In our popular imaginings of the great European powers and their exploits between the 16th and 20th centuries, we see them riding the high seas, battling storms and pirates, and overcoming unforeseen challenges to finally emerge victorious. When we visualise the men behind these achievements, they are invariably European.
What we don’t realise is that more often than not, the great conquests of these trading and colonial powers were achieved with the support of large numbers of South Asians employed in these European navies.
‘Lascars’ were Indian seamen employed in great numbers in the Portuguese, British and other colonial navies. The word ‘lascar’ itself comes from the Persian word ‘lashkar’ for ‘army’, and the lascars were originally sailors from the west coast of India. However, the name was ascribed to all non-European sailors on European ships. They are inextricably linked to the history of the Indian Ocean but ignored in the mainstream historical narrative.
Seamen from India were a part of the crew on European ships since the beginning of European voyages to India. Vasco da Gama himself had an Indian pilot. By the 16th century, the lascars had attained a good reputation for their expertise in seamanship, shipbuilding and port activities, and successive Europeans powers batting to maintain their hold over the Indian Ocean region relied heavily on the services of these lascars.
These Indian seamen employed on Portuguese and Spanish ships were mainly from Portuguese colonies like Goa. Later, they were employed on the ships of the East India Company in the 17th century. Although the term ‘lascar’ was originally used for sailors from the west coast of India, it soon came to encompass people from Africa, the Middle East and Eastern India.
There were many advantages to using the services of native seamen. European sailors were not used to the climatic conditions in the Indian Ocean and in India, and sickness was rampant and the death rate was high. They would also frequently desert ships while on shore, leaving the vessel short of crew for the return voyages. These factors created a need to employ native sailors from the colonies. Lascars were seen to have a daring spirit, they worked hard and were very resilient. They also possessed skills and knowledge of Indian Ocean currents and winds, due to which they were preferred by Europeans.
Since the early lascars were followers of Islam, the term came to be used to refer to ‘Muslims’ in places like the Reunion Islands, Seychelles and Mauritius. Many places also named areas after them, such as ‘Pointe des Lascars’ in Mauritius, ‘Anse Lascars’ in the Seychelles, ‘Baie Lascars’ in Rodrigues Island and ‘Lascar Row’ in Hong Kong. Wherever the European powers made their presence felt, the lascars went with them. They played a significant role in the history of many countries, especially in the Indian Ocean and East Africa.
Such was their impact and their numbers that under the Navigation Acts of 1660, all British- registered ships importing goods from Asia had to make sure that 75 per cent of the crew was British.
This was difficult to achieve as the Europeans profited greatly from employing lascars. These Indian sailors were paid only 5 per cent of their fellow white sailors' wages and were often expected to work longer hours as well. Often, they were given food of inferior quality and in smaller portions, making it easier for the merchants to make extraordinary profits from their labours.
In fact, the lascars lived under conditions akin to slavery as ship owners could keep their services for up to three years at a time, moving them from one ship to the next as they pleased. This treatment continued well into the 19th century. Many of the lascars settled down in European port towns, sometimes by choice and sometimes due to lack of alternatives. Many ended up married to native women probably due to a lack of Asian women in Europe, even though these alliances were seen as unacceptable by many, especially by members of the clergy.
Although lascars were employed in trade, they also played a significant role during wars. They provided naval support during the Boer War in South Africa and the Boxer Rebellion in China. On the eve of the First World War, there were over 50,000 lascars on British merchant ships around the world. These lascars joined the war effort and fought loyally and valiantly along with the over 1 million other Indian soldiers and sailors in the war.
Many lascars lost their lives and the loss of 896 lascars from undivided Bengal and Assam during the First World War was commemorated with the Lascar War Memorial in Kolkata in 1924. The memorial was designed by Scottish architect William Ingram Keir, erected by shipping and mercantile companies and inaugurated on the 6th of February 1924 by Lord Lytton.
It is situated at the southern end of the maidan near Prinsep Ghat in Kolkata and is a 100-ft tall, four-sided column. To highlight the naval nature of the memorial, each side of the column has a design inspired by the prow of an ancient galley.
The upper part of the monument consists of four small minarets and a large gilt dome. It sports a typical Indian look due to the addition of wavy lines beneath the projected balcony, which symbolises waves, along with chhajjas and trellises.
The memorial is entered through a huge doorway on the northern wall. The interior contains three plaques below the inscription ‘Lascar Memorial’. One plaque commemorates the unveiling of the memorial by Lord Lytton, then Governor of Bengal, on 6 February 1924. The second plaque says that the memorial was erected by the shipping and mercantile community of India in memory of the 896 seamen of Bengal, Assam and Upper India (the term ‘lascar’ is not used) who lost their lives in the service of the British Empire in the great war of 1914-18. The third, smaller plaque mentions the renovation and lighting of the Lascar War Memorial.
With the passage of time, the lascars and their contribution were forgotten and the memorial lay unattended and neglected. In 1994, Commodore B K Mohanti of the Indian Navy noticed the Lascar War Memorial overgrown with vegetation during his morning walk. Recognising the importance of the monument, he decided to restore it and arranged for funds for its renovation.
“Kolkata has a lot to offer in terms of heritage. It is for the people to connect with these monuments that make the City of Joy unique,” says Commodore Bibhu Mohanti.
The process was completed in December 1994, and the monument was illuminated. A L Dias, then Governor of West Bengal, switched on the illumination on 7 December 1994, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of INS Netaji Subhas.
Great men sitting in the grand assemblies and palaces of Europe are often credited with charting the destiny of the world as we know as it. But what is often forgotten is that this was done on backs of men and women from their colonies, of which the forgotten lascars are just one example. But slowly and steadily, these seafarers and their contribution are being acknowledged.