Lascars and the Parliamentary Committee (1902-3)

The website’s previous section provides context for the exchanges that took place when a committee on merchant shipping appointed by the Board of Trade met in 1902. Text from the published report of the Committee is incorporated into our script for the Lascar seafarer, Futley Ali Kala (MM Committee 1903, Report, 339-340). As a non-English speaker, his testimony was given to the committee via a translator, and a judicious listener will weigh that into their understanding. His original testimony was not preserved, so the problem of determining whether the translation is faithful is not resolvable. Shortly we will tell you more about the man who was recruited to speak Ali Kala’s words, Khan Bahadur Darasha Ruttonjee Chichgur. A profile is provided here of the trade unionist and MP, Havelock Wilson, the only one of the ten committee members, aside from the Chairman, to ask questions of Ali Kala. Sir Francis Jeune, a British judge and President of the Admiralty Division of the High Court of Justice, was the committee’s chair.

Parliamentary papers are an eminently useful source to the maritime historian. Because of its importance to the nation, numerous committees on merchant shipping reported to the British parliament in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The committee of 1902-3 was not established just to review Lascar employment, but Lascars were too numerous by that date to be overlooked in any serious examination of the industry (MM Committee 1903, Report, v). Two factors are already indicated, the recent Boer war that had panicked the authorities about the state of civilian reserves in wartime, and the unease that organized labour felt about the potential for their members’ employment conditions to be undermined by Lascars when they started appearing more frequently in Atlantic waters. For statistics resort was had to the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen who reported that in 1901 there were 37,431 Lascars, 37,174 foreigners and 151,376 British seafarers on British merchant vessels (MM Committee 1903, Minutes, Appendix M, no. 1).

Firemen, coal trimmers and seamen had been called to testify to earlier Commons committees. Yet the appearance of Lascar witnesses was unprecedented. It might well be noted, however, that they were foremen among the Lascars (serangs and tindals), not ordinary seafarers. The committee recruited them through Parliament’s one Indian-born MP, the Conservative representative for Bethnal Green, Sir Mancherjee Bhownaggree. Bhownaggree contacted Ali Kali and his three companions in the London Docks where they had been labouring aboard ships for several weeks. Havelock Wilson elicited this information. Persisting with his questioning, he got Ali Kali to speak about Lascar discontent over dock work. Otherwise Ali Kala professed that Lascars were satisfied with their conditions and earnings.

At Bombay Lascars had already met, anticipating the deliberations of the committee (Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 30 June 1902). They declared their unwillingness to see their conditions of employment changed, professed loyalty to the British crown, and expressed approval of the shipping companies employing Lascars. Chichgur, the meeting’s organizer, was to convey this to the committee.

Lascars thought their employment under threat: if Wilson’s union, the NS&FU, prevailed in its intentions to see their wages rise and accommodation improved they would be priced out of the market. This would have disastrous effects on the families who depended on their earnings. Wilson posed many difficult questions about Lascars and other matters at the enquiry only to find his credibility questioned in subsequent parliamentary debates. Did he hold, as he had claimed, a Royal Naval Reserve Certificate? And what kind of seafarer was he in any case: for most of his time at sea had he not been serving meals from the galley of a small cargo vessel? (Hansard 1902, 103, cc. 1258-65). More pertinent, perhaps, is the criticism that historians have made of him, and it concerns the exclusionary intentions of the measures he proposed. A language test seemed designed to preclude any non-British seafarer from being recruited at a British port (Hyslop 2009, 61). But the problem we are left to wrestle with concerns the testimony of Futley Ali Kala, and it is troubling mostly because it was provided in another language than its printed version. The man who was called upon to translate for Ali Kala and for the three other Lascars was educated. Chichgur was an Indian university graduate and a Justice of the Peace (MM Committee 1903, Minutes, Q. 9093). Yet, at Bombay Chichgur was professionally involved in the supply of Lascars (MM Committee, Minutes Qs. 9215-9216). It is conceivable that he might have earned the unflattering label “crimp” had he been based in a North American or British port.

We have reservations, then, about whether we can truly say this is Ali Kala telling his own tale, but that in no way puts in doubt the authenticity of the source. Instead this information is provided so that the users of our site can be better informed when evaluating these exchanges. In recent years enthnographic sensibilities have made a considerable difference to how the historian does his or her work, and we urge that this discussion of Lascars and their employment calls for knowledge of how subjects were positioned in the orthodox narratives of empire. Shortly we will turn to the insights that emerge when those narratives are more substantially disrupted.

