HARKING BACK: Baoo Rasheed: the missing ‘lascar’ from Khziri Gate

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Aug 2, 2015

This is a story I have, off and on, pursued over the last ten years. Finally I am able to write a column, brief as it is, about the ‘missing boatmen’ of Khziri Gate. Interlaced is the amazing story of Baoo Rasheed and Jonathon Rush.

The year was 2005 and I was visiting Haji Sheikh Mubarak Ali, at his Tehsil Bazaar shop. He has provided me amazing clues to the most curious stories of the Lahore of old. During his customary tea session he said: “Sheikh Sahib why do you not investigate the mystery of Baoo Rasheed, whose great grandson lives in Kashmiri Gate. They say that when the Sikhs collapsed he was taken away by the Company because he was an expert boatman”. Now this was a mystery that I could not resist, and so over the years I have worked on it when time and location allowed.

A visit to the house then pointed out by the late Haji Sahib proved fruitful, and I managed to meet Hajjan Bibi, as she was called, and whose age nobody knew. She could barely walk, but she was mentally alert. She was the great grand-daughter of Baoo Rasheed the boatman. “I have been told by my elders that he piloted huge ships in the broad river Sindh and sometimes in the endless seas. He used to return home once in two years with strange gifts, and a lot of money”. She went on: “My grandfather was his youngest son. Then he never returned. Not even the Company Bahadar knew where he had gone. They kept saying he was a ‘lascar’. What that meant nobody knew. That is all I know”.

During the conversation it was clear that a number of boatmen who lived in the walled city and worked the Khziri Gate ferry landing on the River Ravi. It seems he was hired by the East India Company (EIC) to ferry to Lahore goods, guns and ammunition from their huge ships standing at Punjnad near Multan. The Company forces were then fighting the last of the battles with the dying Sikh Empire. Lahore was already in British hands and so they were in effective control.

The EIC was known to hire cheap Indian sailors for their ships that moved cargo between Europe and India and even up to China. A lot of their ships had over half the crew being Indian. In the Punjabi boatmen they found expert rough water handlers, and soon these Punjabis were much sought after. The first Indian, mostly Bengalis, had reached London and Liverpool as early as 1617, when the Indian population then was recorded as being nearly 10,000, all lascars who had been abandoned by the Company during the period ships were being reloaded. The word ‘lascar’ is derived from the Persian ‘lashkar’. Why it was used for sailors is a mystery.

It might interest the reader to know that it was an Indian sailor who helped Vasco da Gama in 1498 to reach India at Calicut from the East African coast where Sindhi and Punjabi sailors among other Indians were known to trade. That sailor, so research tells us, was a Sindhi sea pilot by the name of Ibn Majid. Mind you we know that one of the sea pilots who helped Christopher Columbus reach the Americas was also an Indian. The Portuguese were masters of the seas in that age and with the British competing they were always on the lookout for good cheap sailors. Amazingly, European sailors had a very high sickness rate, and would often desert when in India.

Armed with this story about Baoo Rasheed my research now needed further explaining. During my own research at Cambridge I happened to read a new research doctoral thesis by Ceri-Anne Fidler of Cardiff University on the ‘lascars’ of India. This led me to visit the India Records Office, which has the complete original record of all ships and sailors that landed at, or left British ports. Also are other reports, as well as health status reports, of the sailors on these ships.

It is amazing that in another research by Nicholas B. Dirks on ‘lascars’ (Princeton, 2001, pp180) he points out that “the EIC after considerable experience preferred Punjabi sailors, even though they had no sea touching their land, for the simple reason that they were the least superstitious and were very hardy”. Armed with considerable information I returned to the India Records Office and started my search for Baoo Rasheed and other sailors from Lahore’s walled city in the period 1846 to 1896, a 50-year stretch that allowed me a period where enough information would be available. On my second visit I chanced on a lead that saw Baoo Rasheed’s name in a register.

On a ship MS Chenab a crew of six Punjabis changed ships and agreed to work for an East India Company cargo ship docked at Multan in 1852, that ship being ‘MV Australian’. This ship headed for China with a consignment of opium, and then headed back and picked up indigo and cotton and landed at Liverpool on May 12, 1852. Among the three names that stand out, with origin being ‘Lahore’ are Allah Bux, Abdul Rasheed and Shamshad Singh. They are described as ‘lascars’ and the EIC refused to pay for their expenses while at Liverpool. I am assuming that they were forced to stay back, and I could be wrong.

From this point onwards no record of Baoo Rashid (assuming Abdul Rasheed is our ‘Baoo Rashid’ in the first place) is seen in shipping records that I have been through, and been through very briefly in terms of research. I must point out that the record is so large that it would take a year or so to trace our man. But then as if by instinct I decided to check out the ‘ancestry register’ at the Liverpool Town Hall, and there as if waiting for me was Abdul Rasheed. The entry is a marriage entry (trust a good sailor to find an anchor) with Miss Annette Bristow, daughter of Arthur and Elizabeth of Poplar Lane off Cumberland Street. I immediately rushed to the ‘Maps Section’ and found an old Liverpool ‘street map’, and there was Cumberland Street and at one edge was Poplar Lane.

Here we have an amazing change of name for their son is named ‘Johnn Rushe’, and when I checked out the children of our little ‘Johnn’ we have the name changing to ‘Rush’. As we proceed, thankfully the record has been computerised, and amazingly the fourth generation moved to London and is recorded as being in the construction business, and, it seems, is well off. It seems the family is totally English in racial terms. Among his ancestors is Jonathon Rush and he works as a stock broker.

There was no point in tracing the family of Baoo Rasheed ‘the lascar’. The tip given by the late Haji Mubarak Ali of Tehsil Bazaar has ended on a happy note. What happened to his wife and children in Lahore is another story, and one best left alone.


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