The Merchant Seamen's War
Extracts from Sons Of Empire concerning seamen in the merchant navy during world war II.

Late in 1939 an unprecedented wave of strikes by Indian seamen, the largest of the non-European ethnic groups employed in the shipping industry, quickly showed the indispensability of the sons of empire. Subsequent strikes and mass desertions by Chinese seamen on other ships forced the same realisation on their outraged employers, whose first response was to have entire crews imprisoned.
For more than half a century, seamen had been recruited in their thousands from the empire in India, from SE Asia and the outposts of 'informal empire' on the coast of China. They were supplemented by several thousand more from East and West Africa and the Caribbean islands. Altogether, they accounted for almost one-third of the shipping industry's labour force at the outbreak of war.
These sources of seafaring labour were absolutely critical to the manning of Britain's wartime merchant fleet. In 1941, and again in 1943, when there were acute shortages of European seamen, recruiting teams were put to work in the West Indies and in Aden. Indian seamen, previously protected from sailing on North Atlantic voyages in winter, were 'released' from this restriction now that the route was literally Britain's lifeline.
The seamen from the empire overseas did not regard the war as in any way 'theirs' and were quick to insist that in these new conditions they would no longer tolerate what had become habitual and institutionalised indignities. Ships' officers and employers of Chinese crews found it especially hard to adjust. In what for Chinese seamen was to become a cause célèbre, the master of the tanker Silverash shot and killed a Chinese crew member during a dispute in New York in April 1942. The master was arrested but soon released after a Grand Jury found there was no case to answer. For its part, the entire crew was arrested and held in detention on Ellis Island. Thereafter, British ships with Chinese crews which called at US ports faced large-scale desertions.
These episodes were soon forgotten in Britain. At the time, the incidents were little reported and certainly escaped the notice of most British seamen. Many of those who did know seem to have dismissed the events as the actions of simple people who, unlike the 'manly' Europeans, were panic-stricken by the prospect of danger. This chapter unravels the shipboard social relations of empire - and generally finds Europeans capable only of seeing Indians, Chinese, Africans and Arabs through the bizarre lens of racial cliché.


The pattern of employment of African, Arab and West Indian seamen was complicated by the variations in hiring policy between different shipping companies. The two liner companies involved were Elder Dempsters and the Royal Mail Line. The former engaged and discharged most of its men in West Africa but also hired others who were UK-resident. Both groups were paid wages at rates 20 per cent lower than European levels. The Royal Mail Line had a similar policy for the West Indian crews engaged on some of their ships. Neither company employed wholly West African or West Indian crews: black ratings worked as firemen and cooks and stewards. The ABs were white.
Tramp companies were the major employers of Adenese, Yemenis, Somalis, Zanzibaris. These men were normally resident in Cardiff and South Shields, and almost invariably engaged as firemen at UK wage rates. Also resident in the waterfront districts of the larger ports were approximately 200 West Africans in Liverpool and about 100 West Indians in London. They too sailed on tramps, a few as ABs, but mainly as firemen, cooks and stewards and on UK rates of pay. In so far as there was a clear pattern in trampship crewing, there were those who engaged Arab-speaking firemen, European ABs and ethnically heterogeneous cooks and stewards - and others whose crews were heterogeneous in all departments.
As the war went on, ethnic mixing became more common. This was due largely to shortages of labour. As ships lost men abroad to hospitals, cemeteries and jails, local replacements were engaged - the unsung Radbury, for example, signed on Palestinians in Haifa and Egyptians and Somalis in Suez. And the ancient Gloucester Castle signed on twenty-six West African firemen in Freetown during a voyage in 1941 - they were replacements for European firemen who had been unable to keep up steam. These were the sorts of ad hoc arrangements that the shipping industry had always made but the wear and tear of war, and the increased size of the merchant fleet, unquestionably added to the cosmopolitan nature of the workforce. The MOWT added its quota when it went looking for seamen in the West Indies and Fast Africa.
The ethnic mixing of crews was responsible for keeping Arab, African, Caribbean and other non-European seamen out of the historical record: Never forming an entire crew, they rarely acted collectively so as to attract official attention . . and then be recorded in files of documents. Several incidents concerning West African seamen, however, suggest that their compliance could not always be taken for granted.

In September 1942, eighteen West Africans were jailed for one month after refusing to withdraw their demands for higher pay. Nine men, each from two ships, had been originally engaged in Lagos for what they believed to be a regular run between West Africa and the UK. But while in the UK they had found their ships being altered for use in a different trade and argued they should be paid higher wages accordingly. When their demands were rejected the men went on strike. They were found guilty by Liverpool magistrates of disobeying the masters' lawful commands and offered the option of paying a 6 fine each. The press reported the men as appearing

to resent the decision of the magistrate and said they could not pay. On being asked by the clerk if they were willing to go to sea without persisting in this demand for higher wages the men replied with an emphatic 'No'. [The presiding magistrate] thereupon said, 'We are sorry to hear you adopt this attitude. . . The fine will be withdrawn and you must all go to prison for one month with hard labour.'

Comparable intransigence was shown by ten Sierra Leonean firemen being held as prisoners-of-war in Kankan, French Guinea, having landed in this Vichy- French colony as survivors from the Criton. Late in 1942 the government of French Guinea was imprisoning Frenchmen suspected of being pro-British and putting them in the Kankan camp. These new prisoners, accustomed to having 'native' attendants, persuaded the camp commandant that the firemen should become their servants. Peter Johnson, the senior British officer, objected on the men's behalf but the order was enforced. After a week, the Sierra Leoneans began a go-slow and then went on strike. Only when the French military seemed serious in their threat to shoot them did they take Johnson's advice and back down.

Arab firemen also had a reputation for being stubbornly united when they believed the boundaries of proper conduct to have been breached and the log of the Glenpark provides an example. That ship's Arab firemen refused to turn-to one morning in Montevideo, complaining that they had been served liver for breakfast almost every day for three weeks. They returned to work after a one-day strike and in answer to the master's asking them if they had anything to say after he fined them 10/- and a day's pay, they said they would make their reply at the end of the voyage - meaning they would make a complaint to the Mercantile Marine Office. They did not need to do so. Captain Furneaux was one of those liberal masters who cancelled fines on return to the UK if crews had behaved themselves during sea passages.

Public reportage of black seamen was complimentary. In 1940 the Daily Express headlined a story of an air attack on a merchant ship, COLOURED HERO, and wrote: 'the hero of the story is a coloured man, George Taylor whose home is at Freetown, Sierra Leone. . . With a bullet-wound in one eye and half-blinded in the other, Taylor stuck to the wheel on the bridge, obeying his captain's orders'. A more dramatically elaborate story and with the same essential message appeared a year later in the Journal of Commerce. The captain of an unnamed ship related how a Malayan carpenter and a Jamaican cook had gone to the rescue of the crew of another ship which had been torpedoed:
They launched the little jolly boat and away they went, the carpenter sculling over the stern with a single oar, while the cook, with his lifebelt over his white jacket, stood up in the bow. There was quite a heavy sea running at the time. In half-an-hour the jolly boat was back with seven survivors whom the cook had pulled out of the water. Back they went again into the darkness and this time they returned with six more men. On her next voyage the ship was torpedoed and the carpenter and the cook both lost their lives.

