British fleet, debtors prison, Dickens, East Indian Seamen, eighteenth century, Lascars, Marshalsea Prison, sailors, shipping
The word ‘Lascar’ comes from the Arabic to mean guard or soldier and was later adopted by the Portuguese to describe an Asian militiamen or seamen from the East, covering Japan, China and India. After the fall of Bombay to Britain the term was adapted by the British to mean specifically East Indian Seamen. Lascars were initially used by the British from the 16th century onwards to serve aboard merchant ships. The reason behind the rising popularity of using lascars was simple – they were cheap! Lascars were paid 5% of white sailors’ wages, often given poorer quality food and accommodation and worked longer hours.
Unlike seamen from Britain, lascars were employed under a ‘lascar agreement’ which meant that ship-owners could retain them for up to three years at a time. Another clause in the agreement gave the ship-owners the right to transfer the lascars from ship to ship, lascars had no say in the matter. The lascars’ employers would need to come to terms with the serang, the headman or labour contractor who acted as a shop steward representing the lascars in any dispute with the ship owners or British authorities. The serang was paid at a higher rate than the men he represented; had to be accommodated whilst in Britain and; his fare paid, for the return journey. All these financial points had to be factored into the decision of whether to employ lascars and in the majority of cases the answer was a resounding yes.
The increase of popularity of lascars resulted in a backlash from the British government and the creation of the Navigation Act in 1660. The Act restricted the employment of lascars by stating that 75% of men on British ships registered to transport cargo from Asia had to be British. The flaw in the argument was that although on the route from Britain to Asia it was possible for the quota to be filled, many sailors died or became extremely ill due to poor sanitation and food or deserted once they reached Asia. Add to this high levels of conscription from merchant to military ships and the situation became dire since by the time the ships began their return voyage they faced a severe manpower shortage and had to fill the posts with whoever was available and so out of necessity the Act was often ignored. One of the earliest records of lascars in Britain comes from a very unusual source and recounts a unique event in the history of one of the most notorious places in 18th century London.
“Thirty years ago there stood, a few doors short of the church of Saint George, in the borough of Southwark, on the left-hand side of the way going southward, the Marshalsea Prison. It had stood there many years before, and it remained there some years afterwards; but it is gone now, and the world is none the worse without it. It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms; environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked at top. Itself a close and confined prison for debtors, it contained within it a much closer and more confined jail for smugglers. Offenders against the revenue laws, and defaulters to excise or customs who had incurred fines which they were unable to pay, were supposed to be incarcerated behind an iron-plated door closing up a second prison, consisting of a strong cell or two, and a blind alley some yard and a half wide, which formed the mysterious termination of the very limited skittle-ground in which the Marshalsea debtors bowled down their troubles.”
This famous description of the Marshalsea which vividly brought the prison to life, almost making it a living and breathing character in its own right was of course penned by Charles Dickens and appeared in his novel ‘Little Dorrit’. Dickens’ experience of the debtors’ prison where his father was held and his family lived left a deep scar which took years to heal. Therefore it is ironic that it was Dickens who immortalised the memory of the same place which filled him with such horror and revulsion. The Marshalsea which Dickens knew was actually a second more humane incarnation of the notorious prison. The earlier gaol was one of the oldest prisons in London and also one of the most wretched. Prisoners who could not afford to pay for better accommodation in the Masters’ side were consigned to the Commoners’ side where they lived in squalor, abandoned and left to rot in their own filth in overcrowded cells. Death from starvation and illness was a daily occurrence and outbreaks of contagious diseases would regularly empty the jail of its occupants. Punishment and torture were meted out to anyone who tried to stand up to their corrupt jailors.
These punishments included an iron cap which would be tightened by nuts until blood flowed or being placed in the hole, a space as small as a coffin. The place was a living hell and it is hard to believe that anyone would insist on remaining in such a place but one group of men did, in fact they actually refused to leave despite having the gates of the prison held wide open for them. The Capture of the Santa Catherina The story of ho twenty-one lascars came to be confined within the walls of the Marshalsea began with the capture of a Spanish ship, ‘The Santa Catherina’. On the 11 May 1748 five leagues off the south of Nagapatnam in India a British man of war ship known as The Medway’s Prize spied a large merchant ship and sent out an order to halt. During the routine check of the ship, a British officer noticed a young boy throwing wads of paper into the water. Suspicions aroused the captain was closely questioned about their cargo, passport and last port of call. A number of men of French nationality were found aboard indicating that the hold contained valuable French goods. Although the captain, Leitao was Portuguese and held two passports – one Portuguese and the other American the fact that the Frenchmen had been discovered was not good news for the cargo ship and its owners. Britain and France were then at war over the Austrian succession and therefore the British Navy had the right to confiscate the ship and its goods as enemy property. The rich hoard included chests of silver coins, coral, Venetian necklaces, glass, pearls, gems, dates, almonds, pistachio nuts, rose water and an assortment of diced fruit.
