Jack Mainland: “Have you sailed with foreign crews?”
Bill Ballingall: “Yes, all my earlier ships had Lascar crews, from either Karachi or Bombay. It’s quite a culture difference, and an initial exposure with such a crew could be described more as a ‘culture shock’. We were encouraged to learn Urdu, as a common language. Some shipping companies paid their officers an incremental salary increase if you passed an Urdu exam. But not BP. On that first ship, I used to sit on a box round the back of the engine with the tail-wallah (oiler) in order to pick up some words and basic phrases.
It was necessary to understand the structure and hierarchy of these crews, and their titles. Such as; the Serang (senior petty officer, or bo’s’n), Tindal (next rank down from the Serang), Cassab (storekeeper), Donkey-wallah (a watchkeeper, looking after the boilers), Ag-wallah(day worker), and the un-enviable posts of No1 and No 2 Topas, (often called ‘Jackie’ ). No 1 Jackie cleaned the officer’s toilets, and No 2 Jackie cleaned the crew toilets.
And the crew called us by our titles. Captain-sahib is self-explanatory; the Mate, or Chief Officer- to be formal – is Burra-malim-sahib (big chief officer); the Second Engineer is Doe-sahib, then Teen-sahib (Third Engineer), and so on. The Radio Operator was known as Marconi-sahib, as the ‘Sparkie’ used to be an employee of the Marconi Radio Company. On my first ship I was the Apprentice-sahib.
There were two galleys on board. The crew galley and the officer’s galley. A new crew just joining a ship would have previously selected their own cooks, No 1 and No 2 Bhandari. Generally colourful characters rattling their curry pots on an oil-fired stove, glowing almost red-hot. It was my job, as aprentice on the ‘Duke’ to make sure the stoves worked properly, and if there was smoke coming out of the funnel, I would ‘catch it’ from the Chief if the smoke was caused by a dirty burner in a galley stove.
Every morning, around 6 o’clock or so, the Bhandari would grind his curry stuffs for the day, often surrounded by some of the crew having a lively discussion regarding the spices for the day’s curry. The Bhandari, and in fact the crew, wouldn’t touch our meat. Unclean…
Officer’s cooks, and other members of the catering staff, were from Goa, the Portuguese colony to the south of India. They were Roman Catholic, and cooked traditional British food, again on an oil-fired stove. Three separate curry dishes were prepared on a daily basis. A crew curry, an officer’s curry, and the Goanese catering staff prepared their own curry. It was sometimes said that that if you didn’t like curry, you might starve on an Indian-crewed ship.
On one ship I was on a night watch, and would wake up mid-morning, and sometimes bum a chapatti from the Bhandari, then likewise some treacle from the cook, and roll it up for my breakfast, sitting on a bollard on the aft deck.
As already mentioned, the ship would carry an Indian butler and although he was officially a Petty Officer, his cabin would be in the officer’s accommodation. The poor butler got the blame for everything, but he was generally able to give as good as he got. BP phased out the position of butler in the mid–sixties, and gave the responsibility of managing the ships’ provisions to the Third Mates. Which they didn’t like one little bit…
I have to say that a British crew was not as colourful or interesting to work with, and although many were ‘good chaps’, there were some gey tough cookies amongst them. But we’ll leave it at that…”