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South Asian Seafarers and their Worlds: c. 1870-1930s1

G. Balachandran
Graduate Institute of International Studies
Geneva and Delhi School of Economics


        Despite providing the plots and the characters for some outstanding works of historical scholarship in which they appear to offer unrecovered redoubts of lost ideals (whether revolutionary republicanism or radical Afro-American cosmopolitanism), seafarers have not been an enduring focus of interest to the historical profession.2 What is true of seafarers in general is no less true for Indian seafarers. In 1944, Indian seamen stranded in California by the war were hired to play extras in crowd scenes in the film Calcutta.3 This might have been a metaphor for their roles and visibility in contemporary society and modern scholarship.

        Until about two decades ago, Indian seamen in international merchant shipping languished as an invisible underclass in historical studies of the industry.4 They also remain largely absent to this day in histories of India and Indian labour. Neither peasants nor landless workers, neither 'coolies' nor proletarians, and palpably committed neither to ship nor harbour, sea nor land, port nor hinterland, town nor village, urban nor rural, industry nor agriculture, Asia nor Europe, 'modern' nor 'traditional', Indian seamen were distant stragglers after the neat categories that have helped to frame our social imaginations. Freely relativizing and interrogating such boundaries by the act of crossing them repeatedly, their self-evidently fluid and unstable locations meant that Indian seamen have also eluded the attention of those whose object it has been to critique and move beyond these markings.

        Such is the extent of their invisibility that even as excitable and uncontrollable participants in that characteristic form of political expression in the historiography of the faceless, rootless mob in India, viz. the urban riot, Indian seamen are to be found only on the fringes.5 At British ports, where many of them journeyed in the course of their engagements, it was common for unions of local seafarers to denigrate and despise Indian seamen as cheap coolies who stole jobs that belonged rightfully to white British seamen. Seamen from the sub-continent might have been the existential kin of struggling Indian politicians in London who too, from their own insecure and unstable locations, hedged between or attempted within their own careers to reconcile opposed and seemingly bounded sensibilities, entities, and options└exile and belonging, politics and the professions, a career in British politics and a career in the politics of a nation whose freedom from British rule they sought, left and right, the communist party and the labour party.6 But they might also appear to be the silent, selectively mobilized, and dispensable accoutrements of political or public visibility for such figures: filling up auditoria seats and crowding political meetings;7 acting as carriers (only sporadically as objects) of radical, subversive propaganda;8 and as the collective cover and mask, much as in their Hollywood roles, for Indian revolutionary and bolshevik activists (as the colonial authorities regarded the latter) endeavouring to elude capture by the imperial state and its agents whilst making their ways across the world to Weimar Germany or Soviet Russia.9  Indian seamen became objects of visible concern (and overt repression) when hundreds of them struck work in 1939 shortly after war began, some of these strike actions persisting through the early weeks of 1940, and again in 1942 when Britain feared the implications for the war effort of the intensification of the independence movement in India. Yet Indian merchant seamen were a peripheral presence even in that rare (equally for being recorded and remembered) peninsular moment of modern Indian nationalism in 1946, when ratings of the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) mutinied in protest against the trial of three Indian officers who had deserted the wartime imperial army to fight it as members of Subhas Chandra Bose's ragtag Indian National Army.10 And shortly afterwards, in 1947, these workers were conscripted into competing nationalist projects in the sub-continent, as Partition disrupted their living and working itineraries and they came to be repudiated or claimed by the new nation states that now emerged in the sub-continent.11

        This paper is an attempt to interpret the role and agency of Indian seamen in another light└one in which they were neither drudges nor dupes, and indeed one in which they attempted to try to make some sense of their experiences and of the exotic and the unfamiliar that they encountered, and develop collective and individual strategies of survival. Their very neglect by the state and their rather fraught relations with the trade union movement in Europe paradoxically enabled Indian seamen to evade their disciplines practically until World War II. It also endowed them with a degree of autonomy that helped them negotiate and adapt in interesting ways the congeries of ideas, political and social beliefs, and modes of action that they encountered or accumulated in the various worlds which they inhabited or through which they passed.

        This paper begins with a brief discussion of Indian seamen in international merchant shipping. The third section focusses on the attitudes towards Indian seamen of the state, shipping agencies and officials, and British trade unions. The manner in which Indian seamen used their knowledges and experiences to negotiate their way through a world in which they were handicapped by class, race, nationality, and colonial subjection forms the subject of the fourth and fifth sections. Section six offers a brief conclusion.


        Endowed with capital assets that were mobile in the literal sense of the term, owners of international merchant vessels have traditionally had access to an international labour market. Despite restrictions imposed by the navigation laws there had always been a cosmopolitan aspect to shipping crews. With the repeal of these laws, the ascendancy of steam, and the building of canals (which together reduced the vagaries of going to sea, shortened voyages, transformed the nature of seafaring work, and facilitated more flexible recruitment practices) British ship-owners, in particular, began to employ foreign workers in increasing numbers from about the middle of the nineteenth century.

        Systematic statistics exist from 1891. In that year seamen other than British accounted for over 22% of those employed on board British vessels.12 Every conceivable nationality was represented, but as wages on British ships fell behind what American and European seamen could earn ashore and as British and European workers acquired a reputation for militancy (or 'insubordination' as officers and employers preferred to term it), an increasing proportion of crews came to be recruited from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.13

        The proportion of Indian seamen, in particular, rose steadily in the early years of the last century. In 1891 24,000 or 10% of the nearly 240,000 seamen employed on British vessels were classified as `lascars and other Indian seamen'. On the eve of World War I this figure had more than doubled to 52,000 (about 17.5%).14 Although employment on British vessels declined during the interwar and postwar years, the proportion of Indian crews stabilized at around a quarter.15

        The reasons for this rise are not far to seek: as far as is known, wages of Indian seamen, who were engaged on special articles of agreement known as Indian or 'lascar' articles, were the lowest in the industry. In 1914 they were about a quarter of what seaman on British articles earned. This disparity widened after the war. Indian seamen also cost less to house and provision on board their vessels than European or for that matter Arab or Chinese seamen. They also worked considerably longer hours (typically 84 hours a week, often more, without overtime) and followed a watch system of 'all hands at all times' so that, in the words of a retired ship master who wrote a polemical work defending their employment against union, press, and parliamentary criticism in Britain, Indian seamen were 'more completely the servants of the shipowner while under engagement than any other group of men doing similar work that shipowners have ever had to do the work for them.'16


