How do people from diverse lands share experiences and emotions as they work together in the tight confines of a ship vessel? Sometimes, they create new languages to bridge the divisions. That’s what the lascars did – with a salty, colourful vocabulary.

A group of sailors and militiamen who served on European ships from the 16th century to the 20th century, lascars were drawn from several colonised lands – Chinese, East Africans, Arabs, Malays, Bengalis, Goans, Tamils and Arakanese. The word by which they were known was derived from the Persian word “lashkar” for army. But their nation was the Indian Ocean and they negotiated their worlds speaking a composite language they evolved called Laskari Baat.

Laskari Baat draws not only from the various languages that lascars had grown up with but also from the Portuguese and English of their masters on the ship.

While vestiges of Laskari Baat are still found in words spoken by South Asians at sea, this creole language is significant because it echoes a larger lesson for our polarised world today: it shows how finding a way to share experiences can help transcend seemingly insurmountable chasms.

Lingering memories

Though lascars no longer exist, they linger in our cultural imaginations. For instance, Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy of novels has lascars among his characters.

Still, we have some insight into this language because colonial linguists, such as Thomas Roebuck, created vast lexicons. When thinking about Laskari Baat, it’s worth remembering anthropologist Bernard Cohn’s warning that dictionaries were part of a colonial project to transform the “command of language” into a “language of command”.

This could lead to belief that Laskari Baat only had a utlitarian function and was employed merely while performing chores on deck.

But Laskari words such as “pukarnameaning to call (as opposed to “hukumfor “order”) or even the romantic syllables of the Arabic-derived “qamar” for “moon” show scope for the language to have been used beyond just issuing commands. In the Ibis trilogy Amitav Ghosh recreates whole sentences between lascars.

A key emotional register is evident in the extensive list of gaali or swear words, which, Ghosh writes, “was a domain of laskari tongue”. That shouldn’t be surprising. The seafarer’s talent for profanity has long been legendary – after all, “to swear like a sailor” is a popular similie,

Laskari dictionaries inform us of the extensive use of the word “buhin chod” (sister fucker) while begrudgingly conducting chores. The word “lundbund (phallus-tied) was used to mean dismasted (a ship’s broken mast). As Amitav Ghosh noted in a paper titled “Of Fanas and Forecastles: the Indian Ocean and Some Lost Languages of the Age of Sail”, it was a common prank to tell strangers that “lund” (penis) meant anything from a cloth bag to a bedspread.

Lascars in London in 1936. Credit: By Port of London Authority,1936 - Port of London Authority Magazine,1936, CC BY-SA 4.0

The swear words of lascars are well known because they were also commented upon extensively by Britishers with Victorian sensibilities at the time. Even the Persian traveller Abū Ṭālib Khān complained about lascars using abusive language in his early nineteenth-century autobiography Masīr-e T̤ālibī.

The large number of swear words in Laskari Baat indicates that swearing may be seen as defiance of the norms of an oppressive society – in this case, to a western and Victorian “civilising project”.

Some sense of the mobility of Laskari Baat can be gained through noting thesame swear words turning up across the world. For example, variants of the Malay profanity “puki”, which refers to the female genitals, can be found in Sinhala and the Maldivian language Dhivehi.

Various compilations of Laskari Baat show us the relationship between oppressive officers and the resisting seamen. In 1890, for instance, AL Valentini wrote a dictionary on Laskari Baat with typical exchanges between officers and lascars. This dictionary alerts us to the various religious processions that took place on deck. Lascars celebrated everything from Eid to Diwali with great gusto and even mourned on Muharram. While Valenti’s work portrays lascars as “lazy” and “foot-dragging”, we can also see that religious processions were a way of resisting orders.

Covert protest

In many cases, lascar practices derided as barbaric or lacking in civility could be read as covert forms of protest. For instance, they used the word “topas”
to mean sweeper on deck, though in other parts of the region it was used to describe respected Portuguese-Goan artillerymen. Lascars also consistently used the word “hum” with reference to the collective self even as the officers on deck used the inferior “tum”.

Language can be a great form of resistance as even the most zealous guardian of linguistic purity cannot stop its cultural flow. My favourite example is the word used by Hindi speakers for “heart”, the elegant monosyllabic Urdu “dil” has totally eclipsed the prosaic Hindi term “hrdiya”.

Lascars, as subjects left on the margins during the early years of nation making, give us great insight into the fissures and divisions created by nationalism. Today, their stories at sea tell us of the unfettered flow of our connected lives.

Karunya C Banerjee is a student of Modern History at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.