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Of Men Who Toiled on the Seas

Kanakalatha Mukund

By G. Balachandran
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2012, pp.xii + 318, Rs. 795.00


Balachandran's book on Indian 'seafarers'-that is, men employed on ocean-going steam ships, especially British ships, from 1870 onwards explores many complex themes relating to these workers and the larger political and economic environment that governed their employment and working conditions. These men travelled throughout the world and were the crew that did most of the heavy jobs on ships. In the engine room they fed the voracious boilers with fuel; they cleaned and greased the engines and other parts of the machines; they prepared the fuel for the boilers. On deck, they scrubbed and cleaned, in addition to various other chores. They manned the galleys and worked as cabin crew, taking care of the cooking and the passengers. How were they recruited? Under what conditions did they work? What were their living conditions during the long voyages and how did they survive on foreign soil at the end of the voyages? Balachandran uses archival records to answer these questions to present a comprehensive account of Indian seafarers from the 1880s onwards. Indian seamen or 'lascars' had been regularly employed on East India Company ships from the end of the eighteenth century. But their numbers grew steadily after the advent of steam ships when there was a significant expansion in shipping activity worldwide. On British ships, their numbers increased from 16000 in 1886 to 24000 in 1891, accounting for roughly 10 per cent of the total employment. By 1914, this number had more than doubled, and their proportion rose to 20 per cent. In the years of overall economic contraction after World War I there was a rollback in their number, but they still accounted for one-third of the total employment. In addition to this, they also served on American and other European ships. Indian seafarers thus became a visible presence across the world and could be encountered in many countries. Yet their lives have remained largely undocumented and unexplored. The growing demand for shipping crews did not lead to any significant improvement in wages or working conditions, which would be expected under the normal functioning of the forces of demand and supply. This was at least partly due to the new labour market conditions that were emerging with the technology of steam shipping which changed the maritime world in many ways. Seafaring became less risk prone and quicker, accommodating higher volumes of traffic. The technology also delinked work on steam ships from the traditional skills required on sailing ...

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