The Lascar Research Project - our progress!

April 2022

This is a new, collaborative project funded by the Arts & Humanities research council, with the aim to explore the untold stories of South Asian sailors (otherwise known as Lascars) working in the UK during the British Empire.
This research project is run by Aqsa Arif, interdisciplinary artist, Malini Chakrabarty filmmaker/artist and Kulsum Shabbir, writer/journalist. We are working in collaboration with OSCH to help uncover the hidden histories of the lascars and the legacies they left behind. In this project, we will focus on combining our collaborative research into a short experimental documentary film. Through our individual research we will explore our own creative outcomes that will feed into the bigger film, creating illustrations, poetry and blog posts.

Our Visit to the Glenlee Tall Ship

As researchers, we decided that the best way to get an insight into the daily life of a Lascar was to visit a British Imperial ship ourselves and have a look around. The Tall Ship Glenlee has quite the story and we were warmly welcomed and taken on a tour of the vessel. While no Lascar’s worked on this particular ship, we learned about the conditions sailors had to endure while working during the British Empire. The sailors took four hour shifts and spent their breaks confined in the cramped quarters assigned to them. These areas were also at the mercy of the sea and, at times, would be flooded with the water sloshing on board during particularly stormy times. We learned that, on other ships,  the Lascar sailors stayed separate from the other sailors, with segregated living quarters. They also had their own cook who made spicier food. Most of the food on these ships was either salted or pickled in order to make it last longer as there was no way of refrigeration. 

Lascar’s chose to come work for the British as they were promised a better life in the UK, with homes for their families and a steady income. However, they were often at sea for months at a time and did not get to see their families often.

(This image was drawn by Malini Chakrabarty and depicts a Lascar sailor on a ship during the British Empire.)

Aqsa’s spoken word poetry


Inspired by our visit and the stories we heard, Aqsa Arif wrote some poetry and hired a crew to film her performing the spoken word poetry on board the Tall Ship. Her poetry details the life of a Lascar beautifully, incorporating subtle sensory details which will undoubtedly be enhanced by the atmospheric nature of the Tall Ship. This footage will be included in our short film but, for now, here is a excerpt of Aqsa’s poetry: 

I recount your father’s sheep,

their tinkling bells shrouded by his linen sheets

shining of lavender and sweet cardamom

but a penchant for offspring forbade the connection you seeked.

 

Now, only a remnant,

A mirage - that comes to you in four dreamless hours

Wrecked by dawn’s cascading clang, 

 

The naivete soon surrendered,

upon the watery bed above deck

Weathered ropes and patchwork sails,

Your pigmented wrists now anchored to the boat

Pleasantries dissolved…

 

FIRE,

DOOM

and

RUST

was born. 


Next month’s plans

In May we hope to get in touch with somebody who has a familial connection with a Lascar and interview them for our short film. This will give us the personal and detailed insight we’ve been looking for. We also have plans to visit the Moving Image Archives and collect some footage from there. We will continue our research while also moving into the production stage of our film. Ideally, we would like to have a rough draft, or even part of the film ready to show at the BAG Tall Ship event on the 29th of May. Malini is also hoping to produce more illustrations that can be turned into prints/stickers/bookmarks.

 

Here is a mind map created by Malini, detailing our plans for the rest of the project!

Recommended reading

If you’re looking to learn more about Lascars in the meantime, here are some resources we recommend!

Our migration story – reading time: 8 mins

Photographic collage featuring lascars – reading time: 3 mins

Advertisement for P&O and British India Lines steamliners – reading time: 2 mins

Lascar sailors – reading time: 10 mins

Seafarers of WW1 – reading time: 5 mins

The Hinds family – reading time: 5 mins

Image of SS Khiva – reading time: 2 mins