On the Hooghly

(A regular Bank Line experience visiting Calcutta)

Here is a fascinating true account of a Hooghly pilot working the river over 100 years ago…..


The Sunderbunds—Cyclones—The refuge houses—Loss of Mr. Shaw—The wreck of the Mokussir—Beasts in the jungle—A terrible journey—Guarded by a tiger—The rescue of Mr. Ewin and Mr. Allen—A snake at a picnic—Domestic quarrels overhead—Mr. Mackinnon obeys orders.

AFTER completing a year’s service as second mate of a brig a leadsman went on the river again for a year. He then passed for mate, and having served a year in that capacity went up for his exam, for Mate Pilot.

I have mentioned the sudden death of Mason on board the Karamania, which came as a great shock to me. We had been fellow-cadets on the Worcester, had joined the Service together, had always been friends, and I thought a great deal of him.

The loss of Shaw was also a distressing event. It occurred in the Sunderbunds whither he had gone as a guest in one of the steam launches of the River Survey Service.

The Sunderbunds is the name given to the low-lying land, covered with thick jungle and intersected by innumerable creeks, through which the mouths of the Ganges pass to empty their water into the Bay of Bengal. At the time of which I write the Sunderbunds, or at all events that portion of them lying to the westward, of which I had any knowledge, were uninhabited except by deer, tiger, and a few woodcutters.

Cyclones in recent years had swept over them, flooding and drowning everything. I had been told by the captain of a sailing vessel how, after the great storm of 1874, his ship having anchored on the way down at Mud Point



anchorage, the mate had gone ashore in one of the boats and returned with more than a hundredweight of silver ornaments which the boat’s crew had collected from the corpses piled up on the eastern bank of the river. On the opposite bank at Kedgeree all had been drowned by the storm wave except the tidal watcher, whose duty it was to show the rise of tide at the semaphore. He had noted and shown high water, and had watched the tide fall a foot or more, when to his astonishment it suddenly began to rise again. This was something so startling to him, such a A thing having never before happened in all his experience, ^fchat he thought the end of all things had come, and bolted to the nearest tree and climbed it. He was the only person at Kedgeree who escaped drowning.

While on the subject of cyclones, I may mention that years afterwards I met a man on a tramp steamer who had been second mate of a sailing vessel which had been totally dismasted in the Backergunge cyclone of 1876. His vessel drifted up north before the southerly wind which sprang up after the cyclone had passed. On the second day they saw what appeared to be a line of breakers to the northward, but on heaving the deep-sea lead could get no soundings at fifty fathoms. As they approached the apparent line of breakers, they found that it was in reality a long line of floating debris, which had been carried out to sea with the backwash of the receding storm wave which had submerged the Sunderbunds to a depth of twenty feet in places. The broken water, resembling breakers, was caused by myriads of sharks fighting over the corpses and carcases of cattle, which stretched in a long line as far as the eye could see from east to west. My informant told me that it took hours for the ship to drift clear of the floating mass of corruption and that the captain made the men wear bunting soaked in a strong solution of carbolic acid over their faces as a disinfectant. They drifted into shoal water where they anchored, and were eventually picked up by a tug and towed in. 106


At intervals along the face of the western part of the Sunderbunds there were, and probably still are, houses of refuge for the benefit of shipwrecked people. These were built on piles and reached by means of a ladder, to protect the temporary residents from wild animals. These refuge houses were regularly visited by the launches of the Survey Service, which replenished their stores of food, water, etc., which were as regularly stolen by the woodcutters. It was on one of these periodical visits that Shaw became a passenger in the launch together with another leadsman, F. L. Puttock. Having inspected the refuge houses the launch anchored in one of the creeks, and Shaw, Puttock, and one of the youngsters of the Survey Service decided to bathe off a spit of sand at the mouth of the creek.

As the tide rose the waves kept washing them off the spit of sand, so they decided to swim across to the other side of the creek, which was more sheltered. The young Survey officer could not swim, and Shaw took him on his back. Half-way across the creek Puttock said, ” Let me have him now.” So Shaw transferred him to Puttock, who struck out for the beach, leaving Shaw to follow. Suddenly Puttock heard Shaw cry out, and on turning to see what was the matter saw him throw up his arms and disappear. He had been seized by a crocodile. The creeks were full of them. Shaw was very much missed as he was a general favourite. Puttock went down in the Coleroon when she was lost with all hands in the cyclone of November, 1891.

