In this video, there is some wonderful story-telling by Amitav Ghosh, the acclaimed Indian Bengali author, on seafaring working men from the Indian subcontinent- the Lascars. It is a very engaging talk that resonates with our project, linking England and India in unusual ways.
Lascars came from Africa, Indonesia, from around the Red sea etc, but the majority were from the Indian subcontinent, particularly from Bengal. Goan, Kutchhi and Gujarathi lascars were amongst ships crews, but disproportionately they were Bengali.
Merchant ships and military ships relied on lascars. At Trafalgar a full 15% of men were foreigners; substantial numbers of these were lascars. On Merchant ships the proportion of lascars was even often greater than in military vessels. A random example picked out from the records of the Harbour Master in Sydney shows that an English sail ship ‘Willliam Stewart’, on its voyage from London to Sydney in 1854 shipped a crew of 42 men and 8 passengers. Of the crew, 7 were white men, 28 were ordinary lascars, the rest were of other lascar rank of serang, topaz etc, four of them were from Calcutta.
Lascars were pioneers in many ways. But despite a huge body of English nautical literature, one rarely comes across any kind of individuated depiction of lascars – they are almost completely faceless and forgotten, only referred to by their title, no names.
This reminds me of the workshop in our project in which we discussed the difficulties of finding material on certain historical topics.
According to Ghosh, the lascars were pioneers because they were the first to adapt to the industrial mode of working, the watch to watch schedule – 4 hours on deck and off.
Little did I know when I went on a tall ship voyage some years ago and did those gruelling watches, waking up at all times, for seven days in a row, that Indians were some of the first to experience this mode of working!
They adapted to language. It is from the Lascari dialect that we get balti – a ship’s bucket, which was a leather contraption! The exchange was two ways. The hindi word for room – camra, came from camera or a ship’s cabin, in the Portuguese language! The lascari patterns of organisations were very different.
Ghosh raises a number of interesting questions and explores answers to them. Why is it that some societies have settlors and others have Diasporas? How have migrants behaved in the past, where are we going in the future? He makes one ponder about the notion of belonging and loyalties by throwing in some historical trends. He sees the idea of the nation- state itself is fading. What is the model of belonging that will arise after the Nation- State has in fact faded? It will be something along the lines of what Winston Churchill called the English speaking peoples, projecting a wider sense of belonging. There are already emerging globalised communities that are territorially decentralised such as the Chinese, South Asian, Arab, Muslim, African, Hispanic diaspora, which are linked through invisible means of communication.
In the discussion on the topic, Ghosh says that uncovering heritage in a foreign land shouldn’t really matter to anyone, other than as history, so a deeply rooted cultural presence of Asian lascars in London shouldn’t matter, but it seems that it does mean a lot to someone living in 21st century London facing modern realities of race and divisions.
Things are changing all the time, migration is never an easy thing to adapt to, but it is a condition of human existence. The illusion lies in expecting the opposite – an undisturbed continuity, a sort of pure world – is and has always been a myth. It is as much a myth in India as it is in England.
And finally, here’s some thought provoking. Amitav Ghosh says “Where do you live is? – a meaningless question”. He says “The person who lives opposite to my house is a fireman from Liverpool, who goes back and forth between here and India as often as I do!”