Private reports were more mixed. Major-General Gleadell, a passenger aboard the Llandaff Castle when she was sunk, wrote that he was 'eventually picked out [of the water] by Bil Dames, a big Liverpool negro and a first class man for the occasion' and that Dames had also pulled into the boat a 'Lt. Brigstocke, complete in white naval topee'. J.K. Gorrie, 3rd mate of the Athelking, was on watch when the ship came under fire from the German raider Atlantis. He recalled that he was 'scared stiff' but seems to have been surprised that the West Indian helmsman defied stereotypical expectations by sticking to his post: 'One thing that sticks in my mind is that when he opened fire, we had a big West Indian called Bodin at the wheel and he just stayed there. We had steel flaps to let down over the wheelhouse windows and we dropped those down but this West Indian just stayed at the wheel.'
A survivor's report was more predictable. The bosun of the Rio Blanco reported that on the eighth day in the lifeboat, three West Africans
became very pugnacious, started drinking salt water and threatened to steal the fresh water. They became wildly excited, singing and shouting and generally reverting to their native state. They were difficult to handle, refusing to bale the boat and we whites had to threaten to use force . During the night of the ninth day day they quietened down . . . On the morning of the tenth day we found them dead.
As in reports concerning Indian and Chinese seamen, this account was filtered through ethnic stereotyping where, for example, hysteria was interpreted as 'reverting to their native state' and where the men were identified by their ethnicity rather than by their rank. In the same report there was also yet another instance of unnoticed contradiction. There was a tribute to: 'A West African negro belonging to Freetown, whose name is Sam Brown . . . [He] gave valuable assistance, having had a lot of previous boat sailing experience.
Through an interestingly poetic coincidence, another report from Rio Blanco, survivors, given this time by the 3rd mate who was in another boat, finds the Mate behaving in an identical fashion to the West Africans described above:
During the 7th or 8th day we discovered that the Chief Officer, who had ceased to take any interest in the sailing of the boat, had been stealing the drinking water . . . He had pulled the wire out of the battery flex of his lifejacket light and had used the rubber tubing to suck water from the water breaker. We took this away from him and detailed someone to watch . . The Chief Officer continued to give us much trouble, assuming a threatening attitude and later becoming very violent. We now found that he was drinking sea water, so we had to tie him up for safety.

The 3rd mate's report went on to suggest that two other officers had died 'either through lack of spirit or because they had not the constitution', thus suggesting obliquely that a fatalistic readiness for death was an option as available to natives of Europe as to those of Africa. Regarding the black seamen's voice, there is only silence although the disciplinary record of the official logs is eloquent. The white deck crowd of the Glenpark, away on an eight-month voyage in 1942, accumulated between them twenty-seven log entries, almost all of them for drunkenness and absences without leave. The Arabic-speaking firemen, by contrast, accounted for just one absence without leave. The abstemiousness of Arabic firemen was one of the aspects of their behaviour that made them so attractive to shipowners and chief engineers.
A fragmentary correspondence between Pastor G. Daniels Ekarte of the Church of England-sponsored African Churches Mission in Liverpool, and Arthur Creech-Jones, the Labour Party's colonial affairs spokesman, suggests that Elder Dempster crews, in 1940, were extremely unhappy with their employers. Ekarte claimed that West African crews had not had pay increases commensurate with those made to Europeans and, worse still, alleged that men engaged in Liverpool were being discharged in West African ports: 'On arrival the men are discharged and fresh hands taken. These fresh hands are, for the most part, 'raw' Africans who know practically nothing of a seaman's job. As a result they are engaged at a very, very low wage - 6 a month [compared with 16 paid to a white fireman and 12 to an African fireman signed in Liverpool].
In the same file of correspondence, Ekarte claimed that:
When African Seamen are brought to Liverpool by the Elder Dempster Shipping Company, the company takes their passports from them and gives them, 'Elder Dempster Green Card' which reduces them to the status of an alien. By retaining their passports the Company compels the men to be in its services as long as it wishes. Those who understand the significance of a passport and refuse to part with theirs are refused employment.
The tone of outrage continued when Ekarte said that the company's hostel for housing African seamen when their ships were in port was a 'slave camp' because not only did the company charge their crews for using the place but deducted the charge from the men's wages even if they refused to stay there.
Among the 'raw' Africans recruited by Elder Dempsters in Lagos was Bob Eledo who went to sea 'in search of adventure' in 1940 and found that: 'On the ship there was class distinction, colour prejudice and muted acceptance of the whiteman's superiority over the black. I noticed that although the white and black crew performed the same identical duty, yet on an occupational level the relationship between them was like that of a servant and master.' Bob Eledo found the same pattern when he arrived in Britain and went ashore: 'Here in Britain discrimination stared us in the face. We were treated then and even now as second class citizens. From the treatment we received in Britain our consciousness was awakened to the realization that the British society treated the Black as if they were not part of the human race.
Mr Maxwell, from Freetown, joined his first merchant ship in 1941 and found:
The treatment we received from the officers at sea depended on individual behaviour. Naturally all seamen were expected to be 'good boys' but there were certain things white seamen would do and get away with whereas if a black man behaved in the same way he would be severely reprimanded. A black seaman was always expected to carry out his duties meticulously as he was generally regarded to be docile. Any black man that questioned any laid down principles or practices would be regarded a troublemaker - in short any intelligent black man would not fit into the whiteman's environment.
Wartime Liverpool boasted a large and thriving international seamen's club in its main shopping street. The club's internationalism was not always evident to black visitors. Maxwell said of the Ocean Club: 'Often times we were not encouraged to go to this place because racial prejudices could be openly displayed there. Rather we were encouraged to go to an African Club known as the Joker under the pretext that we would feel uncomfortable in a white environment.
By 1941 Pastor Ekarte had accumulated a lot of experience of being black in a white seafaring community. Perhaps his parting shot to Arthur Creech-Jones on behalf of West Africans would have provoked an amen of recognition had it been heard also by Indians, Chinese and any and every other group of non-Europeans sailing in British ships:
For the past 18 years I have been endeavouring to preach the Gospel of Christ to my countrymen in Liverpool. I have been telling them that in spite of what the race has suffered and is still suffering, they should not hate but love their enemies. In face of this callous attitude of the Shipping Company the Gospel of Christ would sound sheer mockery to my countrymen.


Approximately 5,000 Chinese seamen were employed on British registered ships, most of them by just three companies - Blue Funnel, Ben Line and Shell. But this number was doubled after the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, early in 1942, when a large number of British-officered and Hong Kong-registered ships no longer traded exclusively in the Far East. Like Indian seamen, the Chinese had also to resort to strikes to secure wage increases that were awarded4 to Europeans without a struggle. The Chinese, however, were in a far stronger position than the Indians because soon after Japan's entry into the war the ports from which Chinese had been recruited - Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai - were closed and it was no longer possible to send dissidents home.
The first reports concerning Chinese seamen appeared in October 1940 when twelve firemen were accused before Liverpool magistrates of refusing to obey the lawful commands of a ship's officer, assaulting this officer and another. It was alleged that when the 4th engineer told the men to scale the ships boilers,

