Unfortunate Strangers: Lascars in the British Maritime World c. 1849-1912
In 1903, there were 36,893 lascar sailors out of the 247,448 seamen working on British merchant ships. Lascars were non-white workers mostly recruited from Asia. As a result of changes to the British maritime industry in the second half of the nineteenth century, notably the shift from sail to steam, lascar numbers increased. Lascars became critical to the success of the British shipping fleet. They filled the gap that had formed because of the lack of British sailors to crew ships. Lascars were characterised as cheap, lazy, and dirty, as well as being regarded as poor sailors. Lascars were essentially perceived as everything the British sailor was not. Although lascars were British subjects, they were paid less than British sailors, ate inferior food, and slept in substandard accommodation. Once in British ports, after their voyages had ended lascars enjoyed fewer settlement rights, access to welfare and resources than their counterparts. As a result, lascars struggled to survive in Britain. Strategies that created a racial division of labour and hierarchy entrenched a low social status for lascars compared to that of their British counterparts. This thesis discusses how and why some groups of non-white sailors were given the label lascar. It analyses how the label lascar became a term to represent and enforce difference. Being cheap labour, and non-white was the basis for lascar difference, but the strict regulation and control of their conditions put these men in a much more subordinate position than their British counterparts. The strict conditions and tight regulation that lascars experienced became characteristics of the label they were tagged with. Many lascars were abandoned or chose to stay in Britain where the strategies they employed to survive further enforced their difference. This thesis highlights the period 1849-1912 because of the significant increase in lascar numbers during this period. Chapter one discusses who a lascar was and the interchangeable nature of the term lascar with other labels that describe non-white maritime workers. Chapter two draws on newspaper evidence, plus the works of Gopalan Balachandran and Michael Fisher to examine the effects on lascar recruitment and employment practices that reinforced difference. Chapter 3 focuses on lascars in Britain and what strategies they employed to survive and how they reinforced difference. The majority of the discussion will focus on examples from port cities of London, Glasgow, and Dundee because lascars were a visible part of the social diversity of these cities. Between 1849 and 1912 lascars contributed significantly to the economic success of Britain’s maritime industry.