Early explorers: the first Indian travellers to Britain (1600-1900)

Today, nearly two million Indians live in the United Kingdom – around 1 in 40 of the nation’s total population. While the vast majority arrived in multiple waves of post-WW2 migrations, Subcontinental travellers had been reaching and settling in Britain for at least 350 years before this. Here, we take you on a brief tour of these early Indian explorers…

‘Mariam’: the first known Indo-Londoner (1614)

The world has been connected to itself for much longer than we tend to realise. The life of Mariam – the first person of Subcontinental birth known to reached British shores – concisely demonstrates this fact. Her father Mubarak, though born in Armenia, served as a high-ranking courtier to Akbar the Great, the infamous Mughal Emperor who reigned over North India for half a century between 1556 and 1605. Mariam, though the child of Armenian Christian parents, was born and raised in Akbar’s Agra Fort palace.

Though her father died a wealthy man, she was reportedly swindled out of her inheritance by her brothers, becoming dependent on the royal court. On account of her Christian birth, Jahangir, Akbar’s son, offered her as a wife to a William Hawkins, an English sea-captain and merchant who had arrived in Surat in 1608 on the very first East India Company (EIC) voyage. Hawkins had been retained at Jahangir’s palace, receiving the title ‘English Khan’ in honour of his representation of King James I. But after a string of mishaps (reportedly including turning up drunk to the royal court) he fell out of favour, and departed India on an EIC vessel around 1611, accompanied by his wife.

Back in the days before rapid air travel, a lot could happen on a single transglobal crossing. Hawkins died not long into the three-year voyage (along, eventually, with most of the other passengers), leaving Mariam to bury him on the Irish coast in 1613. However, she soon met Gabriel Towerson, another English merchant-captain, finally arriving in London with him in 1614. Parish records indicate that they were married at St. Nicholas Acons Church in February of that year.

It is known that Marian successfully negotiated herself out of her former husband’s trading debts, making a good enough impression on the EIC bosses that they continued to pay her a generous pension even after discovering she had hidden her assets from them when petitioning. Sadly, history has not recorded her own eyewitness impressions of 17th-century London – just a few years on from Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot, and a full half-century before the Great Fire.

Tantalisingly, records of the era also mention other Londoners of seeming Subcontinental origin. There was “Coree the Indian”, a man apparently abducted into forced naval servitude by Towerson in South Africa (…although back then, the word ‘Indian’ could sometimes be used as a more generic term for ‘brown-skinned’). Another young man is documented as having arrived from Surat in August 1614, who learned Latin and took the name ‘Peter Pope’ at baptism before being dispatched back to India by the Archbishop of Canterbury to become “an instrument in converting some of his nation”.

Mariam returned to India with her husband after two years in London, arriving back in Agra in 1617. But again, her British companion’s boorish behaviour would prove their downfall – Towerson’s arrogance came to anger others at the court, and he eventually left India to seek his fortune elsewhere. He was captured, tortured, and executed by the Dutch in 1623, along with a band of EIC seamen hailing from places as far-flung as Japan and Portugal. Mariam remained in Agra with her Armenian-born mother, along with a young English servant-boy. Transglobal tangles indeed.

The ‘lascars’: intrepid Subcontinental sailors

As the 17th century progressed, more and more East India Company vessels sailed back and forth from English ports. Given the treacherous maritime conditions of the era (…just ask Mariam about them), British ships often arrived in India depleted of crew, requiring their captains to recruit locals – who would then end up back in Britain at the end of the voyage.

Known as ‘lascars’ (derived from ), they filled many different roles on EIC ships. A lascar may, for example, have found employment as a seacunny (quartermaster), mistree (carpenter), serang (deck boatswain), tindal (boatswain’s mate), kussab (lamp trimmer), topaz (apprentice), or bhandry (cook).

Indian culinary expertise appears to have been in particular demand – EIC pay records show many instances of Goan chefs being retained by the same captains for multiple voyages (in some ways, an omen of things to come – today, Chicken Tikka Masala is regularly voted ‘Britain’s favourite dish’…although its actual origins are contested, with strong claims from Punjab, London, and Glasgow).

Before long, the employment of lascars became so commonplace that the British Parliament passed the Navigation Act of 1660, stipulating that returning EIC ships must have no more than 25% non-English crew. EIC legal records indicate that a “Captain Bookie” was arrested in Greenwich in 1730 for non-compliance.

Many lascars ended up settling in Britain, either through choice or the constraints of circumstance – some could not afford the fare home. Broader interactions between India and the British establishment also led to a rising population of servants, childcarers, and other domestic workers who travelled back to England with the families that employed them. Parish records from Greenwich and Deptford indicate that several young men from the Goa and the Malabar Coast lived there in the late 17th century, gathering to drink together at the Royal Sovereign Public House.

The 1869 opening of the Suez Canal accelerated the processes of migration and interchange, bypassing the requirement for ships to circumnavigate Africa to reach India and further East. Lascars regularly braved dangerous seas and punishing, exploitative masters, continuing to reach British shores in droves – although the number of actual settlers remained relatively low, with no more than 8,000 Indians settled permanently in Britain by the early 20th century. We shall meet more of these characters in Part 2 of our short series on the history of Indian culture and music in the UK…soon!


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