        In the view of European seamen and middle-class commentators in Britain, with such 'unmanly' docility went an inaptitude for the sea and cowardice in crisis. 'Expert' testimony at the inquiry into the loss of the Roumania was offered by a Captain N. Hamilton of the Indian Staff Corps who claimed to know from his experience of 'these lascars in India ... up on the hills', that they were 'absolutely useless in cold weather. ..'17 For a writer in the Hull Daily Mail these 'coolies ... [lacked]  "two o'clock morning courage"' which was the 'great trait of the British character.'18

        This was an enduring stereotype. In the early 1890s the Indian government banned the engagement of Indian seamen on ships voyaging to ports along the US northern Atlantic seaboard in the winter months. These restrictions were relaxed without any incident during World War I but were thereafter reimposed and maintained until 1939 only because of trade union pressure in Britain. Nevertheless the image of Indian seamen as cowardly coolies incapable of coping with cold weather or an emergency was regularly renewed during these years.19 In March 1893 the employment of Indian crews on the Kaiser-i-Hind carrying soldiers of a British army regiment and their families was criticized in parliament by the British seamen's leader J. Havelock Wilson. Half a century later, as the torpedoing of the City of Benaras evacuating British children to Canada showed, little had changed.20

        But it was not the only one. According to captain Hood, the board of trade manning committee (1896) felt the inability of Indian seamen to withstand cold climates was `grossly exaggerated.' Witnesses before the committee said they had never seen `smarter crews', and some masters declared they would never put out to sea with European crews if they could find enough Indians to man their vessels.21

        Nor was the image of docility an uncontested one and other images existed. Already in the 1890s and 1900s, several years before Indian seafarers' unions emerged in any recognizable shape or form, employers and shipping officials spoke of the 'air of independence' of Indian crews and their ability, contrary to the stereotype, to look after themselves;22 the extent of corporate solidarity amongst them;23 and their capacity for combination.24

        What these contrasting images reflect is the shifting, unstable, and contingent nature of representations of Indian seafarers. It was a staple in the arguments of British trade unions that Indian seamen were 'coolies'. Indeed, referring to them as 'lascars', with the original Persian term's evocation of conscript labourers employed to carry loads for an army, camp, or trading caravan, was part of this tactic of depiction. It passed out of official usage in India in the 1920s.25 Yet it continued to be used in Britain by shipping unions, in particular;26 and as late as 1973 the Peninsular and oriental steam navigation company (P&O) found it necessary to warn officers that `the terms "native", "Asiatic", or "Lascar" are not to be used in reference either to passengers, crew or people ashore.'27

        This instability is reflected in the representational opportunism of P&O which was the imperial shipping company par excellence.28 Its size, market share, and close ties with the imperial and colonial establishments made P&O the most vocal defender of Indian crews of which it was also the largest employer. Captain Hood had himself been in P&O's employ, and successive heads of the company, including the redoubtable James Mackay (later Baron Inchcape) led vigorous campaigns to defend their right to engage Indian seamen.29 When the Pall Mall Gazette commented adversely on the ability of Indian crews while reporting the loss of P&O's Nizam, the secretary of the company wrote a lengthy rebuttal praising the courage of the ship's crew└`both the deck sailors and the engine room crews behaved most admirably'└and of Indian crews in general.30 However, because its vessels, unlike those of its competitors who wanted the winter restrictions on Indian crews lifted, did not sail yet to American ports, P&O attempted to discourage competition in the labour market from other shipping companies by adding its voice to doubts about the ability and efficiency of Indian crews in cold climates.31

        Employers complained regularly about the 'onerous' provisions of Indian merchant shipping acts as they applied to Indian seamen.32 There is no doubt that these laws were more elaborate in certain respects than laws applicable to other categories of Indian workers or shipping crews from other parts of the world.33 Legislating and overseeing the enforcement of these rules produced voluminous official documentation both in India and in Britain. Yet a historian studying these documents is struck by the amount of administrative and procedural minutiae they contain, and how poorly they reflect on the knowledge that the colonial and imperial state (and shipping companies) had about these men. No aspect of the living and working lives of Indian seamen would have been hidden from view, but astonishingly the state and shipping companies (a majority of whom anyway engaged crews through agents who too, preferred to hide behind layers of intermediaries) seem to have seen little other than what they could assimilate to clich■s, stereotypes, and platitudes. Thus information about where the men came from, what they did when they were not at sea, the paths and networks that brought them to Bombay or Calcutta whence they went to sea, what they did or how they managed to eke out a living in these cities whilst awaiting engagements, how they spent their leisure, the manner in which they were recruited, etc. were all retailed until the 1920s from pre-existing master templates. Little of this information was produced through inquiry or investigation or even indeed the systematization of the information that agencies of the state, such as the police, would have already had in their possession. This state of affairs lasted until the 1920s when trade unions of Indian seamen began to emerge and to produce, challenge, and manipulate knowledges about themselves.34

