Other Seafarers, Other Histories

Recently published research in English language academic sources has given researchers without the relevant language skills some insights into how Lascars themselves might have reacted to being part of an imperial merchant marine under terms less advantageous than Europeans (Wemyss 2009, 141-160). This work was mostly preceded by individual and community initiatives that involved interviewing elderly seafarers who settled in Britain during the twentieth century. Beginning in the late 1970s, the Indian, Chinese, African and Arab seafarers of Liverpool, London and South Shields found their oral historians. Since then a second, and latterly, a third, generation of their descendants has made discoveries about their forebears (Adams 1987; Lin Wong 1989; Lane 1997, 82-95). Needing records that complement the unwritten memories transmitted from their elders, they have turned to manuscript sources, though not in any major way to the Agreements at Memorial. This section of the site is in part a discussion of what purpose might be served by looking at what documentation survives in the MHA for Lascars and, more briefly, for other non-British and non-European seafarers. It proposes a re-conceptualization of the activity of family history research on the basis of the methodological and ontological (positioning) issues involved in research when its subject is the racialized seafarer.

Searches in records written in a language that their ancestors were not born to must unfold differently from similar searches made by family historians whose ancestors were European. Only for the sake of the argument, and only briefly, do we presume the same inspiration motivates the searches of these two parties. Looking to trace an individual by name is especially difficult when that person was a Lascar or a Chinese or African seafarer. The trail very rapidly goes cold because of naming practices that do not follow the European mode of reference to the individual (Ewald 2000, 87). Then again, ancestral research is a culturally specific activity. Finding an individual is perhaps not the object of these researchers, and the completeness of the family tree may not be conceived as providing the answer to the question who are “we” and where do “we” come from?

Exposure to cultures that are non-western opens up questions of how generations perceive themselves as connected in and through past time within the specificity of their culture. Some of the keenest discoveries along these lines have come to the younger generations of settlers’ descendents. The length of their community’s accommodation to British culture often adds to their surprise that historical time is not a universal unfolding with calendar consistency. Professional historians too may have some re-learning to do: their recognition of family time as a form of historical consciousness has to encompass the plurality of families and communities constituted by religion, nationality, gender and ethnicity.

The “More Than a List of Crew” team possesses no particular expertise in the study of Indian, Chinese or African culture. Yet from the moment that we decided on a section of the website in which seafarers would tell their tales, we began to think seriously about discursivity and the text, and more so about how to give a presence to the inarticulate in the archive. Feeding into our discussions were the oral history publications mentioned above. Their authors had begun to make a case for different ways of identifying the intellectual and emotional sensibilities connecting their communities across the generations.

Completing a standard Agreement was a state procedure obliging persons to document themselves. It required an identity that could be made known in a form commensurate with western understandings of the individual. When literate European seafarers signed under an assumed name, as did one of Alex MacKay’s English shipmates, for example, they were not in conflict with the procedure of verification itself, even though their intention was for a time to erase at least one of the identities under which they worked as a seafarer.

But what did it mean for a non-British seafarer to become more permanently attached to a “passing” name? Consider Henry Johnson’s neighbour in 1871: we mean the Afro-Canadian seafarer noted in the census as “John Wesley”. With this name, perhaps the one he had from birth, he built bridges into the Nova Scotian community of religious non-conformists amongst whom he had settled (Whitfield 2006, 98-100). Methodism’s importance to the official ending of slavery in the British empire resonated in the name, even as it betokened the hybridity of African diasporic culture. Meanwhile, our team continues to speculate on the unresolved identity of an ethnic African in the photograph of the Bannockburn’s crew used on the landing page of this website. The image made him conspicuous by the colour of his skin, yet in the document he cannot be picked out by name or birthplace. He is George Douglas, or perhaps John MacDonald in what we take to be the Agreement for that voyage voyage (Bannockburn, ON, 93183, 1891, MHA). With reason, becoming a merchant seafarer has been seen as one opening for Africans and their families to embark on a course to freedom (Bolster 1997, Gutman 1966). Emancipation has come from the spatial relocation involved in seafaring employment, but under terms and conditions that rarely suggest there is equality of race under the “red duster” (Tabili 1994; Frost 1995; Hyslop 2009).

Different again is the case of token names that speak to the transient identities of seafarers. “Ah Me” was a Chinese seafarer travelling eastbound across the Atlantic. When we found him, in 1877, it was because we had gone in search of Henry Johnson. This was an unlikely version of his Chinese name, but it possibly served as well as any, at least in getting him to his destination. In New York, he jumped ship in the company of the Chinese ship’s cook. Perhaps amongst the Chinese community of that port he found people who esteemed him better, for there must have been an indignity in having to reply “Ah Me” at ship’s muster (St. Patrick, ON 64538, 1877, MHA).

These observations come from the MHA’s numerous documents of mixed nationality crews, and they are cases that have us thinking about personhood and identity in connection with the physical and cultural relocation entailed in seafaring. But the veritable flood of papers that prompted these speculations dries up where least expected. Lascars, the most numerous group of non-British merchant seafarers, are individually the most poorly documented in the surviving archive, and this can only be explained by their long-term and pivotal role in the British maritime empire. It seems paradoxical, but it is, of course, in keeping with how the technologies that were involved in the trans-national production of imperial maritime labour impinge on their archival stories (Ballantyne 2005).