Kerim Friedman wrote me, “Amitav Ghosh is doing some great posts on the ‘lost languages of the age of sail’ on his blog,” and so it turned out to be. Here‘s the first of eleven (he’s up to number 6 as of today); I’ll give a brief sample:
The crew of the William Stewart was by no means exceptional in its heterogeneity. The Tynemouth, a steamship of 1228 tons that sailed from Hong Kong to Australia in 1858, had a crew of 70, of whom thirty-six were white sailors, all English except for four Germans. The others were lascars of various grades, of whom seven were from Bengal. As for the rest they were from places too various to list severally: Daman, Cochin, Gorakhpur, Mungher, Bencoolen (off Sumatra), Massawah (in East Africa) and so on.
On lists like these the term ‘lascar’ has so wide an application that we might well wonder where the word came from and what it meant. The term would appear to be an Anglo-Indian adaptation of the Persian/Urdu lashkar/lashkari, meaning ‘soldier’ or ‘army’.
In passing between languages the word appears to have taken on the connotation of ‘mercenary’ or ‘hired hand’ and was applied in this sense to a certain kind of sailor. The transition seems to have occurred first in Portuguese, in which the words laschar/lasquarim have been in circulation since about 1600 CE: as with many other nautical terms, it was probably through a Lusitanian route that it entered English. The nautical usage of the term is however, distinctively European: in the Indian subcontinent, for example, the word is still generally used to mean ‘army’ or ‘militia’. The extended meaning of ‘sailor’ would appear to have been introduced to the subcontinent by Europeans; when thus used today, it has a touch of both the exotic and the archaic. In sum, the word ‘lascar’ as used on the manifest of the William Stewart, belongs to two kinds of jargon, the nautical and the colonial, and its meaning is specific to those contexts.
If you like this sort of thing, there’s a lot to like at Ghosh’s blog.