        The state's lack of interest may be traced to two causes. Apparently never in acute short supply, relatively easily mobilized, engaged, and regulated, and rarely a major threat to the state or to public order in their seafaring capacities, until the 1920s Indian seamen ranked very low in the investigative priorities of the Indian state. In the 1880s employers' complaints (about the difficulties of procuring reliable crews in Calcutta because of the practice of substitutions before sailing) were insistent enough to provoke a public inquiry, but not serious enough in their own judgement (or in that of the Bengal government) to warrant reforms that might weaken their control over the recruitment process and indirectly over their crews.35 Thereafter shipowners employing Indian seamen, who made up a powerful interest both in colonial India and in imperial Britain, resisted any inquiries that, while deepening the state's knowledge about Indian crews, might increase the danger of substantive regulation by the state. What remained now was the residual risk for the state, one heightened moreover by the colonial context, arising from the principle of its responsibility for the welfare of its subjects overseas. This risk was sought to be minimized through a set of apparently 'paternalistic' regulations that laid out in detail the diet and warm clothing Indian seamen would receive during their engagements, and that prohibited their discharge at ports outside India, and placed the liability for the repatriation of 'distressed' Indian seamen on their employers. This was indeed the colonial state's bottom line: as long as shipowners thus helped to keep Indian seamen invisible abroad and out of the kind of trouble that might draw unwelcome attention to their conditions or force difficult choices on the state, the latter would not interfere in the methods of recruitment, work organization and working conditions, and wages.36 With this implicit compact, allegations that Indian seamen were coolies unused to the sea, etc. were met with the template response that affirmed their skill and masculinity. Indian seamen on British ships belonged to 'lascar or maritime races': the deck crews were hereditary seamen with long familiarity with and experience of the sea; while stokers and firemen from Punjab many of whom would have had their first glimpse of the sea only through the porthole of their forecastles, belonged to the 'northern and warlike races of India' and thus endowed with a 'manly character'.37

        Indian seamen were mostly silent witnesses to this ironic denouement. But other ironies offered opportunities for protest and agency that they seized, especially after World War I. One of the grounds on which the employment of Indian seamen was defended in Britain was that as colonial subjects they had a right to be employed on British ships. Behind this formal right also lay the substantive fact that British shipping companies were enabled by public subsidies to virtually monopolize large-scale coastal shipping in India and displace indigenous competition.38 Thus despite the structural and relational hierarchies that it signified, Indian seamen perceived colonial subjectivity as a double-edged weapon: while it might function as an instrument of control and discipline, it also signified a bundle of rights including the right to live and work in Britain. Given the restrictions on discharging Indian seamen at ports outside India, the latter right was meant to be notional rather than real. But the possibility of finding work at higher wages and their right to residence and employment as colonial subjects encouraged many Indian seamen to jump ship in Britain.39 Though the imperial state attempted to qualify these rights in various ways over the years most Indian seamen found ways to get around these restrictions. They also actively challenged the checks and difficulties that the state began to place in the way of their finding work or plying petty businesses in Britain. An instrument of discipline had thus acquired the sharp edge of dissent.40

        While affirming the skilled and 'manly' character of Indian crews abroad, the colonial state was ambivalent about constituting the Indian seaman as a labour subject at home.41 Although some of the appurtenances of this process, such as a regime of fine and punishments, had long been legislated into existence by the state, in other fundamental respects, however, such as the recruitment of crews and the connected matter of disciplining them on board, it was content to follow the employers to regard Indian crews as extended kin groups or at best as groups linked through affective ties who could only function as a cohesive unit under the authority of a serang (an indigenous boatswain or petty officer) to whom they were already subservient on land. Such characterizations of Indian crews and their relationship to work, to one another, and to the serang reinforced their image as pre-modern labourers and further dis-empowered them in the global labour market. It also made reforming the recruitment process, which seamen complained was vitiated by bribery and corruption, all but impossible without undermining the serang altogether (and thus affirming the individuality of the worker and redefining relations on the shopfloor).42 Consequently, as prospects for reforming recruitment appeared to turn increasingly on affirming both the individuality of crew members and their professional ability to come together for engagements under a foreman, Indian seamen's unions began to explicitly challenge the opportunistic stereotypes deployed by the state and the shipping companies and advance an alternative narrative about their own identities.


        Breaking out of the ghettos in which the state, employers, and British and other western unions attempted to imprison them thus began increasingly to mark the collective and individual initiatives of Indian seamen from the interwar years. We may identify several markers of their 'coolie' status, indeed more widely of their supposed 'difference' in the maritime labour market: wage levels, working conditions including the watch system and longer and unregulated working hours, the methods by which they were recruited and disciplined, restrictions on discharges abroad, and restrictions on employment on ships sailing in winters to the colder regions (especially to US north Atlantic ports).

        Indian seamen explored collective activity as a means of reducing or eliminating these markers of difference. It is clear that Indian seafarers shared several subjective experiences with factory workers of Bombay and Calcutta which were also the two chief recruitment ports in India. Maritime labour activity did not also lend itself easily to trade union organization, especially in India where maritime workers experienced many displacements during the course of their working lives. Yet Indian seamen's unions were among the first trade unions to appear in India, and by the 1920s they had emerged from uncertain beginnings two decades earlier to become an established presence at the chief recruiting ports of Calcutta and Bombay.43 There were, doubtless, important domestic and external developments that help frame this development, notably the growth of political activity in many parts of India, the founding of the ILO, and the latter's institution of tripartite maritime conferences. But it is also clear that the early development of seamen's unions owed equally to the agency of the men themselves.

        There is some evidence that thanks to their travels, and the experiences and disabilities they encountered, some Indian seamen had already developed some form of a modern political consciousness by the late 19th century. The diary of an Anglican missionary records as 'typical' a meeting with Indian seamen at which they responded to his remarks about the warm reception accorded to the Prince of Wales on his recent visit to India (1875-76) with the retort that the British raj would soon cease and that 'soldier and sirkar would be driven to their little home' in the west. The insulted missionary then spoke gloatingly to the men about the decline of 'Mohammedan power' everywhere, of 'Turkey crumbling, Persia helpless, Egypt anglicized, India conquered, and Bokhara, the city of learning, taken by the Russians.' The resulting uproar, the priest confessed, did not turn violent only because of the boatswain's whistle.44

        Colonial officials attributed the early birth and endurance of Indian seamen's unions 'in the absence of any actual strike-history' to the `direct contact of the men themselves, afloat and in home waters, with western trade unionism.' By 1920 many Indian seamen had also come to possess British trade union 'tickets' (these may have been the PC5 tickets without which it was almost impossible to secure engagements in interwar Britain) which they claimed entitled them to trade union benefits in Britain. Serangs and stewards took the lead in these unions, but in its early years the Indian Seamen's Union in Calcutta appears to have been made up of a core of 300-400 men of all ranks. For a brief period during the 1920s an union of Indian helmsmen also appears to have succeeded in enforcing a variant of a closed shop.45

