Clan Line’s Lascar Crews

Charles Cayzer had worked for only one shipping line, the British India Steam Navigation Company, prior to founding his own line, Clan Line in 1878.  British India was originally founded by Scotsman William Mackinnon as the Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company, in 1856, and it was to learn the business of this company that seventeen-year-old Charles moved to Bombay (now Mumbai); the Calcutta and Burmah was reconstituted as British India in 1862. Mackinnon was a fiercely patriotic Scot, who preferred to recruit employees from his homeland, or better yet his own ancestral village, and to do business with Scottish businesses and businessmen.

The British India Line favoured European officers, and Indian crews; the crews were known as lascars, an Indian word for sailors.  A lascar crew was usually recruited from a single village by someone in that village; and would consist of many of his male relatives and friends.  The crews did not need to speak English, or even to swim, to work aboard the ships, but their recruiter who would probably already have had experience working aboard European ships, would have enough English to communicate with the officers, and would be the Deck Serang (supervisor of the crew, and point of contact between the crew and the officers).  The Deck Serangs would negotiate at the docks with representatives of the shipping lines on behalf of their team, and if an agreement was reached, the whole crew were officially signed onto the crew list.  In truth lascars were paid less than English crews might have been; but from the lascars’ point of view, the money they earned at sea was far more than they could earn working the fields in their villages, and with food and lodging included in their terms of employment, they could save a great deal of their pay to send home to their families.

After the best part of 20 years working for British India, Charles Cayzer stayed with what he knew best when he founded Clan Line.  He founded the line in Glasgow as Scotland was where most of the contacts he had made during his career with British India were based.  Clan Line also used much the same combination of European officers and lascar crews as the British India line.

While we know nothing about the treatment of lascar crews working for British India, we have a good idea about the lascars working for Clan Line.  Charles Cayzer expected his captains to treat their lascars well, and fairly.  Lascars would bring their own cook aboard, and stores for the ship would include supplies of the ingredients required by the cook, to prepare the meals the crew wanted, and preferred.  They were allowed time for prayers throughout the day, and their religious festivals and rites were respected.

Newspaper clipping: letter from the secretary of the Navy League,

Charles Cayzer first stood as an M.P. in 1892 for the constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, which seat he held for fourteen years.  A few years later he was persuaded (somewhat reluctantly, owing to his age and health) to stand once again, for the Monmouth Boroughs, in the General Election of 1910.  There was always mud-slinging in election campaigns, but in Newport, with its port, docks, and workforce of seamen, there was muttering that Cayzer did not support British seaman, since he famously crewed his ships with lascars.  A small cutting in the albums he kept throughout his political career is an undated (but circa January 1910) letter printed in an uncredited newspaper, from the Secretary of the Navy League, William Crutchley, defending the right of all British subjects (including, of course, the pre-Partition lascars), to be employed on British ships:
   As perhaps you are aware, one of the objects of the Navy League is to encourage the employment of British seamen for British ships, but the Navy league has never said and will never say that a British Subject is less British or less worthy because he is a darker colour than ourselves.  Moreover I think it would be a mistake to oppose the adoption by our Indian fellow-subjects of the calling of the sea.

Sir Charles carefully pasted the cutting into his album, but the Newport voters were not to be swayed, and it is quite possible that he was slightly relieved to lose the election, when his heart had never really been in the campaign.  Lascars would continue to be employed on Clan ships for many decades to come.

Newspaper clipping re Clan Line ships at the centenary celebrations of The Comet, Glasgow 1912

The city of Glasgow held a three-day celebration at the end of August 1912, to mark the centenary of PS (paddle steamer) Comet, the first sea-going steamship in Europe, which had been built in Glasgow.  On the final day of celebrations, with masses of decorations throughout Glasgow and its dockyards, crowds gathered to watch a large pageant of old and new ships of all sizes, fully dressed for the day, processing slowly down the Clyde.  Clan Line had three ships in the pageant of which two were turret ships, at the time a fairly novel design for a freight ship.  Turret ships had a deck just above the waterline, and the local paper, which went into great detail about the celebration, singled out Clan Line’s lascar crews who all stood to attention on the turret ships’ decks as they travelled in the pageant.  Clan Line, as one of the largest freight lines operating out of Glasgow, was proud of itself, and of its lascar crews.

