Thinking about Sailors, Immigration, and Southeastern Virginia

Vivek Bald’s Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America is a wonderful addition to Asian American history, not only because it complicates previous arguments on the origin of South Asian immigration but also it emphasizes the fluidity of migration in the early twentieth century.  One group that Bald profiles are South Asian sailors, the majority of whom had dangerous and labor intensive jobs on British and, at times, American and other European ships.  The jobs that these men secured were not those celebrated in fiction and other writings about the age of sail, but were highly industrialized and tied to the rise of steam power.  Many of these men—when opportunities arose—left sailing and found other jobs in the United States. Among these, a few men settled and started families; others returned to sailing and eventually went home.1

South Asian sailors are especially important in understanding Asian immigration in the American South.2 Racist labor and immigration policies limited where these men could travel to and their experiences in port.  From the 1890s to 1939, British authorities forbade South Asians from working above the 38th parallel during winter months and required that they disembark at Norfolk or Newport News, Virginia when working in the North Atlantic along the U.S. Coast.  Officials justified this policy by arguing that South Asians could not cope with cold weather.  Both Norfolk and Newport News—major centers of trade in the American South—saw ships and sailors from all over the world at this time.  Local newspapers also reported on such visitors, including South Asians who were temporarily staying in the area.  For example, two 1899 articles from the Virginian-Pilot recommended that locals go down to the pier to watch South Asian sailors load grain on the Samoa,an all-iron British freighter that usually ran between Liverpool and Calcutta.3 Several early-twentieth century articles mention the disembarking of South Asian sailors in Newport News, some of whom were housed on a pier owned by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company.4


C & O Station and Pier (1917) from Souvenir of Newport News, VA

Newport News Harbor (1901) from the Historic Postcards of Newport News, VA

Newport News Harbor (1901) from the Historic Postcards of Newport News, VA

With the passage of the Emergency Quota Act (1921) followed by what is commonly called the National Origins Quota Act (1924), South Asian sailors came under further scrutiny.  At first, the Immigration Bureau required that a bond for $500 be submitted with each landed South Asian sailor; however, that policy was soon overturned.  By the late 1930s, shipping companies quartered South Asian sailors under guard in Titustown, a primarily African American neighborhood in present-day Norfolk, and then were either picked up by their ships in Norfolk or sent to New York City where they were able to meet their ships.5 In government correspondence, immigration officials noted that no South Asian sailors had escaped from the Titustown location; two had runaway in 1923 and four in 1924 when boarding at another site.  Local authorities quickly caught all six men.5

Besides the experiences of South Asian sailors, what needs further exploration are the ways in which American immigration policies negatively affected other Asian sailors.  Immigration records that focus on Norfolk and Newport News at the National Archives might provide further insight.


1 For more information on the history of South Asian sailors, also called “lascars” by the British, see chapter 3 in Bald’s Bengali Harlem and the Lost histories of South Asian America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).  See also G. Balachandran’s article, “South Asian Seafarers and Their Worlds: c. 1870-1930s,” in Seascapes: Maritime Histories, Littoral Cultures and Transoceanic Exchanges, ed. Jerry H. Bentley, Renate Bridental, Karen Wigen (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007), 186-204.

2 Sailors were not the only South Asians traversing the American South.  Bald also demonstrates the presence of South Asian peddlers and merchants who lived in New Orleans and other southern cities. Vivek Bald, “Selling the East in the American South:  Bengali Muslim Peddlers in New Orleans and Beyond, 1880-1920,” in Asian Americans in Dixie: Race and Migration in the South (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 33-53.

3 “Biggest Freighter that Floats,” Virginian-Pilot 4 Aug. 1899; (access 4 Feb. 2014); “Ocean Leviathan,” Virginian-Pilot 5 Aug. 1899; (accessed 4 Feb. 2014). 

4 “Lands Lascars Here,” Daily Press (Newport News, VA), 28 Nov. 1908; (accessed 4 Feb. 2014); “Lascars Taken Away,” Daily Press (Newport News, VA), 29 Nov. 1906; (accessed 4 Feb. 2014); “Steamer Comes Here to Land Lascar Crew,” Daily Press (Newport News, VA), 26 Jan. 1910; (accessed 4 Feb. 2014)

5 55-854-370C, Entry 9, Subject Correspondence, 1906-32, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Department of Labor, Record Group 85; National Archives, Washington, D.C.