Lecture: Indian Seafarers – Connecting Histories by Georgie Wemyss

The Port of London Study Group  was delighted to welcome visiting speaker Georgie Wemyss of the Centre for Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging of the University of East London.
Georgia’s talk was entitled ‘Indian Seafarers: Connecting Histories’, her attempt to link the movement of Indian sub-continent seafarers over the last 400 years to London and elsewhere in the world.

While some great discovery voyages are widely commemorated, such as the 400th anniversary of the voyage to Jamestown in 2006, others are passed over when they involve aspects of trade and colonialism that we no longer wish to celebrate or even talk about. Hence the silence that accompanied another anniversary the same year, the founding of the East India Company. Not discussing its role may result in ‘a bundle of silences’ and the risk that the original function of the London Docks will be forgotten, including the role played by seamen employed by the company from modern-day Bangladesh, mainly from the district of Sylhet, known as lascars.

Lascars at the Royal Albert Dock in London. PLA Magazine 1936. CC BY-SA 4.0

Lascars at the Royal Albert Dock in London. PLA Magazine 1936. CC BY-SA 4.0

Numbers of lascar and other non-British sailors were limited to 25% of a ship’s crew from the 1660’s and no lascars were allowed to settle in England; the EIC had to repatriate them to India. However, there are records to indicate that some did remain in London and after 1806, when the East India Docks opened, around 1,000 were arriving annually in London. By 1855 and the advent of steamships these numbers reached 4,000 annually. They lodged in the areas of Poplar and Limehouse, close to the East India Docks in lodging houses with Malay and Chinese seamen. Their position in London was not legal but they were supported by mission charities, the EIC and P&O and were probably largely ignored.

Lascars were employed on naval ships during World War 1 and some were killed in action and are listed with their fellow British sailors on the memorial stone in Trinity Square Gardens. 50,000 Bengali seamen were on British ships in WW2 while 3 million Bengalis died of starvation during the war as food was diverted from there to support food supplies to Britain.
Although lascars worked with white British seamen, their working conditions, food, accommodation and pay were deeply unequal and a strike to improve their situation in 1939 resulted in imprisonment for the ringleaders to try and put down the industrial action. Conditions and pay did improve by 1946 but inequalities remained. A recent find of crew photos from different shipping lines provides a record of lascar seamen in the first half of the century.

After the War many Bangladeshi seamen and other new migrants from Bangladesh moved to the mill towns of the North of England to work in the cotton mills. As these closed, some returned to London to set up restaurants and other businesses.  Bangladeshi women were often alone in Bangladesh while their menfolk were away at sea or left to cope alone if they had been killed in action, and their role is less known.  However, the movement and settlement of lascars in other port cities, like New York, are the subject of several published studies.

If you are interested in finding out more about Georgie Wemyss’s work you can download many of her papers from her Academia page at https://uel.academia.edu/GeorgieWemyss (registration with the site is required, but is free of charge).

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