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3 divers on a wreck
Maritime archaeologists investigating the Sydney Cove wreck. Image used with kind permission of Mike Nash.

Asian sailors on British ships

In November 1796 the Sydney Cove sailed from Calcutta with 53 men on-board, including 44 lascars (Asian sailors).

Built in Bengal, this ‘country’ boat (as ships built in British colonies were known) had a speculative cargo, of rum, rice, sugar, tobacco, other food stuffs, textiles and luxury goods and some livestock, for the new penal colony at Port Jackson (on the south-east coast of Australia), established less than 10 years previously. In February 1797, it was wrecked in the Furneaux islands in the Bass Strait. Much of the cargo was landed on a nearby island (named Preservation) where the survivors of the wreck set up camp. 17 men set out in the long boat for Port Jackson, but it too wrecked. After two and a half months walking north only three men survived to be picked up by a Port Jackson fishing boat: two Europeans and a lascar.

The lascar crew of the Sydney Cove were not an anomaly. Local sailors and knowledge had always been important to European ships in the Indian Ocean. In April 1498, when Vasco da Gama led the first European expedition to sail the Indian Ocean, he was guided by a local seafarer from the port of Malindi on the east coast of Africa to Calicut on the coast of India. The labour, seafaring skills and maritime knowledge of Indian Ocean sailors remained fundamental to European ships and empires throughout the Age of Sail. In fact, the mix of cultures, languages, religions, food and even clothing among the crew of European ships in the Indian Ocean may well have made them the first, truly globalised workplace. So much so, that ‘laskari’ or ‘hindustani’ dictionaries written for British officers commanding multi-ethnic crews began to appear in the 19th century.

The Sydney Cove has allowed archaeologists to explore questions about the development of the Australian colony, colonial shipbuilding and trade between Indian Ocean colonies. It also highlights key points about the experiences of lascars:

  1. It points to the importance of Asian sailors to European shipping during the period. Lascars and Chinese sailors averaged a third of the crew on East India Company (EIC) ships sailing back to London. Lascars were recruited by the Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean. And the Sydney Cove’s story highlights both how common they were as crew on ‘country ships’ and the number of smaller, intercolonial ships criss-crossing the Indian Ocean. It suggests we may need to rethink the European, Indian Ocean voyages of our imagination – of films and novels – to reflect the mix of sailors and the variety of ships they crewed.

  2. In the Indian Ocean, Europeans plugged into an existing, complex, maritime world and used a long-established labour-gang system to recruit sailors. Groups of lascars led by their own ‘officers’ (the sarang and tindal), were hired from recruiters (known as ghat sarangs) in south Asian ports for up to three years. They were not always well-treated, but they had a certain amount of collective bargaining power that (we know from court cases and depositions) some sarangs were skilled in using. However, the Sydney Cove highlights how dangerous life at sea was for any sailor during this period. Alongside the hard labour, poor diet, clothing and medical provisions, sometimes-brutal discipline and unpredictable weather, most sailors (whether lascar or European) did not know how to swim. Many died before they reached their home ports.

  3. Sydney Cove sailed for Australia less than ten years after the First Fleet arrived from Britain. As a result, lascars were among the very first non-indigenous people to set foot on Australian soil – just as they were among the first Asians to travel to and settle in Europe. Lascars lived a new kind of global life. Most stayed in Britain for only a few months between the monsoon-dependent, seasonal voyages of the India ships, but from the early 18th century some chose to settle. The history of migration between Asia and Europe (and between Asia and Australia) is much older than most people recognise.

  4. Finding lascar stories in historical records is difficult. There are no first-hand accounts by lascars, only bureaucratic, European references in EIC records, muster and logbooks, and parliamentary records. It is only at times of crisis - in court cases and in mutiny trials - that the words of lascars are reported (but even then they are translated and recorded by officials). Yet, the Sydney Cove highlights the possibility and importance of looking at the archaeological sites and material culture of Age of Sail to better understand their lives and experiences.

  5. The word ‘lascar’ itself is an external label applied by Europeans to Indian Ocean sailors. For the British during the Age of Sail, it quickly came to refer specifically to south Asian sailors but its meaning changed over time and in different contexts (particularly as steamships took over and individual contracts of ‘Lascar Agreements’ were introduced for Indian Ocean sailors). The few written sources we have from country ships suggest they often referred to each other as khalasi (which simply means ‘sailor’) and that different regional, ethnic and religious origins often divided a single ‘lascar’ crew. A ship’s crew was always diverse and complex. And ‘lascar’ was just another seafaring identity, alongside able or ordinary sailors, which seafarers acquired through their work – a status of employment, much like ‘cashier’ or even ‘lecturer’.

The treatment of lascars by European colonial authorities changed over time. As sail gave way to steam, lascars were increasingly controlled by regulations, prevented from migrating, and even contained within specific spaces on-board ship. By the 20th century they had become ‘invisible’ to European passengers and were left out of historical narratives of British maritime history. But they should not be forgotten. Their stories are of global seafaring and the origins of modern multicultural Britain. And they highlight the oceans, and the ships that sailed on them, as places where cultures, languages, people and ideas mixed and mingled – sometimes competing and conflicting – but often creating new languages, cultural practices and understandings.

Jesse Ransley

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