a job that was apparently distasteful to them . . . they mutinied and attacked [the 4th engineer] with their scaling hammers. It was alleged that one man used a knife. The 3rd engineer rushed to the scene and he was attacked. The men then left the ship in a body. The master drove them back to the ship at the point of his revolver . . . In the forecastle he mounted guard over them until the police arrived.
Although the accused denied the charges, three men were sentenced to fourteen days' imprisonment, six were hound over and three discharged. Although about 100 Chinese seamen had been killed in British ships since the war began . . no success had been achieved in attempts to obtain compensation for the relatives of men killed at sea on a scale comparable to that paid to British seamen. For months the men had been asking for consideration of their case . . Many asked to go hack to China, but had been prevailed upon to stay by the Chinese Consul-General.
Two days later the dispute was reported deadlocked, the Ministry of Shipping having had their offer of 2 per month refused.21 Thereafter the dispute gathered momentum and Chinese seamen were for the rest of the war seen by the Ministry of War Transport, the Foreign Office, shipowners and ships' officers as a constant source of aggravation.
The disputes that began in September 1940 were finally settled by force in April 1941. Men were jailed and deported but no wage agreements satisfactory to the Chinese were agreed until the spring of 1942, by which time it was no longer possible to deport men who refused to re-engage on expiry of contracts. In that six- to seven-month period of episodic dispute and pointed questioning of government ministers in parliament, actions and attitudes toward Chinese seamen succeeded only in producing a collective sense of grievance among the Chinese which was unabated for the duration of the war.
Liberal, Tory and Labour backbench MPs continually harassed the MOWT's parliamentary spokesmen on the issue of why Chinese seamen, although sharing the same risks as British seamen, did not receive the same bonus. This same question, repeatedly asked between November, 1940 and April 1941, was invariably met with disingenuous answers. When the Minister was not denying any involvement in matters of wages (which as a plain matter of fact was untrue, as we shall see in connection with the Indian seamen's disputes), he was saying that the matter of a bonus did not really arise because the wages of Chinese seamen had been raised so far to take account of wartime conditions that this amounted to a war risk bonus: 'While a danger bonus under that name is not usually paid to Chinese seamen, the percentage increases in
Table 7.1 Basic monthly wage of British and Chinese able-seamen, 1939-42

British ABsChinese ABs
Date HK/Shanghai Singapore
3 September 19399.6 p.m.1.9 p.m3.7 p.m.
1 March 194212.6 p.m.4.7 p.m.5.7 pm.
1 May 194212.6 p.m.6.7 p.m.7.7 p.m.

Source: C.B.A. Bebrens, Merchant Shipping and the Demands of War, p.174, HC Debs., 1940-1, Vol. 369, paras. 3-4 and PRO, MT/9/3743.