        Though a matter of interested debate because this bore both generally on the question of 'difference' but particularly also on wages and other terms of engagement, almost as soon as they came into existence Indian seamen's unions especially in Bengal began to challenge the view that Indian seamen were small peasants who took to the sea to supplement their incomes. In state and employer narratives that, as noted above, appeared to be seamlessly derived from some master template, seamen arrived from their villages at the major recruitment ports of Calcutta and Bombay in search of engagements that they found through serangs who were both intermediaries in the labour market as well as the leader of shipping crews on board their vessels. This challenge, and an alternative knowledge that affirmed their individuality as workers, undergirded Calcutta seamen's efforts to reform recruitment practices in the 1920s and 1930s to reduce if not eliminate corrupt intermediaries and move towards a roster-based system that would ensure engagements on the basis of the length of time a seaman had been ashore without a ship. Their larger goal was, of course, to have a more decisive say in the recruitment process as British seamen's unions already did as members of the national maritime board. Though these efforts met with some success, they were largely thwarted by the colonial state and shipowners, so that during the 1920s and the 1930s the union began tentatively to look beyond India for allies and support.46

        This was potentially fraught. Since the 1890s British seamen's unions had made the elimination of the employment of cheap foreign labour a major goal. From the early-1900s their opposition focussed on Chinese and Arab workers. The wartime increase in the presence of Asian, African, and Caribbean seamen in Britain and the slump in the industry intensified this opposition which was also fuelled by outbreaks of racial riots at several British ports, and led the imperial authorities to undertake schemes to repatriate Indian and other seamen residing in Britain. Opposition to the employment of Indian seamen was particularly intense at the first maritime session of the ILO at Genoa in 1920.47

        From the mid-1920s Indian seamen's unions sought affiliation with the international transport workers' federation (ITF) where they began to raise the problem of corrupt recruitment practices. Representatives of Indian seamen also attempted to establish direct contact with British and other seamen's unions. But the latter responded with little enthusiasm, while the ITF too, largely lost interest in the affairs of Indian seamen during the 1930s. Around the same time, with the onset of the depression, the campaign to exclude Indian seamen from British ships also intensified.48 When the British government took steps in the mid-1930s to subsidize tramp shipping, the labour party and the seamen's union played a major role in ensuring that the subsidy would only go to ships that employed British seamen. Debates about the subsidy scheme and its subsequent implementation also crystallized opinion against seamen from outside the British isles.49

        There were no doubt differences of approach between unions of Indian seamen and British unions. For one, although they vouched for the principle of equal pay in the industry, it was not one to which Indian unions attached the same degree of importance or urgency as British unions. But there was a more fundamental gulf between the two, for until the 1940s British seamen's unions refused to recognize Indian seamen's unions as interlocutors let alone as partners. And when they did so during the war, it was with the objective of using recognition as a means of disciplining them and helping to establish 'responsible trade unionism' in India. In both these respects British seamen's unions shared the attitudes of the imperial state and the employers.50

        The refusal to dignify Indian seamen as workers by recognizing their unions had two effects. It forced them to attempt to outflank British unions from the left and lay claim to a more militant form of politics. This was not difficult since the national union of seamen and its predecessor unions had been implicated in proto-corporatist arrangements with the state and shipping companies since the late 1910s. Thus for example on the issue of the length of the seaman's working week which revived in the mid-1930s in the context of another maritime session of the ILO, Indian seamen's unions supported the proposal for a 56-hour week at sea and a 48-hour week at port canvassed by all western unions barring the British, and one of their representatives, Aftab Ali, played an important role in securing the passage of this convention in Geneva in 1936. The 1920 Genoa conference had been exercised by the demand for exceptional treatment for Indian seamen made by their employers and the colonial state. But in 1936 Indian seamen's unions rejected any exceptional treatment that would force them to work longer hours or deny them overtime pay. Yet not only did the national union of seamen in Britain reject the Geneva convention and negotiate a longer working week (of 64 hours at sea and 56 hours at port) for seamen on British vessels, they also conceded the principle of differential treatment for Indian crews by agreeing to a longer transition for the latter, unregulated hours on sailing days, and overtime compensation in the form of time off rather than additional wages.51 Thus ironically, despite Indian seamen's unions attempting to represent their members more explicitly as workers, deploying a more universalistic idiom of working class solidarity, and raising demands such as higher wages and a shorter working week, the refusal of British unions to engage with them and thus dignify them as workers instead of condemning them as coolies meant that these universalist categories and aspiring subjectivities were remorselessly dominated by those of race, nation, and empire.


        Though it was widely regarded as another marker of their inferior status and was an issue of collective concern, unions of Indian seamen avoided making an issue of the rules restricting their discharge abroad because they were wary of confronting British seamen's unions and intensifying the latter's opposition. Their attitude towards geographical and seasonal limits was also similarly cautious. Securing a removal or relaxation of these restrictions was not an official objective of Indian unions in the 1920s even though some companies already cited these rules as their reason for discontinuing the employment of Indian seamen. Even in the early-1930s, when more shipping companies began to threaten or actually replace Indian crews with Malay and Chinese crews, Indian unions preferred to raise this issue in a very guarded way, viz. through resolutions and petitions rather than agitations.52

        However, at the same time cases of ships breaching these regulations became a regular feature. Inquiries soon revealed that these violations took place with the active consent and collusion of their Indian crews. From the 1930s there were also more frequent reports of Indian seamen jumping ship at Singapore, acquiring Malay certificates, and engaging on articles that did not contain these restrictions (and offered higher wages).53

        Thus markers of difference where collective initiatives by unions could intensify opposition from British seamen's unions were largely left to ships' crews or individual seamen to negotiate. The latter most often took the form of deserting ships to seek work and acquire rights of residence at foreign ports. Desertions were particularly pronounced during the 1920s and during World War II by when hundreds of Indian seamen had jumped ship to re-engage on British articles, or come ashore to work in harbours, mines, and factories. Peddling household wares was another activity that they soon made their own, while the more enterprising and successful amongst them established dockside boarding houses and caf■s in working class neighbourhoods that acted as important nodes in the network of circulation of Indian workers in Britain. By now liaisons and marriages between Indian (and other Asian and African) seamen and European women had also became common enough for religious and public officials to regard them as a pressing 'social problem'.54