All the sailors on-board the Medway expected to get a share of the prize money from the capture of the rich cargo ship including a group of lascars as lascars were no longer by this point just employed on merchant ships. Debt, Arrest and Incarceration On reaching Deptford in August 1749 the crew was paid off and left the ship. The lascars took lodgings in the area while they waited. As the days passed the lascars fell deeper into debt. Probably lodgings, food and clothing had been given on credit with the promise of payment once their money came through. By March 1750 someone probably a publican or lodging house keeper had had enough and the lascars were arrested for debt (ten managed to evade capture and remained at large surviving as best they could). The men were taken and placed on the Commoner’s side of the Marshalsea. The Admiralty on being informed of their seizure gave them a daily allowance of 8d and offered them passage home on an East India Company ship with all expenses such as clothing and provision paid by the Navy.
A record dated the 22nd August 1750 (now held by the National Maritime Museum) reports that Admiral Griffin instructed Captain Vincent to pay an advance to the Lascars in Arcot Rupees with ‘others procured to make up the complement’. This may relate to a separate proposal made by the Admiralty or be linked to the one granting passages home and paid expenses. However, it fits into the chronology of events, all offers were rejected as despite horrendous conditions and sickness the men when offered opportunities to be freed stubbornly refused to budge stating that ‘they would rather be hang’d then go without their prize money’.
Release After nine months of stubborn resistance on the part of the lascars and one failed attempt by the Admiralty to force their creditor to pay the 4d a day maintenance costs for each man, the Admiralty finally admitted defeat. The Navy paid off the men’s debts, their medical expenses and lawyers’ fees and washed its hands of them. Forcibly released from the Marshalsea just before Christmas 1750 the lascars joined their friends begging on the streets.
A year passed and in April 1752 at the King’s Arms tavern on Tower Hill the lascars finally got their share of the prize money which worked out to about 65 pounds in old money (which would today be worth roughly £7500). Their persistence and obstinacy had in the end paid off. Whether it was worth the hardship they had suffered only they could judge. They did emerge with their pride and honour intact whilst at the same time causing the Admiralty embarrassment and inconvenience, which may have given them some consolation. Those that wanted to return to India left in 1753 and 1754 whilst others remained to make a life for themselves in Britain. At this point there was already a small East Indian community in existence in London. Lascars who had been discharged from the Navy at the end of 1749 after the conclusion of the War of Austrian Succession joined other lascars who had either chosen to remain in Britain or were waiting for openings on ships. The latter reason was an unforeseen consequence of the Navigation Act. Many lascars voluntarily left the ships due to bad treatment preferring to work in the railways and shipyards whilst others took jobs as street cleaners, hawkers and even beggars.
Registers describe marriages between local women and lascars for example one of the Marshalsea lascars was arrested for violence against a Catherine Brownlow who had frittered away his money and then married another lascar. Despite obvious prejudice from some quarters there were no laws prohibiting intermarriage and a mixed community grew up in London’s dockyards, Wapping and Shoreditch. Attitudes The lascars’ case must have generated interest due to the notices which were published informing the public of the outcome. The attitude of the Admiralty is also very revealing as they obviously tried their hardest to convince the lascars to return home.
In general the British authorities ‘often supported lascars, given the egregious nature of some of the abuses against them’ but at the same time implemented regulations which were ‘highly detrimental for them’. For instance by the end of the 17th century although the Admiralty in theory paid their passage back to India, they would in fact charge the cost (which could range from £4 to £6 back to the owner of the ship). This in turn led to many captains forcing their ‘passengers’ to work in horrendous conditions for their passage.
The story of the lascars in the Marshalsea is a fascinating one as it allows a small glimpse of a world and a group of people who are generally silent in the historical record. It also reaffirms the truth of the quote that persistence does pay off. I find it incredible as I can’t imagine for any reason let alone pride or money that anyone would ever have chosen to remain in such a place labelled as ‘Mansions of Misery’ by Jerry Whites in his brilliant book on the history of the Marshalsea.
Mansions of Misery: A biography of the Marshalsea Debtors’ prison, Jerry Whites, 2016
The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 22, for the year 1752,
Sylvanus Urban India and the Islamic Heartlands: An eighteenth century world of circulation and exchange,
Gagan D.S. Sood, 2017 Lascars and Indian Ocean Seafaring 1780-1860, Aaron Jaffer, 2015 The Lascars of London and Liverpool, https://www.exodus2013.co.uk/the-lascars-of-london-and-liverpool/ Lascars in the East End, http://www.portcities.org.uk/london/server/show/ConNarrative.50/chapterId/739/The-Goan-community-of-London.html
Working across the Seas: Indian Maritime Labourers in India, Britain and in between, 1600-1857,
Michael H. Fisher, 2006 Coolies, Capital and Colonialism: Studies in Indian Labour History, (ed.) Rana P. Behal and Marcel van der Linden, 2006 John Clevland. Admiral Griffin directed Captain Vincent to pay an advance to the Lascars…, http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C9182763
Britain’s first Asian immigrant issue: Lascars, http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/britains-first-asian-immigrant-issue-lascars/ Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens Lascar, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lascar
 Lascar  Ibid  Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens  India and the Islamic Heartlands: An eighteenth century world of circulation and exchange  Mansions of Misery: A biography of the Marshalsea Debtors’ prison  John Clevland. Admiral Griffin directed Captain Vincent to pay an advance to the Lascars  Ibid  The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 22  Ibid  Britain’s first Asian immigrant issue: Lascars  Lascar By W. P. – Edward Walford, “Southwark: High Street,” in Old and New London, Volume 6, 1878.  , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33549147