their wages since the outbreak of war recognises war conditions and is a good deal higher than the percentage increase in British seamen's wages, including war risk money. This was an attempt to avoid the issue of disparity between the wages of seamen engaged in UK ports and those of Chinese as shown in Table 7.1.
In the disputes of 1940-1 the issue was less basic wages and more the supplements in the form of war risk bonus. Within two weeks of the outbreak of war British seamen were awarded a war risk bonus (which was effectively paid by the government) of 3 p.m. Early in 1940 this was increased to 5 p.m. Similar additions were made to Chinese pay - but in different amounts according to employer and accompanied by an insistence that the additions to pay, while attributable to war conditions, were not to be understood as a war risk bonus. Furthermore, this war risk bonus which, in the code being used, was not a war risk bonus, seems only to have been introduced under pressure from the Chinese seamen, whereas in the case of UK-domiciled seamen the bonus at least appeared to have been magnanimously awarded. Anglo-Saxon Oil (Shell) conceded the concealed bonus in December 1940. Reading between the lines of parliamentary question and answer it appears that Alfred Holts (Blue Funnel) and Ben Line continued to pay a supplement of only 3 p.m. until early in 1942.
Insufficient evidence remains to assess the dispute in terms of the number of seamen and ships involved but it is plain that once again shipowners and government were embarked upon their now practiced -if discredited - policy of using force. Merchant Shipping Acts and Defence Regulations were used to arrest and imprison, while the Aliens Order was being used to deport other men who had left their ships in the dispute.
In April 1941, David Adams asked the Home Secretary if he was aware that 'recently search parties have been instituted in the East End of London and elsewhere for the purpose of collecting Chinese seamen protesting against the non-payment of bonus, and that these men were being taken to ports for shipment to China; and whether steps will be taken to terminate this?' The Home Secretary replied that he bad no knowledge of search parties but acknowledged that a number had recently been convicted for absence without leave and refusal to obey orders and had been repatriated: Prior to their repatriation some of these men were serving sentences of imprisonment; others, who had been bound over, had been directed to the immigration officer . . . to remain at a designated hostel. When the time came for their repatriation they were all collected by the police and taken under police escort to the port of embarkation.
Another round of disputes began in February 1942 and continued into April. As increasing numbers of men were paid off after completing their contract periods and then refusing to re-engage when their ships could not be sailed without them, Chinese seamen were now in a strong bargaining position. Being unwilling to concede any legitimacy to the Communist-supported and influenced Chinese Seamen's Union, the shipowners and the Ministry of War Transport were obliged to deal with Nationalist Chinese embassy and consular officials in whom no-one, and especially the seamen, had much confidence.
The MOWT's minutes of the negotiations do not reveal the Chinese as skilled negotiators. But they were stubborn, successfully held out for claims which were not excessive and, most importantly, extracted from the MOWT and the reluctant shipowners an agreement to the principle of equality of treatment in respect of conditions of employment and compensation'. A Dr Kuo of the Chinese Embassy had insisted from the outset of negotiations that Chinese seamen should receive the same pay as British whites because the service they rendered was the same, and now that they could no longer return to China and lived ashore in Britain between voyages there was no difference in the costs of living.
Some progress was made towards reducing the wage differences, but the agreement concluded still left basic wages for Chinese seamen some 25-30 per cent lower than for their British counterparts. The differential was never subsequently reduced and this, accompanied by unrelenting British intransigence and heavy-handed behaviour by everyone from ships' officers, through senior civil servants, senior partners in shipowning firms to diplomats, produced unending conflicts with Chinese seamen.
The first indication that the April 1942 agreement was not the end of the matter became apparent in September of that year when the Journal of Commerce headlined a story 'CHINESE RUN AMOK' and then continued:
A riotous scene on board ship [the Empress of Scotland] in which a Chinese crew of over 400 armed with axes, daggers, swords, mallets and other weapons attacked a handful of police officers was described at a Northern [Liverpool] police court when 41 of the men appeared in the dock. It was stated that the other 380 Chinese seamen from this ship had been detained and would be brought before the court .....
The fracas was said to have started after an attempt to arrest twelve crew members who had refused to carry out their shipboard duties after a dispute on the payment of war risk bonus. When the police arrived to take those who had surrendered into custody
the whole of the Chinese crew crowded the deck and then made an attack upon the [nine policemen). 'In this cowardly attack', said Mr Balmer [prosecuting], 'these men used axes, adzes, swords, daggers, heavy wooden mallets, nozzles, ship's sounding leads and any piece of wood that could be used as a weapon. . . In the riotous scene that followed . . . the inspector and five other [police] officers were so badly injured that they were left lying helpless on the deck . . In the meantime the crew, who had become a wild mob, had hacked away at the door of the chartroom which they burst open and released the three men. Eventually quiet was restored and the whole crew, numbering 421 Chinese, were removed to police headquarters.
The story unfolded, as if a serial, in five issues of the newspaper. It appeared that for sixteen days the whole crew had refused any shipboard duties and that the incident was triggered by a decision to arrest twelve 'ringleaders'. Earlier that year, in the disputes which eventually led to a settlement, the ship had only managed to sail by acceding to crew demands for higher wages. Only in the fourth instalment were readers allowed to discover that the dispute was over the non-payment of war risk bonus, but only those who knew the terms of the agreement could have known that the Chinese were justified in their complaint for the paper did not reveal this. The case concluded with 386 men being fined 10 each, 24 jailed for three months and 15 for one month.
This report conveyed two separate stories. One dealt with an event and its outcome. The other, no doubt unconsciously, reiterated and amplified Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards and understandings of the sorts of people that Chinese were. Readers of popular fiction with imperial settings would already have bees. familiar with the idea that Chinese were a people prone to 'run amok and the colourful and exaggeratedly dramatic description of the 'riotous scene' on the Empress of Scotland contrived to harmonise an actual event with popular understandings of 'running amok'.
The imagery of a people capable of apparently becoming unaccountay wild and resorting to collective violence was part of the everyday definition of Chinese - as was the counterpoint of Europeans keeping-their-heads and demonstrating their superiority with courageous individuals confronting mobs alone. This characterisation was confirmed the earlier account of a master single-handedly driving the Chinese w back to his ship at the 'point of his revolver.'
When the Chinese Embassy sought to reopen wage negotiations early 1943 after recent increases to British seamen, the MOWT and shipowners' representatives countered by pointing to the 400 desertions from British ships in the USA. The Ministry threatened that deserters might be deported to the UK and if the men then refused further sea 'vice they would be sent as 'undesirables' to be conscripted into a Linese Labour Corps being formed in India under the aegis of the Indian Army.