        A majority of Indian seamen who deserted their vessels and sought employment ashore did so in Britain. But desertions were also frequent at other ports such as Singapore, at European ports, and despite restrictions on the landing of Asian seamen, at US ports as well. Illustrative though perhaps not emblematic of this mobility is the career of 'John' Mohamed Jan aka Mohamed Ali John. As far as it is possible to establish details about Jan Mohammed and his movements from the available records, he was born in the Ferozepur district of Punjab in 1897. In 1930 he claimed 16 years of residence in Britain. He is known to have signed up on a British vessel in 1914. He served in the merchant navy during the war, and his ship Gorsemore was torpedoed in 1918. (In one of his photographs Jan Mohammed is shown wearing war medals.) He appears thereafter to have got himself a British discharge book and served on British vessels, securing discharge from one in London in May 1919 before proceeding to India as a passenger. Later the same year he signed on at Bombay to sign off his vessel at New York. He appears then to have worked in New York for some time└he is reported in 1925 as having $250 in a New York bank account└before moving to Detroit. By June 1921 he had become a naturalized American citizen as John Mohammed Ali, only to have his citizenship cancelled ('solely on grounds of geography' in the words of the district attorney who moved the plea: 'so far as we know ... [he was a] a better citizens than many born in the United States') in October 1923 following the US supreme court ruling on the Bhagat Singh Thind case. But unlike Thind or the less well known Niaz Mohammed who too, arrived in the US as a merchant seaman and worked in the auto industry in Detroit before becoming a successful Californian farmer, Jan Mohammed was forced to return to India.55 After a short interval there, Jan Mohammed arrived in Antwerp in April 1925 on a Finnish ship Navigator which he boarded as a stowaway in Bombay. But upon being discovered, he entered the ship's articles as an European seaman. Denied entry into Britain at Harwich where he arrived from Antwerp, Jan Mohammed stowed away once again aboard a ship to arrive in Leith. By May 1925 he had walked his way to London where, in the one words of one Whitehall official whom he interviewed, 'he ... proceeded to assume an ... international, importance by his applications to the Board of Trade and this Office in connection with a claim for war risks compensation, and to the American Consulate General in connection with funds deposited in New York'. For someone who was unlettered and was said to speak very little English, Jan Mohammed's persuasive powers appear to have been considerable. Whitehall soon issued him a passport for the United States, while a seamen's charity supported him till September 1925 when he was found a boat that would take him to New York.

        According to Jan Mohammed's subsequent discharge records, he signed off at Hong Kong at the end of January 1926. What he did during the interval is not known, but he resurfaces in the records in September 1929. Arriving at Antwerp aboard Malines, he again tried to make his way to Harwich. Though denied entry again, Mohammed managed to enter Britain through Poole and was soon knocking on Whitehall doors, this time for a passport that would enable him to travel to Belgium to trade in silks. He appears to have failed initially in this attempt, and was obliged at the end of January 1930 to accept a travel document that enabled him to proceed to India. But he did not return to India. Instead six months later in July 1930 he persuaded Whitehall to issue him a certificate of identity and nationality. No longer a problem as an 'alien' nor evidently destitute (though how he supported himself is not at all clear), Jan Mohammed disappeared now from official records, only to reappear in intelligence reports of 1943 as a public speaker└he spoke in Hindustani and 'broken English' according to one report└at a pro-independence political meeting in the midlands.56

        There is no doubt that Jan Mohammed was an unusually itinerant seafarer. Some of his contemporaries, such as Niaz Mohammed referred to above, appear to have used maritime employment as a means to seek their fortune in distant lands. Aftab Ali too, jumped ship on his maiden voyage to the US in the early 1920s in search of education and experience, only to return to Calcutta within a few years to become a trade union activist, a leader of Calcutta's seamen's union, and a couple of decades later, the first minster for labour in East Pakistan.57 Some, such as Charlie Abdul, seem to have jumped ship either in search of adventure or as a form of protest (or both).58 However most Indian seamen who chose or were forced to pursue occupations ashore in foreign lands or find ships at foreign ports would have already spent many years at sea on Indian articles of agreement. Among the better known were Tofussil Ali who was probably the first Indian to own a boarding house in London in 1913 which soon began to do roaring business because of the patronage of shipowners looking for accommodation for their crews ashore in London; Ayub Ali Master, who jumped ship in the US in 1919 but established a boarding house and caf■ in East London that was widely known to Bengali sailors around the world by its street address,'Number 13', as the first refuge of deserters;59  Surat Ali, aka Soorat Alley, who arrived in Britain during World War I and combined several roles as boarding-house keeper, supplier of crews and ship-chandler, trade union leader (who besides an union of seamen was also a founder of the Oriental Film Artistes Union), communist activist, wartime reservist, air raid warden, and if Caroline Adams is to be believed, a police informer;60 Tofussil or Tahsil Meah (distinct from Tofussil Ali) who competed with Surat Ali in some of these roles and was deported from Britain for his political activities;61 Ghulam Rasul who styled himself as Glamour Sole who too, after an early career at sea became a pedlar, a small businessman, and at one stage a communist activist in Britain;62 and in Singapore, M.A. Majid, trade unionist and labour broker.63

        In addition there were numerous others who, as noted above, were peddlers and petty traders, workers, miners, boarding house keepers, and caf■-owners.64 These strategies were widespread enough for the image of the Indian 'coolie' to be briefly supplanted in the British imagination by that of the 'pedlar'. London had had a substantial concentration of pedlars since the 1920s. In 1930 and 1931, more or less around the time that Gandhi launched his 'civil disobedience' movement and the air was thick with round table conferences to discuss constitutional reforms in India, several newspapers especially in the midlands, the northern parts of England, and Scotland also published alarming reports about the presence and spread of Indian pedlars in these areas.65 Local tradesmen too complained of competition, and the Bolton chamber of commerce even proposed a boycott of Indian pedlars, prompting a leader in the Manchester Guardian to remark that `deplorable' though the move might be, `it would at least serve to illustrate just what an economic boycott is and just what causes it.' Gandhi, it speculated in a tone of heavy irony, may have sent Indian pedlars `to illustrate a principle that mere words have proved inadequate to explain'.

