Lost Language, Shared Roots: John Lopes in Freetown

The Catholics in Bassein dropped their Portuguese creole1 The Indo-Portuguese Creole of Bombay was a creole language based on Portuguese, which grew out of the long contact between the Portuguese and local languages such as Marathi and Gujarati. Currently this language is extinct. In 1906 there were still close to 5,000 people who spoke Portuguese Creole as their mother tongue, 2,000 in Mumbai and Mahim, 1000 in Bandora, 500 in Thana, 100 in Curla (now Kurla), 50 in Bassein and 1,000 in other towns. There were, at that time, schools that taught Creole and the richest classes, which were replaced by the English language. for Marathi dialect gradually from the 19th century onwards, however, they maintained their Lusitanian grammar. The city had changed but ingrained in their diet this history, for example, batata vada (a potato patty) using the Portuguese word batata held between the ‘pao’ — Portuguese for bread bun. 

During the colonial period, the East Indians were recruited into the lower rungs of the English colonial bureaucracy — from deck handlers to stewards and fitters — but a large number of them tended to take up jobs on ships that sailed between Bombay and the Imperial universe. They captained ships too. The technical education they received allowed them to work in factories and acquire blue collar jobs in an India aspiring to be modern.

A younger John Lopes
A younger John Lopes

My maternal grandfather, John Lopes, was one such man who found a job as a Chief Divisional Office manager in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He worked in one of the largest commodity trading firms, Olam International, run by a peculiar Indian immigrant from Sindh (now in Pakistan). 

When John found the job in Freetown, he moved there from Bassein (now known as Vasai), not realising that he was a part of the creoles in Bassein. Noticing the similarities between the creole diasporas of Sierra Leone and Bassein, I couldn’t help but see how they resonated with each other. As a kid, I grew up with my nani along with my other first cousins. And since we annoyed her while our parents were away working, she would usually tell us about our grandfather who worked in Africa. 

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  • Johns Lopes Freetown

She would open a pile of photos, postcards and letters which reminded her of John as she told us stories about him. That was the methodology she used to bring us under control. She also let us engage with all of that visual data. Additionally, nani’s house was filled with things John had got from Africa — Indigo-dyed Batik-printed clothes, wooden masks, smoking pipe, small ivory neck pieces, jewellery made from seeds, coconut shells and beads, a black Jesus Christ statue and much more. 

All of this interested me very much while growing up. At a more mature age when I started to look back at those archives, I started to dig more into his life through nani. She once shared how John had a better job opportunity in Dubai but refused it to go to Sierra Leone. She mentioned that had he taken up that job, we all would have been super rich. She then said, “I don’t really know why he decided to work in Freetown, but I know that he must have felt something good about it; and for sure it wasn’t money that gave him that feeling. It was something else.” 

In the packaging department of the factory in Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1980
In the packaging department of the factory in Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1980

This revelation of her was enough for me to start thinking: “What kind of feeling?” I was sure about the fact that John really really loved his family and relatives. He was never biassed in treating anyone, so it definitely had something to do with feeling a sense of belonging. That is how I started to research more and I found out about the Krios in Sierra Leone from online. And I couldn’t be happier because it resonated so much with the East Indian creole community here in Bassein. Even though I wonder if John actually interacted with them, I was happy to connect with them in whatever way I could because the sense of belonging was real close.

Solar energy unit with engineering boys, December 1980
Solar energy unit with engineering boys, December 1980

Unlike the Catholics in Bassein who dropped their Indo-Portuguese creole for a Marathi dialect, the Sierra Leone creoles still speak ‘”‘Krio’ as a primary language. Also, even now both Bassein and Sierra Leone creoles live in nuclear families, giving equal importance to the extended families. Family members who do well are expected to help those who are less fortunate. 

I can’t help but think how John was an excellent example of the similarity that the two creoles share. At that time, John did not realise the link that connected him from Bassein to Freetown. But it is how he found a home away from home.

Christmas Celebration, Freetown, Dec 1982
Christmas Celebration, Freetown, December 1982

Before working for the largest trading firm in Africa, John worked in Scindia Steam Navigation and Hindustan Unilever. At Scindia, he worked as a fitter on the SS Jala Prabha, which was inaugurated by the then deputy prime minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Jala Prabha was Hindustan Shipyard’s second steamship. It was launched in 1948 and later scrapped in 1965. His association with Hindustan Unilever, Scindia Navigation, and Olam International reminds me of how creoles have been an integral part of the trade and navigation histories. The archival narratives of John, along with the stories told by his beloved Tereza and his children throw a light on his life, which is a part of the smaller personal histories relating to trade and navigation.

The homeland of the Sierra Leone creole community falls on the coast of West Africa, similar to John’s homeland on the Indian coastal region. It doesn’t surprise me that John found a home away from home to be amongst the people he could relate to. He eventually lost his life in Sierra Leone in an accident. His death was announced on the local radio in Freetown, and Indian shops maintained a day’s closure in his memory.

John’s godchild Master Junior Elai Philip Robinson with his sister Suzan

Like many immigrant workers, John Lopes remained unknown to the world beyond his family and village. We uncovered his letters and photographs that he had sent to my grandmother, Tereza John Lopes, in the years of his expatriation in Africa. John’s narratives through oral history and archives throw light on his life with his employer, friends, colleagues, extended family and his godchild in Freetown.

For Tereza, his wife, the city of Freetown will always be John’s as much as John was of Freetown.

John Lopes was born on 23 April 1931 in Bassein, India to Michael and Mary Lopes, a foreman at Mazagaon Dockyard and housewife respectively. He was the eldest amongst nine siblings. He breathed his last on 8 July 1990 in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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