In the United States, Chinese seamen were voting with their feet after US government rescinded its restrictions on shore leave. Between August and December 1942, 32 per cent of all Chinese seamen on British ships calling at New York deserted. In many cases ships lost one-half, two-thirds or three-quarters of their crews.
By March and April 1942, it was clear to Chinese seamen that at least the foreseeable future they would be unable to return home. In these new circumstances and with the USA proclaiming the Chinese as their allies in the war against Japan, they were unwilling to be restricted to ships and a wave of sit-down strikes and refusals to take ships to sea ensued. British shipmasters, no less bound by US regulations, bore the brunt of Chinese actions. In this period approximately 180 men were taken off ships and held in custody by the US Immigration authorities. Among these were ten crew members from the Silverash
. The Silverash had been in New York for some six weeks when, on 11 April, the entire deck crew arrived at the master's room and demanded to as a sub the entire balance of wages each had in the ship. Having lost three of his crew through desertions - the men had eluded their guards while ashore - the master refused and ordered the men back to their quarters. According to the official log, the men then rushed the master who, grabbing his revolver, shot and killed one of his ABs. A grand jury hearing, three days later, took ten minutes to acquit Captain slaughter.
The Silverash incident, combined with continuing protests on other ships as they arrived, and pressure from Chinese diplomats and consular officials, led finally to the US government lifting restrictions on shore leave. Shore leave continued to be at the discretion of the master but the US Department of Justice no longer needed to provide guards to take small parties of Chinese seamen ashore. The Chinese Embassy's view that after the new wage agreement in the UK in April, the historic high propensity to desert would be overcome by the 'natural desire of Chinese seamen to perform their part in the war effort', was not realised. The men who had previously been detained for their protests against shore-leave restrictions were paroled to the Chinese Consul in New York on the understanding that the men would ship out within sixty days. Four months later the British Merchant Shipping Mission in Washington reported that all efforts to persuade the men to return to sea had failed. The Shipping Mission also reported that about 100 survivors from sunken ships had 'disappeared' and that, even where there had been small-scale desertions, the balance of the crew had frequently been put ashore 'because of the impossibility of. . . accommodating a mixed white and yellow crew'. The Chinese who had been paid-off and landed from their ships then became 'recalcitrant' and added to the growing corps of deserters.
Once shore leave was regularly granted in the USA then desertions continued at a high level for the remainder of the war. In 1943 25 per cent of seamen given shore leave deserted and 14 percent in 1944.32 The MOWT never relaxed from its view that the only way to cope with desertions in the USA was to arrest and then deport deserters to the UK, where they would have the option of jail or signing on a ship. The MOWT actively pursued this policy by urging it upon its US equivalent, the War Shipping Administration.
The MOWT was broadly successful. In April l943,the necessary legislative amendment had got through the Senate and only awaited presidential approval. The US War Shipping Administration, however, did not share the British view that Chinese seamen were being tempted ashore by a combination of 'dangerous influences' and higher wages.
While noting the attractions of higher wages in US shore occupations and in US and Panamanian-flagged ships and the inability to maintain family and national ties, the War Shipping Administration said the Chinese 'were confronted . . . on Allied ships [meaning mainly British] with a great many long established prejudices and discriminatory practices, while at the same time they had witnessed the collapse of the white man's domination of the Far East'.
The views of senior MOWT officials were formed through their contacts with directors of Anglo-Saxon and Holts. Other available and less irascible views of the Chinese seem to have been ignored. A document prepared by British intelligence officers in May 1943 suggested that ill-treatment by white officers, poor accommodation and unequal wages contributed to the difficulties although the main problem was seen as the attraction of shore employment to enforced exiles who were compelled to stay at sea. In the UK the MOWT had appointed a Chinese-speaking official (Chinese Liaison Officer) and attached him to the Liverpool Mercantile Marine Office. The official, a Mr Scott-Johnson, referred to: 'Resentment [being] felt at being ordered about by foreigners, who do not speak Chinese, and whose manners are frequently not conciliatory.
And among shipmasters there was at least one liberal imagination. A Security Control paper reported a discussion with a Captain Merser of the Son Tirso who suggested that one way of helping to reduce desertions would be to restrain masters who imposed on their crews: 'In some cases Chinese crews were made to work long hours without being credited with over-time . . It may be that the Chinese had for too long been regarded as a source of cheap labour.
British ratings were occasionally engaged as gunners on ships with Chinese crews and they, too, were in position to see officers at work. Alan Peter joined the , an Anglo-Saxon tanker, in July, 1940, and found a master
there called 'Butcher' Shaw who had a real colonial attitude toward the Chinese and treated them very badly; he was like a Dutchman and treated the Chinese terribly. He was a bad cantankerous old man and should have been retired. Certainly this wasn't a happy ship and the Chinese weren't happy either there were a few threats of mutiny and this and that. We got back to the Clyde in September and I decided to get out.
The language of official letters and memoranda tends to avoid a vocabulary of evocative, emotional and colloquial words. As a result the 'record' fails to record the normal everyday organisational usage of spoken language which is saturated in evocations, emotions, etc., as a means of conveying meaning. But occasionally a maverick document gets produced and enters the 'record'. In this instance, a report from a Cunard employee in New York reproduced just about every prejudice the Chinese believed Europeans to have of them.
Cunard, acting as agents for Canadian Pacific, were involved in attempts to arrest Chinese crew members of the Empress of Scotland who had deserted and have them put back aboard their ship. In March 1943, a P. D. Devine who seemed to have read, absorbed and assimilated the world of Bulldog Drummond into his own way of seeing the world, reported:
It was quiet along the waterfront at 3:00 o'clock, Tuesday morning. A big Coast Guard truck rumbled into Pier 90 and ground to a stop. Four weary but vigilant Coast Guardsmen leaped down to finish the job of guarding and safely delivering 26 Chinese seamen in the van. The Chinese climbed down toting their effects with them, ranging all the way from rolled-up mattresses, bedding, bundles, boxes, suitcases, etc., down to a boy clutching a half-filled water bucket containing three live crabs. Noses were counted and found correct: none were missing, none had been substituted, none escaped. A receipt was given, salutes exchanged and the four weary Coast Guardsmen turned to go, anticipating at least a nap before reveille.
A moment later the stillness of the night was shattered by successive volleys of explosive language for which riled sailors are famous. One of the Guardsmen taking a final look to ensure everything about the truck was in order, had discovered something nauseatingly out of order. The Chinese had been in the box over six hours. Under cover of the darkness and mounting piles of baggage the yellow swine had converted a forward corner of the truck into a full-time toilet - a dunghill to register their contempt of American authority in general and the Immigration people in particular. Gone to the sailors went all hopes of sleep. They had no choice but to get the mess cleared up before morning inspection or get logged for the stinking yellow treachery. Seemingly oblivious of the commotion, the 26 Chinese pattered about the truck while the Coast Guardsmen debated the wisdom of bashing-in 26 Chinese skulls.