It is possible. He is a wily mahatma, fond of exposition by parable. Or it may be that India, in the first flush of her new nationhood, is emulating the methods of our own great Empire. These inconsiderable pedlars, like the Elizabethan traders who after many perils and difficulties were able to buy and sell in India to their own great enrichment, may be called by future historians merchant adventurers, founders of an empire.66

        Local police officials shared the alarm. Reporting an increase in the pedlars' licenses issued to Indians, the superintendent of the Liverpool police wrote that 'in all the villages and suburbs in this part one sees these coloured pedlars going from door to door'.67 A CID official, J. Lawson, confirmed that Indian pedlars went from door to door `in all the surrounding villages and suburbs', travelling `even to the remotest villages'. Most of them were deserters who made no secret of the fact whilst applying for pedlars' permits. `This goes to prove the extent of their knowledge as to our powers of dealing with them', he noted.68


        Most studies of colonial workers in metropolitan contexts focus on their structural incorporation and subjection. This is a valid and important, even legitimately central, emphasis. Yet it carries some dangers, notably the tendency to reproduce shared metropolitan and local elite representations and stereotypes about these workers, their subjectivities, and their capacity for agency.

        The world of seafaring in the period covered by this paper was a harsh and unequal one thrice over: shipowners were tyrannical employers; ships were oppressive workplaces and officers oppressive bosses; lastly ships employed a vast underclass of low-paid colonial labour. Colonial seamen had not only to endure oppressive conditions at their workplace, they also had to suffer the indignity of being an underclass of 'coolies' denied the sympathy and support, let alone admission to their community, of workers. Indian seamen were especially vulnerable in this respect because the state and employers preferred means of regulating and controlling them, including through intermediaries and imposing various restrictions on their movements, engagements, and discharges, that affirmed their image as coolies standing in the penumbra of freedom.

        Of course the collective appellation was never entirely abandoned. Yet from the second world war the means of disciplining them became more nuanced. Apart from concerns emerging directly from the war, the new strategy also reflected the relative success of Indian seamen, either collectively through their unions (and in some cases as shipping crews) or individually, in eluding the disciplinary mechanisms characteristic of their mode of employment to challenge from outside and within the imperial state's rhetoric about an inclusive colonial subjecthood as well as British seamen's unions' claims to seek the unity of workers in the industry.

        To some extent the nature of the agency is contingent on the challenge to which it responds. But in the case of Indian seamen in international shipping, neither can we ignore their fluid, blurred, always evolving travelogues of experiences, ideas, consciousness, and actions. Clearly Indian seamen inhabited many more states than industrial workers who have also often been condemned as 'pre-modern' labourers by employers, the colonial state, and historians. It is easy to overdo these contrasts, yet it is important to remain alert to the possibility that their experiences enabled Indian seamen to develop a distinct subjectivity that perhaps also resonated distinctly within their communities and their own life-stories outside and beyond their careers at sea.


1 I would like to thank the Fonds National Suisse for a research grant that enabled me to collect materials used in this paper.

2 Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000); W. Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Cambrdge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997).

3 British Library, Oriental and India office collection (OIOC), L/E/9/974, British ambassador's telegram,  26 July 1945; they came to occupy attention at these exalted levels only because the film artistes' union complained that they had been employed as strike-breakers.

4 Conrad Dixon, `Lascars: The Forgotten Seamen', in R. Ommer and G. Panting, eds., The Working Men who Got Wet, (St. Johns', Newfoundland, 1980); Frank Broeze, `The Muscles of Empire: Indian Seamen and the Raj, 1919-1939', Indian Economic and Social History Review (18, 1, 2001) pp. 43-67. Rozina Visram, Ayahs, Lascars, and Princes (London: Pluto Press, 1986) ch. 3 provides an account of the 'lascar' presence in Britain since the early 18th century; the politics of racial difference is explored in Laura Tabili, 'We ask for British Justice': Workers and Racial Difference in Late Imperial Britain (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994); also see in this connection, G. Balachandran, 'Conflicts in the International Maritime Labour Market: British and Indian Seamen, Employers, and the State, 1890-1939', Indian Economic and Social History Review (39, 1, 2002); African seamen have suffered equal neglect, but for an essay on seamen in the Asian and African maritime world of the Indian Ocean, see Janet J. Ewald, 'Slaves, Freedmen, and other Migrants in the Northwestern Indian Ocean, c. 1750-1914', American Historical Review (105, 1, 2000).

5 Kenneth McPherson, The Muslim Microcosm: Calcutta, 1918 to 1935 (Wiesbaden, 1974), pp. 33-4.

6 These dilemmas were most pronounced in the life and career of V.K. Krishna Menon who was arguably the most effective Indian political figure in London in the 1930s and 1940s. On Menon, see Rozina Visram, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (London: Pluto Press, 2002) pp. 320-340; also the intelligence files on his activities in Britain, in particular OIOC L/PJ/12/630, L/PJ/12/646, and L/PJ/12/452.

7 See for example, OIOC, L/PJ/12/646

8 OIOC, L/PJ/12/47, contents of the letter from M.N. Roy to S.A. Dange, 25 Dec. 1922 described in the report of the Indian Political Intelligence (IPI), d. 16 Jan. 1923.

9 OIOC, L/PJ/12/46, IPI reports of 13 Sept., 30 Sept. and 9 Oct. 1922; also the extract from the weekly report of the Director, Intelligence Bureau, Government of India, dated 28 Feb. 1923.

10 They are completely absent in another major, though mostly forgotten, moment, viz. the arrest and trial on charges of sedition in 1908 of Subramaniam Siva and Chidambaram Pillai, motivated at least partly by their founding the Swadeshi (or Own Nation) Steam Navigation Company to compete with the British-owned and state-supported British Indian Steam Navigation Company: OIOC, L/PJ/6/857, F. 993.

11 Public record office, London (PRO), MT 9/5879 M. 221; see especially the weekly reports for 1948 and 1949 of the Secretary of the Calcutta Liners' Conference.

