Monday, October 15, 2007

Gunboat Jack, a Bangalore hero of the past

Many who were in Bangalore during the 1940s and 1950s are likely to have seen Gunboat Jack, or at least heard of him. He had several roles in life: boxer, circus performer, speedster, bar fighter, street brawler, bouncer, tap dancer, perhaps even smuggler. During his sunset years he had two more parts, which I shall come to later.

We know for sure that Gunboat Jack was a tall American Black, and apparently a good boxer. I have heard it mentioned that he was once a sparring partner to Jersey Joe Walcott who became the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion after the legendary Joe Louis. He is said to have been an American sailor who jumped ship at Madras (Chennai) and thus the name ‘Gunboat’. But this story may not be true. According to one version ‘Jack’ was not his Christian name but came about because he had penchant for settling street fights with a car jack.Whatever his background was, Gunboat Jack sparkled in Bangalore in the 1940s, both in the ring and outside of it. In his own words to J.T. Seamands, an American who studied in Baldwins, Bangalore and did missionary work in India, “I’m a fighter. A boxer. I’m a middle-weight, but I fight good." And again, “I like three things too much. I like drinkin,’ I like women, and I like music.” (These quotes are from Forensics & Faith, a Blog by the best selling author Brandilyn Collins nee Seamands.See TN Murari made Gunboat Jack a major character in his novel, Field of Honour, of which Graham Greene said, 'I was very much impressed by Field of Honour’. The famous Madras historian S. Muthiah has written about this boxer.

It is not clear when Gunboat Jack reached Bangalore. In an article ‘Of Gunboat Jack and Princess Amina’ ( Kaleem Omar writes that the man landed in Bombay at the outbreak of World War II and was perhaps involved in smuggling. He used to visit Karachi during weekends and in 1941 sired a girl by an Anglo Indian teacher. The girl was a good athlete, but later became a well-known belly dancer.

But I don’t think we are talking about the same Gunboat Jack because the timeframe doesn’t seem to fit. J.T. Seamands, the American missionary is quoted saying that he used to read about our Gunboat Jack during his Baldwin School days. That was in the 1930s. They met for the first time in 1943 on a train to Madras. By then the boxer was already on the decline. For some time he stayed at Park Town in Madras (Chennai) and married an Anglo Indian lady. He used to fight at Madras and Bangalore.

Fighting, wine and women took their toll and age caught up too. For sometime Gunboat Jack worked as a bouncer at Bosco’s on Brigade Road. I used to see him in the early 1950s with a hat in hand, moving up and down Brigade Road. It was such a sad sight.

But JT Seamands met him again in 1958, quite by chance. Those days Gunboat Jack used to sit at a street corner on a chair, Bible in hand, and preach. The Seamands took him to their residence for Thanksgiving Dinner at which the American community in Bangalore was present. I cannot find any further trace of the boxer.

Gunboat Jack was a star in the boxing arena; perhaps unbeaten in India. But he lost out in the ring of life. His story reminds me the title of a good novel I read long ago (forget the author’s name), The Bigger They Come the Harder They Fall.



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sags said...

I just read your article on Gunboat Jack and I thought i could enlighten you on a little known fact. My father, the late Francis Ashirvatham aka Little Ray Robertson was the one who knocked out jack in the 2nd round at Trichinapally. Fight promoter was Norman Thomas. After which dad retired unbeaten as the welter wieght champion of India. Not many people know about this.

clifford D'vaz said...

Gunboat jack, American born, A/I ledgend. Every A/L born in Bangalore has 'a Dad, uncle or second cousin twice removed' that fought or beat him (even mine). Sadly like most boxers, he carried on fighting well past his sell by date, which is when he reached his 'beatable' time of life.
So why boast about beating up an old man who needed the purse money to survive?. If that's something to boast about then bring on Muhamed Ali (in his current condition..of course) I'll wipe the floor with him.
Q. what will that prove?
A. Nothing. But it may impress the Grandchildren, when we gather around the dining table to slurp pepperwater and rice.

P.S. Sorry to burst your bubbles.

P.P.S. There are no photos of Gunboat Jack on any website that I've visited, somebody out there must have some. please post them.

Clifford Patrick D'Vaz
(A/I Bangalorean residing in London)

Unknown said...

sags, I tried to contact you on email some time back but did not succeed. If you send me more details about your father, late Mr. Francis Ashirvatham, I could possible write about him. My email id is

Unknown said...

clifford D'vaz, thanks for the comment. I suggest that you read my post 'Updates' at
also if haven't already done so.

You are right about photos of Gunboat Jack. I am yet to come across one. Possibly Mrs. Shiela Abraham, Tiger Nat Terry's daughter could have one. Shall try to check with her. said...

Gunboat jack was my grandfather, I grew up in England, and was always told about him. My father (One of gunboats sons) died when I was young and my mother used to tell me the stories of him boxing and the circus. I'm still trying to find more information, I may have some photos back home in England with family, if I get hold of them I'll scan them...

Unknown said..., thank you for the comment. Could you let us know more about your grandfather. I am sure that many people would be interested.

In case you haven;t read it, please go through my post Updates which which has a comment from someone who knew Gunboat Jack.

Unknown said...

I just came across a couple of ads while searching newspapers on the Singapore National Library website. They are from September 1935 and announce a show featuring Gunboat Jack and his Hawaiian guitar . Any connection?

Unknown said...

Just discovered that it must be the same man ...he was also boxing in Singapore around the same time. There are lots of news clippings to be found in the Singapore National Library website relating to Jack , including a short article from the Straits Times for 8 July 1935 which has a photo of him

Unknown said...

les, thank you for the information.

YVS Vinod said...

I heard from a retired Police Officer of Andhra Pradesh (who is no more)that Gunboat Jack was a good gun shot and had shot a panther in Srikakulam District. He seemed to have driven down from Madras under orders of the Presidency to releive the villagers of the panther menace.

Can anybody throw some light on this shooting ability of Gunboat Jack.

sunbad said...

Here's Gunboat Jack's boxing record:

Although I couldn't find either Tiger Nat Terry or Little Ray Robertson in the record. Sorry!

I also found this - does this boxer look familiar?

However, the second article suggests that there were two fighters with the same name whose colourful lives may have been conflated. Hope this helps!

Unknown said...

sunbad, thanks for the details.

Anonymous said...

I recently heard about gunboat jack. an old time bangalore resident told me he used to wear army clothes and sit around.
i am researching the music scene in india of the 50s and 60s for a book and am currently researching bangalore and madras which is how his name came up

Retroman said...

my email is