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Forgotten Voyagers: Exploring Socio-Spatial Realities of 19th - Century Lascars

During a voyage in 1843-44, an East Indiaman ship [1] ‘The Thames’ arrived in London with only seventy lascars on board, having set out from the East with 100 men. What happened to the other 30 lascars during that voyage? On 11th February 1844, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper published an article on the death of Mamarie, a lascar working on the Thames. The article detailed the investigation by the jury who viewed the body on the ship, and ‘found it to be dreadfully emaciated.’ [2] However, the main reason for his death seems to have been the ship’s living conditions. The cabin where Mamarie and his fellow lascars lived had ‘scarcely any air gained admittance, and found that it gave forth such an odious smell that they contented themselves with an outside view.’ [3] The jury declared that ‘for human beings, it was an unfit habitation!’ [4] In addition, a juror/expert witness discovered that ‘all the lascars on the ship were suffering from scurvy, and that he could take the teeth out of several of their heads with his finger.’ [5] The court concluded this was ‘the effect of diet, and not of climate!’ [6] While climate may have contributed to Mamarie’s death, and very likely many other lascar and maritime deaths between the 17th  and 19th  centuries, the reporter concluded that this particular death was ‘owing to shameful neglect on the part of those who were in command’. [7] This wasn’t the first time a lascar was ill-treated on board a  British ship. Numerous British newspapers would indicate that this ill-treatment of lascars was an unfortunate aspect of their ‘shipboard’ [8] life.


Let me begin by defining lascars. According to Hobson-Jobson, [9] it is a term derived from the Persian word for ‘army or campy follower.’ [10] The term was often linked with South Asian sailors, but it was a broad term that encompassed sailors from the entire Indian Ocean region up until the 19th century. [11] They assisted British crews during their homeward passage as substitutes for white sailors who fell ill or were deserted. The Danish were likely the pioneers among European nations in recruiting sailors from the Indian Ocean, but the Portuguese and French quickly adopted this practice. [12] However, it was the British who eventually dominated this largest share of 19th-century global shipping practice. [13] The Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper provided a colonial definition of a lascar; ‘a man almost below the middle stature, and like most of the inhabitants of a tropical climate, has peculiar religious opinions.’ [14] The subject of my dissertation will be the Indian lascars employed during the Colonial period.


My research method and archival material led to this dissertation’s focus on the 19th century. During the early half of this historical period, lascars were mostly visible in the archive in the context of their unfortunate ill-treatment on ships and along the littoral regions. The East India Company (EIC) and consequently Peninsular & Oriental (P&O) Company played a central role in facilitating movement between India and England, benefiting both the British and Indian populations. Lascars were among those who traversed this route as crew members. However, their employment and prominence underwent a dramatic shift after the opening of the Suez Canal. This event during the time of heightened colonialism in 1869 had a profound impact on maritime trade.


The Suez Canal brought about a crucial advantage to International trading companies by considerably shortening the distance between the West and the East. Before its construction, sailing ships had to undertake an 11,560 NM [15] journey around the Cape of Good Hope to travel from Liverpool to Bombay. [16] With the introduction of the canal route, a steamship could save 5777 NM, which is almost half of the original distance. [17] This transformative change was made possible solely due to the construction of the Canal and the advent of the Steamship: ‘Almost without exception, the Suez Canal was an all-steamer route…the sailing ship was beset with difficulties in attempting to navigate the Red Sea.’ [18]


The opening of the Suez Canal holds immense relevance to the subject of this dissertation, because it not only changed the nature of employment of lascars, [19] but also impacted the archival material available from 1869 onward. This archival material shows the lascars as British subjects, highlighting their identity, exploitation, wages, and shipboard employment. In addition, this shift in employment is pivotal in shaping the lascar narrative in this dissertation. Through tracing their presence on the voyage route, including the Suez Canal, England to India, I create a unique spatial narrative of lascars, filling a current gap in understanding.


I focus on two prominent companies: EIC, which evolved into P&O, and Thames Vessels. While the Thames had harsher conditions for lascars, EIC was a significant carrier of these seafarers to London. The transition from EIC’s monopoly to P&O’s control marked a shift. I explore how lascars shaped spatial and architectural elements during this historical voyage. My research focuses on the complex interactions between lascars, ships, sea, and land. Utilising archival materials like newspapers, articles, court minutes, illustrations, diaries, and journals, I aim to construct a comprehensive narrative of lascars’ lives and their littoral experiences.


