BAME Seafarers in the First World War: The story of Mahomed Gama

Mahomed Gama. (All photographs copyright of author)

I never knew my Grandfather served in the First World War

I first discovered that my grandfather, Mahomed Gama, had been recognised for his service in the First World War when I came across some correspondence in a box my grandmother kept. In 2011 my mother, sister and myself were in Pakistan helping to renovate the family home. I found letters written in 1967 from the British Government to my grandmother after she had contacted them regarding claiming his pension following his death. I did not get to meet my grandfather, and it was a surprise to me that he had been involved in the conflict.

I found out that he had received the British War Medal and the Mercantile Marine Medal as one of the letters mentioned that my grandmother had sent them to Britain to prove that he had served. However, the family did not have his medals, and we concluded that the medals were never returned! I was keen to trace them and bring them back into the family’s possession.

I decided to research Mahomed Gama’s service during the First World War; always hoping that we would find his medals. The research took me on an incredible journey through which I traced his war service. I also found out that my grandfather’s British War Medal was sold at an auction in Ipswich in March 2014.  I am delighted to report that I was able to track it down and buy it back in December 2017! Perhaps one day we may find his Mercantile Marine Medal.

Grandad’s War Service

My grandfather was born in British India, in a region of what is now Pakistan, in 1895. He served as a Fireman on merchant ships which had been tasked to undertake war work during the First World War, and was awarded the British War Medal and the Mercantile Marine War Medal in recognition of his service on the SS Khiva.

Correspondence from the Ministry of Social Services, Overseas Group, April 1967

Mahomed Gama first served on SS Medina during the war transporting cargo and passengers. The ship called at ports in London and New Sydney in February 1916, eventually landing in Bombay on 20th November 1916. Five months later, on 28th April 1917, German submarine UB31 torpedoed and sunk Medina 25km (15 miles) east-north-east of its start point in British waters. There were six casualties, the Fourth Engineer, William Palmer, and five of Mahomed Gama’s co-workers: Fireman Daulat Ali Didar Ali, Paniwallah Dilawar Sultan Ali; Trimmer Dost Muhammad Ali, Paniwallah Nizamuddin Hasanuddin, and Lamp Man Raja Jivan.*** They were killed in the explosion at 17:50 hours, but the remaining crew and passengers on Medina all boarded lifeboats and towed into Dartmouth and Brixham by local vessels. The Royal Navy destroyers HMS Spitfire and HMS Laurel stood by, whilst HMS Laurel attempted a tow, but SS Medina sank at 19:15 hours.

Grandfather’s next ship, the SS Khiva, was requisitioned by the British Government in 1917, after America entered the war in order to help transport American troops to France. 40,000 American troops had embarked at the port of New York waiting to be transported. Mahomed Gama and other Indian seamen on Khiva left Bombay on 8th October 1917; calling at ports in St. Nazaire, Brest, Le Havre, Liverpool, London, Plymouth and New York. Khiva had four narrow escapes from German submarines in 1917-1918. The ship twice missed being struck, evaded and escaped attack another time, and also repelled an attack with gunfire.

During its service Khiva transported an estimated 10,000 troops, and tonnes of military supplies, from New York to the frontline in France between April 1917 and November 1918 – the last arriving on what was to be Armistice Day. Khiva returned to normal service in January 1919.

Mahomed Gama’s British War Medal

After serving on Khiva Mahomed Gama returned to British India, married and had five children. He moved to Great Britain with his son and was employed as a Labourer by BIRMID Midland Motor Cylinder Company, Smethwick, and Accles & Pollock Limited, Oldbury, until 26th February 1965. My grandfather died on 16th August 1965 during a visit to West Pakistan. He served Great Britain in war and in peace.


*** Glossary of featured Merchant Marine roles

It is interesting to note that some of the jobs undertaken by BAME seafarers on British merchant ships were not particularly skilled or well-paid. This says something about the way in which ordinary, non-white citizens of the British Empire were regarded during this time period, and the opportunities for work and promotion that they had.

Fireman – Like a ‘Stoker’ on Royal Navy ships. A Fireman would keep the engines fed with fuel in order to produce the steam power to sail the vessel.

Fourth Engineer – The lowest rank of the Engine Room officers. A junior member of the Engineering Department on a merchant vessel. They would report to the Chief Engineer who would be in charge of the whole Engine Room.

Lamp Man – A Lamp man would be responsible for the lighting, in this case in the dark and dirty belly of the ship’s Engine Room.

Paniwallah – From Urdu meaning ‘water carrier.’ A Paniwallah would provide the Engine Room workers with refreshing cool water – a lowly but vital job in such scorching conditions.

Trimmer – The Trimmer would transport coal from storage in the bunkers to the Fireman at the ship’s furnaces. They would make sure that the coal was distributed evenly for the balance of the ship and would ensure the safety of the crew by extinguishing any fires that occured in the coal bunker.

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

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One Response to BAME Seafarers in the First World War: The story of Mahomed Gama

  1. Naina Manjrekar February 28, 2018 at 12:16 pm #

    Hi Asif,
    Thank you for this wonderful article!
    Another seaman, Amir Haider Khan, who was on the Khiva in 1917-Jan 1918, has written an autobiography in which he talks about jumping ship in New York and his life as a seaman in WWI.

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