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British Sailors
Sailors’ Homes

Calcutta Sailors' Home

The Sailors' Home was established in 1837 to protect British seamen from crimping and local drinks that the colonial authorities considered pernicious for European constitution, and to 'civilise' them so that they would not destablise the ideology of white racial superiority that underpinned British colonialism.

The idea of a Sailors' Home for British seamen in Calcutta was first discussed at a meeting of the Calcutta Seamen's Friend Society in 1837. Rev. Thomas Boaz chaired a subcommittee that wrote a prospectus explaining the need to shelter British seamen who were easy preys of unscrupulous men in Calcutta, and generally in trouble away from the nurturing and protective society at home. It proposed providing these seamen with corporeal and moral needs – 'comfortable lodging, plain food, innocent recreation, and religious guidance' (The Calcutta Christian Observer 1837: 132). With the help of financial aids from European merchants and the colonial government, the committee opened a small house in Jan Bazar in June 1837 as a short-term residence for around 30 destitute seamen.

Image: 'The Strand, Calcutta', photograph by Francis Frith, c. 1850s to 1870s. Source: Victoria & Albert Museum, Public Domain.

The Sailors' Home was established In December 1837 in Lalbazar. The programme for the inauguration ceremony noted the intention to 'suppress crimping and all the evils arising from it to which owners, commanders, officers and crews are subject in the port of Calcutta' (Madras Missionary Register 1838: 122-23). The Sailors' Home had two divisions: the boarding - a respectable and economical boarding house for the paying captains and sailors; and the destitute - to shelter shipwrecked, convalescent, or otherwise distressed seamen till they could be shipped off to their homes. It maintained a register of crew requirement of anchored ships, advised boarders about job opportunities, and provided a library and letter-writing facilities.

The expenses for the building, the furniture and running costs were covered by the rent from the boarding section, and donations from magistrates, merchants, shipping agents and captains connected to the port of Calcutta. The Sailors' Home authorities aided destitute seamen with subsistence and clothes, safeguarded deposits of wages, helped them get jobs in departing ships, encouraged sobriety and good behaviour, and preached Christian values. In the first six months, it was able to provide berths to 264 of the 303 officers and seamen admitted. There were two deaths at the shelter and only 20 people remained as residents at the end of the year. A shipping agent tried to find work or passage for the resident seamen.

Image: 'Sailors' Home, Calcutta', photograph by Francis Frith, c 1850s-1870s. Source: Victoria and Albert Museum, Public Domain.

In the 1840s and 50s, boarders were allowed to stay for a maximum of 25 days. Meals for the entire day cost 12 annas, breakfast and supper 4 annas each and dinner 6 annas if bought separately. Officers needed to pay 8 annas for every meal. The bar supplied liquor from 6 to 7 am, from 12 to 2 pm, and 5 to 9 pm on weekdays, and on Sundays from 1 to 3 pm. The capacity continued to increase through the years, and seamen showed greater interest in staying at the Sailors' Home. In 1852, the premises accommodated 1419 sailors, out of whom 1381 took jobs on ships, 24 died, and 28 left the place (4 without employment, 6 without notice, 10 were expelled, and 8 shifted to new occupations) for other opportunities (Calcutta Sailors' Home 1854).

Image: Cover of the Sixteenth Annual Report of the Sailors' Home. Source: Internet Archive, Public Domain.

The success of the Sailors' Home set in motion plans to build a second premises. More than £4,000 had been raised by 1851 for this purpose. The plan materialised when the Secretary of the Sailors' Home successfully petitioned the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal in 1864 for a new building in a better locality. The new Sailors' Home came up on the site of the Bankshall building on Strand Road in the administrative district. The Viceroy laid its foundation stone on 13 April 1864. The two-storeyed building, inaugurated by Sir John Lawrence on 9 January 1868, offered accommodation for 120 on the ground floor and 160 on the first floor, and had a dining hall for 600 men.

Information regarding the Sailors' Home in Calcutta is scarce since only one of their annual reports has so far been archived. Most of the references to these institutions come from missionary periodicals that were mostly self-congratulatory and represented a religious altruism that collapsed on close inspection. The missionaries running the house were known to accuse each other of profiteering and poor administration (Dutta 2021). The periodicals published some notes of gratitude from seamen, but the number of seamen encountering the Sailors' Home was negligible compared to their vast presence in the sailortown. It is, however, certain that the Sailors' Home was a meeting ground for the city’s religious, political and commercial actors whose humanitarian instincts intersected through the need to help British seamen.

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Anonymous. 1837. ‘The Sailors’ Home’, The Calcutta Christian Observer 6.58: 132-34.

Anonymous. 1838. ‘Calcutta Sailors’ Home’, Madras Missionary Register 4.1: 122-23.

Calcutta Sailors’ Home. 1854. Sixteenth Annual Report of the Sailors' Home (Calcutta: Military Orphan Press).

Dutta, Manikarnika. 2021. ‘The Sailors’ Home and Moral Regulation of White European Seamen in Nineteenth-century India’, Cultural and Social History, 18.2: 201-20.


Anonymous. 1868. ‘Opening of the New Sailors’ Home in Calcutta’, Homeward Mail from India, China and the East (20 February 1868): 5.

Government of India. 1865. Annual Report on the Administration of the Bengal Presidency for 1863-64 (Calcutta: Military Orphan Press).

Kverndal, Roald. 1986. Seamen’s Missions: Their Origin and Early Growth (Pasadena: William Carey Library).

Citation for this article

Manikarnika Dutta, 'Calcutta Sailors' Home' Mariners: Race, Religion and Empire in British Ports 1801-1914,
Retrieved 14 July 2024