An unchanging pattern of loyalty
and service, remarkable in this age of self-seeking, is evidenced at some of
the Port of London Docks by the sight of Lascar seamen (now more fashionably
known as Asians) who comprise a substantial part of the complements of ships
of the P. & 0., B.I., Clan, Ellerman, Brocklebanks' J and other London
lines. Sober, hardworking and patient, they make an important contribution to
Britain's overseas commerce, and few who sail with them fail to recognise
The now outmoded word "Lascar" comes from an ancient Persian word Lashkar which, meaning an army, was later applied to a soldier and, in the course of time, to a sailor. Lascars were, in fact, connected with the Port of London before most, if not all, of the companies which now employ them were in existence. In the second half of the 18th Century they were arriving in the Thames as part of the crews of the ships of the Hon. East India Company. That powerful body had the reputation of looking after its own employees, but its paternalism does not seem to have been extended to the crews, either British or Asian, of the vessels which it chartered. Where both were the prey of the sailortown harpies and sharks of Wapping and Shadwell, the plight of the Asians adrift in London and ignorant of western city life was the more pitiable. Friendless and forlorn, they were often reduced to street begging until, months later, the time came for them to make the return passage.
Early in the 19th Century, public opinion, prodded the conscience of the Company and Lascars awaiting a ship were quartered in barracks in the Ratcliff Highway. This establishment was run for profit by a contractor to whom the Company paid 10 shillings a week per head for board and lodging. While effecting some improvement in the Lascars' former destitute condition, this arrangement merely touched the fringe of the problem.
In 1814 Wilberforce found time to turn from his interest in distressed negroes to take up cudgels on behalf of Lascar seamen in London. An Act was passed compelling the Company to provide adequate food, clothing and other necessities for their Asian seamen, and a Parliamentary committee was appointed to consider further regulations.
This committee made a surprise visit to the hostel where the Lascars were housed. It reported that at certain times of the year the quarters were greatly overcrowded with more than 1,000 seamen. The rooms were dirty, without fireplaces, and had neither bedding nor furniture. The Company defended itself by claiming that stoves were installed during the winter, and stated, in the traditional manner of those who resist slum clearance, that if beds were provided the men would sell them.
Democracy has many faults but one of its principal virtues is an outspoken public conscience. Now that the subject was being well aired, the shore conditions of these seamen began to improve. Eventually, Government regulations they became entitled to a scale of rations and a standard of accommodation, and shipowners were required to return them to their own countries at the end of a contracted period of service.
When ships made winter voyages in certain defined waters, the Lascars were to be provided with adequate heating and suitable clothing. One pauses to consider the sufferings of the all-Lascar crew of the frigate Marlborough which, taken off the Indian run in 1853, met ice and a hurricane on a homeward passage from Australia via the Horn.
More perhaps by shipowners' recognition of their obligations to these gentle and loyal servants than by Government regulations, Asian seamen now have the liveliest interest taken in their welfare. No longer discharged at the end of a passage, the ship is their home. That they are not unmindful of what is now done for them is shown by the fact that a continuity of service up to the fifth generation is not infrequently found among the Asian crews of London ships. Moreover, the rising spirit of nationalism in their own countries shows no signs of diverting their service from British lines.
Asians are found in all three branches of those ships which employ them. There may be both Indians and Pakistanis in the deck department; mainly Pakistanis in the engine room; and usually Goanese in the purser's department. Certain districts of India and Pakistan, some of them far from the ocean, have strong seafaring traditions, and deck and engine-room Asians almost invariably come from one of these areas.
To get the best out of these crews they must be properly led and their serangs, or head men, hold key positions in the ship's organisation. Thus the serang of the Asian deck crew will be responsible to the chief officer for all "sailorising" work - pulley-hauley, deck scrubbing, chipping and painting, maintenance of cargo gear, boat work, etc. He has almost autocratic powers and is responsible for the discipline of his charges.
His khalassies, as Asian deck crew are called, wear a colourful uniform adapted from their native dress; but the serang, as befits his position, is more richly decorated. Only the four seacunnies (Asian quartermasters in cargo ships) wear traditional seamen's uniform.
The Asians in the engine room, known as agwalas and paniwallahs, likewise come under their own serang. They carry out normal junior engine-room duties such as firing, oiling and watchkeeping. Their uniform consists of the customary boiler suit. One wonders how they manage to describe the djinns and demons of a modern engine room to their home folk, perhaps peasant agriculturists in the Punjab or North-West Frontier Province.
The Goans work in the galley, serve in the saloon or cabins, or act as officers' servants. Proud of the Portuguese strain in their blood, they are devout Roman Catholics to a man. They wear the normal western uniforms of cooks and stewards. Intelligent, courteous, clean and painstaking, they give a standard of service which has almost disappeared from shore life.
Many Asian seamen have picked up enough English to aid them in excursions ashore in London but, except for the Goans, few can write it. One story tells of a small boy, enthusiastic about life on board ship as a passenger, who asked a serang for his autograph. Not fully understanding what was required, but realising that he was expected to write something, the serang drew upon his limited store of written English and inscribed "Wet paint"!
When one considers the four or five tongues that may be spoken among the Asian crews, the different religions which they practise, and the complications of the Hindu caste system, it is a source of wonder that they have such a high reputation for law and order. The answer lies, perhaps, in the over-riding loyalty which these men all have for their shipping company. In this respect, I once heard Sir William Currie, chairman of the P. &. 0. Line, tell a revealing anecdote in the course of a speech. He recounted how an Asian deckhand was asked by an American passenger if he were an Indian or a Pakistani. The deckhand looked at the American pityingly. "Me, Sahib?' he replied. "Me, P. & 0."
