Archive for December 31st, 2012

Of Fanás and Forecastles: The Indian Ocean and Some Lost Languages of the Age of Sail – 11 of 11

December 31, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



Despite the mutual contempt and hostility, the tensions on the Lady Campbell remained within the bounds of what might have been described, in the English of the day, as a banyan-fight (a ‘tongue-tempest’ that ‘never rises to blows or bloodshed’)[i]. The vessel made steady progress and even when the weather turned foul, as it did on the 17th of April, the passengers were not denied the comforts of the table.

Cadet Robert Ramsay wrote in his journal§: “Last night’s rolling exceeded all we had met with off the Bay of Biscay; in our Cabins every thing broke adrift and floated about in the water which came plentifully down the hatch-ways.


'Storm at Sea' Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633-1707) [Wikimedia Commons]

‘Storm at Sea’ Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633-1707) [Wikimedia Commons]

The thumping of our cots against the trunks or sides of the cabins prevented our having much sleep. Mr. C’s bottles of lime-juice , lavender water & c were found lying on the floors without their necks.













The close smell below was excessive and all forenoon the foul air could be seen rising through the hatches as if it was steam from a boiler. The Cutter was nearly lost in the night from one of the davids [davits] or large pieces of wood which support it giving way. – The day was as bad as the night. – endeavouring to keep in a sitting posture afforded excellent exercise. The milk-man fell and emptied the contents of his pitcher over himself, – a sudden lurch placed Mrs. H on her posterior close to the Lee Scuttle while coming to dinner, and last tho not least, while endeavouring to arrange my cabin I was pitched on one of my trunks and was glad to get off with a cut under one of my eyes. The scenes at the cuddy table baffle my powers of description: – “eat and drink while you can”, is the only way to get on; to have one hand at liberty for a whole minute was a rare occurrence. Legs of mutton, pork, hams, potatoes etc had no idea of remaining on their dishes: – the table-cloth was died with soup, butter, mustard, wine, beer & c. and the clothes of many shared the same fate: – the chairs were very fond of skating, making their owners measure their length upon the floor; Mr. C split Dr. H’s door with his head… It is extraordinary how the cook managed to dress the dinner in such stormy weather; there is the same variety of dishes, tarts etc as at other times; a little delay being the only difference. The present cook is a China-man who got into the ship among the Lascars; he soon became an assitant in the galley and was found to be a most expert hand, so much so as to excite the envy of his superior…

Ramsay’s journal has many other mentions of lascars and sepoys: “A lascar having struck the Serang was placed on the Poop; another Lascar with a bayonet in his hands, placed sentinel over the culprit; having begged the Serang’s pardon and said he would behave so again, he was released.”

A Lascar put on the Poop before Breakfast for stealing tobacco from one of his neighbours: –

“…  men taking in a craft load of rice for the Sepoys, there being 120 bags of about 130 lbs each, rice and red herring the chief food the sepoys, with a little mutton; amusing to see the beastly manner in which they gormandize the rice with their hands.”

January 8: A strange scene to hear the Sepoys bawling all their might in half a dozen languages.”

On occasion the passengers amused themselves with games and other diversions. Ramsay remarks of one such: “after dinner there was a game of Leap-Frog, the Lascars seemed highly amused with it.” Later Ramsay describes a theatrical evening, performed, or so the passengers believed, in the privacy of an awning on the quarterdeck. Amongst the various skits that were staged there was one of a ‘drunken Blackey’. During the performance of this piece Ramsay happened to look up: he found that many lascars were watching the skit from up above, their faces framed by rents in the awning.

And so they lived, lascars and live cargo, each watching the other’s enactments through tiny cracks in their wooden world.

On Monday June 27 the Lady Campbell sighted the coast of Bengal:




After dinner we saw Saugor Island a-head; the Pilot passed close to us; we passed several buoys in fathoms and anchored off Saugor at dusk. There were 6 large Indiamen lying in the new anchorage ; – Saugor is very low and overgrown with low trees and jungles, except a small point near the anchorage where one or two sheds were seen. A great deal of money was once laid out upon it but as fast as the jungle was cleared the sea carried off the soil.”





§ Catalogue number: JOD 5, Caird Library, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. The text of this journal has not, to my knowledge, ever been published. This transcription is mine and I have retained the original spellings, punctuation etc. I would like to thank the Museum and its staff for their courtesy and co-operation.

