I spent some time researching historical characters in the British Library before I started writing. There were both Indian working class servants and sailors, but also Indian aristocrats, politicians and students all mixing freely in Britain at the time. These are some of the facts I discovered: Ayahs were Indian nannies who worked for English colonial families in India. They were more than simply babysitters – they were almost alternative mothers – spending most of their time caring for the children, and their wages were an eighth of the wages of an English nanny. On their seasonal visits to Britain, these colonial families often asked their Ayahs to accompany them or engaged the services of an experienced travelling Ayah to look after their children and take care of their baggage and their mistress known by the Indian term Memsahib. By the 1850s, as travel became more regular, the number of Ayahs brought to Britain increased. Between 100 and 140 travelling Ayahs visited Britain every year but once in Britain, many Ayahs were dismissed without pay. They usually had no formal contract of employment and return passages agreed in India were not always honoured. While awaiting employment with a family going to India, the Ayahs stayed in squalid lodging houses that charged high rent. An 1855 report drawing attention to their situation mentioned 50-60 Ayahs living together in a disreputable lodging house on Ratcliffe Highway in the East End of London. Some Ayahs were forced to beg in the streets for a passage back home. Hence the Ayahs Home in Hackney was set up when Christian charities became concerned for the welfare of the abandoned Ayahs. The Home provided accommodation for both Indian Ayahs and Chinese Amahs (who did a similar job to Ayahs). Established first in 1891 at 6 Jewry Street, Aldgate, East London, the Home was taken over by the London City Mission, who moved it to 26 Edward Road, Mare Street, in Hackney, East London in 1900. In 1921, the Home was relocated to bigger premises at 4 King Edward Road and thousands of Ayahs went through it right up until 1947.
I also read about Queen Victoria and her Indian manservant Abdul Karim who was gifted to her on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee in 1887. Karim began his work in the Royal household as a waiter standing behind the Queen as she ate her breakfast but soon became the Queen’s close friend and confidante. He taught her Urdu and rose quickly in the ranks to become her munshi (Arabic teacher). Karim served Queen Victoria during the final fourteen years of her reign, gaining her maternal affection over that time, much to the consternation of the Royal Court and particularly the Queen’s son and heir – Edward – who despised him. Dadabhai Naoroji was the first Indian to be elected as an MP in Gladstone’s last Government in 1891 who mentored British-Indian law students such as a teenage Mohandas Gandhi (later the Mahatma) and Mohammed Ali Jinnah (later the first Prime Minister of Pakistan). Naoroji had a huge influence on the politics of Gandhi and Jinnah.
Lascars first began to be employed in small numbers from the seventeenth century by the East India Company, which was set up by private merchants in 1600 by Royal Charter to establish trade links with India. The term ‘Lascar’ became a term for almost all non-European sailors. Shipping companies recruited men of many backgrounds, including Arab, Cypriot, Chinese and East African but the majority were recruited from the Indian subcontinent, mainly from coastal areas of Gujarat and Malabar on the west coast of India and the east coast from the area now known as Bangladesh.
Once in Britain Lascars had to wait, sometimes for months at a time during winter, before they could get a return ship back to India. Shipping companies did not provide proper accommodation while they waited, and in the nineteenth century, distressed Lascars were often seen wandering the streets. The term ‘the black poor’ was first used to describe destitute Indian sailors waiting to go home. Christian missionary societies became concerned about the plight of Lascars and this led to the establishment of the ‘Strangers’ Home for Asiatics’, Africans and South Sea Islanders in West India Dock Road in the East End of London in 1856, which housed diverse groups of sailors. Gradually, a small population of Lascars started to grow in London, Liverpool, Cardiff and Glasgow, forming the earliest Indian working-class communities in Britain. These port cities became multiracial settlements with sailors from diverse countries mixing relatively freely with the local population, some marrying and starting families with English and Irish working-class women. Lascar Sally is a real historical figure who ran a boarding house near the London docks for Indian Lascars. It is said that she could speak fluent Hindi.
Tanika Gupta, Playwright, The Empress. 2022.