The arrival in Britain of large numbers of Indian, Arab and Somali Muslims at the turn of the century was due to their role in the British merchant navy. From as early as 1750 they were recruited as what was known as “lascars” to do the toughest jobs on ships, as firemen and stokers, shovelling coal into ships’ engines.
By 1855 there were perhaps 10,000 lascars on British merchant ships, mostly black and mostly Muslim, being from Aden, in what is now Yemen, and Somalia and India (including from the areas later to become part of Pakistan). By the start of the First World War, there were over 50,000 lascars, over 30,000 of which were classed as ‘foreign’.
Many of these lascar seamen were discharged from ships and stranded in Europe, others perhaps settled out of choice and communities of Muslims grew in British ports: Cardiff, Newport, Barry, Liverpool, Tyneside, London and Glasgow. These new communities found work in the ports, particularly during the First World War when demand for labour increased to replace British workers called up for military service.
First World War
With the end of the First World War, however, the situation changed dramatically. Disruption by the war and a wider economic slowdown led to a sharp decline in the older export industries. British sailors returned from the war and demanded their old jobs back, eventually leading to a series of laws excluding ‘aliens’ from various jobs.
Muslim workers would then have drifted away from port towns, inland, seeking new opportunities. It is known that Brown Bayleys steel works in Sheffield, in particular, had a deliberate policy of targeting Yemeni and Indian workers for recruitment, where they were given some of the toughest jobs.
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