[i] Ocington (1690), quoted in Hobson-Jobson, p. 65 (“Sir G. Birdwood tells us that this is a phrase still current in Bombay”).


Of Fanás and Forecastles: The Indian Ocean and Some Lost Languages of the Age of Sail – 10 of 11

in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



Cadet Robert Ramsay’s diary§ entry for January 4, 1825, describes further trouble on the Lady Campbell: “A lascar having struck the Serang was placed on the Poop; another Lascar with a bayonet in his hands, placed sentinel over the culprit ….




On January 5: yet another lascar was in trouble, being “put on the Poop before Breakfast for stealing tobacco from one of his neighbours.”

Once at sea, the relations between the lascars and the others degenerated still further, leading to some oddly farcical confrontations on matters ranging from the serving of grog to personal hygiene. At noon on the 20th of January: “the Lascars were ordered to bring their beds on deck; on their refusing, Mr. Murphy ordered three of the hammocks to be cut down for that purpose; this raised a great irritation among the Lascars and the African (to whom I gave my old black waistcoat on Wednesday) even threatened Mr Murphy: – The African was ordered on the Poop but he refused to go, and when it was attempted to take him the Lascars came to his assistance; – after a considerable scuffle the African, an old surly Arab and two other ring-leaders were put in irons, chiefly by the officers; the African and another were quite furious vowing deadly revenge against the Second Captain: – I had never seen the blacks turn out in such numbers before; there was a dense crowd on the lee side, from the Poop to the forecastle; pre-eminent above the rest was the Lascar cook, – as black as ever demon was pictured – entirely naked, except a dirty rag about his waist; – and with a long charcoal stick in both hands; – several others had pieces of wood; nothing but the bayonets would set them forward, and a sepoy had a jag from one; – some of the Cadets who were below came up in a great hurry when the musquets and bayonets were called for; Mr Moore brought up his regimental sword, scabbard and all; – Mr. Corfield a cutlass; – others bayonets and Mr Burroughs brought up and flourished his walking cane, which he said was quite sufficient for these fellows; – as for myself, I stood all the time on the Poop peeling an orange; – the butcher was rubbing the sick dogs all the time with the greatest sang-froid, merely saying when any of the Lascars came too near him “Get out of the road you d-d rascal”; – at sunset the prisoners were taken down and ironed below; a watch was put over them and the ladies, especially Mrs. R was much afraid; the Butler was much offended at Mrs Clayhill’s speaking to him about the offensive smell he had from the Garlic he eats, and was appeased with much difficulty…

The next day, January 21st: “Shortly after breakfast all hands were mustered on the quarter-deck, the Europeans on one side and the Lascars on the other; the prisoners were brought up and everything being arranged the Captain began by stating his firm opinion that this disturbance among the Lascars was chiefly owing to dissatisfaction among the European sailors; that first the Bo’sun’s and then the other Messes began to refuse their Grog, for what reason they know best, and yesterday when the Lascars resisted the officers of the ship, with sticks in their hands, not above three sailors came to the officers’ assistance, but stood looking on, on the forecastle; – that there was not a more easily managed people in the world than Lascars, and that even if he had given the seacunnies grog (a thing never done before), if that was any object; – that in future he should no more trouble himself whether the Lascars assisted in navigating the vessel or no; – during this harangue the Captain was repeatedly interrupted by a sailor with a broken nose called Nells, who said he was the first that refused grog & he then addressed the Serang on refusing to bring up his bedding, and his allowing his men to resist the officers taking a man aft who had even threatened the 1st Mate; that he would now make an example of these four men and if ever a Lascar lifted, or threatened to lift, a stick to any officer he should be shot whatever should be the consequence, and that he (the Serang) should not leave the vessel till his conduct was inquired into by justice; the Capn then repeated to the African the expressions he had used to Mr. M and descanted on the heinousness of his crime as intelligibly as possible; then turning to the Lascars he shewed them the sticks they had used, and threatened summary punishment to whoever should shew the least disaffection in future; the African was then tied up and his shoulder bared, rather against his will, and the gunner stood all ready with the Cat in his hands; in the mean time both Serangs begged for the criminals release, and the Capn at last yielded, or seemed to yield to their solicitations, on condition that if any Lascar behaved in such a manner again, both Serangs and Tindals should be flogged as well as the culprit; — when the African was to all appearances just about to be flogged, half of the Lascars went away to the forecastle rather than see his punishment; – the almost naked cook made a prominent figure again amongst the motley group; his looks were as scowling as ever and altogher he was a perfect representationof the D_l without wings; – the other Lascars seemed quite submissive when all were assembled & the Capn was just about to speak a pistol was heard to go off in Mr M’s cabin; a servant had been loading it when it accidentally went off close to Mr. Strathfield; the ball hit the roof and retorted back on Mrs S.; on the report of the pistol the greatest anxiety was depicted on the face of the Lascars; plenty of arms had been taken out of the arms chest in case of necessity, but none were brought on deck; when the prisoners were released the Lascars went about their duties with the greatest alacrity… When the men were called out to set the fore stun’sail yesterday afternoon, the Lascars refused to come up; Mr. Murphy went down and told them if they did not work we should never arrive at Calcutta; “Ah” says they, “When we get to Calcutta, we will take you to the Police.





