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Guest Post: South Asian seamen in the two world wars

Image of Three stokers of the Royal Indian Navy on the mess deck of the sloop HMIS SUTLEJ.

India 1944: Three stokers of the Royal Indian Navy on the mess deck of the sloop HMIS SUTLEJ. IWM IB 1558

Ansar Ahmed Ullah, a member of the Swadhinata Trust, is one of three external specialist researchers on the Whose remembrance? project. Ansar writes here about his research into the experiences of South Asian seamen in the two world wars.

For my study I chose to look at South Asian seamen of Bengali origin because it was a natural progression from my last project Bengalis in London’s East End.

We know that the Bengali seamen formed the first sizable South Asian community in Britain. They settled in London’s East End, close to the Docks, and were commonly referred to as ‘lascars’. The word was once used to describe any sailor from the Indian sub-continent or any other part of Asia, but came to refer to people from West Bengal and modern-day Bangladesh.

 South Asian seamen received less pay, less food and had smaller living quarters than white sailors, and their death rate was higher. Most worked in the engine room as ‘donkeywallahs’ (after the ‘donkey engines’) while those who oiled the machinery were known as ‘telwallahs’. Others worked supplying the furnace with coal and disposing of the ashes. You can imagine my delight at discovering an image of three stokers of the Royal Indian Navy on the mess deck of the sloop HMIS Sutlej in 1944. The working conditions were harsh and hot, and many seamen died of heat stroke and exhaustion.  Lascars trapped in the engine rooms suffered a particularly high casualty rate.

Image of Royal Indian Navy cooks at Stamshaw showing some of their specially prepared dishes on their way to the mess.

Royal Indian Navy at Stamshaw, Portmouth, 1942, showing cooks with some of their specially prepared dishes on their way to the mess. IWM A 10545

Many Bengali seamen worked as cooks. I came across a photograph of the Royal Indian Navy at Stamshaw, training in Portsmouth in 1942, showing cooks with some of their specially prepared dishes on their way to the mess.

I visited Tower Hill Memorial, which commemorates British Merchant Seamen who lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars. Many of the inscriptions indicate seamen of Bengali origin, with names such as Miah, Latif, Ali, Choudhury, Ullah or Uddin. But these were the privileged few employed as British crew members. Many of lower rank had no such recognition.

Image of Ansar Ahmed Ullah on his research visit to IWM Duxford.

Ansar Ahmed Ullah on his research visit to IWM Duxford. Courtesy: Ansar Ahmed Ullah.

The highlight of my research must be the visit I made to the collections store at IWM Duxford to read some of the output of the BBC Monitoring Service.  These transcribed broadcasts from radio stations across the world during the Second World War include several representing the Indian Independence movement.

Across the road is a huge display of aircraft including Concorde and a couple of BOACs. British Airways was formerly known as BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation). It was a household name in Bangladesh as that’s the airline people used to travel to the UK from Bangladesh. And my Dad must have travelled on a BOAC to get to England. It was a wonderful sunny hot summer’s day. I only wish I had known about the museum before my visit. I could have taken my daughter, who was on her school holiday! Perhaps next time…

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2 comments
  1. gazi says: August 18, 201411:06 pm

    my grandfather named MR Ali Ahmed was a British Indian Merchant Navy ,but i could not get any reference from government record, i am from chittagong Bangladesh. any one help me about my grandfather’s glorious past life with real evidence .
    Gazi

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