There seems to have been an intense hike in the instances of racism-fuelled violence in the UK since the referendum that brought us Brexit. Blame is widespread, from politicians to the media, and some don’t believe this is happening at all.
I am not here to evoke guilt or to add more fuel to the fire. I am here to offer a small suggestion that may help, in some small way, to alleviate the current waves of xenophobia. Racism is not new, not in Britain nor in any other country in the world.
November 11th marks Armistice Day, the end of the First World War, on the ‘eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’ in 1918. It is on this day that we remember those who perished while fighting for the freedom of this country.
It is right that we honour the sailors and soldiers who fought for our freedom during both World Wars. They should be celebrated and revered, and our gratitude for their sacrifice must never be forgotten.
But are we remembering all of these men? Are we remembering those who gave their lives for us who were not born on our soil?
Indian, African and Middle Eastern soldiers and sailors fought and died for Britain. In World War I (1914-1918), India sent us more than 1,300,000 soldiers to help us defend ourselves and our way of life. Many were seamen called Lascars, from the Indian subcontinent, the East Indies or South China. These sailors contributed to a rich and unique aspect of world history and often gave their lives for a country that was not their own.
Most Lascars had originally signed on as cheap labour on merchant ships. Many had not bargained for military involvement and often had to endure life-threatening and terrifying conditions while engaged in military operations. British ships, military or merchant, were frequently subject to torpedo attacks. The merchant navy ships, often carrying supplies and transporting troops, were particularly hard-hit by German submarine warfare. Even so, the merchant fleet was an important part of the eventual British naval victory.
Many Lascars, if not killed, were captured and taken as prisoners of war. It is believed that one-fifth of the 15,000 deaths from the merchant navy were Lascars.
Some of the stories might seem exaggerated, but the recorded observations of the European men who sailed with the Lascars point to a sense of duty that seems beyond reasonable. This loyalty intensified during wartime.
A British naval officer reported an event during the First World War that typified the sense of duty displayed by the Lascars. One night, as it entered British waters, a ship was torpedoed and personnel dove for cover below decks. When the dust had settled and the sounds of attack had abated, an officer climbed to the deck to assess damage. He was astounded to see a group of Lascars standing beside their immediate superior. They had been forgotten in the surprise torpedo attack, but had remained motionless and steadfast throughout the ordeal waiting for orders.
But this appreciation for loyalty and sacrifice did not last long. After World War I, British seamen took out their discontent and loss of employment on the Lascars who continued to work aboard British ships. This carried over into racism at home, often directed at those former Lascars who had deserted their ships and settled in London. The sailors created pockets of Asian communities in the cities and, due to a lack of Asian women in Britain at the time, Lascars took English wives. This increased the hatred and prejudice. Racism became rampant.
So when we read about the spiking racism and xenophobia in our society, post-Brexit, when we see families targeted, woman assaulted and men attacked, let’s remember that this hatred and fear is not new.
Let’s remember that those who have been hated and feared in the past helped to protect and foster the freedom and lifestyle that we now enjoy.
And let’s open our minds and our hearts to consider that the newcomers to our country today, may contribute just as much to our communities as the Lascars did a century ago.
Let’s recognise everyone – regardless of race or religion – who is part of the history and the future of this great country. Let’s remember the sacrifices made for each and every one of us throughout our past and recent history. And let’s respect our differences.
We all have something to contribute.
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