Aaron Jaffer. Lascars and Indian Ocean Seafaring, 1780-1860: Shipboard Life, Unrest and Mutiny. Rochester: Boydell Press, 2015. 288 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78327-038-5.
Reviewed by Lakshmi Subramaniam (Centre for Studies in Social Sciences)
Published on H-Asia (May, 2016)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha
Action at Sea: Recovering Lascar Mutinies in an Age of Sail in the Indian Ocean
A significant trend in recent historical scholarship on the Indian Ocean has been to turn the spotlight on sailors and seafarers, thus moving away from the merchants and commodities that once formed the staple of Indian Ocean studies. What has characterized this scholarship so far has been a focus on piracy and predation on the one hand, and on mutiny and desertion on the other, both of which were not only intimately connected but were very much part of a culture of resistance to the newly emerging colonial dispensation under the English East India Company. Jaffer’s book is a valuable addition to this corpus of writings for it engages with the challenges of recuperating the world of rebellious lascars in the closing years of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century. It rightly questions the silence of existing work on the lascars before industrialization and capitalist regulation--forces that crucially impacted maritime labor, which was caught, as Marcus Rediker put it, between the devil and the deep sea. Additionally, it points to the challenges that confront the researcher working with a fragmented archive, where there are virtually no life accounts by Indian sailors, and where materials such as log books followed protocols that did not take into account the needs of a future historian. As Jaffer points out, “Even the most honest and conscientious log keepers gave few details about the non-European portion of a ship’s crew” (p. 23). The silences in the archive therefore, have tended to bolster the impression that mutinous behaviour was perhaps not so frequent among Indian sailors; in fact for the earlier period, i.e., the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, scholars like Ashin Dasgupta and Jan Qaisar found no examples of mutinies on Indian ships, while M. N. Pearson went as far as to suggest that the limited data available on Asian ships revealed a situation of harmony and cooperation and not stress and violence.
Was this true of Indian sailors in European shipping? How did Indian sailors, lascars, and their headmen fare on European ships and deal with regimes of regulation and punishment? Did they strike, skulk, desert, and seize ships when the going got rough? These are questions that form the bulk of Jaffir’s story. For while we know from existing work that Indian sailors were extensively deployed in European merchant shipping and that they often complained of ill treatment by European captains and refused to serve after the end of their contract, what we do not know is how they transformed these instances into collective activity. It is this aspect of lascar militancy that Jaffer explores. As he puts it in his introduction, his focus is on recovering those everyday forms of resistance and open mutiny and seizure of ships and in the process to recover Rediker’s “unknown man,” the elusive sailor. Implicit in the enquiry is the reality of lascar resistance and mutinies in the latter decades of the eighteenth and the first quarter of the nineteenth century, instances of which are carefully and systematically recorded by Jaffer, thus providing a useful corrective to the general understanding that mutinies were part of a reaction to latter-day capitalist regimes affecting steam ships. However, the treatment of lascar mutiny remains more descriptive than analytical even though there is predictably an attempt to question issues of categorization (for instance, who is a lascar and why is it a slippery term?), of hierarchy (relations between lascars and sarangs), of functions aboard ships, of modes of violent action, and finally, of representation of lascar rebellions, both official and literary. Most of these issues follow from the nature of the archive that Jaffer handles. What is impressive is that he is sensitive to the archival grain and it is this quality that makes the book a pleasurable exercise in historical ethnography.
The book is structured around mutinies and related episodes of disaffection and unrest that assumed several forms. It looks at causes, manifestations of mutiny, and repercussions following thereof, including reprisals. This gives the reader access to the actual working conditions and modes of social interaction on board ships; the multi-ethnic composition of crews and the levels of incompatibility and intelligibility made working conditions fraught, not to speak of the more gratuitous forms of physical and verbal abuse that lascars were subjected to. The overarching impression that is conveyed is the fact of cultural difference that fueled discontent even if the actual evidence presented in the chapters stresses material conditions of privation, of scarcity of supplies and rations, of extreme forms of humiliation and punishment. One misses the possibility of reflecting on the moral economy of the mutineers in this period--given that we do have instances of recorded protest in the early eighteenth century when lascars refused to consider a renewal of their contract. It would have been instructive to speculate on what lascars thought was their due and how they framed their aspirations and frustrations. Here, a detailed examination of the depositions with all their biases would certainly have helped reconstruct the complex world of maritime labor, especially its subaltern segments, and could have forced the author to push the question of political agency a little more explicitly. For there is a nagging sense of ambivalence in Jaffer’s treatment; while on the one hand, he makes a strong empirical case for lascar rebellions, the spread and intensity of which suggest conditions of solidarity, planning, and mobilization, there is an explicit admission on the other (see conclusion) that these mutinies did not share the elements of maritime radicalism found in the Atlantic experience. Where does this leave the reader? Was the Indian Ocean lascar then not a political subject? Was his resistance simply episodic and uninformed by considerations of rights and entitlements? The actual facts presented in the narrative do suggest a complex picture of lascar responses and disaffection and there are fascinating glimpses of modes of protest that included use of prayer, songs, and chants, and even sartorial initiatives. Also, mutinous moments seemed to have worked as liminal interludes and in fact the evidence so carefully garnered by Jaffer seems to have more potential for interpretation. What role, for instance, did religion play in the organizing of solidarities? Were there specific invocations that gestured to a language of protest? I am fully aware that the archival material on hand may not have all the answers that are sought but in the very reconstruction of shipboard life, one could have speculated a little more expansively on the moments of rupture and discord.
This is not to detract from the significance of Jaffer’s work, which is one of the most comprehensive accounts of seaboard life on the Indian Ocean. It details actual conditions of work and social interaction and makes excellent use of visual images to tell a story of labor that has remained virtually unexamined in Indian Ocean studies. The appendix is equally telling and eloquent as it provides in a log book template details of actual action and mutiny and which embodies the mixed and multi-ethnic composition of labor at sea. We have fascinating references to Christian mates and Muslim tindals, slaves, servants, mistresses, and Malay chiefs who helped themselves to the spoils of mutiny, to pre-emptive action taken by mutineers who inverted hierarchies on board the vessel, all of which provide leads and possibilities for further research.
. Simon Layton, “Discourses on Piracy in an age of Revolution,” Itenerario 35, no. 2 (2011). See also Clare Anderson, Nicolas Frykman, Lex Heerma van Voss, and Marcus Rediker, eds., Mutiny and Maritime Radicalism in the Age of Revolution: A Global Survey, International Review of Social History Supplements, December 2013 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
. Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
. M. N. Pearson, “Life at Sea,” in The Trading World of the Indian Ocean, 1500-1800, ed. Om Prakash, vol. 3, History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization (Delhi: Pearson, 2012), 656.
. Ashin Dasgupta, Indian Merchants and the decline of Surat, c. 1700-1750 (Delhi: Manohar, 1994), 41.
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Lakshmi Subramaniam. Review of Jaffer, Aaron, Lascars and Indian Ocean Seafaring, 1780-1860: Shipboard Life, Unrest and Mutiny.
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