This loyalty was tried to the full during the second world war. Asian crews continued to go to sea in British ships as a matter of course, despite the torpedoes and bombs: and many of them died with their European shipmates. When liners were requisitioned for service as armed merchant cruisers.; the Asians invariably volunteered to stay with their ships, and some of the engine-room crews served under the White Ensign in this way. Replacement by Europeans was, of course, necessary when these ships were to operate in cold northern waters. Not a few Asians received awards and decorations for gallantry in the course of the war.
George F. Kerr in his Business in Great Waters, the war story of the P. & 0. Line, recounts a story of Asian discipline in the face of danger which has some of the flavour of the famous epic of the soldiers aboard the sinking Birkenhead. "Bartimeus" the naval author, was taking passage home from the North African landings in the Viceroy of India. When the ship was torpedoed, Bartimeus, stunned by the explosion, groped his way to the boat deck. Not a light was showing and the night was abnormally dark. With arms outstretched, he started along the deck and then stopped as he touched a face. It did not move. Bartimeus spoke. There was no reply.
Puzzled, Bartimeus started off again, only to touch another face which was equally motionless and silent. In a sudden panic, he ignored the regulations and switched on his torch. He found a body of Asian seamen who had fallen in at their boat station under the serang and were now standing to attention awaiting orders!
This story is amplified by the former purser of the Viceroy,
who says that "the men's silent bravery had to be seen to be believed."
He goes on:
"They were undoubtedly frightened as, of course, were many others, but they kept their heads and looked upon their officers with that trust which the Asiatic has if he likes and respects his superiors."
Asian customs have largely defied the eroding atmosphere of western ships and, as in the sub-Continent itself, have adapted modern methods to serve unchanging ancient needs. Thus, native dishes may be prepared in the latest form of electric galley but will still be eaten by Hindus and Moslems with their fingers; usually, in the case of the Hindus. while squatting on the deck of their mess rooms. Native costume, almost invariably worn on shore excursions, may have been made or repaired with a modern sewing machine. Western cigarettes may occasionally be enjoyed in the watch below but most of those deck and engine-room Asians who smoke still partake of the traditional "hubble-bubble". The majority of Goanese roll their own cigarettes while some of the older ones even prefer a pipe.
The Indians and Pakistanis, whether in the deck or engineers' departments, live by their own choice entirely on variations of curry and rice. This is prepared by their personal cook, the bhandary, who will spend much of his time grinding the many spices on a stone. Religion and particularly caste add considerable complications to the ritual of preparing and eating meals.
The Goans are less limited in their tastes and taboos and eat western dishes, particularly for breakfast. Nearly all of them, however, have curry for the midday meal; the lower ratings using their fingers as implements but the more senior the customary spoon and fork.
Observance of religious festivals is, of course, permitted by the master of the vessel and, although not always convenient for the chief engineer or the chief officer, the usual day's holiday is allowed. One particular Moslem festival involves the ritual slaying of a goat or a sheep to the accompaniment of intoned passages from the Koran - all this, perhaps, while modern turbines are driving the ship along at 20 knots.
Another Moslem festival used to be observed when the ship was in port in the form of a religious procession, and " Hobson Jobson Day,' as it was colloquially called by London dockers, provided a strange and exotic sight at the Tilbury or Royal Docks. This custom seems to have died out within the last few years. Numerous festivals are also faithfully observed by the Hindus.
The Roman Catholic Goanese have an "altar peak," with its own small altar, aboard every ship in which they serve. During the voyage. if there is no priest on board, they choose one of their own number to conduct the prayers and services until such time as a priest embarks or the ship calls at a port where they can go ashore to church.
On Christmas Day the altar peak and surroundings are decorated, often very beautifully, with flags and coloured streamers. The pantryman, who is the head of all the Goanese on board, generally invites the captain and senior officers to come down and see the decorations and have a drink with them, to the accompaniment of a Goanese band. Such bands are often reminiscent of the present-day "skiffle" groups.
Indian and Pakistani seamen soon find their way about London and do their unambitious shopping with that keen sense of a bargain which is a national trait. When they need relaxation ashore they can put themselves under the wing of the Missions to Seamen who, with due regard for the need to respect Asian religious beliefs, tolerantly provide dockside clubs and hostels for their use. One of their shore activities in the docks of London, fishing for shrimps, has long been abandoned, but this is due to the absence of the shrimps, for these Asians still fish assiduously when their ships are in more promising waters.
The Goans are more clannish and less inclined to shore excursions. When two or three ships that carry these nationals are in the Port together, a play or a concert may sometimes be produced by the Goans on board one of the vessels. The script is written by the more talented among them and the music is provided by what is usually an excellent amateur orchestra. Rehearsed with infinite patience, these concerts offer surprisingly good entertainment which may last for four or five hours.
Their musical accomplishments were once, it is related, put to a touching use by the Goanese staff of a ship. She had called at Bombay and, while there, was to effect, under the terms of their contract, a complete change-over in Asian crews. The transfer was carried out with customary smoothness and - as it was described to me - the passengers were blissfully unaware that the dark hands serving them in the saloon now belonged to different owners and had practically caught the plates in mid-air. Then, just before sailing time, the band of the departing Goans appeared on the quay alongside and gave their old ship a musical send-off.
Every ship, once she has left port, becomes a completely isolated little State whose well-being reflects the interplay of opposing characters and temperaments. The pattern of life in those vessels carrying Asian crews is both more simple and more complex; more simple by virtue of their unquestioning obedience and more complex because of their allegiance to their own several ways of life.
Is there not in this loyal and disciplined cooperation between different races and creeds a promise of wider harmony which may eventually transcend the narrow horizons of ambitious politicians and allow the human race a smoother passage?
(Reproduced by kind permission of the author and the editor of Lloyd's List.)
This article was transcribed from the P.L.A. Monthly December 1957.