§ Catalogue number: JOD 5, Caird Library, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (see also my post of Dec 27). The text of this journal has not, to my knowledge, ever been published. This transcription is mine and I have retained the original spellings, punctuation etc. I would like to thank the Museum and its staff for their courtesy and co-operation.



Of Fanás and Forecastles: The Indian Ocean and Some Lost Languages of the Age of Sail – 9 of 11

in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



What was the texture of daily life aboard a ship with a large complement of lascars? The library of Western nautical fiction, vast as it is, has little to say on this subject and the lascars themselves, inveterate story-tellers though they are said to have been, were resoundingly silent about their experiences, at least on paper.[i] The passengers who traveled with them however, were anything but reticent: the length and tedium of long ocean voyages appears to have provided them, not just with the time and leisure, but also apparently the compulsion, to describe in detail everything they saw and experienced. Although many of their diaries and journals survive, few have been published – no doubt because most of them are just as tedious as the voyages they describe. But there are some exceptions. One such is the Journal of Cadet Robert Ramsay, the manuscript of which lies in the collections of the Maritime Museum at Greenwich in England.[ii] Ramsay was a very young man when he travelled to Calcutta in 1825, on the ship Lady Campbell. His journal does not make for easy reading – his hand-writing, terrible to start with, worsened considerably in bad weather – but he was an uncommonly good diarist.

Ramsay’s diary tell us that the Lady Campbell had seventy-four lascars on board and this company is presently revealed to consist of an assortment Africans, South Asians, Malays and Chinese. Although Ramsay does not say so, it seems likely that these men had embarked on the Lady Campbell not as part of her crew, but as paying passengers – this being necessary because of the legal restrictions on the employment of lascars. Yet it is clear from Ramsay’s journal that, paying passengers or not, the lascars were still expected to work – and this might well have been the cause of bitter resentment on their part. In any event there was trouble from the start. This is how Ramsay describes their embarkation on January 3, 1825, at Gravesend:





The lascars came from two different vessels; and have therefore two Serangs; one company consists of 60, the other of about 12: – the Serang (or bo’sun) of the 60 having ordered one of his men to work, on the man’s refusing, struck him. The man resented it, and a contest ensued; the 1st Mate gave the Serang a rope’s end and desired him to beat the man which was done, the Serang beating him over the head & face; the man caught the Serang by the hair, which was coiled up on his head, and pulled him by it, the other Lascars looking on and talking very fast in their tongue; – Mr. Murphy [the Mate] called the Serang, the Tindal (bo’sun’s mate) and some more Lascars to the quarter-deck and asked the Tindal why he did not assist the Serang as was his duty; – the Tindal replied it was not his business, that the Serang was in the wrong; and that he was not a countryman of the Serangs; (the Tindal was a gloomy, sulky, strong, determined looking Malay); Mr. Murphy told him if ever the Serang was insulted again and he (the Tindal) did not assist the Serang he should be flogged; and told the Serang to acquaint him (Mr. Murphy) if he did not; the Serang replied the Tindal was as bad as the man; they were ordered forward when in a little the Serang & Tindal were at very high words; Mr. Murphy came and ordered the Tindal on the Poop; – the latter refused; force was tried without effect; at last two sailors were ordered to take him; the blacks supported the Tindal and a scuffle ensued; but the sailors fists soon cleared the way and the Tindal was dragged to the Poop by the bo’sun, like a bundle of rags; the Armourer was sent for and the Tindal remained in irons on the Poop till dinner-time: – the Lascars were then all ordered below and threatened: – during the scuffle a black woman, Squinting Nancy, a passenger, having come to England as a Nurse, threw a large piece of iron in the direction of the Men! but falling short it hurt none: – what an Amazon!: – in the afternoon Mr. Murphy sent for her and told her if she ever did that again she would be put in irons like the Tindal; she denied having thrown the iron and set up a pretty chattering: – another black woman joined today; – when it is cold the English sailors work to warm themselves, but the Lascars cannot work for the cold, in a warm climate this will be reversed; a Lascar who has been in England only eight days has lost the use of his feet from the cold.


