Kolkata, Feb 4 : Come Tuesday and the Indian Navy will commemorate the centenary of a unique memorial in Kolkata, built in the memory of hundreds of Indians forgotten by most others across the country. They were the Lascars or merchant seamen from India who were killed during the World War I.
The Lascar Memorial stands next to INS Netaji Subhas – the Naval headquarters of West Bengal – along the banks of the Hooghly. This is a unique memorial, the likes of which exists nowhere else in India, though Lascars came from several parts of the country.
The British East India Company started recruiting Lascars in the 1600s for ships returning to England.
There was a reason behind this. Most ships would be short-staffed on the start of their voyage back home.
Many seafarers simply deserted after the ships docked in India. Several others were killed due to disease during the long voyage. The Lascars were cheap labour and readily acceded to perform the most menial of jobs on board.
The demand for Lascars grew after the opening of the Suez Canal and increase in the number of ships calling on India. The advent of steamships also required crew who could handle jobs such as stoking coal.
It is estimated that by the 1850s, there were 12,000 Lascars working on English merchant vessels. This was a substantial number.
Once the ships docked in England, trouble would start for the Lascars. They would run out of their meagre earnings soon and end up on the streets, cold and hungry.
It would be a long wait before they got jobs on ships starting for India. This situation prevailed even after the start of World War I. During the War, several merchantmen were targeted and sunk. Hundreds of Lascars went down with them.
It was nearly six years after the end of the War that the British decided to pay homage to these brave men by building a memorial. A contest was held to select the best design and William Keir, an architect, was the winner.