When WWI broke out in 1914, many Clan Line officers and their lascar crews opted to remain with their ships, even if those ships were commandeered by the Admiralty, or were otherwise engaged in government work (generally moving men, equipment and munitions around Europe).  As a freight line, however, many of the ships continued in their traditional roles, bringing essential supplies back to Britain.  The German submarines were quick to begin their campaign against enemy ships, and the Clan Matheson, was the first Clan ship to be sunk, in September 1914.  After the end of WWI, the Directors of Cayzer Irvine, the managers of Clan Line, commissioned a history of Clan Line in the Great War, from Archibald Hurd, a writer with experience in writing maritime histories.  Hurd was given access to the Captains’ Reports written for Head Office by captains at the conclusion of their voyages.  Hurd was specifically given access to the wartime reports, still dutifully composed by the captains (or occasionally by the most senior surviving officer, if the captain had not survived to return home).  Unfortunately these reports do not survive in the archive, but there are glimpses of the lascar crews to be spotted in Hurd’s comments and quotes.

Clan Macalister was sunk in 1915.  Hurd says “her crew, both British and Indian, behaved in the most admirable manner, and in the end took to their boats in perfect order [while still under fire].  Captain Taylor afterwards paid a very high tribute to the courage and coolness of the Lascar seamen…”  This was courage indeed from the lascars; as has been noted earlier, most of them could not swim, and their bravery under fire, at sea, deserved recognition.  The last ship sunk in 1915 was the Clan Macfarlane.  The report to Head Office was written by the Chief Officer as the Captain had been lost as sea; the entire crew “behaved splendidly, maintaining the highest degree of courage and discipline”.

The Clan Farquhar was sunk in 1917.  Again, it was the Chief Officer who made the official report: “All on board had behaved with the utmost steadfastness and courage in the terrible ordeal to which they had been subjected.”

The Clan Cameron was also torpedoed in 1917, on her way back to Glasgow, the damage was so serious that the lascar crew were immediately evacuated into her two remaining lifeboats.  As the ship was not so far from land, a rescue tug was able to take all the officers off the ship, one hour later.   Two hours after that, the German submarine sent another torpedo to sink the Cameron for good.  “Fortunately, owing to good discipline onboard, the whole of the crew were saved”.  Things had not gone quite so well for the crews of the Farquhar or the Macalister.

The archive holds a printed document entitled War Risks. Seaman’s Compensation Scheme: Lascars.  This document, written around 1915, sets out a way of making the Workmen’s Compensation Act (1906) accessible to the widows of lascars who died as a result of their employment aboard British ships during WWI.  These wives would be eligible for a widow’s pension, but as they lived in India, they were unable to apply for the pension in person through a British court, or to access the payment which would normally be paid into a British bank.

In section 6:
The procedure under the Workmen’s Compensation Act 1906, is clearly inapplicable to the case of the dependants of a Lascar Seaman who are resident in India.

It is almost impossible for them to make the journey to this Country to establish their claims, and even if they did there is no machinery available under which the amount paid into Court could be applied by the Judge here for their maintenance and benefit after their return to their homes.

In section 7:
…But the Lascars, equally with the European seamen, are entitled to the promised benefits[of the Workmen’s Compensation Act (1906)]. and it is of the first importance that this promise should be honoured promptly.

Having said this, there was no possibility of opening some sort of special war pension agency in India, and the answer to was engage the co-operation of the Indian Government in administering the scheme and paying the pensions.

In section 9:
Seeing that the Lascars are all engaged before Officials of the Indian Government, and that already that Government is paying pensions, it is hoped that the assistance required could be given without imposing any serious burden on the Indian Government. It is not anticipated that there will be many cases to deal with.
Considering the number of shipping lines in Britain in the early 20th century, and the number of deaths that Clan Line’s crews alone had suffered, this was an unfoundedly optimistic forecast.

By the end of WWI, the Clan Line had lost 29 ships, 61 officers and about 275 lascars.  Fatalities are almost impossible to gauge accurately, since some deaths were immediate, while others may have occurred years later as a result of injuries sustained at the time.

