The Earliest Global Labourer: Predicament, and Cosmopolitanism: Dhiraj Kumar Nite

Balachandran, G. Globalising Labour?: Indian Seafarers and World Shipping, 1870-1945, New Delhi: OUP, 2012.

A Review By Dhiraj Kumar Nite

The seafarer was a man of the world. Indian seamen, officially called lascar (coolies or manual workers) employed by British shipping companies were the earliest global workers in the subcontinent. Their working life spanned from Calcutta and Bombay ports, engine-room and deck of ships, and to other Asian, African, British and American ports. They were nearly 44000, i.e. one third of total employment on British vessels in 1937.

Balachandran brings to us a lucid and elaborate account relating to the world of Indian seafarers. This account makes exposition of the condition of existence, experience, and agency of these men, and of their relationship with the employer, the colonial government, British officials, recruiters (the Ghat Serang or broker), supervisors on ships (the Serang), and seamen who hailed from other Asian and African nationalities. This area has been under-researched in historical studies of labour. Six chapters and an epilogue of this book present a couple of arguments to further the studies of labour and South Asian history.


Like all other colonial labourers Indian seafarer was cheap labour at the disposal of shipping companies. They worked longer hours – seventy to eighty-four hours a week were not unknown. The Geneva Maritime Conference of the ILO reduced their work hours in the 1930s. Indian seamen continued to sweat longer hours, and received time-off in place of any overtime wages. They shared crammed accommodation on ships. The availability of this labour helped the ship owner resist the demand of unionised British crews for wage increases frequently made from the 1890s.

Balachandran reveals the ways employers secured and maintained such cheap labour until the late 1930s. Social constructivism and agency focused explanatory tools come to his service. The employer, like the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. (P&O) discursively worked out an image as coolie/lascar of Indian seamen. The latter were classified as unskilled, trepid, lacking independent competence, and Asian race of lower necessaries for their living. The racial discourse diminished the constant and everyday challenge and hazards of their work. Such workmen did not deserve, the employer insisted, any substantial revision of wages, accommodation on ships, food supplies, workday, compensation, rescue equipment, and of the practices of flogging and penal contract. The demand of National Union of Seaman (NUS: composed of British seafarers) for a comparable facility for Indian seamen was fatal philanthropy. Such racialised work hierarchies and attitude, Balachandran suggests, was an expression of colonial difference. The societies in Southern Africa, for instance, witnessed a similar racial attitude and discourse without any proper colonial difference. I wonder how much colonial difference reveals or obfuscates an explanation of the racial labour relationship.

The discursively diminished stature of Indian seafarers was never a sufficient perquisite to maintain the lascar – employer relationship. Employers maintained the authoritarian environment on ships in order to put in effect the discourse of denial. They enjoyed favour of the metropolitan and colonial state-power. The racial attitude of British seafarers reinforced their privileges and the image of coolie. Employers and officials invested in the second trope of heroic masters bearing the necessary wisdom, experience, and manner to subdue hopeless and potentially threatening rabble into useful. They invented, manipulated and entrenched a new image of the serang as a traditional, village-based headman who would control the seamen. Balachandran suggests that the serang was not any jobber or sardar of traditional authority. One of the earliest demands of the Indian Seamen Union was to eliminate recruitment through intermediaries and the abuses and corruption it gave rise to. The ship serang was also a victim, not a beneficiary of corruption.

The authorities externalised the costs of labour reproduction to ‘subsistence agriculture’. They wove nexuses with the broker (Ghat Serang) known for providing advances, and owners of boarding houses at the ports. Such nexuses worked to stabilise the maritime worker as habitually unattached, dissolute, unstable, and nominally free labour force. The latter entered into cohabitation and irregular family life and bore its unhealthy marks in their pursuit of satisfying emotional necessaries. Seamen burdened by debts to crimps and under pressure from them to ship out, also had little chance of holding out for better wages. These were wages of success of the navigation industry.

