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Asians in Britain: Ayahs, Servants and Sailors

Court Minutes, which record the activities of the East India Company, provide some of the earliest references to the presence of Indian servants and ayahs in Britain.

Many of the entries relate to their passage back to India in Company Ships; some also mention the reasons for their importation, and occasionally their names:

B/40 Court Minute Book, 25 April 1690 - 19 April 1695:
"It is ordered that a black female servant belonging to Mr Alford the Companies Warehouse Keeper at Fort St George have leave to take her passage on the ship Princess of Denmark for Madras she paying the charge of her transportation according to a Report from the Committees of Shipping now read and approved." (p.180)

B/112 Court Minute Book, September 1790 - April 1791:
"The request of Ensign C Bristow being read ordered that he be permitted to return to Madras on the Carnatic a Native Servant named George Dusieang free of charge to the Company." (p. 763)

Court Minutes also contain occasional references to Indian sailors employed in Company ships awaiting a passage back to India.
e.g. B/43, 11 October 1699, p.66: relates to complaints of Lascars for the non-payment of their wages by the owners of the ship.

Public and Judicial Department Records:

Buried within the Public and Judicial Department Records, which cover the domestic affairs and administration of British India, are occasional reports on 'destitute Indians in Britain and abroad'. These may refer to servants, sailors, students or those who came or were brought over as performers or for exhibitions, as well as petitioners who came to seek redress for their land claims.

IOR: L/P&J/2/49, f. 7/281 is a letter from Syed Abdoollah, former Professor of Oriental Languages, London University, dated January 1869, in connection with 'native servants' abandoned and left destitute, begging in the streets of London. He suggested a re-introduction of the system of deposit to provide their return passage.

IOR: L/P&J/6/395, f 608, dated 16 April 1895, is a minute on a stranded ayah in a workhouse in Manchester:
"The Local Government Board forward a letter from the Manchester Guardians from which it appears that a Hindoo woman named McBarnett who came to this country as an Ayah in the service of an English family has been unable to obtain an engagement which would enable her to return to India."

IOR: L/P&J/2/47, No. 7/264 is the case of 11 Asians brought from Oudh [Awadh] as part of a troupe of strolling players by Edward and George Hanlon in 1867.

Surviving duplicate passports for the 1930s, IOR: L/P&J/11 contain a few surviving passports of travelling ayahs. For instance, IOR: L/P&J/11/3/1314, is a 1932 Passport of Anthony Ayah:

A 1932 Passport of Anthony Ayah

A 1932 Passport of Anthony Ayah - an Indian female servant brought to Britain by a British family.[IOR: L/PandJ/11/3/1314] © The British Library Board.

IOR: L/P&J/12 series are the recently released Indian Political Intelligence (IPI) secret reports. These surveillance reports compiled by the secret police for the inter-war period provide information on Indian organisations and individuals considered 'subversive' and a threat to the Raj.

Marine Department Records:

Marine Department Records (L/MAR) cover most aspects of the Company's maritime service, including Indian seamen serving in EIC ships, c. 1790-1920.

The two volumes, L/MAR/C/902, entitled 'Papers relating to the care of lascars 1793-1818', are an important source of information for lascars temporarily domiciled in the dock areas of the East End. Reports of the Parliamentary Enquiry, viz, Report from the Committee on Lascars and other Asiatic Seamen (BPP, vol. 3, No. 471) and Correspondence between the Commissioners for the Affairs of India and any other Body relative to the Care and Maintenance of Lascar Sailors during their stay in England (BPP, vol.10, No.279) supplement our knowledge of their lives and their barracks in London's East End.

Letter dated 28 November 1809 from Hilton Docker, medical doctor to the lascars describing lascar conditions on board and in England:
"The Natives of India who come to this country are mostly of bad constitutions. Numbers are landed sick from the ships, where they have been ill, and when they arrive (usually at the latter end of the year) they have to encounter with a climate and season to them particularly pernicious which most frequently increase their disease. Those who are landed in health are of course exposed to the same danger of climate and season and in addition almost all of them give way to every excess in drinking and debauchery, and contact to a violent degree those diseases (particularly venereal) which such habits are calculated to produce."(L/MAR/C/902, vol. 1, ff. 25-26)

Lascar barracks in London's East End as described by the Parliamentary Committee on Lascars and other Asiatic Seamen, 1814-15:
"A small number only was in the barracks at the time which Your Committee visited them, but they understood that there were periods of the year, when no less than 1,000 or 1,100 persons were received into them; a number which Your Committee observe, exceeds the utmost calculation of the number for which they are intended, or for which they can afford reasonable accommodation, consistently with a due regard to the comfort, health and cleanliness of the people, which latter, even in their present uncrowded state of the barracks, there was a great deficiency, owing probably in a great degree to the habits of the Lascars themselves." (Report from the Committee on lascars and other Asiatic seamen, Parliamentary Papers, 1814-15, Vol. III, No 471, pp.4-5)

'Lascars. Bengali. Malay. Siamese. Burmese. Chinese. Sura

'Lascars. Bengali. Malay. Siamese. Burmese. Chinese. Surati' . From J.Salter, The Asiatic in England: sketches of sixteen years' work among Orientals. [OIOC: T8683]. © The British Library Board.

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Records of the Economic Department:

L/E/7 and L/E/9, covering the period 1920s and 1930s, deal with questions relating to Indians overseas, and hence are useful for finding out about Asians in Britain.

For instance, L/E/7/1152, file 727 concerns Lascar Accommodation in Britain in the 1920s. Inspectors and Health Officers condemned as 'quite unsuitable' the cheaper common lodging-houses in St George Street, Stepney used by some British Shipping Companies, and the 'godown' used by the P&O as 'an abomination'. They recommended housing lascars in the Asiatic Home [the Strangers' Home built in 1850s] according to the India Office:
"Our position is, if - which I hope will not occur - any scandal should arise in regard to the position of Indian seamen in this country, if, for example, in a common lodging-house there was a fracas in which Indian and British seamen might be injured, public opinion in India, which is rather critical in all these matters, will not unnaturally say - 'what has the Secretary of State for India been doing to look after the interests of these fellow countrymen of ours who are in this country?' It is a bad thing that these Indian seamen are mixed up with other races including British seamen. Certain touts managed to get hold of these men."(Report of the Conference held at the India Office, 22 February 1923).

A letter, in L/E/9/953, dated 7 September 1925, from the wife of a Peshawar-born Indian domiciled in Britain and working as a seafarer describes the treatment of some Asians (who were British subjects) under the Home Office Coloured Aliens Seamen's Order, 1925:
"My husband landed at Cardiff, after a voyage to sea on the SS Derville, as a fireman and produced his Mercantile Marine Book, R.S 2 No. 436431, which bears his 'Certificate of Nationality', declaring him to be British and is signed by a Mercantile Marine Superintendent, dated 18 August 1919. This book and its certificate were ignored, and my husband was registered as an Alien. Would you kindly inform me if it is correct that the Mercantile Marine Book should have been ignored as documentary proof? I have been married to him seven years, and we have three children, therefore the knowledge that my husband is not a recognised British subject, causes me much consternation, as should anything happen to him in a foreign port his rights as a Britisher would be jeopardised and consequently my own and our children's." (f. 297).