However, it is important to acknowledge that these primary archival materials were predominantly written by British, or by individuals who were considered British subjects, and therefore often influenced by racial prejudices. Consequently, my dissertation aims to address these biases and attempts to write subaltern spatial histories of the lascars. By employing these decolonial approaches, I aspire to present a more nuanced portrayal of  the lascars’ experiences during the voyage and their lives in littoral spaces. I attempt to enhance the visibility of lascars in historical narratives. I do this by drawing from Saidiya Hartman’s critical race scholarship [20] on Black history and literary imagination. She combines rigorous research with a creative and imaginative engagement with the lives and experiences of Black individuals in the past. Her books, such as Venus in Two Acts and Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, exemplify this approach by reimagining and reinterpreting historical events and figures. By adopting a similar approach in my dissertation of engaging with the emotional, cultural, and social aspects of the past and delving into the inner lives and experiences of historical figures which want to shed light  on those who have been marginalised or overlooked in traditional colonial historical narratives.


My dissertation comprises four chapters, each addressing aspects of lascars’ life during a voyage. The first chapter explores the hierarchical lascar community, investigating how economic disparities, religion, attire, and culture shaped spatial interaction. The second chapter reconstructs ‘shipboard life’, examining living conditions, food, daily routines, and their impact on lascars’ behaviour. The third chapter traces the voyage route from England to India through the Suez Canal, revealing exploitation and ideological divides. The fourth chapter examines the contested lascar identity against Grotius’ ‘Free sea’ concept, revealing mobility complexities and maritime experiences.


Through a subaltern lens, the study concludes with narratives of the lascars’ struggles, resilience, and resistance against the backdrop of colonial exploitation. This exploration culminates in a thought-provoking reflection on the multifaceted experiences of the lascars, providing valuable insights into their place in maritime history and the broader dynamics of power, identity, and mobility during the relevant historical period. 


‘...the colonial state did everything possible to render their everyday presence invisible. It regulated nearly every detail of the engagement of Indian seafarers on oceanic shipping to minimise the danger of political and cultural contact, and channel potential conflicts through routine bureaucratic agency.’ [21]


Fig. 1: This image comprise of a fictional narrative written from the perspective of Lascars, imagined as if their voices were present in the colonial archives instead of only the perspectives of colonizers. The story is inspired by accounts in British newspapers, but retold from the standpoint of the Lascars. It aims to humanize the experiences of these forgotten seamen who were the linchpin of the maritime trade networks across the Indian Ocean region up until the 20th century. It further imagines how these narratives may have been disseminated if newspapers at the time had published accounts of Lascars’ lives and voyages. The newspapers juxtapose these overlooked stories amidst the daily English and colonial news and events of the era (19th century).

[1] The term “East Indiaman” refers to sailing ships authorised by various European East India Trading companies during the 17th to 19th centuries. Historian Fernand Braudel noted that some of the most impressive and sizable Indiamen in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were constructed in India, utilising Indian shipbuilding methods and crewed by Indian Lascars. The use of Indian teak for their hulls made them particularly suitable for local waters. 

[2] Philos. ‘The Lascar Sailors’. Lloyd's Weekly London Newspaper (London), February Sunday 11, 1844, 5.  

[3] Ibid.


[4] Ibid. 

[5] Ibid.


[6] Ibid.


[7] Ibid.


[8] I first came across ‘shipboard’ in Lascars and Indian OceanSeafaring, 1780-1860 by Aaron Jaffer. It refers to the daily activities, routines, and experiences of individuals who live and work on a ship. It encompasses various aspects of life at sea, including living conditions, work responsibilities, social interactions, and leisure activities.

[9] G. Balachandran, “Workers in the World: Indian Seafarers, c. 1870s-1940s.” Global Histories of Work, edited by Andreas Eckert, 125-145. 1st ed. De Gruyter, 2016 131.

[10] Aaron Jaffer, “INTRODUCTION.” Lascars and Indian Ocean Seafaring, 1780-1860: Shipboard Life, Unrest and Mutiny, NED-New edition. (Boydell & Brewer, 2015), 1. 

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 2.

[13] Ibid.

[14]  Philos. ‘The Lascar Sailors’. Lloyd's Weekly London Newspaper (London), February Sunday 11, 1844, 5.

[15] NM means nautical miles, used by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

[16] Max E. Fletcher, “The Suez Canal and World Shipping, 1869-1914.” The Journal of Economic History 18, no. 4 December. 1958 , 559.

[17] Ibid., 58.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Susheila Nasta, and Florian Stadtler. Asian Britain: A Photographic History. (London: Westbourne Press In partnership with British Library and in association with gettyimages, 2013),, 12.

[20] Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals and Venus in Two Acts are a perfect example where Saidiya Hartman employs historical fiction as a tool to bring out invisible narratives.

[21] Balachandran, “Workers in the World: Indian Seafarers, c. 1870s-1940s.”, 129.

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