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.