How Food Was Used To Oppress Indian Sailors On Colonial Ships

Ceri-Anne Fidler, in her doctoral thesis, describes how food was used to oppress Indian sailors on colonial ships.

“The lascar was always sallow. It didn’t help
that his name anagrammed rascal. He carried
a whiff of scurvy, a hint of rats in the hold,
hulls battered by typhoons.”

These words from a poem by Ranjit Hoskote are a vivid summation of the life of lascars, the wretched seafarers from the Indian subcontinent who were employed on European ships from the 16th century until the mid-20th century. Misery and suffering was often their lot. Considered inexpensive labour, they were mistreated, dehumanised and sometimes left to the ravages of disease.

Ceri-Anne Fidler in her doctoral thesis describes the dismal conditions lascars were subjected to. While Europeans were allocated nine “superficial feet” of living space, each lascar got nearly half of that. Medical assistance too varied based on race. Doctors were accused of being “altogether unsympathetic” to the needs of the lascars (although the claim was denied) and if an Indian seafarer fell sick in Britain he was expected to meet the costs of treatment from his meagre wages (unless he became destitute).

Food was another stark differentiator on the high seas. “Lascars were considered cheap sailors to feed, their victualling cost being only half of their European counterparts,” points out Aaron Jaffer in his book Lascars and Indian Ocean Seafaring, 1780-1860. The lascar’s preferred diet, as logged in colonial documents, mostly comprised rice and salt fish curry, along with dholl (dal) and ghee. Paying for these essentials was far cheaper for the European shipowners than paying for the meaty diets of European or American sailors, who nursed a soft spot for dried peas, salted pork, soft bread and hardtack.

It was conveniently concluded that a lascar had a smaller appetite than a Western sailor. The “native fare is light and suitable for a hot climate, though a white crew could not work a ship on such food,” one observer declared. “This idea persisted well into the twentieth century,” Jaffer adds, “resulting in regulations that entitled lascars to less compensation when a ship’s supplies were deemed unfit for human consumption.”

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An 1843 edition of The British Friend of India Magazine lists the rations that a lascar would get, depending on where his ship stood on the world map. If the vessel was passing through a “torrid zone”, the lascar ration would include rice, pease (peas), butter, oil, condiments for making curry (such as turmeric, tamarind, ginger, garlic, chillies, vinegar, coriander and cumin seeds) and vegetables (such as pumpkin, yams, and potatoes). But if the ship was outside a torrid zone, a few items would be added, such as pillow meat, curry meat, biscuit, wheat and pickled mangoes.

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