The US Chinese community was well-equipped to cope with the crudities of the shipping industry. In May 1943, a Chinese academic, Lin Yutang wrote a long and heavily ironic article in a New York daily ridiculing British colonial attitudes and using as a peg the quoted remarks of the head of the British Shipping Mission in Washington that 'the seamen were coolies before they became seamen and they are still coolies'. Lin Yutang, seemingly familiar with Brechtian strategies, spoke of the
fantastic illusion that because some 'coolies' barely speak a few words of pidgin English, therefore, they only understand the language of the boots or perhaps of the pistol. The Chinese seamen as a class happen to be highly intelligent and even refined in manners. I have talked with dozens of them and I know. They know !more about the issues of this war than the English captains suspect.
What is more, they ha' been trained in homes that respect good manners, no matter how poor they may be. Remember, therefore, that when you want to 'get tough', to make them work, they are thinking in their hearts that your mother probably never taught you manners.

Chinese seamen certainly formed their own views about Europeans and pooled them in oral legend. Individual experiences inevitably varied, for plainly not all officers were intolerably arrogant any more than they were universally courteous and considerate. On the other hand shipboard hierarchies were everywhere more stylised and caste-like than most others, and anyone of any nationality who was not an officer had to learn the vocabulary of physical, ritualistic and linguistic symbols of subordination: badges of rank, the variations in status-value attached to different parts of the ship's space, modes of address and so on. For non-Europeans from imperially subjugated countries, the symbols of subordination were even more extensive than those applied to European proletarians. In the circumstances it is therefore surprising to find Mee Mak, an ex-seaman of the WWII period saying that Chinese were well-treated, experienced no discrimination and could talk to officers as if they were good friends. Less surprising and probably more typical was Kan Loy Lo's opinion of officers: 'Some of them were all right but some of them were troublemakers. Higher rank officers were usually more sympathetic but lower rank officers usually treated us as inferiors. None of us would answer back when we were abused because we knew we would only be the loser whenever we had an argument with a European officer. Kum Fok's thought was that: 'Most of the officers were very "big headed" and treated- Chinese seamen as if they were mentally retarded. They would find excuses to check on everything we'd done and shouted at us for anything they weren't satisfied with. Luckily, there were no physical attacks on us, just verbal abuse.A more nuanced view, and probably the one closest to Chinese experience in general, came from Yim Leung:
I was treated quite well by officers during the war, probably because I was helping them to fight Germany at the time. I was not treated in an undignified way as such but they did look down on Chinese seamen as though we were ants, not human beings. It is very hard to give you an example - but it was the way I felt. Most Chinese seamen didn't think much of their European officers.
In the event, the attitudes of European officers probably had little to do with the rate of desertions and the view of British shipowners; that it was due to higher wage rates ashore, must have been correct. Given that seafarers were unable to return to their homes, desertion must have seemed both rational and extremely attractive.
New York had a large Chinese community and a chronic shortage of labour. Amongst seamen the act of desertion was too commonplace to awaken much anxiety and the opportunities in New York for employment so plentiful that there can have been very few who did not at least think about deserting.The following extract from an interview with Cheong Wong illustrates what must have been a typical set of circumstances:
Q: Did you ever plan to desert?
A: I deserted three times in the USA. I worked in many different places.
Q: Did you know people who had deserted?
A: I knew a lot of people because a lot were on the same ship as me and we all deserted at the same time!
Q: Were there Chinese living in the USA who you could rely on to help you if you deserted?
A: Yes, every Chinese organisation in the USA was willing to help and they even provided jobs for me to go to every time I deserted. In return I had to pay some contribution to the organisation which got me the job.

Deserting was made easier not just by the fact of Chinese living and working in New York but by the availability of organisations, institutions and practices that would immediately embrace a newcomer. Desertion was not the chancy and daring act of an individual as it was amongst the relatively few Europeans who 'jumped ship'. In New York's Chinatown, Chinese seamen found family connections and a system of labour contractors identical to those they had known in their home cities and villages.
A new wage agreement for Chinese seamen was concluded in London in November 1943 but this had little impact on desertions. Shipowners were still losing their crews at an alarming rate in 1944. In the first seven months of the year, 642 men (22 per cent of the total crews from seventy-nine ships) had deserted from Anglo-Saxon tankers in US ports. The continuing rate of desertions was an embarrassment to the US government and late in 1943 immigration rules had been amended. Henceforward, deserting seamen who refused to ship-out again could be deported to India where they would be conscripted into a Chinese Army, being formed under the aegis of the Government of India. The first twenty-five men sailed under arrest from New York early in January 1944. This heavy-handed measure, actively sought from Washing ton by the British Shipping Mission, turned out to be hollow. While deportations were being used pour encourager les autres in the USA, the MOWT told its Bombay office in a secret message that:
the Government of India and General Stilwell have objected to the conscription of unemployed seamen into the Chinese Army on the ground that the enrolment of a large number of unwilling men would weaken discipline and aggravate the already existing problem of desertions from the Chinese Forces. They consented only with reluctance to conscription of small parties of Chinese seamen deserters deported from USA.
Those who remained at sea ran the usual risks and incurred the usual casualties. The first fatal casualties on Alfred Holt ships were eight Chinese firemen, killed when the Pyrrhus was sunk in 1940. By March 1943, 831 Chinese seamen had been killed on British ships and another 254 were missing but not then presumed dead; fourteen had been permanently disabled and 268 had been notified as prisoners of war.
Survivor accounts of Chinese seamen differed from those relating to Indians. Where Indians were usually said to be apathetic, Chinese were reckoned to be assertive. Twenty-six of the thirty-three survivors from the Thursobank were Chinese. Describing their behaviour during a six-day boat voyage in mid-Atlantic, the 3rd mate said:
I had trouble with the Chinese ratings who seemed to be under the impression that the white men were going to claim all the food, and they announced their intention of throwing overboard alt the white men in the boat. The situation became dangerous for a time . . . However, with diplomacy I managed to restore order, although there remained an undercurrent of dissatisfaction among the Chinese during the whole time we were in the boat.
By way of contrast, J. H. Gregory, master of the Silksworth, sunk a fortnight later in the Indian Ocean, spoke highly of his Chinese crew who he said never lost their heads. He singled out the Chinese bosun for special praise, saying of him that he had swum over two miles to retrieve an empty boat and brought it back to rescue fifty people who were in the water.Another report of Chinese survivors from a ship sunk in an Arctic convoy said that aboard the Royal Navy trawler which had rescued them they 'were very helpful, offering to give a hand in the mess and the galley'.
There were also the inevitable stories on the theme of 'panicking natives' as ships sank and men tried desperately to get away. One example will have to stand for all of them - and in any case they scarcely differ. When the Alfred Holt-owned ship, Automedon, was sunk by a German raider in the Indian Ocean, S. E. Harper, 3rd engineer on watch down below said 'pandemonium broke loose and the Chinese firemen came stampeding up the ladder'. A quieter, contrary and more persuasive view came from Cheong Wong who said that when he was sunk: 'Everybody on the ship was frightened and quite panicky - it didn't matter whether you were Chinese or European.'
Chinese resourcefulness was not normally challenged. Poon Lim, a 25-year-old steward and sole survivor of the Benlomond, was alone on a raft in the equatorial region of the Atlantic for 133 days. He survived by storing rain-water, snaring seagulls and catching and drying fish.