The author suggests that racial and cultural fluidity and cosmopolitanism characterised the dockside. The seafarers belonging to many communities (India, Arab world, China, and East Africa) interacted and explored opportunities for income. They devised ways to maintain their niche despite an opposition to their employment on British vessels articulated by the British NUS from the turn of the 20thc. The cosmopolitan environment crumbled at British ports in the aftermath of the world war one (WWI). The post war scenario lent a sharp jingoistic edge to the opposition. Race as a marker of identity and citizenship turned out popular in the public discourse, hence the endorsement to the campaign of repatriation and restriction. A similar development occurred at Indian ports in the aftermath of the partition. The concept of cosmopolitanism appears to me as loosely applied and that too more a descriptive than an analytical category. What the author highlights is the spirit of seamen and the ways that they improvised to subvert the new exclusionary regulations. This made the authorities finding it impossible literally and metaphorically to tie many seamen down to place, nation or category. The new regime faced the resilience and solidarity of seafarers in case of South Asia in 1947-1965. Thus, the author challenges the historical description which suggests that a subcontinent rent apart at one blow in 1947 rather than one whose divisions were realised piecemeal over at least the next two decades.

Unlike Chinese and African seamen Indians were not known for desertion until the 1920s. Such propensity emerged amongst them to draw a flack in the midst of the great depression. They did so despite the increased risk involved in doing so owing to tightened immigration control. A perverse co-relationship appeared between desertions and the scenarios of regulation. This shift owed to the distressed hope of peasant standing of these men in colonial India. Such Indians looked out for an opportunity on vessels involved in Atlantic trade. Those who could not succeed in it became peddlers in neighbourhoods of British working poor. A reciprocal sympathy between colonial peddlers and working poor was noticeable. The anti-black campaign and the principle of only-white of the NUS drove many British seamen and activists close to the left-wing organisations in the 1930s. This fact stands with unease across other arguments of the author related to the hardening of identities in the aftermath of the WWI.

The seafarers noticeably developed the spirit of unionisation in the 1920s. Indignities of the WWI (the refusal of fair war compensation and corruption in actual disbursal of compensation money) borne by them were responsible for the drive of unionisation. Balachandran underlines the fact that well before unions seafarers produced and led collective lives through the traditional collective bodies and held a wage strike in 1914 at Bombay deck. The Indian Seamen Union (ISU) followed the rank and file rather than led them when seafarers staged militant strikes at Indian and British ports in 1938-39. Alongside economic demands they began mobilising idioms of international working class solidarity in the hope of countering racial attacks and breaking out of the coolie lines. They displayed astute awareness of themselves and the world emerging around them in the 1940s. They expressed solidarity with the liberation struggle of Indonesians. They refused to work ships ferrying troops and arms in support of the Dutch reconquest of Indonesia after the WWII. Through these actions they challenged the stereotypical image of trepid, peasant-cum seaman, and made a shift from their ascriptive image of coolie to worker. This transformation of coolies into workers was, Balachandran argues, thus heavily mediated (by protests) and profoundly hybridizing (conjunctural to the owner and British officials).

The seamen staged carefully chosen protest methods. The latter embodied seamen’s awareness of the power relations, and assessment of success and failure (the regulated nature of maritime employment, the coercive power of the state, and the isolated and disaggregated forms of action of Indian crews) in pursuit of a better deal. They rooted their actions within the law. They had few protest action on board, and looked out for opportunities to renegotiate unsatisfactory engagements. Desertion and flight were an expression of such negotiations. Yet, such action meant a withdrawal of labour: an industrial action rather than reinforcement of peasant traditions of resistance. Opposed to the existing three historiographical positions, Balachandran argues that seamen were not victims of an ‘original mentality’ (peasant traditions) and a workplace culture where they could not explore or deploy norms of bourgeois legality. They improvised informal (and formal) modifications in the rules of engagement. These were the function of a careful weighing of costs, benefits, and opportunities. Balachandran questions the implicit naturalness found in the structuralist historiographies about the formation of the working class whether through an emphasis on objective conditions or subjective orientations. These historiographies obscure the negotiations and other constitutive processes that helped establish at any given time, the boundaries of the category on the ground, and its rules of closure. This non-determinist and non-essentialist line of reasoning of the author, I suggest, needs to address a question: what accounts for a particular notion and manner of appreciation of benefits, opportunities, and costs?

Some methodological niceties make this book engaging and tangible. About half a dozen short life histories are interspersed in the larger narrative. They enliven and uplift the mood of the reader. The application of a good number of maritime photographs is in-itself telling. The archival sources do not come simply as raw materials, which an author conventionally processes externally to present final points. The very processing of primary sources is integral to the narrativisation and analysis. It further adds cogency to the account. Some of the pronouncements of authorial judgment on historical developments seem careful of resisting a sensibility of sterileness.

Dhiraj Kumar Nite, A Social Scientist, University of Johannesburg,  Ambedkar Univeristy Delhi.


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One thought on “The Earliest Global Labourer: Predicament, and Cosmopolitanism: Dhiraj Kumar Nite

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