Locating Lascars: The Old Bailey Online and the Maritime World of the Indian Ocean

CitC’s first guest post of 2015 is by Ian Petrie, on teaching with Old Bailey Online in combination with other digital tools.

In spring 2013 I first taught my course “Merchants, Saints, Slaves & Sojourners: The Worlds of the Indian Ocean”, an introductory class offered through the South Asia Studies department at the University of Pennsylvania. On the day that we read Janet Ewald’s article[1] on the movement of subalterns across the Indian Ocean in the age of empire, I brought in a handful of cases from the Old Bailey Online which featured lascars (Asian sailors), as complementary primary sources to read in class. Our reading of them was rushed, as could have been expected, and while the students seemed reasonably engaged by the material — and I was absolutely enamored with it — I considered the exercise a missed opportunity.

As I prepared to teach the course for the second time, last autumn, I knew I wanted to do something more substantive with the Old Bailey cases involving lascars. A major portion of the assessment in the course derived from four small research projects, and I elected to make one of them “Locating Lascars”, whereby each student would choose a case to research and present, over the span of two weeks.

On the first day of class, I wanted to get students started working with texts, images and maps and brought in a sample of each. My text sample was this case from OBO, which immediately engaged the students and we had a good conversation about the constellation of people represented in it, from the plaintiff (prosecutor) “John Morgan”, a Bengali Muslim, who had accompanied a “tyger” to Britain for his employer, Sir George Pigot, the former Governor of Madras, to the Irish defendants (who were represented in testimony as “speaking Irish” to each other). When I posted the link on Facebook, a friend pointed out that the case had been written about by historian Michael Fisher.[2]

Screen Shot OBO Annotation Studio

Weeks later, we read an article of Fisher’s on lascars and a related piece by Amitav Ghosh.[3] That day, I revisited the case from the first day, augmenting our original reactions to it with Fisher’s analysis and a related painting by George Stubbs. My commentary on the case was presented via Annotation Studio, a site produced by MIT to facilitate collaborative close-reading of texts. I wanted to introduce my students to the site and see how they thought it handled, although my ultimate use of it was not consistent with the designers’ aims.

The following class, each student had selected a case, and I had imported the print-friendly versions of them into Annotation Studio. We met in a new “Collaborative Classroom” in our library, which permitted us to project everyone’s case (I had only 5 students!) onto the walls, which are whiteboards. Everyone then circulated, reading each other’s cases (or part thereof) and making notes on the text (on the wall) – questions, key words, points of interest or ambiguity. Hence my “misuse” of Annotation Studio — it’s designed to facilitate such commenting online — but I wanted the physicality and novelty of getting up, moving around and writing on the walls. The students seemed to enjoy this exercise, and I think it sharpened their sense of how to approach the research for their own case, both via the input of their peers and the reading of a selection of other cases.

SAST 169 marking up cases

A week later, we returned to the collaborative classroom and the students presented on their cases, having posted their annotations in advance for us to look at before class. Those were then projected on one screen while the students briefly presented their findings — including relevant images, and maps made using the interactive historical maps of locatinglondon.org or Stanford’s Palladio.

The students’ findings were diverse and stimulating. One delved into a recent doctoral dissertation[4] to contextualize the shipboard violence meted out to lascars by a British captain. Another was delighted to make sense of her case in light of the Great Dock Strike of 1889. In all instances they investigated terms and information that were required to contextualize the cases — the parts of ships, the value of personal property in the early 18th century, and details of the social and economic history of London in the background of the cases (what did a trimmer do?).

SAST marking cases 2

I think the students would have been happy to keep working on their cases, or having found a theme that interested them, go back into the collection and find related cases to build up a more robust understanding, and I’ll consider making the Old Bailey Online assignment a more prominent part of the course since it went so well. When I told one of my students that I’d been asked to write this blog post, she said “Be sure to tell them how much we enjoyed this. It was one of the best assignments I’ve had in college”.

Ian Petrie, Center for Teaching & Learning, University of Pennsylvania (@icpetrie)


[1] Janet Ewald, “Crossers of the Sea: Slaves, Freedman, and Other Migrants in the Northwestern Indian Ocean, c. 1750-1914,” American Historical Review 105 (2000): 69-91.

[2] Michael H. Fisher, Shompa Lahiri & Shinder S. Thandi, A South-Asian History of Britain (Westport, CT, 2007)

[3] Michael H. Fisher, “Working across the Seas: Indian Maritime Labourers in India, Britain, and in Between, 1600-1857,” International Review of Social History 51 (2006): 21–45; Amitav Ghosh, “Of Fanas and Forecastles: The Indian Ocean and Some Lost Languages of the Age of Sail,” Economic and Political Weekly 43, no. 25 (June 21, 2008): 56–62.

[4] Ceri-Anne Fidler, “Lascars c. 1850-1950: The Lives and Identities of Indian Seafarers in Imperial Britain and India,” (unpub PhD dissertation, Cardiff University, 2011) [accessed at orca.cf.ac.uk/55477/1/U516542.pdf]

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