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Backbone of the Fleet; the Life of Lascars Aboard Merchant Ships

on November 10, 2013

This article was published in the Great War magazine in January 2013.   A fitting tribute to Armistice Day.

ImageIn the first half of the 20th Century, a British merchant or military ship’s crew often consisted of anywhere between 80 and 130 men.  This number is much larger than a typical crew on a similar ship today, due mostly to the more labour-intensive nature of sea travel in those days.  Engine rooms required much more hands-on supervision than is necessary on modern vessels, with stoke rooms needing to be constantly manned, and all cargo was loaded onto the ships by hand.  As often as not, Lascars formed a large portion of any crew, and were especially valued in the stoke room.  Because of the high temperatures involved in feeding the stoke room’s fires, Lascars were often favored over their British counterparts in the performance of this job, being noted for their endurance of the heat, and also for their ability to do monotonous tasks well and without complaint.

 The term Lascar derives from the Persian word for “soldier.”  Over time, it came to denote any seaman of Asiatic descent, often including those of mixed Portuguese and Asian parentage.  The tradition of using Lascars aboard British ships began in the earliest days of the East India Company.  Eventually, many of the crew positions were held by Lascars, particularly when steam became the prevalent mode of powering ships, requiring men to work long hours stoking the fires in order to generate the necessary power for the vessel.  Not only were they preferred for the difficult work in the stoke room and on deck, but Lascars who spoke English well were often employed as officers’ servants or cooks as well. 

 Where the Lascars were not wanted was in the officer corps.  All British naval officers received navigation and engineering training in Britain, which was not an option open to Lascars.  All of the officers on a ship, along with the doctor and electrician, were certain to be European.  The Lascar crew, while having the same traditional rank structure as the British crew aboard ship, could hope to advance no further than petty officer class.  The serang, or bosun, was the highest rank a Lascar could hope to reach.  The bosun was often the headman who had helped to recruit men for the crew from the regions surrounding his village back in his home country.  Often the serang continued working with a ghuat serang in his hometown, both of whom to make a profit from the recruitment side of the business.  The ghuat serang would recruit men in the home country while the serang would find placements for him aboard ship, both receiving payment for the service in the process.  Recruitment of Lascars was often a corrupt endeavour, involving lies, bribes, and any means of gaining advantage of the would-be sailors.  Aboard ship, the serang was completely in charge of the Lascar crew, and most of the command from the British crew to the Lascars was mediated through the serang, or through his counterpart in the engine room. 

 The welfare of the Lascars was necessarily an issue of some interest to the British government, particularly if it wanted to keep its market for cheap labor intact.  While some Lascars were stuck in stoke rooms where the temperature could easily reach 40 degrees and more, the threat of cold weather conditions was of greater concern to British lawmakers.  In fact, British legislation was written that required special heating and food provisions for any Lascars who were required onboard ships traveling in the furthest northern or southern regions of the globe.  With most Lascars coming from tropical regions, cold weather conditions were often harsh and nearly unbearable for them.  During wartime, this was often problematic for ships requisitioned by the Navy.  Many Lascars were not accustomed to travel in colder climates, and the sudden need to make provisions for their Lascar crew to be able to travel to these regions proved a time-consuming and costly task for some merchant ship owners.

 Aboard ship, the Lascars were usually allowed to continue their own customs.  Many wore brightly coloured turbans, and they were allowed to observe their religious rituals.  Holidays and dietary restrictions continued to be observed by Muslim and Hindu crew aboard most ships.  This continued when the ships were requisitioned for military use.

 Lascars formed an integral part of any British ship’s operation in the heydays of the British Empire.  In fact, even as late as the years between the First and Second World Wars, about one third of a ship’s crew was likely to be made up of Lascars.  During wartime, the Lascars played an important role in the naval activity, as the Royal Navy requisitioned many private ships for use in their military endeavor.


 The First World War, the naval conflict

 The naval conflict during the First World War was not one that brought a decisive victory to Britain, much to the Navy’s chagrin.  While public opinion demanded just such a decisive victory from Britain’s Grand Fleet, it was not to be found in any of the sea skirmishes with German naval forces.

 Perhaps the most effective tactic employed by the British Navy during the First World War was not a military one at all, but an economic tactic.  A blockade was set up early during the war, with British ships blocking entry into the North Sea, whether by German ships or vessels from neutral countries.  This effectively stopped the flow of food and supplies into Germany, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths by starvation in Germany.  The blockade is often seen as one of the key reasons for the British Navy finally gaining ground over its adversary.

 The German response to the British blockade was unrestricted submarine warfare.  Ships entering Britain were often subject to torpedo attacks from German submarines during the First World War, whether the ships were military or privately owned merchant ships, many of which carried crews largely made up of Lascars.  The British Navy finally introduced a convoy system to help protect ships entering Britain, but it was a task that the Navy was none too eager to employ.  While it was immediately effective in eliminating torpedo attacks on British ships, both military and private, it was a tactic only implemented when the number of attacks was already averaging one per every four ships entering Britain.  The number of deaths had climbed well over ten thousand before the British Navy responded to the submarine attacks.


The Lascar-manned merchant navy was particularly hard hit by German submarine warfare.  The merchant fleet was an important part of the eventual British naval victory, often carrying supplies, and even transporting troops.  The Lascars aboard these merchant ships, who had originally signed on as cheap labour for the merchants, often had to endure extreme conditions while engaged in military operations.  Many had not bargained for military involvement when they signed on to work aboard ship.  That did not make much difference when under attack by German submarines though, and a high death toll amongst Lascars was the result.  It is estimated that about one-fifth of the fifteen thousand deaths from the merchant navy were Lascars.

