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Bodies and Structures 2.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History

Lascars and Manilamen

I am exceedingly ashamed to say that I am still here. I hope however to get away tomorrow with a gang of Manilamen for I can get no others. Every Lascar in the place has been shipped for the Lord Amherst and she is still short. JM B2 18, Reel 31, 123, Captain MacKay at Macao to William Jardine in Canton, November 4, 1835.
Even supposing them all good men, which is exactly the reverse of the fact, we have six Manila men who cannot speak one word of anything except bastard Span [Spanish], we have eight Lascars who know nothing of anything except Bengalee, our mates and apps speak solely English, our Capt. knows English and Bengalee and musters a few words of Span for the men at the wheel, but there is no bond of common and we are all thoroughly desperate at the babel. JM K1-1, Place Book of James Innes during a trip up the East Coast, 1833.

The laborers and sailors who crewed the ships owned by Jardine-Matheson, both the clippers plying between China and India, and the coastal receiving ships, are frequently referred to in the archive as Manilamen and Lascars. In the first quote above, Captain MacKay of the Jardine ship The Fairy complains that the rival firm Dent & Company's ship The Lord Amherst (Captained by Thomas Rees) had hired “every Lascar in the place [i.e. Macao].” In the second quote, the opium trader James Innes complains about the diversity of his crew during an 1833 trip up the coast from Lintin to Fujian.

The term “lascar” was used into the twentieth century in connection with sailors from the greater Indian Ocean region. It is not strictly an ethnic identifier, although the two Jardine-Matheson captains quoted above seem to have understood the term as connected to sailors who spoke Bengali. Some of the most textured descriptions of lascar sailors come from the fictional Ibis trilogy of author Amitav Ghosh. Below the quotations is a map detailing a collection of the potential origins of sailors for a Jardine-Matheson ship during these years.

On learning who lascar sailors were, and were they came from:

This was Zachary's first experience of this species of sailor. He had thought that lascars were a tribe or nation, like the Cherokee or Sioux: he discovered now that they came from places that were far apart, and had nothing in common, except the Indian Ocean; among them were Chinese and East Africans, Arabs and Malays, Bengalis and Goans, Tamils and Arakanese. They came in groups of ten or fifteen, each with a leader who spoke on their behalf.*

On the challenges of a newly-arrived American learning to sail on a lascar-crewed ship in the 1830s (echoing the James Innes quote above):

Having been put in charge of the ship's stores, Zachary had to familiarize himself with a new set of provisions, bearing no resemblance to the accustomed hardtack and brined beef; he had to learn to say “resum” instead of “rations”, and he had to wrap his tongue around words like “dal”, “masala” and “achar.” He had to get used to “malum” instead of mate, “serang” for bosun, “tindal” for bosun's mate, and “seacunny” for helmsman; he had to memorize a new shipboard vocabulary, which sounded a bit like English and yet not: the rigging became the “ringeen”, “avast!” was “bas!”, and the cry of the middle-morning watch went from “all's well” to “alzbel”. The deck now became the “tootuk” while the masts were “dols” a command became a “hookum” and instead of starboard and larboard, fore and aft, he had to say “jamna” and “dawa”, “agil” and “peechil”.**

* Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (Viking Press, 2008), p. 13.

** Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (Viking Press, 2008), p. 15.

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