12 Dixon, `Lascars', p. 281; Ronald Hope, A New History of British Shipping (J. Murray: London, 1990) pp. 383, 392.

13 For example the views of the commander of Egypt and F.E. Hardcastle, marine surveyor, in National archives of India (NAI), Government of India, Finance and Commerce Department, Statistics and Commerce Branch, (hereafter GI, FC-SC), March 1901, 135-42A, enclosures to A.M.'s note, 8 Oct. 1900, pp. 46-51.

14 Dixon, `Lascars', p. 281; these numbers understate the actual increase because until 1906 the term 'lascar' was used indiscriminately to include Chinese, African, and Arab crews hired at ports in British India and even to men hired in Colombo and Singapore.

15 Daily Herald, 24 May 1939; Hope, New History, pp. 383, 392.

16 Captain W.H. Hood, The Blight of Insubrodination: the Lascar Question and Rights and Wrongs of the British Shipmaster including the Mercantile Marine Committee Report (London: Spottiswode and Co., 1903) pp. 49-50.

17 PRO, Board of Trade, MT9/469B, M 4354/1894, note of 8 March 1893 about a parliamentary question by J. Havelock Wilson.

18 16 Jan. 1902.

19 Almost any accident to a British vessel carrying Indian crews became the occasion for circulating alarmed rumours about their conduct; see for example the controversy after the Egypt sank in the Bay of Biscay after colliding with a French steamer: OIOC, L/E/7/1123.

20  OIOC, L/E/9/970, Commons question d. 17 Oct. 1940; also see the papers in PRO, MT9/3461, especially notes by W. Carter, 21st and 23rd September 1940; and the shipping surveyor's report of 18th September 1940.

21 Hood, Blight of Insubordination, pp. 10-13.

22 Comments of the master attendant, Akyab, in NAI, Revenue, Agriculture, and Commerce Department (RAC), Commerce and Trade (CT), Merchant Shipping (MS) June 1877, 9-22; letter from the Bombay chamber of commerce to the government of Bombay, 15 June 1904 in GI, CI-MS, Nov. 1905, 1-11 A.

23 RAC, CT, Aug. 1876, 1-17, complaint of the Bombay shipping master; also the views of the chairman of the committee on seamen's recruitment in Calcutta: NAI, GI, Finance and Commerce (FC), Statistics and Commerce Branch (SC), May 1886, 640-50 B.

24 NAI, GI, FC-SC, Oct. 1889, 512-20 A; Oct. 1892, 566-75 A; also GI, CI-MS, Nov. 1905, 1-11A: 'it may not be generally known ... [but] the large majority of the native crews are members of guilds or clubs, the executive officers of which have considerable powers over the men.' This was especially true of Goan crews, and their clubs 'greatly facilitated strikes as is the case in many parts of Europe ....'

25 NAI, GI-60-MI/31, Sept. 1931, 1A, note by C.A. Innes, 5 June 1922.

26 C. E. Tupper (written by Ernest F. Charles), Seamen's Torch: The Life Story of Captain Edward Tupper, National Union of Seamen (London: Hutchinson and Co., n.d. 1938). Tupper was a leading official of the National sailors and firemen's union; also Stan Hugill, Sailortown (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967); Capt. John Mason, Before the Mast in Sailing Ships (Kirkwall: W.R. Macintosh, 1928).

27 National maritime museum (NMM), Greenwich, P&O 7/8, Group Asian Crew Manual.

28 Freda Harcourt, 'British Oceanic Mail Contracts in the Age of Steam, 838‑1914', Journal of Transport History (9, 1: 1988) pp. 1‑18.

29 This right came under intense attack in the 1890s and again in the 1920s and 30s: see Balachandran, 'Conflicts in the International Maritime Labour Market'; for a flavour of the opposition directed at P&O in the 1890s: PRO, MT 9/450 M 15130; MT 9/543 M. 691; MT 9/614 M 5647; MT 9/612 M 3613; and MT 9/614 M 5890.

30 Pall Mall Gazette, 16 Feb. 1881, filed in NMM, Greenwich, P&O, 101/8.

31 NAI, GI, CI-MS progs, 18-29A-Dec. 1907, P&O's letter to Secretary of State, 12 Dec. 1906; also see the views in this file, of R.H.H. Hopkins the shipping master at Bombay where P&O engaged its crews. Hopkins was also a  former employee of P&O.

32 For example see Jardine Skinner and Co. to the Calcutta shipping master, 19 May 1926 in OIOC, L/E/7/1163 F. 2886.

33 Indian seamen had a statutory diet regime well before one was introduced for British seamen. There were also regulations about where and when they could be discharged, the boats and ports to which they could be transferred, the maximum period of their engagements, etc..

34 G. Balachandran, 'Searching for the Sardar: the State, Precapitalist Institutions, and Human Agency in the Maritime Labour Market', in Burton Stein and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, eds, Institutions and Economic Change in South Asia (Delhi. Oxford University Press, 1996); also idem, 'Circulation through Seafaring: Indian Seamen, 1890-1945' in Claude Markovits, Jacques Pouchepadass, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, eds, Society and Circulation: Mobile Peoples and Itinerant Cultures in South Asia, 1750-1950 (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003); for a discussion of the agrarian connections of seamen from Sylhet, see Katy Gardner, Global Migrants, Local Lives: Travel and Transformation in Rural Bangladesh (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) pp. 35-43.

35 Balachandran, 'Searching for the Sardar', pp. 213-15.

36 The negotiation of this balance in the context of accommodation ashore for Indian seamen in Britain is discussed in Laura Tabili, 'We ask for British Justice', pp. 58-66.

37 Mercantile marine committee, Report (British parliamentary papers, Cd 1607, vol. 1, London, 1903) paras 14-16; also see the inquiries in NAI, GI, MS-CI, October 1912, 1-7A.

38 BPP, Cd 1607, Report, para 14:  in addition to being British subjects, 'lascars ... have ... claim to employment because British vessels have displaced ... native ... vessels.'

39 See below, section V.

40 Balachandran, 'Conflicts in the International Maritime Labour Market', pp. 82-90; Tabili, 'We ask for British Justice', pp. 122-34.

