MANCUKKAR - A WORD DERIVED FROM THE TERM MANCU, MEANS BIG VESSEL IN NORTHERN MALABAR DIALECT OF MALAYALAM.
Mancukkar (a word derived from the term mancu, means big vessel in northern Malabar dialect of Malayalam), known otherwise as Khalasis (the word we use to mean ordinary workers of the ships, has an Arabic origin) were the traditional seamen from Malabar employed in the country crafts. The history of mancukkar is the history of migrant labourers who were the pioneers of cross-regional labour vital to the functioning of trade, transportation and pilgrimage throughout the Arabian Sea and beyond. The cross-regional trade incorporated the seafarers of Malabar into a globalized community of great geographical, linguistic and social diversity.
Mancukkar had acquired highly specialized skills in varying degrees; they could steer the ship (srank) with or without navigational aids; loading and unloading goods (khalasi); cooking food (pandari) leading collective prayers (musaliyar). The crew of the vessels sometimes contained even musicians who compose songs extemporarily on certain occasions. Abdul Rassak Haji from Ponnani, a trader of essential-oil from Ponnani and a frequent traveller, whose name has been mentioned recurrently in this work was widely acclaimed in the region for his mystical compositions on travel. Such compositions constitute the bulk of travel songs in Arabi-Malayalam language. Some in the crew were specially assigned to observe sea currents, wind patterns and the colour of the sea. For many centuries, stars in the skies were their guides; raising and setting of which helped them identify the direction. The crew in a Mancu is generally a company of men whose duty is to man it; this involves the upkeep of the craft and its instruments and gadgets. The language used in mancus often represented an admixture of Malayalam, Hindi, Arabic and Farsi; such a mixture remained so till the 1970s.
In most of the cases, movements of Mancukkar were having no legal sanction from the states in both originating and receiving countries and were undertaken secretly at their own risk. The first generation of modern day seafarers included mainly uneducated and unskilled labourers who found refuge in sailing in order to overcome the issues of unemployment and poverty. Because of the specific nature of job and travel, the work contracts, in most of the cases, were one-sided giving the employers summary powers of dismissal at the slightest pretext.
The wooden sailing vessels used by them were known by many parallel appellations - pathemari, uru or mancu. Mancu was basically a trading and passenger vessel, but also used widely by the pirates in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The country crafts were built mainly at Beypore, a place south of Calicut widely acclaimed all across the Indian Ocean region for its shipbuilding yards. The importance of Beypore grew further in terms of varied types of timber, the region could supply and in the number of shipbuilders and workshops. The shipbuilding yards of Beypore used to hire highly specialized workers even from distant red sea ports apart from the local carpenters.
The history of mancukkar is the history of migrant labourers who were the pioneers of cross-regional labour vital to the functioning of trade, transportation and pilgrimage throughout the Arabian Sea and beyond.
The first generation of Gulf migrants from Keralam were the people who utilized the possibilities mancu to its maximum. They entered different parts of the Gulf without any documents of travel like visa and passport crossing the Arabian Sea through Bombay, Karachi and Gwadar ports in the 1940s and 50s. Inspired by the ‘rags-get rich stories’ of the pioneers, another set of luck-seekers in the second wave set sailing to the Gulf in the 1960s. They resorted mainly to mancus and dhows ferrying goods between the ports towns of south western coasts of India and the Gulf. The migration of ‘undocumented workers’ in mancus continued until the early 1970s by when the visa rules became stricter and search for ‘illegal travellers’ was toughened.
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