Indian Labourers in a Victorian City

“The Evil and How Occasioned”: Caring for Migrants in a Victorian City

with Dr. Raminder Saini

Sunday, March 24 @ 1:30

$15 Admission | $12 Members

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“Found dead!” Who? Where? Has he no friends? How did he die? …“We don’t know.”

Excerpt from Joseph Salter,  The Asiatic in England  (1873).

Excerpt from Joseph Salter, The Asiatic in England (1873).

 So writes Joseph Salter, a missionary who worked in London’s East End. In his first memoir, The Asiatic in England (1873), Salter reflected on the condition of labouring Indians in early 19th century London.

 In the early 1800s, thousands of Indian labourers were moving through the port of London. Lascars (Indian sailors), servants, and ayahs (nannies) signed contracts in which they agreed to work on board ships headed to English ports. On landing in London, though, too many discovered that guaranteed return passages to their port of origin were merely empty promises. Some weren’t even paid their wages. Not prepared for a prolonged stay in London, these labourers found themselves without food, shelter, or a way home.

 The issues of distressed Indian labourers, especially lascars, increased after the 1830s. For middle-class Victorians in particular, the presence of distressed Indians was alarming: how could there be distressed colonial subjects in the metropole? What did their condition say about Britain? What did this say about Victorians as good, Christians who were trying to “bring civilization” to the peoples they colonized?

To tackle the problem of increasing and abandoned destitute lascars, members from missionary organizations established the Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders. This lodging house opened its doors in the spring of 1857 after a year of construction. Initially, the institute was formed to provide a solution to lascars who were not adequately housed by the East India Company. As the administrators began their work, though, they realized that there were other labourers in similar conditions of distress. The Strangers’ Home thus became a space through which Victorians could provide “help” to working-class Indians.

Sketch of the Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders in Joseph Salter,  The Asiatic in England  (1873).

Sketch of the Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders in Joseph Salter, The Asiatic in England (1873).

 Not everyone wanted to be helped though. For example: Abdul Rehmon was from Bombay. He had been living in London for twenty years when Salter discovered him. Rehmon had begun earning a living by sweeping streets, but then got involved in a lucrative business in Bluegate-fields where he “pandered to the vices of his countrymen when they arrived in England” – in other words, he owned an opium den. Rehmon was perfectly content with the life that he led in the heart of the empire…

To find out more about the Strangers’ Home and Victorians’ idea of “helping”, check out this Sunday’s lecture with Dalnavert’s very own Intern Curator, Rammy Saini! More details on her talk can be found here.