41 For a statement of the conventional wisdom on this subject see Valerian Desousa, 'The Constitution of the Colonial Labour Subject: Labour Law in Colonial India, 1818-1936', unpublished Ph.d. dissertation (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1993).

42 The alternative of restoring him to the position he is said to have enjoyed on East India Company vessels of having unchallenged discretion to make up his crews, and negotiate and collect wages on their behalf was, of course, no longer possible.

43 On the history of Indian seamen's unions see Frank Broeze, `The Muscles of Empire: Indian Seamen and the Raj, 1919-1939', Indian Economic and Social History Review, 18, 1 (1981), pp. 43-67.

44 J. Salter, The East in the West or Work among the Asiatics and Africans in London (London: n.y. but 1896) ch. 10; whilst other crews might cite the 'rules and regulations of British subjection' to complain against an offending non-British officer on their vessel: NAI, MS-CI, June 1910, 1-8A, 'Lascar crew of Nairn to Board of trade officer, Glasgow'.

45NAI, GI, CD-LS, June 1922, 1-30A, note by the department of industries, government of Bengal, September 1921.

46 Efforts to reform the recruitment system, including through the manipulation of knowledge, are discussed in Balachandran, 'Searching for the Sardar'.

47 See OIOC, L/E/7/1350, f. 1256 for evidence of this opposition at Genoa; also L/E/9/970, note titled `Genoa Convention on Seamen, 1920' 24 March 1934; even communist activists in British seamen's unions who wished to help organize Indian seamen preferred to do so secretly in order to avoid losing support from white seamen: L/PJ/12/143, 'Indians in London', secret intelligence report, 2 June 1923.

48 Both the Seaman, which was the newspaper of the national union of seamen, and the Daily Herald, that spoke for the labour party, carried several reports between late 1929 and the summer of 1930 demanding the elimination of `Chinese, Lascars, Kroo boys, etc. from British ships'; see for example the Seaman, 29 Nov. and the Daily Herald, 8 Dec. 1929.

49 Eventually the union backed off from an aggressive anti-foreigner stance because its membership at ports such as Cardiff now comprised many workers of African and Asian descent; Balachandran, 'Conflicts in the International Maritime Labour Market', pp. 87-90; more generally Tabili, 'We ask for British Justice', pp. 81-112.

50 Balachandran, 'Conflicts in the International Maritime Labour Market', pp. 93-100;

51 PRO, MT 9/2778 F. 3308, letters between Foley (Board of trade) and Bates (a Liverpool shipowner), March-May 1938; these were followed by a conference of shipowners and informal meetings with leaders of the national union of seamen.

52 OIOC, L/E/9/970, Indian trade union federation resolution of 12 Sept. and national seamen's union resolution of 26 Dec. 1932; seamen's petition to government of Bengal, 30 April 1932.

53 Several instances are recorded in OIOC, L/E/9/970; see in particular the letter from the Bombay shipping master to the government of Bombay, 30 December 1932:

the majority of the so-called Malay seamen who serve on ships in these latitudes during the winter months are lascars who desert their vessels in Singapore and take out Malay Continuous Discharge Certificates ....

Emboldened by the complicity of their crews, in whose purported interest these restrictions were imposed, masters also pleaded transparently flimsy excuses. The captain of Baron Vernon (letter of 24 January 1934), for instance, said he could not read the fine print of the articles of agreement because of `an exceptionally dense fog practically all the way across' to Boston, which `called for ... [his] attendance on the bridge'!

54 PRO, MT 9/3952 F. 6457, 'An investigation into conditions of the coloured population in a Stepney area', May 1944; contrast this with the report of the 1910 committee on distress among colonial and Indian subjects in Britain: NAI, MS-CI, May 1911, 1-15A.

55 On Niaz Mohammed, see

56 This account is based on OIOC, L/E/7/1390 F. 2503, L/PJ/12/645, and PRO, HO 45/13750.

57 Caroline Adams, Across Seven Seas and Thirteen Rivers: Life Stories of Pioneer Sylheti Settlers in Britain (London: Eastside Books, 1987) pp. 59-64.

58 NAI, MS-CI, 17-24A; between 1904 and 1908 Abdul jumped ship at Takoma, Shanghai, Hong Kong, London, Cardiff, and Bahia, refusing at London and Cardiff to work his way out of Britain unless he was offered European rates of pay.

59 On Ayub Ali and Tofussil Ali, whose later career she however confuses with that of Surat Ali, see Adams, Across Seven Seas, pp. 41-44.

60 Adams, Across Seven Seas, p. 44, though it is not clear whether Adams is referring here to Surat Ali or Tofussil Ali; also Rozina Visram, Asians in Brtian: 400 Years of History (London: Pluto Press, 2002) pp. 239-53; OIOC, L/PJ/12/630, L/PJ/12/646, L/E/9/976, L/E/9/977; and PRO, MT 9/3657 M. 14184/1941.

61 OIOC, L/PJ/12/452, and OIOC L/PJ/12/630.

62 OIOC, L/PJ/12/50, intelligence report of 26 Aug. 1925 and L/E/9/972, pp. 146-66.

63 Modern records centre, Warwick (MRC), NUS papers, MSS 175A Box 126; PRO, ADM 1/22978 ADM 1/22979.

64 For accounts of others see Adams, Across Seven Seas and Yousuf Choudhury, Roots and Tales of the Bangladeshi Settlers (Birmingham: Sylheti social history group, 1993); unfortunately comparable life stories are not available for seafarers from other regions of the Indian subcontinent.

65 The Glasgow Weekly Record, 18 Oct. 1930; also see the Manchester Evening News and the Manchester Evening Chronicle, 20 Mar. 1931; the Daily Despatch, 23 March 1931.

66 The Manchester Guardian, 20 March 1931.

67 Thomas M. Blagg to chief inspector, Liverpool, 28 Oct. 1930, in OIOC, L/E/9/962.

68 Report to chief constable, 26 Nov. 1930, in OIOC, L/E/9/962.


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Copyright: ę 2003 by the American Historical Association. Compiled by Debbie Ann Doyle and Brandon Schneider. Format by Chris Hale.

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