[i] This silence is not reducible merely to a lack of familiarity with written English: it extends even to the written corpus of the languages of the Indian subcontinent. In Bengali for example, Ghulam Murshid was able to find few traces of lascar history that predate the 20th century. See Ghulam Murshid, Kâlâpânir Hâthchâni: Bilete Bângalir Itihâs, Abosar, Dhaka, 2008. I would like to thank Prof. Ashraf Hossain of Dhaka University for bringing this work to my notice.

[ii] Catalogue number: JOD 5, Caird Library, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. The text of this journal has not, to my knowledge, ever been published. This transcription is mine and I have retained the original spellings, punctuation etc. I would like to thank the Museum and its staff for their courtesy and co-operation.



Of Fanás and Forecastles: The Indian Ocean and Some Lost Languages of the Age of Sail – 8 of 11

in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



If a ship was a living thing for lascars, was it always conceived of in the feminine, as was the case with European sailors? It is impossible to know of course, but I suspect not.


‘A Dismasted ship riding out the gale’, Frederick Tudgay, 1861 (Wikimedia Commons)

The word for dismasted, for example, is ‘lundbund’, which means literally ‘phallus-tied’ or ‘dismembered’, a locution that would make sense only if the mast were – at some register of speech – figured as a phallus.





Roebuck’s own gloss on this is very odd: he speculates that the term ‘lundbund’ comes from ‘nunga-moonunga’, meaning stark naked, which suggests that he was either overcome by an attack of pre-victorian prurience, or that he did not know what the word ‘lund’ meant (this is not impossible, since it is a common Indian trick to mislead foreigners about the meaning of such words. I must admit that I too am a sinner in this regard: once, in my salad days in Delhi, I was in a bazar with an English friend who was just beginning to learn Hindi. He spotted a brass lota, and having decided to buy it, wanted to know what it was called.



I confess, gentle reader, that I misled him … I will never forget the look on the shopkeeper’s face when my friend inquired about the price of his —-).




The word for ‘command’ in Laskari – which came to be used widely in English too – was ‘hookum’. Some of these provide interesting insights into the nature of the relations between lascars and their malums. For example, Roebuck translates the hookum ‘Heave and rally!’ as  ‘Hubes mera bap!’ [lit: ‘heave my father]  and goes on to add that “sometimes a little abuse is necessary; as for instance ‘hubes sâlâ! buhan chod hubes! (properly buhin chod hubes) or ‘hubes huramzadu!’.”[i]

So far as the grammar of Laskari is concerned, Roebuck insists that no matter how promiscuous its vocabulary, the language is fundamentally (as every Indian likes to say about his tongue) very ‘chaste’, insisting that “there is little difference between the rules of the high or Court Hindoostanee, and the dialect spoken by the Lascars.”[ii] In other words, the syntax of Roebuck’s Lascari is, or so he claims, that of pure Urdu/Hindusthani. This assertion is difficult to accept: if it were true, how could Laskari serve as disparate a group of people as the lascars seem to have been? Is it conceivable that unlettered Malays, Arabs and Africans were fluent in Urdu? Even among South Asian lascars, most were Bengalis, Tamils, Goans, Kachhis etc, and most were uneducated: it defies credulity that they could speak ‘courtly Hindusthani’. What is more likely is that Roebuck’s Laskari was used only in relation to matters pertaining to the running of the vessel: it was really just a language of command. For the rest, the lascars probably used, amongst themselves, a series of contact languages and pidgins, made up of elements of Swahili, Malay, and Hindusthani. To communicate with officers and white passengers – and possibly often amongst themselves as well – they probably used variants of the Sino-Portuguese-English pidgin that came to be associated with the South China Coast. This marvellously expressive dialect once flourished in many corners of the Indian Ocean, but like Laskari, it did not outlast the age of sail.