Click here for a recording of the scripted version (reproduced below) of Futley Ali Kala's evidence to the Committee on the Mercantile Marine 1902-1903, Qs. 10,792-10,768.

Jeune: Mr Ali Kala, this committee conducts its proceedings only in the English language so you are here today as a translator for Mr Ali Kala. You will convey his response to us?
Ali Kala: Yes.

Juene: Where do you come from?
Ali Kala: From the Punjaub, from Jellahabad.

Juene: Are you a Mahomedan?
Ali Kala: Yes.

Juene: How long have you been at sea?
Ali Kala: About 13 years.

Juene: Have you been a fireman the whole time?
Ali Kala: Yes; I was first a second class fireman.

Juene: What are you now?
Ali Kala: A fireman tindal, next to the serang.

Juene: What ships have you served on?
Ali Kala: On the “Shannon,” the “Thames,” the “Clyde,” the “Carthage.”

Juene: All P. and O. steamers?
Ali Kala: Yes, and I have served in an outside company named the “Mahomedi.”

Juene: In the P. and O. steamers have you come backwards and forwards between England and India?
Ali Kala: Yes, and I have been to Sydney.

Juene: You have been to Australia as well?
Ali Kala: Yes, and China.

Juene: Do you feel the cold much in European waters?
Ali Kala: No, I am accustomed to cold.

Juene: In your own country, I suppose, the Punjaub?
Ali Kala: Yes.

Juene: Do you find the work harder in European waters or Indian waters?
Ali Kala: Here it is all right, but it is, on the other side it is rather hard.

Juene: Have you ever served with Europeans in the stokehold?
Ali Kala: No.

Juene: Have you ever been in any ship where there have been Europeans in the stokehold?
Ali Kala: No.

Juene: As regards the food, are you satisfied with the food you get?
Ali Kala: Yes, whatever we get is enough.

Juene: It is put down in the agreement, I suppose?
Ali Kala: In the articles; they give extra food in the cold waters.

Juene: You have different food in cold waters from what you have in Indian waters?
Ali Kala: When it is extreme cold they give us double allowance, but not now, only when it is very cold.

Juene: As to the accommodation on board ship, do you find that sufficient?
Ali Kala: Yes, it is enough, and now the number of men are even reduced, so we have more space.

Juene: What wages do you get now in your present position?
Ali Kala: 24 rupees.

Juene: And what did you get when you were an ordinary fireman?
Ali Kala: 18 rupees.

Juene: I suppose you have never served in the Royal Navy?
Ali Kala: No, I can do, but I have never served.

Juene: Would you like to be a Naval Reserve man, and serve some time in warships?
Ali Kala: Yes, I can do it, and I should like to go.

Jeune: Mr Wilson, you wish to ask questions of the witness.

Wilson: I do.

Wilson: How long have you been in London?
Ali Kala: Nearly three months.

Wilson: Then you are not on board of a ship, are you?
Ali Kala: Yes, I am working on board a ship.

Wilson: On the same ship for three months in port?
Ali Kala: No, I am changed to another ship, from one ship to another.

Wilson: Have you heard of a case where some Lascars two weeks ago were up at the police court at West Ham from a ship in the Albert Docks?
Ali Kala: Yes, there were one or two men who had some row and they went to the police.

Wilson: What was the row about?
Ali Kala: They had some dispute among themselves. I do not know what – when they came out there was some dispute.

Wilson: Did you hear of another case where a whole crew of Lascars were up at the police court because of their agreement not being carried out by the shipowners?
Ali Kala: No, they did not go to the police court. The men had some row with the serang, and it was settled in the dockyard, but it never went to the police court.

Wilson: Do you know the P. and O. steamer “Britannia”?
Ali Kala: Yes.

Wilson: Do you know that the crew of that ship were up at the police court a month ago – six men?
Ali Kala: Yes.

Wilson: What was the complaint they had?
Ali Kala: There was some extra work given by the serang at night to them and they resented it.

Juene: Thank you Mr Chichgur and Mr Ali Kala. The Committee appreciates your presence at its proceedings today. Gentlemen, we resume tomorrow.