This year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912, yet the event continues to haunt. This is not least because, in its time, Titanic was a testament to technology – a wondrous accomplishment that something of its size could travel so speedily. In its sinking, however, it also revealed the vulnerability of humanity despite scientific progress. While the ship was meant to be a luxury liner whose primary purpose was the transport of well-heeled travellers, it also profited from others taking the maiden journey. Passengers ranged in class, and this was true of the crew as well. These economic distinctions are notably captured in James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic, which has been re-released this year. In it, star-crossed lovers - an aristocratic lady and a stowaway - deal with societal differences and the wrecking of their vessel. Though the film reveals that people of various means travelled in the days when ships were a primary mode of long haul transport, it does little to foreground the racial diversity of those who made the often perilous journeys. For Goans, those travels have been part of our lore and familial legacies for centuries.
Journeys by sea have played a major part in Goa’s history. The start of the region’s colonization by the Portuguese was effected by Vasco da Gama’s 1498 landing on Calicut’s coast and, then, Afonso de Albuquerque’s naval conquest of Goa in 1510. In the colonial era, the once familiar waters that Goans as a coastal people had known so well and relied upon for subsistence would be left behind for the shores of the European empires in Africa and other parts of Asia. If the ocean is an archive, then the stories of tarvotti, men of the sea from Goa, have often been submerged in favour of a grander narrative of diaspora – projects that align the foreign-travelling Goan with the ethos of colonial exploration and “discovery.” No doubt, even the working class Goan seafarer has contributed to the perpetuation of colonial projects, but might these other perspectives offer nuance or even rupture to how a Goan history of oceanic travel is understood as not being a monolithic experience?
The tarvotti of yore may appear to be hidden in the mists of time, but the sea continues to employ Goans. In January this year, Goan crewmen aboard the Costa Concordia escaped the cruise liner which capsized in Italy. The phenomenon of Goans being employed aboard ships is so commonplace that these seamen have been given their own cultural designation – the term “shippies” renders them as present-day tarvotti. Unlike Concordia’s survivors, stories of shippies have not always been ones of luck. In April 1961, the M V Dara saw the largest loss of life after Titanic. A bomb blast aboard the ship, docked in Dubai, took the lives of over 200 people, many Goans included. In 2007, Goan sailor Gregory Fernandes was killed in a racist attack. He was on leave in Southampton, which was the port from where Titanic’s one and only journey began. This April, as that journey is recalled, it is also occasion to surface the economic and racial diversity inherent to maritime history.