Captain George Purssey Phillips joined Clan Line as a 4th Officer in 1897, and retired as commodore of the Fleet in 1938.  Phillips had begun his career as an apprentice for the Willis Line, a small fleet of sailing ships, most notably the Cutty Sark.  After retirement, Phillips wrote his autobiography, and spoke with admiration of the lascars he had learned his trade alongside in Willis Line ships:
   When I was in Cutty Sark and Dharwar [another Willis Line ship], I served among some of the finest sailors I could wish to meet.”

Phillips had made the move to Clan Line as soon as he completed his apprenticeship, and on Clan ships, lascar crews were the norm.  He rose through the ranks to become Captain, and was seen by Clan Line management as a safe pair of hands.  In early 1918, Phillips was sent by Head Office to temporarily take over the command of Clan Forbes, carrying coal from Britain to the Mediterranean for the war effort.

The ship arrived safely but the arrival was during the month of Ramadan, and his lascar crew was entirely Muslim.  The majority of the contemporary readers of Phillips’ autobiography might well not have known what Ramadan was, so Phillips briefly explains what this is, as he understands it, how the lascars observed the month, and how Clan Line makes allowance for it

   [We] arrived in Ramadan, the month of the Mohammedan year when absolute fasting from dawn to sunset is required of all Believers.  […] The fast begins on the night the new moon is actually seen, and lasts until sight of the next new moon. […] During the daytime, Believers take no food or drink, and see no women; if they can afford to do so, they spend the time in retreat, preferably praying in a mosque.
   The last ten days of the month are peculiarly sacred; and during this period falls the ‘Night of Power’ [Laylat al-Qadr] when intercourse between Heaven and earth is open and great wonders can be performed.
   My Mohammedan porters watched for the first glimmer of the new moon, and then came up to me and salaamed.  Their work was slow during the fast; how they can shovel coal at all, without a spot of drink for twelve or more hours, under a blazing sun, I don’t know; it is a great tribute to faith.
   They eat and drink well enough during the night, but without the intemperance attributed to them by some white writers.  At the end of the time they have a day of prayer; and then we usually give them extra food and a day’s holiday.

Captain Phillips’s account is remarkably full, and the earliest record we have of company policy regarding the lascars in action.  Phillips recounts this anecdote as just the normal way this was done in Clan Line.  A day’s holiday for the entire crew was no small matter, and would probably have required the ship to sit in idleness, or stay one more day in port.  Sadly for the crew of Clan Forbes, only a few days after the end of Captain Phillips’ temporary tenure as master, the ship was hit by a torpedo and sunk, en route to Gibralter.  Two lascars were killed, and several others were seriously injured, but everyone still alive was able to get into the lifeboats, and all survivors were subsequently rescued.  Archibald Hurd quoted from the new captain’s Report to Head Office. “All the boats were safely manned and lowered, the native crew behaving with admirable discipline.”  Phillips never called his crew “natives”, but unlike Hurd, Phillips was a seasoned mariner.  He refers to his men variously as seamen, sailors, crew and lascars.  The lascars were his colleagues, and as Captain, his ultimate responsibility. More about Captain Purssey Phillips’ life and career, here.

Another free-lance writer, Gordon Holman, was commissioned by the Directors of Cayzer Irvine to chronicle the Clan Line experience in WWII.  Holman took a different approach to Hurd; and did not quote directly from the Captains’ Reports.  However his book does offer up enough information to say that by the end of WWII, Clan Line had lost 37 ships (this includes every ship of every line that Cayzer Irvine, the management company for Clan Line, owned and/or managed).  The number of fatalities by the end of WWII was 100 officers, 33 MN gunners and DEMS ratings, and 508 lascars. 

[The gunners and DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships) ratings were from the Merchant and Royal Navy, and were personnel put aboard Clan ships to operate the guns which were mounted on both sides of the vessel, for the ships to try and defend themselves in case of enemy attack.]

Lascar crews were employed by Clan Line for over a century, until the last of the ships was sold in the early 1980s.  There are many now long-retired ex-Clan Line officers who still have very fond memories of the lascar crews they once sailed with, and how often as junior officers (and sometimes not so junior officers) they were invited to slip along to the crew mess to share in delicious curries with their fellow crew-mates.