The Calicut Song

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

Interestingly, in the late medieval times, there used to be a song sung by the lascars of Goa and Malabar. The song was apparently known as the Calicut song. The first time it was documented in English was when Anna, an ayah from Calicut mentioned it to her memsahib in 1860. I will cover Anna’s interesting story in a separate article, but this one is about the song itself.

There is one other recorded instance when seeing the people of Calicut, the traveler Abdul Razzak burst into song.  I had written about his visit to Calicut during 1445, some time ago 

He sang (not very nice though!)

Extraordinary beings, neither men nor devils;
At sight of whom the mind takes alarm!
If I were to see such in my dreams
My heart would be in a tremble for many years!
I have had love passages with a beauty whose face was like the moon;
But I could never fall in love with a Negress.

But this is not like that. It is more a song of hope. The song was originally in Portuguese and perhaps originated in a Portuguese ship, written by a seasick and lonely bard. When it was first mentioned in the referenced book, it was considered to be of Portuguese or Malabar Syrian Christian origin and narrated in Malayalam. Its translation went thus

Part I


Very far went the ship, in the dark, up and down, up and down. There was very little sky; the sailors couldn't see anything; rain was coming.
Now darkness, lightning, and very little rain; but big flashes, two yards long, that looked as if they fell into the sea.
On the third day the Captain looks out for land, shading his eyes with his hand. There may be land. The sailors say to him, "What do you see?" He answers, "Far off is the jungle, and, swinging in a tree, is an old monkey, with two little monkeys in her arms. We must be nearing land."
Again the Captain looks out; the sailors say to him, "What do you see?" He answers, "On the shore there walks a pretty little maiden, with a chattee * on her head; she skips, and runs, and dances as she goes. We must be nearing land."
The storm begins to rage again, and hides the land: at last it clears a little. The sailors say to the Captain, "What do you see?" He answers, "I see a man ploughing; two bullocks draw the plough. We must be nearing land." It is all true, they have gained the shore.

Part II


The ship's on the sea - Which way is it coming?   Right home to land.  What cargo has it? The ship brings the sacrament and praying beads.
The ship's on the sea - Which way is it coming?   Right home to land.  What cargo has it ? The ship brings white paper and the Twelve Apostles.
The ship comes home to land - What cargo does it bring? Silver money, prophets, and holy people.
The ship comes home to land - What does it bring? All the saints, and holy people, and Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
The ship comes to our doors - Who brings it home? Our Saviour. Our Saviour bless the ship, and bring it safely home.

Trying to trace its origin led me to discussions about its similarity to a Brazilian Portuguese ship song named ‘A Nau Caterineta’ or ‘The ship Caterineta’.It is somewhat different, is relatively long and various versions can be listened to on YouTube. While certain academics maintain that the Calicut song is similar to the A Nau Caternieta, I find it completely different. Some opine that the origin of the Brazilian song is linked to Calicut, apparently they feel the song was first sung by the distraught sailors on Cabral’s ship as they floundered at sea on the west coast of Africa and reached Brazil, instead of Calicut, in the year 1500.

But more specific studies according to Almeida Garrett, show that the Nau Catarineta (Nau Catarineta in Brazil) is a romanticized anonymous poem, was probably inspired by the tumultuous voyage of the ship San Antonio, which transported Jorge de Albuquerque Coelho (son of Duarte Coelho Pereira, the donee the hereditary captaincy of Pernambuco), from the port of Olinda, Brazil, to the port of Lisbon, in 1565. As the song goes - The ship has been long at sea, and food has given out.  Lots are drawn to see who shall be eaten, and the captain is left with the shortest straw.  The cabin boy offers to be sacrificed in his stead, but begs first to be allowed to keep lookout till the next day.  In the nick of time he sees land and the men are saved.

But whatever said, the reference to Calicut is certainly curious, except for the link that the earliest lascars were from Malabar and Goa. So who are the lascars? A lascar was a sailor or militiaman from the Indian Subcontinent or other countries east of the Cape of Good Hope, employed on European ships from the 16th century until the middle of the 20th century. The word itself originates from the Persian word Lashkar loosely supposed to mean soldier. In many ways they were ships slaves, transferred from one to another and held under tight agreements.

