Our Asian Crews
by M. Watkins-Thomas in About Ourselves copyright P&O (first published September 1955)

In its long and eventful history the P & 0 Company has been faithfully served by many devoted servants. Not least among them should be numbered the countless thousands comprising Asian crews, past and present. Generations of them have come from their humble homes, all over the sub-continent, each to devote the best part of a lifetime to serve in the Company's ships. In the P & 0, as in many other shipping lines, they have become an institution. It is my wish to tell you a little more about them, from where they come and how they live. It is an account meant more for the shore staff than for "they that go down to the sea in ships", who are doubtless better acquainted with the ways of their crews.

These crews are found in all three departments, Moslems and Hindus on deck, Moslems in the engineroom and Goanese in the Purser's department. Only Moslems are found on deck in the P & 0, though many companies, such as the B.I. and the Mogul Line, employed numbers of Hindus. It is extraordinary how they all come from certain districts. The P & 0 Kalasis, or Seamen, come mainly from the Portuguese colony of Daman and adjacent areas in Gujarat, from parts of Kathiawar, the Ratnagiri district and other places in the Konkan, from Cochin and the Malabar coast generally. Indians from the above areas sign Articles in Bombay and are always known as "Bombay crews". There are also "Calcutta crews", hailing from the other side of India, but the P & 0 only employs them in ships running to that port.

The Bombay crews are usually preferred by P & 0 Officers, though many from Calcutta are good. The best Indian deck crews are considered to be those from the Laccadive and Maldive Islands. They are, however, very few in number and are mostly found in Indian coastal ships. In sailing ship days they formed a large proportion of the crews of those square riggers, with strangely oriental flavoured rigs up and down the Indian coast. The islanders, so I am told, were wont to run up and down the rigging like monkeys, placing the ropes between their big and second toes and showing surprising agility in laying aloft.

The Agwalas, or Firemen, are mainly Punjaubi Moslems or Pathans, and nowadays, of course, come from Pakistan and the disputed areas of Kashmir. They are found in Bombay ships. The Agwalas for Calcutta ships come from the hinterland of Chittagong, in Eastern Pakistan.

The great majority of stewards are Goanese, though Indian stewards are found in some shipping companies. Goanese, as the name implies, come from the Portuguese colony of Goa, though numbers of them are now settled in Bombay and elsewhere. They are the descendants of the early Portuguese adventurers to the East. They all have Portuguese names and are devout Roman Catholics. A large number of them speak excellent English and they make good servants and cooks.

In charge of the Kalasis is a Serang and his powers are quite extensive. He is responsible to the Chief Officer for keeping them in order, for directing them at their work, and checking evildoers. A good Serang is worth his weight in gold to the Chief Officer. In a cargo ship the Serang is assisted by one or two Tindals and under them are eighteen or more Kalasis and four people who might be termed "specialists". It is the Kalasis who heave on ropes and scrub decks, who preserve the ship against the inroads of weather and time by chipping and scraping, painting and varnishing they overhaul the cargo, the cargo blocks and gear and, in a phrase, keep everything looking "shipshape and Bristol fashion".

The four other characters are the Cassab, the Bhandary, the Paniwallahs, and the Topass. The Cassab is in charge of the deck stores. Coils of rope, many drums of paint, blocks and shackles of all sizes, many different kinds of gear are in his charge. Under the Chief Officer's supervision he has to keep all this lot sorted out and be ready, at any time, to supply any item of equipment required.

The Bhandary is the crew's cook and he devotes his time to the preparing of curry and rice,' to those who indulge in this wonderful dish, indeed a noble task. The Paniwallah, or Waterman, is the Carpenter's mate and, as his name implies. he tends the hoses when watering ship is in progress. The Topass performs the more menial tasks for the crew and he is also the European P.O.'s servant. Unlike the rest of his department, he is a Goanese.

On passenger ships the size of this department is greatly increased, varying from about forty-five men on the smaller ships to eighty on the latest class of liner. There are as many as five Tindals and there are always two Cassabs.

The uniform worn by the deck crew consists of a blue, embroidered, knee length, cotton tunic called a lalchi, a red rhumal or folded kerchief worn around the waist and knotted in front, white pantaloons and a topi. The topi is a canvas affair, made without a brim. and painted black. They are often made by the crew themselves. The Serang and Tindals tie a colourful riband of Bengal tartan around it, the Kalasis a plain red one and the Cassab. Paniwallah and Bhandary have no riband. In addition to this distinct ion the Serang and Tindals, as befitting their importance, have a more richly embroidered lalchi, have a tartan instead of a plain rhumal and paint fanciful designs on the tops of their topis. They also have boatswain's pipes worn on a silver chain around their necks. These whistles in the case of the Tindals are really a badge of authority, though the Serang uses his on occasions, such as for piping Harbour Stations or Fire and Boat Stations. Then there is heard a weird whistling noise followed by the appropriate high pitched cry. On cargo ships the fanciful rigouts described above are not normally worn, only the topi and whistle and ordinary blue dungarees.

