Monday, August 3, 2009

Who the Bleep cares about Tarvottis?

Weekly column by Selma Carvalho.

Who the Bleep cares about Tarvottis?

To the humble Tarvotti belongs the Goan Diaspora. Whether it was the dhows he got off from, in the 1800s, wandering into the Port of Zanzibar, perhaps staying on and setting-up the liquor shops that Goans ultimately became famously known for in Zanzibar, or the British India ships he sailed on, to the Ports of Aden, Iran and London, he paved the way for the rest of us Goans to follow. The Tarvotti even set sail for America, as early as 1900, surviving the treacherous trans-Atlantic voyage to land at San Francisco Bay and New York. At the time, even bhatcars in Goa could not afford to travel to these far-off foreign lands. The Tarvotti brought back more that just presents of cured, salt-meat and foreign textiles on his return, he brought back stories that fired our imagination with tales of strange ceremonies in lush virgin Africa, of men who wore white abayas and women who had to cover their faces in Arabia, of bustling ports and thriving cities in London and New York. Two tarvottis sailed with Richard Burton as he set out to explore the Dark Continent and trekked with him into the interiors of Africa, as his cooks. In a very real sense these intrepid tarvottis became our explorers, mapping the world for our Goan collective consciousness.

Yet, back in Goa, the Tarvotti remained just that. Not much dignity was accorded to this man, who made his living from the sea and spent nine months of his life away from his family. He was by and large, uneducated, either a much treasured Cook or Steward onboard British ships. Crew lists of the 1800 and 1900s show that British captains sailed with not less than five to seven Goan crew on each voyage, and almost always the position of First Cook and Second Cook was filled by a Goan. His salary was meagre, between Rs15 to Rs20 (according to a UK 1901 census) per journey. Just enough to support a wife and family, but never quite enough to invest in buying land and thus overcoming his lot in life.

Not until the free-fall of the Indian rupee, did the Tarvotti actually experience an exponential increase in his earnings. Now in the 21st century, when he sails on American cruise lines, he earns in dollars which are a pittance to the ships that employ him but a handsome salary to a Goan, given the dollar versus rupee exchange-rate differential. Despite the tangible improvement in his earnings and lifestyle, children of Tarvottis or Shippies as they are now known, rarely break the socio-economic mould they are cast in. Life at sea is ten to fifteen years at the most, after that there is no security-net to fall back on. Sea-faring becomes a family occupation, and children of shippies are most likely to drop out after primary school and join the ships.

It is a sad commentary that the life of the Tarvotti has never been recorded or paid tribute. This sea-faring, exploring, enterprising, daring, resilient individual lies at the heart of our Goan prosperity and is the repository of our maritime history. It is time we honoured him with a museum.

On another note, if you wish to participate in protesting against strip-mining in Goa, please do sign this petition. Click here.

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