 During the war, Asian Lascars continued to serve on their vessels as a matter of course.  Their loyalty to their ships and their discipline in carrying out their tasks were matters of great renown, despite the existence of large numbers of Lascars who had deserted their ships and stayed in Britain prior to the First World War.  When their merchant ships were requisitioned for service, the Lascars almost unanimously stayed with their vessels, despite the increased risks involved.  In countless instances, they remained at their posts even when it was clearly a hopeless battle they fought.  Stories abound of British officers giving accounts of amazing shows of loyalty from the Lascar crews.  Many Lascars received military awards for their service aboard ships in the merchant navy.

 Documents after the Second World War were written in praise of the loyalty displayed by the Lascars during both World Wars.  Some of the stories might seem to readers today to be overly romanticised, but the recorded observations of the men who sailed with the Lascars certainly point to a sense of duty that seems beyond what one might consider reasonable.  Their loyalty is particularly surprising when considering that the Lascars were not fighting for their own countries, but for a nation that did not especially embrace them, except as a source of cheap labour.  One American passenger aboard a British merchant ship during peacetime observed that the Lascars tended to identify themselves not by their nationality, but only by the company for which they worked.   

 This loyalty seemed to intensify even further during wartime.  A British naval officer reported an event during the First World War that seemed to typify the observations of many British sailors in regards to the sense of duty displayed by the Lascars.  When the ship was suddenly torpedoed on its way into Britain, the officer made his way to the dark deck of the ship to see what had happened.  While trying to inspect the surface of the deck, he came across several immobile bodies standing there, and he could not figure out what it was he had encountered.  When he lighted his torch, he was amazed to find a body of Lascars who had been gathered by the serang, all standing awaiting orders.  They had been forgotten in the surprise torpedo attack, but stood motionless, waiting for orders, throughout the ordeal.  Such stories seemed to drive home to many observant British officers just how fortunate the Navy was to have these men at the service of the merchant ships that were doing double duty as military vessels.


Brunt of Resentment

 These impressive stories of Lascar loyalty, it seems, were easy enough to forget for those sailors who were eventually laid off after the war.  This is not especially surprising when one considers the widespread problem of a white European tendency to overlook the contributions of non-whites in nation building.  While history books written from the white European perspective have often overlooked the presence of a non-white Britain, the actual fact is that many Lascars settled in England even as early as the 17th Century.  They often found themselves in extreme poverty once they’d settled there, but their impact on the nation was felt nonetheless. 

 Due to the harsh conditions aboard ship from the earliest times that foreigners provided cheap labor for British naval commerce, some Lascars were happy to leave their vessels and try to make their own way in London, despite this being illegal.  The inequality they faced on the ship, including wages far below what their European counterparts earned, often drove them to begging on land rather than continuing their life at sea.  Lascar desertion was a continual problem for merchant ships.  The British government did not help the problem, but only seemed interested in preventing Lascars from gaining British citizenship. Lascars were employed at rates substantially lower than British sailors, but if they received British-resident status, they could only be employed at the rate of a British sailor.  The government apparently felt it was in its own interest to keep the cheap labor force intact, despite the unfairness to the Lascars.

 Nevertheless, a community of Asians grew up in Britain over time, many of them former sailors.  They tended to gather mostly in London’s East End, and sometimes in other seaport towns.  In the first three decades of the 20th Century, one-fifth to one-quarter of the maritime labor force in Britain was made up of Indian Lascars, including many who worked in marine-related jobs on land.  By the 1930’s, homes like The Stranger’s Home began to pop up all over the East End.  These homes took in Lascar deserters who aimed to eventually become peddlers settled in London for good.  For those who were unable to get documents making their stay in Britain legal, a life of dire poverty was to be expected.  Many homes, including The Stranger’s Home, actually sought to send the Lascars back to their country of origin, apparently in hopes of eliminating the presence of non-Europeans on London’s streets.  While on the surface these homes seemed to want to help the Lascars settle into a new life in Britain, the reverse was more often the case.

 During the First World War, however, the former Lascars who had settled in Britain proved to be useful to the military effort.  Their expertise in marine matters was often invaluable to merchants who needed assistance when their vessels were requisitioned by the Navy.  In some rare cases, the former Lascars were even granted their British residency and allowed onboard ship at a higher rate of pay.  This, however, was the exception rather than the rule.  More often, the former Lascars were employed at rates that continued to be much lower than those of their British counterparts.

 After the First World War, many British sailors were laid off from their jobs.  As a result, the Lascars often became the object of resentment, targeted by out-of-work sailors.  For many seamen, the cheap wages for which the Lascars worked represented the reason for such high unemployment amongst British sailors.  Despite the fact that these very same British men had not spoken out against the pitiful wages earned by the Lascars when they worked side by side on the ships, after the war, they took out their discontent on the Lascars who continued to work aboard British ships.  This carried over into racism at home, often directed at former Lascars who had deserted their ships and settled in London.

 By the end of the 1930’s, the employment of Lascars had dwindled dramatically.   When the Second World War began, there was a brief stint in which cheap labour was once again a necessity aboard ship, and a new influx of Lascars were taken in on many ships.  It was short-lived, however, and over time the presence of Lascars aboard British sea vessels became less and less prevalent.  Well into the 1970’s, though, non-white sailors were employed at rates substantially lower — usually by about one-fifth less – than that of a British sailor’s pay.  This continued to be the case for so many years, despite strikes and demonstrations by former Lascars settled in Britain after the First World War.   Their efforts, however, did much to improve the living conditions for Lascars still employed on merchant ships.








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