Indian seamen, known by everyone (and not pejoratively) as 'Lascars', had been employed on British ships since the seventeenth century when they had been hired to replace European crew who died from accident and disease during voyages to India. Restrictions on the employment of Lascars were introduced early in the nineteenth century after racial disturbances in London. These were lifted later and with the rapid displacement of sail by steam from the 1870s, Lascar crews became more and more common in ships trading to the Indian sub-continent, Burma and Malaya. By 1939 some 40,000 Lascars were employed as ratings on British ships.
Crews were mainly recruited in Bombay and Calcutta and of these all except the Christian Goanese were Moslems from the rural districts of northern India,. particularly the Punjab and Bengal. Crews were recruited through kin networks by labour agents known as ghaut serangs. Most men came from the small and indebted peasantry - they went to sea as a means of earning money to finance the mortgages on their family's landholdings. It seems likely that the ghaut serangs were themselves either rural moneylenders or linked to them. Either way, they were certainly part of the debt chain for they took a commission from the men they recruited and the men's leaders aboard ship - the serangs were the ghaut serangs' agents.
By the outbreak of war waterfront trade unions, drawing strength from the nationalist movement, had taken root amongst seamen and large memberships were claimed - but the power of the ghauf serangs had not been undermined. In 1943 the most radical of the union alliances, the ITWF- affiliate, All-India Seamen's Federation, was calling for 'the end of conditions of recruitment which give rise to corruption and bribery'.
The engagement of Lascar crews in India was governed by the Indian Merchant Shipping Acts. For the British government the most important provisions were those requiring that crews could not legally be discharged in the UK, although the crew of a ship arriving in the UK could transfer its crew to a departing ship. This procedure had been devised to ensure that Indian seamen would not become resident in the UK. Imperial citizens who did become UK-resident could ship out of the UK on UK wage rates and the whole point of employing Lascar crews was that they were paid one-quarter of the wage of European seamen. It was questions of wages and related conditions which prompted strikes aboard ships in the UK, South Africa, Burma and Australia in the autumn of 1939.
The shipowners who employed most of the Lascar seamen anticipated difficulties. Four days before the outbreak of war, a London meeting of the principal employers agreed to pay a 50 per cent bonus on existing pay rates from the day hostilities began. The terms of the offer were immediately cabled to the owners' agents in Bombay and Calcutta who then began engaging crews accordingly. In the meantime the Marine Department of the Board of Trade, hearing of the new terms to be offered and anxious at the impact this might have on demands from white seamen, successfully asked the shipowners to withdraw their offer. Confusion ensued and only ended after two months - at which time wages were increased by the amount originally intended by the 'owners. In the interim, 310 Lascars had been jailed in the UK.
At the very moment the Board Of Trade was asking the owners to withdraw their offer of a 50 per cent increase, the Board of Trade was itself sanctioning a demand by the Indian crew of the Clan Macallister for an increase of 100 per cent. The crew of the P&O liner Strathaird, hearing of this, then refused to sail until they were offered the same terms. In both cases the ships were chartered to the government, and the BOT, needing to get the ships away, agreed the terms while insisting that the agreement made no reference to 'war bonus'.
The Indian seamen's ability to communicate and organise was evidently far better than anticipated by those Europeans in positions of authority over them. News of successful demands spread rapidly and others were quick to follow. On 8 September the MOWT had to concede to a list of demands from the crews of the Clan Ross and the Clan Macbrayne to get the ships away. Some of the provisions of this and other agreements showed that overtime payments or time off in lieu had not previously been allowed, that soap, bedding and adequate warm clothing were often not provided either. While concessions such as these were made on ships in which the government had an immediate interest, MOWT was simultaneously using the offices of the Indian High Commission as an intermediary between seamen and shipowners to avoid making - or to minimise - concessions made to seamen on other ships.
The High Commissioner, Sir Firozkhan Noon and his deputy, a Mr. Lall, while anxious to oblige the Board of Trade in their efforts to get civilian ships away by making minimal concessions, did not always find their job made easier by owners' officials and ships' officers. A Board of Trade minute of 9 September noted that although an agreement concerning the Clan Macbrayne had been reached in the High Commissioner's office, as soon as the Clan Line managers were on the train on their way to Tilbury to meet the crew they told Lall they did not accept the terms. The indignant memo continued:
Mr Lall's chief difficulty, however, was with the way in which the officers of the Clan Macbrayne were treating the Lascar crew. He said that they were extremely impatient with them and that even when he was explaining matters to the crew and was dealing with questions which the crew were quite entitled to put, the officers of the Clan Line wished to stop the proceedings. Mr Lall impressed on me that it was absolutely essential that in these times the officers of vessels carrying Lascar crews should treat the Lascars properly and above all should listen patiently to what the Lascars had to say. Mr Lall is convinced that if the Lascars are properly treated by their officers it will be possible to get them into a reasonable state of mind, and even to appeal to them on patriotic grounds, but he says that if the contrary happens we shall get more and more trouble with Lascars and no-one can tell where it will end.
The arrogant attitudes referred to here were, unfortunately for Mr Lall, the house-style of the Cayzer family, who owned Clan Line. In a private letter to an unidentified politician, Harold Cayzer wrote that he had 'just got down to Glasgow from my shooting season in the North' and implied that he was not pleased with the way things had developed in his absence. He claimed in a logic that must have escaped the addressee as much as it does a contemporary reader, that giving in to Lascar demands would be like giving in to Hitler, that Lascars only wanted money and that their action was 'profiteering of unskilled British lascar labour of the worst sort'. He went on to say that his firm would sail! a ship from Glasgow to Liverpool manned by officers, 'and leave the crew ashore, who will be left on the quay and left to the authorities as deserters. We consider this might put the wind up on our other five ships in Glasgow.' It did nothing of the kind. Late in November the Chief Superintendent of the Scottish Mercantile Marine Office was reporting to London that some 80 per cent of the Clan and Ellerman City Line ships sailing from Glasgow since September had done so after paying their Indian crews doubled wages.
By November the Board of Trade believed that it now had a grip on the situation. In September the owners gave a 25 per cent increase and when this proved insufficient to induce crews to put to sea a further 25 per cent was given from 1 November. This too soon seemed inadequate. On 2 November seventy-six crew members of the Anchor Line's Britannia and Circassia were prosecuted and jailed for refusing to sail. Their refusal was understandable given that two weeks earlier a pay increase of 100 per cent and a 10 cash bonus had been agreed with the British India Company's ship, Manela.
In mid-November an internal minute of the Ministry of Shipping noted the advice of an Ellerman marine superintendant who reckoned that the increases were inadequate and that it would be necessary to go to 100 per cent. Captain Kippen was also sceptical of the owners' view that prosecutions would deter any further actions. He was right on both counts. A month after the new pay rates had been announced crews were still refusing to sail . . . and still being jailed. And as for rates being further raised? In September 1940 wages were increased by 75 per cent on pre-war rates, finally reached 100 per cent in April 1942, and then were doubled again only two months later to 200 per cent of pre-war rates in June.
Amongst civil servants there remained a recognition that Indian seamen were being badly treated. A note attached to a minute of the Liner Division in the Ministry of War Transport said that Indian wages were 'still very low compared with the total wage earned by Chinese seamen, but I suppose we can do no more, since the consensus of opinion among the experts seems to be against any larger increases.
Wage disputes, unknown on European-crewed ships during the war, were recurrent on those with Lascars. There were no across-the-board wage increases in 1941, but Indians were still going on strike and for much the same objectives. Early in February, 1941,
87 Indians filled the dock and overflowed into the public gallery at Liverpool Police Court yesterday . . . On January 27, while in Liverpool, the master of the ship mustered the men on deck after their refusal to work . . . The master on Thursday again called them together in the saloon and asked them to say 'yes' or 'no' as to whether they were prepared to work. They replied in chorus in Hindustani that they were not willing to work or proceed to sea unless they were given 10 bonus in addition to the bonus already paid them.
The men were remanded in custody for a day and then sentenced to one day's imprisonment after the men were said to have seen the error of their ways. A few days later thirty-nine men from another ship were in court in Liverpool for refusing to work although the charges were withdrawn after the men returned to work. In both cases it is likely that the men's demands were acceeded to for the normal pattern among the Indian seamen was to stick to their demands and refuse to submit to threats.
Shipboard strikes by Lascars were not confined to UK ports. By the Spring of 1941 the Eastern Mediterranean had become extremely dangerous and ships attempting to sail into that region with Indian crews frequently ran into difficulty. In April 1941, the sixty-four-man crew of the Gurna refused to take their ship beyond Port Said despite the offer of a 25 per cent pay increase. A Naval Court was convened and the entire crew was convicted of combining to wilfully and continually disobey the lawful commands of the master. They were fined to forfeit all the balance of wages held in the ship and to be jailed pending deportation to India.69 Neither Naval Courts nor sentences had much deterrent effect. Between April 1941 and December 1943 there were another eleven courts in Alexandria and Port Said involving 412 Lascars who on their various ships had refused to sail. Jail sentences were imposed in each case and with sentences ranging between four and twelve weeks.
The refusal of Indian crews to knowingly and freely sail into the North African war zone and especially the Malta Channel must have reinforced widespread beliefs that Indians lacked physical courage and panicked in emergencies. Such a view, together with other diminishing stereotypes, was part of the stock-in-trade of those who, since the 1880s, had opposed the trend of employing growing numbers of Indians. For their part, shipowners had long been obliged to field progressive arguments by quoting detailed examples of Lascar bravery and fortitude. In WWII the Ministry of War Transport was no less anxious to present Indian seamen as being as courageous as anyone else. The Ministry's guiding hand can be seen behind the following event reported by the shipping press in 1941: Tuber Ulla, serang, and Abdul Latiff, deck tindal, having received OBEs for bravery, 'marched through Coatbridge, Lanarkshire, preceded by a ladies' pipe band, and followed by about 700 Indian seamen, some carrying flags and others banners on which were written "Welcome these heroes", "Decorated by the King", "Proud Sons of Empire" '.
Official historians of companies employing Indian seamen in WWII were also keen to defend the reputation of Indian seamen. The Clan Line's historian reported that when the Clan Fraser was bombed in Piraeus when loaded with ammunition, 'The wounded were got off the burning vessel by dragging them through the water on a line made fast to an overturned crane by a plucky Indian quartermaster who swam ashore with it'.72 A similar story was told of the British India Company's ship Barpeta when, in September 1939, it went to the rescue of the crew of an RAF bomber which had crash-landed on a remote beach in Iran. The ship's boat was unable to beach because of heavy surf and the airmen who were unable to swim were then helped to the boat by two Indians who had swum ashore to them. The same author recorded of the Erinpura, an Indian-manned ship that sailed in a Malta convoy, that although she had few survivors when sunk in 1943, among them was the captain who had been dragged unconscious on to a raft by Motiur Rahman. Altogether, BI's Indian seamen collected nine British Empire Medals, two Albert Medals and two Commendations.
The Admiralty's survivors' reports are the main source of evidence on crew behaviour when ships were sunk and during lifeboat voyages and superficially, at least, they are virtually impossible to interpret because for every report critical of Indian behaviour it seems there is another praising it. For example, Capt. G. Gillanders, reporting on the sinking of the Javanese Prince in May 1941, said: 'We had a native crew who completely lost their heads, and the Chief Steward and myself lowered the boats ourselves as the natives were completely panic stricken and absolutely useless. By contrast, the master of the Clan Macnab reported of his crew after the ship was sunk in collision in convoy and during a subsequent twelve-day lifeboat voyage: 'There was no sign of panic and I wish to pay tribute to the behaviour of my crew. This pattern of contradiction and ambiguity could also be found within the body of one report. Two rafts from the Sutlej were adrift in the Indian Ocean for forty-nine days after their ship had been sunk by a Japanese submarine in 1944. A section of the chief engineer's account of the experience is worth quoting at length for what it reveals about European attitudes:
All my crew behaved well throughout, particularly the Europeans, and I would like to mention 3rd Engineer A. Bennett . . . This Officer's conduct was outstanding throughout... He showed courage by swimming thirty yards in shark-infested waters to reach the provisions dropped by the Catalina aircraft, especially as he was in a very weak condition. The First Tindal, Shahib Sadick Sardor was also outstanding for his perseverance in catching fish . . . I would even say that the birds and fish caught by these two natives were responsible for keeping us alive. The First Tindal rendered valuable assistance throughout by taking full charge of the native survivors, whom he handled extremely well. He set a splendid example to all, and kept strict discipline.
In my opinion, 2nd Engineer W Turner and 4th Engineer Fitzpatrick, who jointly took charge of the other raft, containing eight men, did a fine job, as they had no assistance or encouragement from the natives on their raft ....

