed upon to pay the 7s., which was demanded of them by the sextoness for the grave. They at length, however, paid the money, and the grave was in a short time prepared. The body was then handed to two of the Lascars, who had descended into the grave, and who placed it at full length on the back, while the remainder squatted themselves round the edge of the grave, which was about seven feet deep; and, with their hands uplifted, commenced chanting, in somewhat discordant tones, a prayer or hymn; the two who were in the grave continued meanwhile to roll the corpse over and over. The eyes and the month of the deceased were open, and the rolling about of the body presented an appalling appearance. Various other ceremonies were subsequently gone through, and on a given signal the men in the grave, with astonishing agility, got out of it, and all commenced with the greatest rapidity to throw in the earth with their hands. The quickness with which they performed this was such, that the grave was filled in a few minutes; and having then used a shovel to settle and harden the earth on the top, the whole of the party left the ground smoking their cigars.

[left] Lascars at prayer on board the Bengalen, c1910

See further Michael Fisher Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain 1600-1857 (Orient Longman 2004).

For more about Lascars in the 20th century, see this site.

The 1930s onwards saw a steady and increasing trickle of convictions of lascars for possession of 'Indian hemp' (cannabis) in local magistrates' courts; at first sentences varied quite widely. For example, at the Thames court in 1931 Norden Hassan was given three months with hard labour for possessing a quantity of 'ganja', while in 1933 Abdulramon Haji, a seaman, was merely fined £2 for possession of 8 oz; in 1934 Abdul Monaff had 42 grains (a relatively small amount) hidden under the floorboards of his room in Limehouse and received six months with hard labour. The following year Archibald Bellamy (a West Indian) received the same sentence - it was alleged that he had been dealing in the drug. He said it was 'native tobacco' given him by a seaman, which he mixed with ordinary tobacco when he was hard up. A police officer told the magistrate, F.O. Langley, that it was in fact very expensive, and had a bad effect on the brain.

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