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90th ANNIVERSARY OF THE LASCAR MEMORIAL

on February 7, 2014

6th February 2014 marked the 90th anniversary of the building of the Lascar Memorial. Image

I would like to revive this story, which is not widely recognised.

 In 1924, in Kolkata (also known as Calcutta), Englishman William Ingram Keir built and erected the Indo-Mogul style monument to remember the 896 Bengali Lascars who perished in the Great War from 1914-18. Lascars were Asian seamen who worked aboard British steamships and, for over 350 years, they played a crucial role in ensuring goods from India reached British ports safely in times of peace and war.  On 6 February 1924, the monument was unveiled by Lord Lytton, then Governor of Bengal.

 William Keir also designed Kidderpore Bridge, buildings at Bengal Engineering and Science University in Shibpur, the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur and Islamia College, all in India.  He also replaced the spire of St Paul’s Cathedral in Kolkata, which was damaged in an earthquake in 1934.  He also designed a number of mosques, temples and gurdwaras in the city and the state.  In 1920, Keir won an award of 500 Rupees for designing the monument.

 By the eve of the First World War, there were over 50,000 lascars in Britain, many of whom had been abandoned or else had jumped ship.  Many had no choice but to become involved in the war effort, comprising 20 percent of the British maritime labour force. Their loyalty was surprising, considering that lascars were fighting for a nation that didn’t embrace them.

 In 1994, the abandoned monument, which is approximately 100ft tall, was renovated by a retired Indian army officer – Commodore Bibhu Mohanti – who noticed the neglected memorial.  He collected funds for the renovation, which took a year to complete.  In December 1995, the monument was illuminated for the first time.

 Mohanti was born in Orissa and was commissioned in to the Indian Navy in 1963. Mohanti served at the Bay of Bengal in 1971, during the Indo-Pak War, which saw the independence of Bangladesh.  In May 1997, he retired from service in Calcutta.

 William’s son, James Keir, was born and educated in Darjeeling, (then British India.) He is now retired and lives in Hong Kong. He said, “It is a pity I did not pay much attention to my father’s works when growing up, nor did he talk much about them. The original memorial had a gold dome, which is now painted pink. I remember my father saying that the shiny dome came into view as the boats came up the Hooghly and that it pointed to Mecca. He would always say, ‘I am a foreigner in India but a stranger everywhere else.’ He died three months after he left India in 1967.” James and Commodore Mohanti met for the first time in November 2012.

 2014 marks the commemoration of the centenary of the Great War. The event this year is not a celebration of the event, but rather an acknowledgement and remembering of the sacrifices made.

 Every year on 4 November, National Navy Day of India is celebrated at the Lascar War Memorial.

Published in the Asian World, February 2014.

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