What is most striking about this section of the report on crew behaviour is that while it notes in mid-text that it was the food-gathering work of two Lascars which kept everyone alive, it begins by underlining the key role of the Europeans as a category of persons and ends with dismissive remarks about 'natives' as a category of persons. Still more revealing is that although in the 'swimming for provisions' incident the 3rd engineer was saved by Fazie Huq, the latter's courage was written as being secondary by the use of the word 'also' when he elected to accompany the 3rd. The report ultimately delivers Europeans' superiority by singling them out for compliment and tacitly reasserts 'natives" inferiority by dismissing them in general, while making a special case of Fazle and Shahib. The formula here, if not written as such, was the everyday cliche' of 'natives' not being up to much 'but of course some of them are alright - they're the exception which proves the rule'.
The cultural superiority of Europeans was so generally written into the text that constituted the mental sets available to Europeans for thinking about Lascars that European observers, as in the case above, were incapable of seeing human behaviour uncluttered by ethnic stereotypes and evaluations . . In his description of the boat voyage of survivors from the City of Cairo Angus MacDonald, quartermaster, said of the Indians in his boat that 'they refused to help in any way, and just lay in the bottom of the boat, sometimes in over a foot of water'. But this report was modified when he said that 'the old serang, a proper. gentleman, and a fireman from Zanzibar. . . couldn't do enough to help. And then the reader learned that: 'There were a few Europeans who never gave a helping hand, and I noticed that they were the first to fail mentally. They died in the first two weeks.
The contradictions in this account were not idiosyncratic. One of the best book-length survivor stories dealt with the fate of one of the boats of the Britannia, a ship with an Indian crew. Early in the book where the author set out the dramatis personae the reader learned that: 'most of the Indians were sitting or standing helplessly, almost lifelessly, looking into space, appearing to be paralysed with fear or shock. But much later in the book, by which time characterisations had all been set and narrative was all that remained, the 'morbid apathy', which was presented as an Indian racial characteristic, was suddenly applied to a European. A young ship's engineer 'had been one of the first to lose hope, but strangely enough life stayed with him [until the sixteenth day] as he sat for days on end with no recognition in his eyes and words or movement'.
The account of the Britannia survivors is thoroughly typical of other accounts featuring Indian survivors in that they were portrayed as almost completely lacking in resourcefulness and dependent upon Europeans whose most defining characteristic was precisely what the Indians lacked, namely that very same resourcefulness. In view of the almost total unanimity of this perception, contemporary readers ought to have been surprised to read of eleven Indian seamen who were found alive on a drifting raft thirty days after they had been torpedoed; unable to salvage either food or water, they had lived on fish and rainwater.
This example notwithstanding, it was true that in general, survival rates for those making lifeboat voyages were lower among Indian seamen than among Europeans, but this difference was almost certainly attributable to the fact that Indians had never enjoyed the same nutritional standards as Europeans. It was life histories of inferior and inadequate diet which accounted for higher Indian mortality.
Any discussion of the role of Lascars is complicated by the same problem of evidence that applies in the case of European ratings, namely that the contemporary voice of subordinates is effectively silent. In the case of Lascars, the problem is compounded by the fact that hardly any European seafarers had a grasp of Hindustani (the lingua franca of Lascars from Northern India), and therefore no means of entering Lascars' ways of making sense of life and the world. Europeans' knowledge, and one which seafarers drew upon, was a primitive cocktail of the normal sentiments of racial superiority to be found among the people of conquering and colonial countries, blended with an imperial folklore of 'natives' who, according to the observer's situational requirements, might be mysterious, noble savages, childlike, violent, etc.
The cruder stereotypes seemed to assimilate all 'natives' into one category, drawn equally perhaps from Hollywood's Tarzan films and novels, such as those of Rider Haggard. . . Early in 1941, four men from the Carlton reached the Canadian coast after eighteen days in a boat. There had originally been sixteen survivors and the 'first four men to die were Indian seamen who chanted native death songs before collapsing'. This colourful description is one which borrows from a view of orientals as mysterious people with magical powers, among which is the ability to 'see' the future. The following story of an incident in 1941 is an excellent example of how the 'mysterious East' strand in imperial folklore could be perpetuated among seafarers.
In October 1941, the Empire Defender was in Glasgow and secretly loading military stores for a run to Malta but the Indian crew refused to sail:
Ni jao - ni jao ('no go', in Hindustani) was the only response we could obtain from 60 Lascar seamen after requesting, beseeching and finally ordering them under threat of imprisonment for breaking articles, after we had talked and proposed for two hours. 'Rather we all go to jail and be deported than go to sea in the Empire Defender,' the whole crew asserted.
The ship's serang, was said to have had a dream predicting the loss of the ship before the next new moon, and of course en route to Malta, albeit with a European crew, the Defender was sunk, although the crew were saved by Italians and imprisoned in Tunisia.
While the object of the story was to establish the viability of superstitious prescience, the author undermined his dramatic intention by revealing that the Indian crew had good and rational reasons for believing that something unorthodox was intended for the ship. The Admiralty, hoping to get the ship through to Malta disguised as belonging to a friendly-neutral power, had painted the ship in peacetime. colours of black hull, white superstructure and buff funnel and removed guns and de-gaussing gear. In these circumstances and in 1941, it would have been a very strange crew which needed anything so exotic as a privileged insight into the future to be suspicious about the forthcoming voyage.
Shipmasters with unshaken confidence in their authority were prone, as in the case of Captain Baillie, to develop a paternalist attitude toward Lascars and to compare them favourably with dissentient Europeans. Baillie, a P&O master, recalled his relief on having an Indian crew restored to him after a voyage with British seamen. With the British, he said, there were 'endless disputes to be settled ... who compared with our peaceable Lascars, seemed to live in a perpetual ferment of disagreement either with each other or with me'. By contrast, the Lascar was said to be
normally good-tempered and cheerful, chattering and laughing to his nearest shipmate as he works, occasionally breaking into snatches of song . . . The Lascar cannot dissemble; and if he has plainly ceased to be cheerful, something is radically wrong. There is a charming, childlike quality in his nature; he responds instantly to treatment, as a child does. It is essential that he be shown a certain amount of kindness and consideration, to which he will react in the most rewarding fashion, so that a sagacious Chief Officer will take more than a little trouble to 'jolly him along'.
In all the reports of Lascar seamen it is extremely hard to find any narrative where perceptions have not been filtered through the categories required by the racial hierarchy of empire. Judgments were made but ethnographies were excluded. On matters of Lascars' social and economic backgrounds, political allegiances, culture and attitudes there was simply a void. Where they were defined it was in the vulgar terms of European racial stereotypes. It seemed that as people they had no existence or at best no existence worth being curious about. As late as 1965 when P&O published a guide for its officers on Asian crews, the only information provided was on regions of origin and the usual justification for employment in terms of 'loyal and devoted service'.
For the war years two glimpses are possible. There was a short story by Mulk Raj Anand which took the form of a letter home from a seaman in a hostel in Liverpool. Recounted in a style mingling metaphor, Moslem symbolism and social realism, Anand told the story of a voyage in a tanker which ended with the loss of the ship and most of the crew. In the telling there was some acid comment about the English (Angrezi): 'I hasten to write to you because you may not have read about my safety in the newspapers: in the Angrezi newspapers the names of only sahib seamen who have died or survived from pop guns, bombs and torpedoes are written and not the names of native seamen and Lascars.' In his job as steward the narrator takes cocoa to the captain's cabin and forgets to knock on entering whereupon the captain who is 'stout old sahib, as fat and strong as the wrestler Gama' calls him a 'bledy fool' and aims a kick at him. In a neat inversion of European descriptions of Lascars, when the ship was attacked by aircraft, 'The Captain, the first, second and the third mate were all running in a confusion'. Acid comments yet no antagonism - the Angrezi bosun, dying of his wounds, was 'truly a brave man' and showed that 'Angrezi seamen too, father, have the same hearts as us folk' and some of the 'seaman sahibs say that they have done many things to our country which are wrong'.88 These last sentiments should not necessarily be read too literally. Not only was Anand writing in English and therefore to a British audience - he was also being published in a Communist Party journal. The Indian Party, in common with all others, was promoting the view that the anti-fascist struggle was international and should know no frontiers. In a leaflet published and circulated in UK ports in 1941, the All India Seamen's Federation urged:
During the last war) more than three thousand Indian seamen lost their lives. In this war, many thousands have already been killed or wounded. They are bringing food and transporting war materials in face of the danger from enemy submarines. Indian seamen want to be useful in this fight against the forces of evil. It is for the authorities and shipowners to take advantage of this eagerness and encourage them by making things easy for them. It is high time that Indian Seamen were treated as human beings, and their usefulness recognized for the common victory over the forces of evil and Fascism.
This leaflet, like Anand's story, was written in English and must therefore have been aimed at British waterfront workers - and despite what it said, it must be extremely unlikely that Indian seamen felt any allegiance to the British cause. Their readiness to use their wartime indispensability as an instrument for delivering an improvement in wages and conditions and their orientation to the economics and culture of a peasant society must surely have led them to seagoing as a necessary, if unfortunate, period of exile. And if humiliation was rarely a continuing experience it must always have appeared as a continuing possibility for they could not have been ignorant of the European view of their congenital inferiority.
It would not have followed from this that Lascars were recruitable to the Nazi cause. Captain Hill, Senior Officer for all merchant seamen in Milag Nord in 1942 and ex-master of the Mandasor, a ship with an Indian crew, recorded an attempt to use the Indian prisoners to gather nuts in the autumn of 1942 and how the Germans were thwarted by passive resistance. Hill claimed that the value of the nuts gathered was about 100 RM while the wages to the Indians totalled 1,000 RM. Furthermore, says Hill, when they returned to the camp at night they looked so dejected that they weren't searched but, 'Once down into their barracks they disgorged chickens, eggs, potatoes, and everything in high glee'.
Hill also recounted the story of how a German plan to recruit the Indians and then to shift them elsewhere in Germany failed when the Indians refused to enter the trucks, sat down in the road and dared the Germans to shoot them: 'The Indians returned in triumph at 5 p.m...... They got quite a rally from the rest of the camp as they came in. Captain Hill does not mention whether he stopped to wonder if such Schweikian activity had ever been deployed against the British; or that such open defiance might have required the same degree of moral strength as a readiness to face unprotestingly what must have often seemed like certain death in a lifeboat in mid-ocean. HomePage