Indian Ghat Sarangs as Maritime Labour Recruiting Intermediaries During the Age of Sail


As European ships created and expanded direct sea links with Asia by venturing around Africa's Cape of Good Hope, increasing numbers of Asian seamen also sailed intercontinentally. But the prevailing recruitment and service patterns for seamen in the Indian Ocean differed significantly from those in European waters. In the Indian Ocean, lascars (Asian seamen) customarily served collectively in maritime labour gangs recruited by an Indian broker, a ghat sarang (literally ‘wharf or landing headman’). In the Atlantic world, in contrast, European, African and American sailors increasingly had individual written contracts and documents of employment for each man, policed and enforced by the European state. Even as British rule spread across the Indian subcontinent, European ships' captains and owners, and also East India Company officials, struggled to assert their control in India's major ports over labour recruitment of Asian maritime workers during the age of sail. From the seventeenth through to the mid-nineteenth centuries, these Europeans attempted with limited success to impose European-style patterns of maritime employment in colonial ports. Over the same period, developing European racial concepts and legal regimes increasingly identified ghat sarangs and Asian seamen, as well as their recruitment practices, as separate and inferior. In each major South Asian port, ghat sarangs and seamen long resisted such European colonial efforts to control the maritime labour recruitment system. In particular, ghat sarangs insisted that they themselves continue to stand as exclusive intermediaries between European employers and officials on the one hand and collectively recruited Asian lascar labour gangs on the other. Tracing this process based on original sources, this article focuses on Calcutta and other ports on the coast of the Indian subcontinent, showing the competing strategies by European captains and shipowners on the one hand and South Asian maritime labour brokers and seamen on the other. This article thus complements existing studies of maritime labour elsewhere, and also of Asian lascars in later, more industrialised periods when European employment practices and new racial classifications largely prevailed for intercontinental steam shipping.


Taylor & Francis

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Publication Title

Journal for Maritime Research



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Asia, Britain, Colonialism, East India Company, Lascar, Maritime labour