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Bookshelf: Lascar

An excerpt from Shahida Rahman’s historical fiction novel gives a peek into the lives of early South Asian immigrants in the UK.

‘Lascar’ was a name given by the Europeans to describe the non-European sailors. It came from the Persian word Lashkar and the Arabic word Al-Askar meaning guard or soldier. They were a multi-racial crew recruited for work aboard British steamships dating back to the 17th century. The majority of these sailors were from East India and were Muslim and many had no choice but to settle in England due to the harsh conditions on board ship. Lascars were probably the largest group of South Asian workers in Victorian Britain.


“She weighs over 2,000 tons,” Akbar gushed anxiously as they walked towards The Bengal. “She carries one hundred and fifty first-class travellers.”


Ayan bit his tongue. This did not seem like the time to point out the fact that first-class did not necessarily mean Rajah-wealthy. He eyed the ship with understanding borne from spending most of his childhood begging and working on the docks. The hull had dulled with age. Only the deck of the steamer shone with care and concern. Anything that did not touch the whites fell into disrepair. Other ships blocked his view. He hoped that when he saw the ship as a whole that she would shine with the glow that only British and American ships shared.


“She was born in 1840,” Emran whispered.
“1850,” Akbar corrected. “The Dutch owned her and then the Boers. Now, she is owned by an English industrialist.”


Ayan listened to Akbar struggle to pronounce the word. The ownership of the vessel did not concern him.


“… Swamped off of Cape Horn in South America.” Akbar’s words broke through Ayan’s thoughts.


“I do not want the ship to be swamped while we are on board.”


Ayan turned and looked at Emran. This was the first full sentence the boy had uttered since their meeting, a fortnight ago.


“I heard that The Bengal is owned by the New York, London & China Steamship Co. of London,” Ayan corrected Akbar. He winked at Emran. The boy grinned back, their laughter lost in the cacophony of dock noises.


They waited for crews of Lascars to move several large crates to waiting ox carts. The men struggled under the weight of the crates and the abuse of the bosses. A moment later, a narrow path cleared and the three used it to escape the chaotic scene. “We will see every corner of the globe,” Akbar smiled.


They rounded a large pile of crates covered with a brown tarp, and The Bengal came into full view. The three stopped dead and stared. The hull needed cleaning, the brass railing was covered in black soot and black smoke puffed from the columns. Ladies rushed across the dock ordering servants to hurry with their luggage, or chiding children to remain close. Men in black suits and white shirts stepped out of coaches and hurried up the gangplank, ignoring everyone in their way. The European women hid under parasols and loudly complained of the heat.


Emran pointed to crates full of fruits being carried toward the ship. The fresh scent permeated the dock. Emran almost drooled when he asked if any of the multi-coloured delicacies were to eat. Ayan remembered the miserly way the servants handed out melons, even the overripe ones. He did not believe the owners planned to share the fruit with them, but he held his tongue.


They veered toward a crowd of men dressed in shabby Punjabi suits, similar to those that they were wearing. Some waited in silence, seemingly lost in their own thoughts, while others looked around, marvelling at the treasures and wealth surrounding them. Ayan moved deep into the crowd and waited. Some held small bundles of clothing, but most brought only themselves.


A table sat on the dock. The men from the basement sat behind the table, minus the leader. They bickered over the ledgers, searching for men’s names. Slowly the crowd thinned, moving one at a time into the ship.


Ayan heard the other Lascars talking above the crowd.


“We are privileged to work on such a fine ship.”


“I paid twenty gold coins. I will make more than that before I arrive home.”


“I hope the trip is short. I will work for one journey and then return home to marry.”


The men laughed and jested among themselves.


“What do you think, Ayan?”


“I believe, Emran, that we are indeed lucky.” Shivers of excitement ran up Ayan’s back. He shared the same sense of adventure that shone in the boy’s eyes. But something did not fit. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He had watched Lascars and white merchant seamen load and unload ships for years. The quartermaster set a table for the men to sign up. The men dropped their sea kits and made their mark.


A group of old Lascars talked about a faraway place called the Caribbean where slave traders forced Lascars to bury the rotting bodies of slaves. Ayan worried that The Bengal may travel to such a place. He wondered if the Europeans knew, or even cared, that Allah imposed strict rules for the handling of a dead body.


“This Caribbean,” Akbar interrupted, “sounds like an evil place.”


The experienced Lascars exchanged glances.
“Evil places reside in men’s hearts, not in places,” one man answered.


“Do you fear evil, boy?” Another man looked straight at Emran.


“No,” the boy said uncertainly. “No.”


“Good,” said the stranger, narrowing his eyes. “The world is full of evil. You will see evil close up; evil in all its glory.”


The strangers laughed and turned their backs.


Ayan watched as the last few Europeans boarded the ship. He wondered what they would do if the ship swamped in an African storm. It wouldn’t surprise him to learn that each traveller was matched by a crew member so that, if the boat sank, each passenger would desperately hold onto a crew member’s back and be carried to safety. Ayan grinned at the image.


The sun scorched the dock before they found themselves at the table. The patience of the men at the table had worn thin. They snarled at Emran. Ayan gave them all of their names and waited for them to search the list. It amazed Ayan that these men, who mocked them in the basement only a day earlier, had forgotten their faces and names. The men searched through the scratches and marks on the ledger several times before putting a mark beside their names. They eyed Emran critically and then demanded more money.


“We have nothing more to give but ourselves,” Ayan said in a low voice.


After a long pause, the men pointed towards the gangplank.


Ayan moved slowly up the rickety walkway. Akbar and Emran quickly followed. Ayan looked around the gleaming, polished deck before a harsh voice demanded he get into the hold of the ship.


As Ayan descended into the bowels of the ship, steel steps cut through his sandals. His hand recoiled from the touch of a sticky handrail. He gasped in his first mouthful of stale air. He’d never tasted air. He’d noticed scents in the air, but never been in a place where the air tasted like rotten vegetables, tainted with the odour of one-hundred-and-fifty working men, trapped in the hold of the ship for years. The smell of old cooking oil and sulphur mixed with the scent of the saltwater in the ship’s ballast. Emran coughed at the stench.


A man’s yell stopped the trio dead. They turned to see a soot-covered man yell in an unknown language. Ayan shook his head and signalled that he did not understand the words. The dirty man rolled his eyes and snarled, then flicked the tip of his whip towards a door.


‘Lascar’ is available on Amazon and in other bookstores. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Lascar-Shahida-Rahman/dp/1907401717


Shahida Rahman is an author, writer and publisher. She lives in Cambridge, UK with her husband and four children. More details of her work can be found on www.shahidarahman.co.uk.