The transoceanic lives of Indian sailors in the eighteenth century.
From the 17th century, the labour of south Asian sailors (known by Europeans as ‘lascars') underpinned transoceanic trade, the newly-global movement of people, materials and ideas, and the development and maintenance of early colonial power structures. Lascars were among the first people to live truly global lives, among the first Asians to travel to and settle in Europe, to move within and produce intercolonial networks and to participate in a new international labour community. Their experiences are central to understanding the earliest structures of colonial migration and labour, and the social change and cultural hybridity engendered by global seafaring. At the same time, they were entangled in the power relations that created and fixed subaltern lives and shaped postcolonial identities (Tabili 1994; Visram 1986).
They remain, however, near-invisible in historical accounts of maritime trade and empire, and are remarkably underrepresented in the emerging scholarship on global histories, transnational identities and colonial networks to which their stories are integral. Their lives remain fragmented in the archives, ciphers glimpsed in ship’s logs, Admiralty records and in the Navigation Acts that governed their employment.
This project aims to draw some of these fragments together, along with archaeological sources, to write an experiential history of lascar lives in the employ of the English East India Company.
By the 18th century, the English East India Company (EIC) had factories and forts across South Asia and held a monopoly on the lucrative maritime trade between Britain and the East. During this period, over 220 EIC ships voyaged from Britain to the East, returning manned by predominantly Asian and African crews. 138 lascars are reported arriving in British ports in 1760, rising to 1,403 in 1810 (Fisher 2006, 36). In addition lascars worked on EIC ships travelling around the Indian Ocean, east to China and latterly south to Australia.
These thousands of sailors moved through multiple contexts during their working lives (from port to ship, from the Indian Ocean to Britain and back). Their seafaring work required them to navigate diverse social, political and geographical spaces. Onboard ship relations between European crew and lascars were complicated by linguistic and cultural difference. Few South Asian sailors signed on directly as crew members on English ships. Instead, the EIC utilised the maritime labour-gang system well-established in the Indian Ocean. Men were recruited by ghat serangs in South Asian ports, who supplied groups directly to individual EIC ships, which complicated European shipboard regimes further. These two distinct labour systems – the serang system and the EIC - interacted in contested ways throughout the 18th century, with Europeans in South Asian ports working at various times to suppress the indigenous system. Yet while it survived, and before the hardening of British Imperial power in the 19th century, the serang system provided the potential for a level of communal independence for lascar groups in ports and on board ship, as well as support during their time in Britain.
The monsoon seasons, which set the rhythms of the windborne trade, meant lascars often spent months in British ports between voyages. They were required to return home, but officially prohibited from working in the interim. This, combined with protectionist regulation of the numbers of non-European sailors on outward bound vessels, meant most relied upon the EIC for subsistence in Britain and passage home. As the century progressed, the changing regulations over the employment of lascars accumulated and their classification by British institutions - the Admiralty, the EIC and the government - was repeatedly reworked. Yet despite cumulative regulatory attempts at containment and control, it was not until the mid-19th century that these (and other) measures solidified the legal and social spaces within which lascars could negotiation their position and identity.
The lives of lascars in the 18th century complicate existing narratives of colonial power and subaltern resistance. Though confined and shaped by the early colonial worlds they moved within and between, their skilled and sought-after labour and very mobility offered them a unique experience of those worlds.
Whilst historians have usefully employed notions of the subaltern and the coolie to examine the position of South Asian workers, these notions cannot be applied to lascars. They were neither indentured labourers nor enslaved people, but a uniquely multi-ethnic and international group, who at times held an unusual level of communal, and even individual, control over their labour and mobility. They therefore challenge the frameworks through which we address life and experience both on the colonial margins and within the flow of colonial networks.
‘Neither peasants nor proletarians, palpably committed neither to ship nor harbour, sea nor land, port nor hinterland, town nor village, urban nor rural, industry nor agriculture, Asia nor Europe, “modern” nor “traditional”, Indian seamen were distant stragglers after the neat categories that have helped to frame our social imaginations. Freely relativising and interrogating such boundaries by the act of crossing them repeatedly, their self-evidently fluid and unstable locations meant that Indian seamen have also eluded the attention of those whose object it has been to critique and move beyond these markings.’ (Balachandran 2007, 186)
Lascars feature only in disconnected ways in modern historical accounts - in legislation, in ports and in trouble, and in the maritime labour politics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is in part because they appear rarely in the early historical sources and then through the prism of European institutions of economics and law. In response to the diffuse nature of their presence in the archive, the project draws on historical and archaeological sources to explore the experiences - the working lives and shifting identities - of South Asian sailors. It investigates in detail work practices and material culture in the different spatial contexts they moved through. It places archaeology and material things at its centre and examines the material and spatial engagements of lascars in both ports and on board ship. In this way, it aims to apply the archaeological mode of enquiry – exploring material and spatial engagements to reconstruct past worlds – to historical as well as archaeological sources.
The project draws on documentary material in archives in India and Britain, and on ship plans, port geographies, material culture and where possible shipwreck assemblages. Research is focused on east coast ports of India, lascars on board ships en route to Britain through the Indian Ocean, their time in Britain and their return passage to South Asia.
The research is supported by the British Academy through a Postdoctoral Fellowship award.
Classical and Historical Archaeology