Costa Santan, the life and times af an able-bodied Goan Tarvotti
By Selma Carvalho firstname.lastname@example.org
September 16, 2008 7:56:07 PM
I have a theory that if you separate the Goan from the sea, he'll wither away. All of our history ebbs and flows with that vast, undulating expanse of blue water. One does not look at the sea with tired eyes but always with hope and anticipation.
Sometime in the late 1800s, able-bodied Costa Santan, embarked on a career at sea, which at one point had him working on a ship listed as the 'Wartern'. Possibly in his twenties, and through the help of a 'Ghat Sarhang' as they were called in Bombay, he landed a job in the merchant navy.
To his family in Goa, Santan was a 'tarvotti', a term believed to come from the Konkani-Sanskrit word, taranti meaning boat, but to the British that employed him, he would have been a 'lascar'.
I found Santan, at the National Archives in the UK. What makes his journey fascinating is that seamen like him who sailed on ships of the English East India Company, some as early as the sixteen hundreds, were amongst the first Goans in the diaspora overseas. What was life like, for these early tarvottis? Read On
Santan's ship docked at London port. It was winter and he was not keeping well. Weary, perhaps suffering from malaria, cholera, yellow fever, or any number of accidents that likely befell seamen, possibly he made his way to a sailor-town around the docks. Hilton Docker (1809) a medical doctor to the lascars wrote, "The natives of India who come to this country are mostly of bad constitutions. Numbers are landed sick from the ships, where they have been ill."
Some of the original houses still line-up shoulder to shoulder, on either side of narrow alleys criss-crossing through Wapping, Shadwell and Limehouse. Walking through these alleys, Santan, would have watched as Chinese men smoked opium in the dark lodgings known as 'joints', foreign-smelling food hung from the rafters, soliciting prostitutes scoured the streets and lascars, mostly from Bengal, milled about peddling knickknacks to keep body and soul together.
Mortality rates from disease, venereal amongst them, were high. Conditions were so wretched that it caused an outcry in Victorian England. In 1857, the Strangers Home for Asiatic Seamen was built on West India Dock Road, to assist with boarding. Even then, as late as 1920, Health Inspectors condemned the "godown", used by P&O liners to house their sailors while docked.
In a world of perfect racial inequality, Santan was engaged because he cost much less than an English seamen. A 1901 census puts the wages for British seaman between UKP3 to UKP4 pounds per journey, while an Indian might be paid between 15 to 20 rupees, which was just about 14 shillings. (In those times, 20 shillings made a pound).
Onboard, Santan Costa had been a steward attached to the ship's saloon, Topaz. Clifford Pereira, noted British-Goan, Historical Geographer, tells me that "Goans were rarely employed below deck. They were almost always engaged either as cooks or stewards."
English Captains developed a liking for Goan cooks, who had no restrictions for handling pork, beef or fish. Pereira has also uncovered evidence of Goans cooks being paid higher wages than their Indian and African counterparts on East India vessels in the eighteenth century.
In 1957, Captain Baillie of a P&O liner wrote, "I have never failed to appreciate the cleanliness, discipline and comfort of our ships in which the deck hands are Lascars and the stewards mostly Goanese."
But life at sea was hard, and the ship was often a jutting splinter of racial discord amongst crew members. English seamen called Indians, "coolies" and saw them as servile, obsequious and "damned useless in cold weather". To the English sailor, the poorly paid Indian seafarer was a threat to his own livelihood.
Beatings were common on-board ships. A Sebastian Dias who was hired in June 1915 died of a heart-attack just eight months later, while at sea. And a Joaquim Souza, who was engaged on-board the Baron Balfour, in 1914, committed suicide nine months into the voyage.
Despite the inequities, Pereira says, Goans might have enjoyed a fair amount of privilege, perhaps on account of being Christian. An article which appeared on the Port of London Authority (PLA) Monthly of December 1957, had this to say about Goan seamen:
"The Roman Catholic Goanese have an 'altar peak,' with its own small altar, aboard every ship in which they serve. During the voyage. if there is no priest on board, they choose one of their own number to conduct the prayers."
And another paragraph reads:
"The Goans are more clannish and less inclined to shore excursions. When two or three ships that
carry these nationals are in the Port together, a play or a concert may sometimes be produced by the Goans on board one of the vessels."
Michael Fisher writes in Counterflows to Colonialism, of bonds that developed with fellow Indian seafarers, mostly Muslims, "the binding force of the harsh voyage produced strong solidarities with evidence of cooperation in religious ceremonies."
Although religious restrictions largely prevented Hindu Brahmin Goans from embarking on a career at sea, I find a record of a Dinkar Nadkarni, born in 1900, who was employed on-board the SS Rizwani, as medical officer. There were also Konkani-speaking Moslems from Ratnagiri on board British ships. A Jainoo Ebraim, from Ratnagiri set sail on the Worsley Hall, in 1914.
Did Santan return to Goa or did he think of staying on in England and making a new life for himself? We certainly know that many Bengalis and Sikhs stayed on in England, later applying for Peddlers' Certificates which would allow them to peddle whatever they carried from the ships, which at times
included their bedding.
My mother recalls, that wives would sometimes lose their husbands to the sea. A Coutinho C, from the 'Nova Conquesta' who sailed on-board the Okara, drowned in 1914 at the tender age of 20.
Many women were left widowed during World War II; Pereira contends as many as 700 Goa sailors died, but being abandoned by a tarvotti husband was not common. Clifford Pereira, nonetheless, has found records of small bands of Goan tarvottis who settled in the port-towns of England. These became the first Goan immigrants to the UK.
I like to think Santan wanted to return home to Goa, to the loving arms of a wife and family. He might have colluded with a Goan cook on-board and put aside salted and cured meats which he would take as presents for his family. A small token for the lonely lives the sea and separation wrought upon them.
Sadly, we know, Santan Costa died on 5 January, 1915, at the Seamen's Hospital, Greenwich, London.
* National Archives, Kew, Richmond, UK.
* Clifford Pereira, British Goan, Historical Geographer email@example.com