Baptism records from the end of the 17th century in East Greenwich show that a number of young Indians from the Malabar Coast were brought to England as servants. Though it is difficult to find out exactly where these people came from, many of them were Muslim, indicating a Malabar origin. The earliest lascars were thus from the Calicut and Cochin ports. My studies indicate that many of them were originally Moplahs while there were q few of Portuguese parentage from Cochin, the Topasses. In fact the EIC captured a few of these hapless souls from Arab or Malabar ships and put them to work in theirs.

The prospect of a Moplah singing the Calicut song is unlikely as the song above is quite Christian in nature, at least the second part. It is likely that the song was popularized by the Cochin Topasses, which makes the naming of it as the Calicut song mysterious.

However many of the later day lascars were Goan Christians and people from Sylhet in Bengal. This regional slant came about by the supplier’s choice (The supplier was termed a ghat serang). Bombay recruited deck workers from the Malabar Coast, Ahmedabad and Surat; the stewards and catering staff came from Goa and the Cochin area, and the engine room was manned by Pathans and Oaunjabius. We come across noting’s of Moplah riveters .The P & O Kalasis, or Seamen, come mainly from the Portuguese colony of Daman and adjacent areas in Gujarat, from parts of Kathiawar, the Ratnagiri district and other places in the Konkan, from Cochin and the Malabar coast generally. Indians from the above areas sign Articles in Bombay and were thus always known as "Bombay crews".

Assad Bughlah explains - The birth of the port of Calicut on the West Indian coast was to a large extent the contributions of Arab traders and sailors as well as the nascent local community of lascars who played a critical role in the management and policing of port activities and in building, repairing and manning of sea-vessels. By the 15th century, the lascars had attained good reputation of their expertise in seamanship, shipbuilding and port activities and successive European powers, battling to hold their grip in the Indian Ocean region, relied heavily on the services of the lascars. In 1498, Vasco da Gama, the first European to reach India by sea, sought advice from the Arab navigator ibn Majid and hired a lascar at Malindi (a coastal settlement in East Africa) to steer the Portuguese ship across the Indian Ocean to Calicut on the Malabar coast of India. Portuguese ships continued to employ lascars in large numbers throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The need for employing the lascars arose because of high rates of sickness and death of European sailors on India-bound ships and their frequent desertions in India, thus leaving the ships short of crew for the return voyages. The Europeans preferred the lascars because of their daring spirit, hard work, resilience, skills and geographical knowledge of the Indian Ocean.

According to Gundert’s dictionary they were also called Kolal’s and Khalassi’s in early Malayalam. His boss or petty lascar was a tandal/tindell. The entire native team was headed by the Seranag. We will in forthcoming articles cover the narrator of the Hindoo fairy tales, the Malabar lascars and their miserable lives under the British, and finally a story of the death of many of them in a WWII attack.

Old Deccan Days: Or, Hindoo Fairy Legends Current in Southern India - Mary Frere
The Lascars: The forgotten Diaspora in the Indian Ocean PAR ASSAD BHUGLAH


  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Interesting. Laskar is a common reference to foot soldier, although in naval terms it refers to the lowest level of crew. They could very well have been called khalasis also, as mentioned by you, quoting Gundert. However, the post of lashkar existed in Cochin Port till some time ago. Another title alluded to by you is Tandel . This designation still exists in Cochin Port and is used to refer to the head gangman. Coolies used to work in gangs of five and the head used to be called tandel/tindel. In fact, this position originated in Gujarat where it is now a tribe. The same tribe is known also as Machchi in Gujarat/Maharashtra, and refers to a seafaring tribe. It harks back to the glorious days of medieval Gujarati seafaring traders who had dominated trade in Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean to such an extent that Ian Burnet states: 'It is said that Gujaratis stretched out two arms, their right arm towards Aden and their left arm towards Calicut'.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CHF..
    that was an interesting aside...
    I will get into a little more detail when i do the lascar article, though it will be mostly set in the 20th century...

  1. Gopal Kamal

    Can u cite other similar songs