P&O was a bastion of British pride. How quaint it looks now | IanJack

A A German torpedo hit the P&O liner Persia at lunchtime on December 30, 1915, as the ship was about 40 miles southeast of Crete and speeding towards India via the Channel of Suez. In the dining room, John Douglas-Scott-Montagu, the second Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, had just finished his soup. One of the ship’s boilers exploded, the sea rushed in, and the Persia sank so quickly it dragged lifeboats with it and left virtually no wreckage for those in the water to grab. the sea; of the 519 people on board, only 176 survived.

Lord Montagu was among them. He managed to swim to an overturned boat and clung to it, along with a few other Europeans and several Indian sailors, called lascars. Over the next 32 hours, three ships passed without stopping because they feared the submarine had set a trap. One by one, Montagu’s companions died until of the original 33, only 11 remained. He had a lot to think about – where, for example, was the secretary-mistress who sailed with him ? (She turned out to be dead.) But Montagu’s thoughts turned to a different horror. What worried him, he wrote later, was “how better could an Englishman die when there were lascars to watch over his end”.

Like many people whose friends and relations had been at sea – a common experience in the 1950s, when Britain still had the largest merchant fleet in the world – I was familiar with the word lascar from an early age. . My father had sailed for about a year as a junior engineer with the British India Line and he liked to remember the Indian crew, their goats tied on deck for later slaughter, and the language they and their British superiors used to do each other. understandable. Lascari-bat was rudimentary Hindustani. He remembered a few imperious words and phrases. Ab chup raho; Kam Karo“Now shut up and get to work.” The family album contained a snapshot of their foreman, or serang, a man with a large mustache and a fez-shaped hat. Dad used affectionate phrases like “a real character”. the serangThe men of had shoveled coal into the furnaces and kept the steam going all the way from Falmouth to Queensland and back via Colombo.

As a workforce they were reliable and stable (unusually among sailors, drink was never a problem) and popular with ship captains and shipowners, who had begun to recruit them in the 17th century. When steam replaced sailing on the routes from Europe to India and the Far East, the demand for their labor grew – unlike watercraft, steamships needed the skills more easily acquired stokers, engine oilers, stewards and cooks – and in 1914 they comprised between a quarter and a fifth of the total crew aboard British ships.

What most recommended them to shipowners was of course their cost compared to British sailors. They accepted lower wages, slept in poorer housing, and ate cheaper food; and all because Acts of Parliament exempted them from the laws governing the terms and conditions of their British equivalents. Their use, which had begun on ships plying the Indian Ocean sea lanes, alarmed European sailors when it spread westward to ships in the Atlantic trades. In the 1880s the newly formed maritime unions began to agitate and protest. In 1892, campaigning to become the Tory MP for Barrow in Furness, shipowner Charles Cayzer found himself barracked at meetings by chants of “coolies, coolies” and described by his rivals as “the coolie candidate” because that his vast fleet, the Clan Line, employed so many Indians and deprived honest Britons of jobs.

That old fear of cheap labor found an echo this week in opposition to the despicable behavior of P&O Ferries, which fired 800 seafarers without notice or consultation, blithely admitted to breaking the law and announced its intention to pay most of their replacements well below minimum wage. The origin of the new recruits has not been disclosed. India was mentioned; that may not be true. What appears to be the case is that if P&O is successful the new crews (two per ship) will have to work twice as much as the old ones (four crews per ship) for an average rate of £5.50 an hour . This type of capitalism knows no quarter: Ab chup raho; kam karo.

The unions want the ships seized and their crews rehired, but that may not be so easy to do. Thanks to the laissez-faire policies of successive governments, P&O ferries are owned in Dubai, built in Germany, Finland and Italy, and registered in the Bahamas and Cyprus (the move from Dover registration would have been pushed by Brexit). In this context, a British crew looks like an anomaly, a quaint relic of the ways of the pre-globalized world. As Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT union, told the parliamentary inquiry into P&O this week: “Politicians and lawyers in this country have watched over the past 30 years [as] our merchant navy has been decimated. Soon, he said, “we will no longer have a merchant navy… British ships… and British seamen will cease to exist.”

I think about the things I knew. For example, this P&O, like several other illustrious lines, had Scottish foundations; that a Shetlander, a sailor-turned-shipbroker named Arthur Anderson, was its main founder in 1837, the year Victoria ascended the throne; that the P stood for Peninsular, signifying Iberia, and the O for Oriental, a direction at first limited to the east of the Mediterranean and eventually extending as far east as Japan and Australia; that the word chic comes from the best way to travel to and from India: port cabins on the outward journey and starboard return.

When P&O merged with British India Steam Navigation in 1914, the result was the world’s largest shipping conglomerate, led by James Lyle Mackay, a brilliant and headstrong businessman from Arbroath who, as Lord Inchcape, s was offered and declined the throne of Albania, saying so. was not in his line. Its ships developed a distinctive quality that other companies – even Cunard – struggled to match. A P&O commander described it as “the sort of thing you find in fine hotels or clubs to which wealth alone does not give entry”. A book published in 1986 to celebrate the company’s 150th anniversary could speak of a “phenomenal company” that branched out into businesses far beyond shipping, but remained rooted in traditions of trust, of loyalty, service and pride. Less than 20 years later, its shareholders have sold the entire caboodle, minus its cruise liners, to Dubai executives for £3.3billion.

As for the lascars, many died at sea during the two world wars – a disproportionate number in fact, blamed until relatively recently on the idea that they succumbed more quickly to the cold. Most retreated to the places they came from, mainly Bengal, where they spent their savings on houses with a “reservoir” or swimming pond and a short row of planted palm trees. in the front. A minority never returned home and instead settled where their ships had docked, which in Britain was east of London. There they spawned the first generation of Indian restaurateurs, to whose restaurants the English would come after a night in the pub to collapse at tables, fall from chairs and call the waiter “Hey, Gunga Din”; and were somehow ignored and maybe even forgiven. The noble and gracious England of the second Lord Montagu de Beaulieu, if it ever existed, was certainly gone.

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