,p>Before leaving this department mention must be made of the Seacunnies, or Quartermasters, of the cargo ships, four in each ship. They are watchkeepers, and at sea they take the wheel, clean the bridge and act as messengers or lookouts. In port they are on watch at the gangway. They wear the" fore and aft" rig of the naval rating, complete with round sailor hats. In the hot weather they wearthe white variant of this uniform.

The Agwalas are run by their own Serang and Tindals in much the same way as the Kalasis. The Agwalas's work, though, is of course confined to the multifarious tasks found for them in the engine-room. Strictly speaking, only half the engineroom hands are called Agwalas, or Firemen. The other half are the senior and are rated as Paniwallahs, or Watermen. In some companies the latter are called Tehlwallahs, or Oilmen. The Agwalas and Paniwallahs are mainly watchkeepers. This department also has its Cassab and Bhandary. Since their work is confined to the engineroom, their uniform is appropriately a blue boiler suit.

The Goanese in a cargo ship are twelve in number and work in either the galley or pantry. In the galley are found the Cook, his Mate, the Butcher, the Baker (no Candlestick maker) and the Scullion. The remainder act as the Officer's Servants, serve in the saloon and are generally under the orders of the Chief Steward. In a passenger ship there are about a hundred and fifty Goanese doing a host of different tasks. In some companies' cargo ships an Indian Chief Steward is carried, and he is called a Butler.

The Goanese wear a blue and white striped jacket with silver P & 0 buttons and blue serge trousers. In the hot weather they wear white trousers instead of the blue. In the saloon and whenever else it is considered necessary they wear a white jacket of the "No. 10" variety with blue shoulder cords. The Cooks wear the traditional rig of a white coat, blue and white check trousers and a tall chef's hat. In passing, a word must be said of the Chinese. In five of the Company's ships the Carpenter and Winchman are Chinese who are nevertheless domiciled in India. As a rule they make fine craftsmen and useful members of the ship's company.

Now I think a word might be said as to what the crew do when they are off watch or day work. The diet of the Kalasis and Agwalas is exclusively curry and rice. The Kalasis eat their meals in their mess room. They form a circle, sat down on their haunches, in the middle of this compartment and help themselves off large metal trays placed on the deck. The Serang and Tindals join in and of course there are no knives and forks. The food is picked up with the index and middle fingers of the right hand and thrust into the mouth with the aid of the thumb quite a knack is required. The Seacunnies usually eat in the same mess room as the Kalasis. In fine weather they often eat out on deck. The Agwalas of Northern India usually eat at a table in their mess, though cutlery has not yet reached them either. The Goanese, who have a somewhat more varied diet. eat in a more westernised manner amidships, either in the galley or pantry.

In fine weather, at a time when the crew are not working, the scene on the poop about the accommodation is typically Eastern. In the air is a strong smell of curry and rice and perhaps a whiff of aagarbatti, the long thin sticks of incense which burn slowly and give off such a pleasant aroma. Some of the crew may be sleeping, but others, Kalasis, Agwalas and Goanese, will be chatting on the poop, sat on benches, on the coamings of their cabins or squatting on their haunches on one of the mooring bollards, an extraordinary looking posture. Some smoke cigarettes, but others will be puffing bidis, the Indian idea of a cigarette, looking like a small cigar.

,p>The Agwalas sometimes smoke hookahs, or hubble-bubbles as they are sometimes known. These can be described as large watercooled pipes, often made of an empty bottle, a cork, an old tin and a piece of bamboo. However, good hookahs can be bought in India for only about eight rupees and these can sometimes be seen on board ship. They are very elegant and quite hygienic. Recently a shop in Melbourne bought fifty of these weird contrivances and they "sold like hot cakes". There are always people willing to try something new.

If the crew are not working they wear pyjama trousers under a long shirt, a singlet and white shorts or any other rigout that they happen to fancy. The Bhandary's Mate might be observed grinding spices on a stone for the morrow's curry. In port some of the men will almost certainly be seen fishing with lines or a cone-shaped bag something like a sea anchor. Others will be doing their dhobi, or washing, by pounding it on the bathroom deck or mending their clothes in their cabins, and most crews bring a sewing machine with them.

Strangely, some of the Agwalas, and perhaps Kalasis, will be seen with red hair and heards. A lot of people think it means that the owner has been on a pilgrimage to Mecca, but this is not always correct, and in some cases the object is merely to disguise the fact that they are going grey and that they are becoming ancient. Some Kalasis might be observed wearing silver amulets around their necks worn from a length of cord, or silver bracelets worn high up on the right arm. The amulets contain a text from the Koran and their purpose is to bring good luck to the wearer. They are given to Moslems when they are still children and a mullah is called in to bless them. The mullahs, the Moslem priests, receive something for their trouble and the boy has the privilege of wearing these tokens of good luck. The bracelets, which are called behdis, are not rings, but the ends overlap. As the boy grows up so the bracelet is expanded from time to time. The amulet is called a dauvis.

