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A Pondicherry Boy
by [?]

When I first went out to the Australian colonies in 1876 in the Hydrabad, a big sailing ship registered as belonging to Bombay, I had a very curious time of it, take it altogether. It was my first real experience of the outside world, and the hundred and two days the Hydrabad took from Liverpool to Melbourne made a very valuable piece of schooling for a greenhorn. I was a steerage passenger, and the steerage of a sailing vessel twenty-five years ago was something to see and smell. Perhaps it is no better now, but then it was certainly very bad. The food was poor, the quarters dirty, the accommodation far too limited to swing even the traditional cat in, and my companions were for the most part Irishmen of the lowest and poorest peasant class. In these days I was quite fresh from home and was rather particular in my tastes. Some of that has been knocked out of me since. A great deal of it was knocked out of me in that passage.

Yet it was, take it altogether, an astonishingly fertile trip for a young and green lad who was not yet nineteen. The Hydrabad usually made a kind of triangular voyage. She took emigrants and a general cargo to Melbourne, loaded horses there for Australia, and came back to England once more with anything going in the shape of cargo to be picked up in the Hooghly. She carried a Calashee crew, that is, a crew of mixed Orientals, and among them were native Hindoos, Klings, Malays, Sidi-boys. In those days I had not been in the United States and had not yet imbibed any great contempt for coloured people. They were on the whole infinitely more interesting than the Irish. I knew nothing of the world, nothing of the Orient, and here was an Oriental microcosm. The old serang, or bo’sun, was a gnarled and knotted and withered Malay, who took rather a fancy to me. Sometimes I sat in his berth and smoked a pipe with him. At other times I deciphered the wooden tallies for the sails in the sail-locker, for though he talked something which he believed to be English, he could not read a word, even in the Persi-Arabic character. The cooks, or bandaddies, were also friends of mine, and more than once they supplemented the intolerably meagre steerage fare by giving me something good to eat. I soon knew every man in the crew, and could call each by his name. Sometimes I went on the lookout with one of them, and one particular Malay was very keen on teaching me his language. So far as I remember the languages talked by the crew included Malay, Hindustani, Tamil and, oddly enough, French. That language was of course spoken by someone who came from Pondicherry, that small piece of country which, with Chandernagor, represents the French-Indian Empire of Du Plessis’s time. I had learnt a little Hindustani and Malay, and could understand all the usual names of the sails and gear before I discovered that there was someone on board whose native tongue was French, or who, at anyrate, could talk it fluently enough. We were far to the south of the Line before I found this out. For, of course, among his fellows the boy from Pondicherry spoke Hindustani mixed with Malay and perhaps with Tamil. I well remember how I made the discovery. It was odd enough to me, but far stranger, far more wonderful, far more full of mystery to my little, excitable and very dark-skinned friend. I daresay, if he lives, that to this hour he remembers the English boy who so surprised him.

The weather was intensely hot and I had climbed for a little air into one of the boats lying in the skids. The shadow of the main-topsail screened me from the sun; there was just enough wind to keep the canvas doing its work in silence. It was Sunday and the whole ship was curiously quiet. But as I lay in my little shelter I was presently disturbed by Pondicherry (that was what he was called by everyone), who came where I was to fetch away a plate full of some occult mystery which he had secreted there. He nodded to me brightly, and then for the first time it occurred to me that if he came from his nameplace he might know a little French. I knew remarkably little myself; I could read it with difficulty. My colloquial French was then, as now, intensely and intolerably English. I said, “Bon jour, Pondicherry!”