Britain’s wealth was based on trade and its growing empire in the Americas, Africa and Asia was a source of cheap raw materials and cheap labour. Goods from the Americas, Africa and especially Asia were brought to Britain on merchant ships.
After 1757, when the East India Company took control of most of India, its shipping fleet dominated trade between Asia and Europe. Sailing ships brought tea, spices, porcelain and textiles from China, India and Arabia. As the demand for these luxuries grew, more workers were needed on the ships.
At times of war, such as the Napoleonic Wars against the French in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, white sailors were drafted into the Royal Navy. Asian, African and West Indian men took their jobs onboard merchant sailing ships. Their work, often in terrible conditions, was crucial to Britain’s growing wealth.
In the late 19th century, at the peak of the industrial age, steamer ships brought goods such as coffee, tea, sugar, cotton, spices, tobacco, timber and wines from all over the world to Britain’s ports. Those ships then carried manufactured products such as textiles, clothing, machinery and household goods as export goods for overseas markets. Lascars continued to be hired in large numbers and were the majority on many ships. Captains often preferred ‘coloured seamen’ because they could pay them less, were more comfortable in hotter climates and, if they were Muslim, did not drink alcohol.
Many of these merchant seamen settled in Britain’s ports such as Liverpool, Cardiff, Hull, London and South Shields. Some chose to live in Britain, sometimes after jumping ship to escape the poor treatment and conditions on board. Others were abandoned by their employers when they landed at port, either because they were not needed or because of opposition from white seamen.
For the Lascars who settled in British ports, life was initially very hard. They were single men far from home, unemployed for long periods and in extreme poverty. Most lived in lodging houses. At first these were run by the East India Company but later, after the British government took over control of India in 1858, many were run by people from their own communities. The government, under pressure from the Seamen’s Union and because of negative racial attitudes, passed laws intended to make it hard for them to stay.
In effect, it was a 'colour bar'. On land, many were forced by poverty into begging and often had trouble with the police.
Indian, Chinese, Arab and Somali men came from societies with strong cultures and complex civilisations. In Britain, however, they were portrayed in the media as inferior, ‘exotic’ and even sinister and threatening. Their settlements were given nicknames - ‘Chinatown’ in London’s Limehouse, ‘Tiger Bay’ in Cardiff’s Butetown and ‘Little Arabia’ in South Shields’ East Holborn - and were stereotyped as places of crime to be feared.
In spite of the difficulties, many immigrants survived and went on to put down roots. Some married local women and started our first modern working-class multicultural communities. Others moved from work on the ships to setting up businesses such as cafes, lodging houses, shops and - in the case of the Chinese - laundries. Bengalis, Gujaratis, Yemenis and Somalis built up Britain’s first Muslim communities in the port areas of Cardiff, Liverpool, Hull, London and South Shields.