An Apprentice’s story
The day I lost seven Lascars in a flea market
When joined my first ship making my first trip as a young 17-year-old apprentice it was a completely new experience for me. My first ship was the MV “Southbank “discharging a full cargo of copra in the Royal Albert Dock in the huge port of London. The ship was a new cargo ship of the famous Bank Line crewed by Lascar seamen from Calcutta British Officers engaged in round the world voyages.
London then in May1953 was an exciting place to be as the city was preparing for the Coronation and its was full of visitors, armed forces in uniforms, and streets were being decorated with flags etc. Going up by bus from the docks to Piccadilly was a novel experience for me who, being brought up in the Highlands of Scotland where even the sight of traffic lights was a novel experience. I had to learn fast and make the best of it
When you start a career at sea you have all sorts of new experiences which can be bewildering at the time and learning to cope with them is not easy. I had been on board for less than a week when I was summoned to the Captain’s office and given a new task it was to take a group of five Lascar seamen to see the Doctor at the Seamen’s hospital at Greenwich. I had to go in uniform, and I was given a couple of pounds to cover bus fares.
It was the practice of Ships with Indian crews, who did not get overtime, to give the crew time off in lieu. This was eagerly looked forward to by the crew who went ashore to buy all sorts of second-hand materials such as Singer sewing machines and clothes. Charity shops were not in being then but flea markets such as Petticoat lane was a favourite as there were many Indian merchants there
Indian seamen then spoke extremely poor English and the Officers limited Hindustani. Getting to know what ailed them was no easy task “Something paining Sahib” was a common complaint but they could not be denied their visit to “the quack” as Doctors were called in ship’s speak in those days. Indian sailors looked forward to these trips to the Doc visits as they usually got a free trip up town, they came back with a moderate supply of pills and potions which they would then use but keep them until they returned home to sell or keep for use at home in Calcutta. Plus, after the visit to the Dr they could go to the Post Office and post letters home and then go to the nearest markets to hopefully buy second-hand gear.
I was extremely apprehensive as I led my gang or troop of seven Lascars down the gangway to go to the Dreadnought. I was dreading the job of not losing some of them as they persisted in walking Indian file and were hard to keep together. How I managed l will never know but what happiness it was for me to get eventually by bus to the magnificent Dreadnought hospital in Greenwich. The Doctor who attended them was well used to this sort of thing and had a smattering of Hindi and after an hour or so he had examined then all we started back to the ship the lascars laden with bottles of medicine, mostly stomach mixtures, cough linctus. Embrocation etc.
Getting my crew together after exiting Dreadnought I started the journey back to my ship. The wily Lascars had other plans and wanted to visit the Post Office and flea markets. They had each been given a sub by the Captain when the ship arrived, and they were intent on spending it. I was naïve and gave into their whines and we found a marker in the vicinity. My heart was in my mouth as I soon lost every Indian and despite searching frantically could not find them. I could do nothing except go back to the Royal Albert Dock without them.
Back onboard I was soon at the Captains door sheepishly telling him that I had lost seven of his crew. Expecting a severe dressing down at least I was astonished to hear him say. “Don’t worry laddie they will find their way back they are experts at this game” sure enough back they came and were next seen struggling up the Accommodation ladder with at least two sewing machines, bits of furniture and brick and brac. I soon learned that Indian crews when joining a ship with not much more than a pair of jeans and a T shirt would, after two years trip, accumulate a vast amount of gear from the various ports of call. The managed to store this gear all over the ship and they took home such things as old paint tins. Skeins of rope, old canvass, and unused rations of tea and sugar etc. Anything which could be used by their families at home was kept. They arrived on board thin and malnourished and left well fed and in much better condition. Accidents were few fortunately as they were good sailors even if not very strong. I would sail with them anywhere .any time.
A new crew of Thirty Lascars arriving to sign on would only require one lorry to carry their gear whereas the home going crowd would need at least three. It was always a fascinating experience to see a crew change at Bombay or Calcutta.
Over the years the Indian seamen got better treatment, became better educated and better nourished when at home. They are better paid and the change crew far from India and flying home means that bringing back goods etc is impossible.
The Dreadnought still exists to this day and has treated many thousands of Merchant Seamen and had a great reputation for its quality of treatment however II will never forget my visit there and the day I lost the Lascars.
Written by Captain John Campbell – grateful thanks….