BAME Seafarers in the First World War: The Discovery of the Oldest Surviving ‘nolly’ – The Story of Rohama Hassa

The oldest surviving ‘nolly’ – front. (Asif Shakoor)

I discovered Rohama Hassa’s Continuous Discharge Certificate (CDC) in a wooden chest, from the belongings of my late paternal grandmother, Mrs Mohamed (b. 1908, d. 1989), during a visit in October 2011 to our family home in Kashmir, Pakistan. After safely bringing the CDC, 5,029 miles back to Great Britain and carry out extensive research I came to realise, this is probably the oldest surviving ‘nolly’ or CDC of a South Asian seafarer in the First World War. I am just amazed how my late paternal grandmother came to meticulously preserve this, for such a long time.

After carrying out research at the reading rooms in the National Archives, the British Library, and the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum, and showing the CDC to archivists and specialists, I safely came to the conclusion; this has to be oldest surviving ‘nolly’ CDC of a South Asian Seafarer in the First World War. The second oldest surviving CDC in Great Britain for a South Asian seafarer is named to a Sylheti seaman Salimulla, dated 25 August 1944 (but this is for the Second World War), held in the custody of the Tower Hamlets Arts Project, Whitechapel, London.

Hassa was born in 1895 in Punjab, British India, in a region that is part of present day Pakistan. He is described as, about five and a half foot in height and of PM – Punjabi Mussalman (Muslim) – caste. He enlisted in the Mercantile Marine at Bombay (Mumbai) aged 18 in 1913 and served as a Trimmer and Fireman on British merchant ships which had been tasked to undertake war work during the First World War.

Researching the Oldest Surviving ‘nolly’ – CDC of a South Asian Seafarer

SS Delta (from author’s collection)

Hassa first served on SS Syria from 24th May 1916 until 6 July 1916 as a Fireman. SS Syria, was employed as a hospital ship and troop transport during the First World War, from 2 October 1914 until 10th February 1920 and was equipped with 395 beds for carrying wounded troops. His next ship, the SS Delta, served as a hospital ship on the Tsingtau operations and later an Expeditionary Force Transport. From 14 January 1915 until 19 March 1918, she served as military hospital ship and carrier for the reception, treatment and movement of casualties during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915-1916. She had been fitted with 530 beds for carrying wounded troops. Sometime after 19 March 1918, she was involved in supply operations under the Liner Requisition Scheme. I discovered Hassa was on this vessel from 4 August 1916 to 20 November 1917. Following the armistice Delta repatriated Australian troops, until November 1919, then in 1922she transported the Shah (ruler) of Persia and his suite to Marseilles, France.

SS Kaiser-i-Hind (author’s own collection)

Hassa’s last vessel was the SS Kaiser-i-Hind. The ship’s name is Urdu, meaning ‘Empress of India’: ‘Kaiser’ stood for Empress, whilst ‘Hind’, which is a derivative of the Urdu word ‘Hindustan’, referred to India. She was the second vessel of P&O to bear the name, the first being commissioned in 1878. The current Kaiser-i-Hind was built by Caird & Co. shipbuilders of Greenock, Scotland and launched on 28 June in 1914. The ship was immediately fitted out due to the First World War, and in 1916, she broke the Plymouth to Bombay (Mumbai) record on her maiden voyage to Australia in seventeen days, twenty hours and fifty two minutes. She spent most of the war on trooping duties mainly to the Mediterranean, transporting British, Indian and French troops. On 23 March 1916 she was missed by a torpedo sailing between Crete and Malta, whilst transporting the Viceroy of India, Lord Chelmsford, his family and suite. In 1917, the British Government requisitioned SS Kaiser-i-Hind for troop transport duties mainly in the Mediterranean. On 17 June 1917, SS Kaiser-i-Hind had a second miss west of Gibraltar. On 17 July, a third miss, south-west of the Scilly Isles. On 18th December 1917, she had a fourth miss, again west of Gibraltar. On 22 April 1918, while transporting 3,000 troops, she was hit in the Engine Room area by a torpedo which failed to cause an explosion. I discovered from the CDC that Hassa joined on SS Kaiser-i-Hind as a Fireman on 7 October 1918, shortly after her fifth miss from a torpedo on 22 September 1918! He was discharged from her on 28 July 1919. In 1919, SS Kaisar-i-Hind was still repatriating troops to Australia and British India. Hassa, served on board as a Fireman until July 1919. In 1920 the ship returned to passenger service, on the Bombay run from London.

Reverse of CDC

Hassa’s characters based on his ability and conduct were stated on his seaman’s discharge on the Official Log, he was described as V.G. for ‘Very Good’ by the commanders of the vessels: SS Syria, SS Delta and SS Kaiser-i-Hind that he served on in the First World War. Other characters stated on a seaman’s discharge of the Official Log, are described as G. for ‘Good,’ or Dec. ‘Decline to report.’

After the Great War

Considering Rohama Hassa had served at sea for not less than six months between 4 August 1914, and the Armistice on 11 November 1918, he would have been eligible to receive the same War Medals as my late paternal grandfather Mahomed Gama (born 1895 – died 1965), namely the British War Medal and the Mercantile Marine War Medal. Rohama Hassa most probably would have applied for the War Medals in question via the Government of India.

After serving on British merchant ships during the First World War, Hassa journeyed back to British India, landing in Bombay (Mumbai) on 28 July 1919 where he left the Mercantile Marine and returned to a normal life.

Find out how you can trace BAME Seafarers in the First World War here!

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