Lascars were sailors on the European ships mostly on the British ships when the European powers were locked in great tussle for taking control of the routes and spices found in India. The British finally ousted all others and took control of India, first as East India Company and from 1857’s mutiny onwards for almost 100 years as British India Empire.
The term “Lascar” is derived from Persian word “Lashkar” which means army or a group of soldiers. They worked on the foreign ships under Lascar agreement which gave the owners more powers under which lascars could be shifted from one ship to another and also to work continuously on a single ship.
Lascars were mostly drawn from Silchar in Bengal, Goa and Gujarat coastal areas. The number of Lascars increased sharply on the ships because of their being better adaptability and sturdiness than their European counterparts. So much so that the British Government was alarmed and passed a law according to which a minimum of 75% crew should be whites.
Many of these Lascars settled in England where they intermarried white women despite the scorn shown by many British people. Many of them went out of job and became very poor and lived in squalid conditions.
The ranks of Lascars were different from their counterpart Europeans. For example equivalent of Bosun on the deck was Serang in Lascars, quartermaster’s equivalent was seacunny, carpenter was mistree, Lascar cook was called Bhandari. Over the years, Lascars developed a unique language of their own.
Lascar’s life has been described most elaborately by the writer Amitav Ghosh in his great novel “The sea of poppies”.
Sheik Dean Mahomet is credited with being the first Indian to open a Curry House in UK in the year 1810 and it was called Hindoostane Coffee House. It was situated in George Street of central London. It introduced Hookah in England and served Indian culinary dishes. The premises is now a building called Carlton House. To many who are now part of the city’s expansive curry house business, Mahomet was a pioneer. Mr Mahomed’s plan had been to serve “Indianised” British food which would appeal to the Indian aristocracy in London as well as British people who had returned from India.
“The Indian aristocracy however would not come out to eat in the restaurant because they had chefs at home cooking more authentic food – it was just not a big enough draw to come out.”
He was born in 1759 in Patna then in the Bengal Presidency. He joined the East India Company Army when he was 11 years old. He rose to the rank of captain in the Army. He fought in a number of campaigns and the book is based on his experiences in the army. He resigned from the army in 1782 and two years later arrived in Ireland. He is also the first Indian writer to be published in English. The book was called Travels of Dean Mahomet.
He later moved to Portman Square where he became an assistant to Sir Basil Cochrane at his vapour bath. This is where he is said to have added an Indian treatment, champi (shampooing) or therapeutic massage, to Cochrane’s bath which became very fashionable.
He died in 1851 and was buried in St Nicholas’ churchyard in Brighton.
He was honored for his achievements in 2005. The plaque, which celebrates the achievements of former Westminster residents, was unveiled on Thursday.