The Moslems frequently read their Koran or Hindustani magazines. They may be seen regularly at prayers in approved Mohammedan fashion. The language spoken down aft is often Hindustani. but also to be heard are Gujarati, Malayalam, Pushtu, Bengali and others as the case might be. The Goanese speak Hindustani with the Moslems or their own form of Portuguese among themselves. A lot of the men can speak some English, so that you can have quite a babel of voices.

If, as in some companies, the deck crew are Hindus, like can become complicated by the rules of caste. They are often very fussy, especially about food, for religious reasons. One of the best known of their unusual ideas is that if the shadow of a person, who is not a Hindu of their caste, crosses their food, it is defiled and has to be thrown over the side. Moslems have no such scruples, though, like us, they have their superstitions. For instance, when a Moslem is eating he should never have shoes placed. somewhere above his head nor should he ever stand above a version of the Koran. A Moslem. when he is ashore, if he is going to the bazaar to buy fish. should always give alms to a beggar on his way thither in order to have good luck.,

Three times in a year the Moslems have special religious festivals: they celebrate these and each time they are allowed a day's holiday in the ship. A word about these holidays may be of interest.

In the Calendar of Islam, Ramadan is the ninth month and for all Moslems it is a time of fasting. Through the month. from sunrise to sunset, neither food nor drink may pass the lips of any Moslem, nor is he allowed to smoke. It is indeed a rigorous test and is strictly observed.

They believe that it was during this month that God sent from the Seventh Heaven, by the Angel Gabriel, the Holy Koran to be revealed to the Prophet Mahommed. It is upon this Book that the Mahommedan religion is largely based. It is rioteworthy that the Koran was sent by the hand of the Angel Gabriel, for the Angels, the Prophets and even Jesus Christ all figure in the Islamic faith.

On the day following the end of Ramadan, the first day of the month Saual, comes the first Moslem feast day, Ramadan-id. The burra din, or festivals, are often celebrated by a religious service, by feasting and, ashore, by the purchase of raiment and the donating of gifts.

The second festival takes place on the tenth day of the month Zihlhaj, or the month of the Pilgrimage. It is only during this month that the pilgrimage to Mecca takes place, culminating in various ceremonies there between the seventh and tenth days. The last day is the feast day and is celebrated all over the Moslem world.

The day is known as Bukra-id, bukra meaning goat, for on this day a goat, or sometunes a sheep, is sacrificed by having its throat cut in the approved manner. The appropriate passage from the Koran is read out during the ceremony. The sacrificed animal then provides the main dish at lunch time. It celebrates the sacrifice of Ishmael, who with most Moslems takes the place of Isaac in the narrative dealing with the abolition of human sacrifices. In actual fact a goat or sheep is often slain on other feast days.

The last festival, though it is not celebrated by all Moslems, is in the month of Mohorram, usually on the tenth. It is connected with the murder of various of the early followers of Mohammed and especially with that of his grandson Hussein. Ashore a religious procession often takes place on this day and, before the War, the crews of ships at Tilbury often staged one.

The time of the year that these festivals takes place is not constant. This is due to the fact that Moslems use the uncorrected lunar calendar so that their years are never the same length as ours.

The Hindu festivals are also numerous. The main ones are three: the first being Holi, which takes place in the early spring. Dussehra is a ten-day festival at the close of the rainy season, in September or October, hence at the opening of the season for war and travel. Divali is the festival of light. marking the beginning of the year for traders and businessmen in India. it always falls twenty lunar days after Dussehra.

Finally, mention must be made of the crew's, musical evenings. From time to time. when several Asian manned ships are in port together. as is often the case in London, a crowd of Moslems will foregather in a messroom or peak" to make that weird, though rather intriguing, cacaphony of sound, Eastern music. They will sit cross-legged on the deck and chant their songs to a musical accompaniment. Often Kalasis and Agwalas have in their possession. and are able to play, Indian musical instruments.

Two instruments at least must be procured to form a band, though a proper band ashore usually has many musicians. Of the two kinds of instruments, one must be a dohiag or a tubla. The former is a small drum, held horizontally in the lap, and beaten by hand at either end. The tubla is a large double drum, also beaten by hand, which is placed vertically on the deck. It is a much more difficult instrument to play. The others are the banjo. the harmonia, the popular baja. a small organ played by one hand while the other pumps air into it. the sarangi. a kind of violin played with a bow. and a variety of guitar called the rhuba.

Asians make useful and accomplished seamen they are respectful, obedient and, if well led, they can keep the ship in an excellent condition. There are occasions, however, when a European crowd would be appreciated. In the course of my career I have served with both Asians and Europeans and, from the point of view of a ship's officer, I must say that I prefer to sail with Asian crews.

Since I am not a walking encyclopedia on Asian crews, it is possible that in this account I might have erred occasionally. For such mistakes I apologise and I will be glad to receive correspondence on the matter. I trust, however, that this account of our crews may prove to be of some interest to readers of "About Ourselves", both ashore and afloat.

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