Skip to main content

Lascars

In the nineteenth century, the British Merchant Marine was transformed by the employment of 'Lascars', a term used for seamen predominately from Asia, as well as Africa and the Caribbean. On the outbreak of war in 1914, 30% of merchant crews were born abroad. The majority were lascars, who comprised 1 in 6 of these men.

Credit: ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

In the nineteenth century, the British Merchant Marine was transformed by the employment of 'Lascars', a term used for seamen predominately from Asia, as well as Africa and the Caribbean. On the outbreak of war in 1914, 30% of merchant crews were born abroad. The majority were lascars, who comprised 1 in 6 of these men.  

Lascars faced difficult working conditions and restrictions, lower pay and prejudice. They found it particularly challenging to find accommodation in British ports. For most of the nineteenth century, voluntary religious societies and missions were the mainstays of welfare, accommodation and support services for this extensive, vulnerable, multi-ethnic and multi-religious labour force.

This strand will provide new explorations into the lives of 'lascars', engaging with issues of race, gender, class and religion. Despite working in large numbers in British ports and seas, these seafarers have not always been visible in the historical record. Focusing on the port cities of Bristol, Hull, Liverpool and London, we will examine archival records relating to Asian seamen and the institutions that interacted with them. This strand will assess how Asian seamen interacted with Christian missions, the impact these organisations had on these men's conditions, and the extent to which they challenged or entrenched racial and religious hierarchies in the maritime workforce.

Citation for this article

Lucy Wray, 'Lascars' Mariners: Race, Religion and Empire in British Ports 1801-1914, https://mar.ine.rs/who/lascars/
Retrieved 22 February 2024

Timeline Filter

Where Filter

Who Filter

What Filter

A profile of G.C. Smith, known as ‘Boatswain’ Smith, the most celebrated of all pioneer marine missionaries.

1782 - 1863

Marine missions and charities in relation to Bristol's floating harbour 

1800 - 1899
Rev. John Ashley (1801-1886)

Pioneer marine missionary and founding figure for the Bristol Channel Mission and Missions to Seafarers.

1801 - 1886

William Henry Giles Kingson, who published as W.H.G. Kingston, was a successful writer of novels and adventure stories for boys promoting Christian hardiness. He was the main motivating force behind the creation of the first national church mission to seamen, the Anglican Missions to Seamen, now the Mission to Seafarers. 

1814 - 1880

The Merchant Seamen's Bible Society was founded in 1818 to supply British merchant ships with copies of scripture.

1818 - 1832
Source: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. PAH8470.  (CC BY-NC-ND)

The Port of London Society (PLS) was founded in London following a meeting held at the City of London Tavern on Thursday 5 February 1818, ‘to consider the best means for affording religious instruction to British Seamen while in the port of London’.

1818

Joseph Salter was one of the most prolific missionaries and writers to address ‘Asiatics’ in nineteenth-century Britain.

1822 - 1899

The London Sailors’ Home was the first short-stay, purpose-built home for sailors, and it set the model for scores of others that followed in British and colonial port cities.

1828
Episcopal Floating Church, London.  

The Episcopal Floating Chapel Society was the first attempt by the Church of England to provide a maritime church in the Port of London. 

1829 - 1846
Hull seaman and orphan asylum

Working seamen lived dangerous and peripatetic lives which left families and dependants unprotected. Orphanages were created to provide opportunities for those left behind.

1836

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.

1837
Maharajah Duleep Bassi dressed for a State function, c. 1875, oil painting by Capt. Goldingham of London.

Duleep Singh was the last Maharaja of the Sikh empire. He lived in England for most of his life and provided financial support for the Stranger's Home for Asiatics, Africans and Soutsea Islanders. 

1838 - 1893

The Wesleyan Seamen's Mission opened in 1843. It was succeeded by the grand Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest in 1902.

1843

The Seamen’s Christian Friend Society (1848) had its origins in the ‘Thames Revival’ which emerged among common seamen around the Port of London on the final years of the Napoleonic wars.

1848

The Liverpool Sailors' Home operated in Canning Place from December 1850. This establishment provided board and food, and carried out additional responsibilities such as medical assistance, religious instruction, and moral, intellectual and professional improvement opportunities.

1850

The foundation stone for The Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders was laid by Prince Albert on 31 May 1856.

1856
The Mission to Seafarers logo

Mission to Seafarers was established in 1856 as a national Society, incorporating the Bristol Channel Mission and the Thames Church Mission. The Society provided chaplains to serve vessels and seamen afloat and ashore.  

1856

A guide to all the sailors' homes in England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland based on a parliamentary return in 1860.

1860

The prevalence of drunken seamen had far-reaching social consequences in nineteenth-century Liverpool. The annual reports of the Sailors Home state many seamen signed the temperance pledge but the figure never crossed 20 percent.

1864

St Andrew's Waterside Church Mission was a high church mission at Gravesend catering not just for seamen but fishermen and emigrants.

1864 - 1939

The Liverpool Seamen’s Orphan Institute was established in August 1869 in a temporary accommodation in Duke Street. Supported by leading shipowners and philanthropists it provided protection and education for the mercantile marine’s orphaned children.

 

1869

In 1900, a mission room for lascars was established at Morpeth Docks, liverpool. It was known as 'The Birkenhead Mission to Asiatic Seamen'.

1900

In 1903, a new Japanese Seamen's Home was opened by the Bishop of Osaka at 31 Elizabeth Street, North Woolwich, near the Royal Albert Docks.

1903 - 1920

A Lascar Institute in Birkenhead is mentioned in the annual general meeting minutes of the Mersey Mission to Seamen, held at the Liverpool Record Office. This appears to be a continuation of The Birkenhead Mission to Asiatic Seamen. The minutes first mention the Institute from 1910 and continue up into the 1920s, when a new building was constructed.

1910 - 1923
Finished garments for sailors. Source: Ladies Work for Sailors.

Women have contributed in many significant ways to the work of missions to seafarers. Marine industries were and are isolating and dangerous, and the risks were endured by families at home as well as those at sea. Women and children were associated with marine missions initially as subjects of charity, but by the 20th century they were playing a more assertive role.

1913