[i] Of these common swear words Roebuck provides no translation, which can be forgiven considering that his is a technical glossary. The same cannot be said however of the OED, which, while providing definitions for scores of obscure and archaic Hindi/Urdu words, is unaccountably silent on these, which were probably the first learnt by most Englishmen on arriving in India. Hobson-Jobson does indeed list ‘banchoot’ & ‘beteechoot’, but only to offer a coy evasion: “terms of abuse which we should hesitate to print if their odious meaning were not obscure ‘to the general.’ If it were known to the Englishmen who sometimes use the words, we believe there are few who would not shrink from such brutality.”

[ii] Lieutenant Thomas Roebuck, An English And Hindostanee Naval Dictionary, first published in Calcutta in 1811, lxvi










Of Fanás and Forecastles: The Indian Ocean and Some Lost Languages of the Age of Sail – 7 of 11

in Uncategorized | Comments (0)




The Laskari dialect was profoundly eclectic in its influences, as befits a language that was used by such a richly varied assortment of people. Consider the names for its ranks: ‘serang’, the seniormost, is thought to be derived from Malay; the next, ‘tindal’ from Malayalam;



‘Seacunny on Duty’
British India Steam Navigation Co Lted (


the word for helmsman, ‘sukkânî’ (rendered in English as ‘seacunny’) comes from the Arabic for rudder (sukkân);















the word for steward, ‘ishtor’, was an obvious adaptation of the English; ‘kussab’, a lower rank, may have come from Persian; and no one seems to know the derivation of the word for ‘sweeper’ – ‘topas/topaz’. One of the most interesting of these words does not actually find a place in Roebuck’s dictionary: it is the word ‘arkati’ meaning ‘pilot’, which is thought to be derived from the state of Arcot, near Madras, the Nawab of which once had in his employ all the pilots in the Bay of Bengal.[i] The Laskari word for ‘Mate’ – and officers generally – is ‘Malum’, from the Arabic ‘Mu’allim’, or ‘knowledgeable’. But how were the First and Second Mates distinguished from each other: were they Burra and Chhota, or Pehla and Doosra? Roebuck provides us with no clue.

Directional words are possibly the most frequently terms on a ship, and the most basic of these are ‘for’ard’ and ‘aft’. The Laskari equivalents of these, according to Roebuck, were ‘âgil’ and ‘pîchhil’. To anyone familiar with Hindi/Urdu these would appear to be mishearings of the words ‘âgey’ and ‘pîchhey’. But no: Roebuck assures us that this is how the words were pronounced by Lascars and he was certainly in a position to know. Two other directional terms, starboard and larboard, became in Laskari, ‘jamnâ burdu’ and ‘dâwâ burdu’ or, simply ‘jamna’ and ‘dawa’.

Anyone who has spent any time with sailors and boatmen in Asia, will know that they do not conceive of their vessels as inanimate objects: from Roebuck’s dictionary it would seem lascars, similarly, figured their vessels as living things. The most striking example of this is the Laskari word for the kamra known as the fo’c’sle. The English word comes, as the spelling indicates, from ‘fore-castle’ and dates back to a time when there was indeed a castellated fortification at the head of every ship. But in time the word came to refer to the farthest forward of all the vessel’s kamras, which consisted of a shallow, curved space between the bows. Being right above the taliyamar, this was the dampest, most uncomfortable part of the ship, and so naturally it was where the lowliest seamen were lodged. To be a fo’c’sleman, in English, meant much the same thing as shipping out ‘before the mast’ – it was to be a scrub, a Jack, a Tar, a Lascar. But the Laskari language, through an odd conceit, lends this crowded, cramped, foul-smelling kamra a small touch of poetry. The lascars’ word for it was ‘faná’, or hood, as in the flared head of a cobra – and of course, if a ship were to be thought of as a creature of the sea, then this would be exactly the part of its anatomy to which the location of the faná would correspond.




16 Cadets on the yardarms of INS Sudarshini




Similarly, the word for the yard – the spar from which a sail hangs – is ‘purwan’. Roebuck writes of this: “Purwan, I think is compounded of Pur a wing, or feather, and Wan, a ship, which last word is much used by the lascars from Durat (properly Soorut) etc. so that Purwan, the yards of the ship, might also be translated the wings upon which the ship flies”.


[i] Cf. Albert Barrère, & Charles Leland: Dictionary of Slang , Jargon & Cant, Ballantyne Press, 1889.




ucuz ukash