At the turn of the 20th century, news reports recorded a small, transient population of East Indian maritime workers living in the sailors’ boardinghouse district on the southern tip of Manhattan. By time of the First World War, thousands of these men were moving in and out of New York on British steamships. As colonial workers bound by long-term contracts, they faced low wages and indenture-like conditions on board their ships. At the same time, their labor was in demand in U.S. steel, munitions, and other industries onshore. Between 1914 and 1917, increasing numbers of Indian maritime workers jumped ship in New York. While many made their way further inland to take up factory jobs, scores of ex-seamen stayed in Manhattan, where they found work as dishwashers, line cooks, doormen, and elevator operators.
These men were predominantly Bengali Muslims who had entered the maritme trade in Calcutta, but the population also included ex-seamen from Punjab, the Northwest Frontier, Goa, and Ceylon. Early on, they lived near the West Side waterfront, in the neighborhood known as the Tenderloin, as well as on the Lower East Side, but by the 1930s, many Indian ex-seamen moved uptown to Central and East Harlem. Here, they joined much larger streams of migrants of color from the U.S. South, the British West Indies, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. Many of the men married within these uptown communities. A few opened Indian restaurants in Harlem, others did so in the theater district, off Broadway – these were some of the earliest establishments serving Indian food in New York City. After 1947, when East Bengal became part of the newly-formed state of Pakistan, a group of New York’s Bengali ex-seamen founded the Pakistan League of America an organization which, among other things, held yearly Eid celebrations that brought together what had by then become a unique multiracial community of South Asian ex-seamen, their Black and Latina wives, and their mixed-race children.
Between the 1880s and 1910s, small groups of Indian Muslim peddlers made regular trips from Calcutta to the port of New York. The men were from the district of Hooghly in West Bengal, a region renowned for its production of silk and cotton embroidery. These men spent each summer working along the boardwalks of Atlantic City, Asbury Park and Long Branch, New Jersey where they sold their wares to the era’s throngs of vacationers. At the end of the season, a few members of the network returned to India, but most made their way to New Orleans, which became the network’s U.S. hub. New Orleans not only provided a year-round flow of tourists and travelers – the peddlers’ primary customers – but it also connected them to other Southern cities – Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Charleston – the South’s main centers of commerce and consumption. And New Orleans was a gateway to ports further South – Havana, Belize City, Colon – frequented by a growing class of U.S. and European leisure travelers. Over the years, scores, and possibly hundreds of peddlers from Hooghly and Calcutta moved through these circuits. A small number also settled at key points in the network, most notably New Orleans. Here, a group of Bengali men married local Creole of Color women with deep roots in the city as well as African American women tied to more recent Black migrations into New Orleans from the post-bellum rural South. Most of the Bengalis settled in the neighborhood of Tremé, where, by the 1920s, they set up clothing shops along the neighborhood’s main commercial thoroughfare of North Claiborne Avenue.
During World War I and for at least two decades afterward, hundreds of Indian Muslim maritime workers made their way to Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan after jumping ship or being left in port in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. They found work on the assembly lines of Ford auto factories, or in steel production – labor that drew on skills they had developed firing furnaces in the engine rooms of British steamships. Most of these men settled in the neighborhood of Black Bottom on the Eastside of downtown Detroit. This was a predominantly African American neighborhood – home to thousands of men and women who made their way to Detroit from all over the U.S. South as part of the Great Migration. In a corner of Black Bottom, however, were a series of makeshift rooming houses for immigrant auto workers – Greeks, Arabs, Afghans, Turks and others. These included several run by, and catering to, Indian ex-seamen: Idris Ali’s roominghouse at 153 East Lafayette, Anoar Mohammed’s at 780 East Monroe Avenue, and Wozid Ali’s at 584 East Fort Street. Although these romminghouses were home to a fairly transient population of ex-seamen, who often returned to maritime work and to the subcontinent after a time, several Indian men married married within the African American community and settled in Detoit for good.
Some of the earliest news reports of Indian “lascar” seamen in the U.S. date back to the turn of the twentieth century in the port of Baltimore. Baltimore became one of the primary U.S. ports where Indian maritime workers were either left in port or jumped ship. In the 1910s-30s, it appears to have been primarily a transit point – a place from which these men moved on to factory work in other locations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and New York. A small number of Indian ex-seamen, however, settled in Baltimore itself, in the African American neighborhood centered on Pennslyvania Avenue on the west side of the city. By the 1930s, the Pennsylvania Avenue district was the cultural heart of Baltimore’s African American community, and it was also home to small numbers of other immigrants of color, the Indians among them. In the 1930s, one ex-steamship worker opened an Indian restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, possibly the city’s first, just a short distance from the Royal Theater, Baltimore’s equivalent of Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Very little record remains of the Indian presence in this neighborhood.