During my stay in the Service I can recall one occasion on which a refuge house proved useful, and that was when the Mohussir was lost. She was an Arab vessel, barque rigged, and left Calcutta in tow on May 1st, 1882. Besides her crew she carried several Indian passengers, men and women. Mr. Ewin, Mate Pilot, was appointed to take her down the river, and Allen was the leadsman.

When a pilot received an order to take away an Arab vessel he was handed at the same time thirty-two rupees in cash, with which to provide himself with food, it being LOSS OF THE ” MOHUSSIR “


taken for granted that he would not care for the diet of the Arabs, or care to feed with them. Sometimes the pilot’s idea of laying in provisions was rather jieculiar. and I recollect an occasion on which a leadsman arrived at the Sandheads very hungry, and complained bitterly to his brother leadsmen that the pilot with whom he had made the trip down had only laid in a case of gin and a tin of biscuits. But as a rule the pilot would lay in some tinned things, eggs, bread, etc., and live quite comfortably. I hove the lead down once in an Arab where we had a very good round of spiced beef, the remains of which we took to the brig where it was much appreciated; for on the brig we only got chicken, duck, or mutton, all very excellent, of course, and beef was a luxury.

To return to the Mohussir. All went well on the first day. She got to Mud Point and anchored there for the night. The next morning they weighed and proceeded down in tow as far as the Intermediate Light, situated midway between the Lower Gasper and Eastern Channel Lights. There Mr. Ewin decided to cast off the tug and work out under sail. The wind was south-westerly. He made sail on the port tack and stood over to the westward until he shoaled on the head of the Eastern Sea Reef, when he wore round on the starboard tack. The flood tide was making and they just held their own, gradually getting over to the eastern side of the channel towards Saugor Sand. In the Eastern Channel the water shoals gradually to the westward, but deepens on the eastern side, on the edge of Saugor Sand, and then shoals quite suddenly. Since casting off the tug the breeze had freshened a good deal.

As Mr. Ewin was considering the advisability of going on the other tack the parral of the maintopsail yard carried away. (This is the band which goes round the mast and keeps the yard in its place.) Mr. Ewin squared the mainyard, put the helm down, hove-to, and sent some of the hands aloft to repair the damage. At the same time his 108


attention was drawn to the fact that a good deal of water was finding its way below through the forward hatch. With the freshening breeze she had been shipping some water. He went forward to see about it and superintend the proper battening down of the hatch when he suddenly realised that the vessel was going through the water, and on looking aloft saw that the after-sails were full. He ran aft and found that the nacoda, or Arab captain, had put the helm up and run her off the wind. Mr. Ewin put the helm


down and brought her to the wind again, but the mischief was done.

She grounded almost immediately on Saugor Sand, and began to bump heavily. Each succeeding wave picked her up and lifted her farther on to the sand. The tide was still rising and she would float for a while and then start bumping heavily again. She was an old wooden vessel and it was obvious that she would not stand this treatment for long without breaking up. The nacoda and crew put the boat out and left the vessel. They offered to take the pilot and leadsman with them, but said there was no room in the boat for the passengers. Mr. Ewin and Allen refused to leave the passengers, and Mr. Ewin’s servant elected to remain. The Mohussir continued to drift and bump, until they got right across Saugor Sand and into Lacams channel. Mr. Ewin and Allen managed to let go the anchor and she brought up. THE MOHUSSIR SINKING IN L\CAMS CHANNEL THE SUNDERBUNDS


On taking stock of the position they saw that the vessel could not remain afloat much longer. The hammering she had received had started some of her timbers. Several spars had fallen from aloft and the deck was a confused tangle of sails, spars and gear. She seemed to be settling rapidly, and there was no time in which to try to make a raft, so they lashed the passengers to anything which would float, making use of hatches, hen coops, casks, and one or two old lifebuoys which were on the poop, and committed them to the waves. They were busy lashing the servant to a hen coop when the Mohussir went down under their feet, taking the boy down with her, as they had not had time to cast off the deck lashings.

They kept themselves afloat on bits of wreckage but there is no doubt that they would have shared the fate of the wretched passengers, none of whom was heard of again alive, had it not been for the roof of the deckhouse, which broke away as the vessel settled, floated to the surface, and served them as a raft. On this, aided by wind and tide, they eventually drifted to the Sunderbunds and landed on Bulchery Island, worn out and suffering intensely from thirst. They decided that their only chance of survival lay in marching to the westward until they reached one of the refuge houses.

On the sea face of the Sunderbunds thick jungle comes down nearly to high-water mark. Swarms of little red crabs are to be seen at times, which when disturbed vanish into their burrows. At certain seasons queer-looking trails lead up from the sea. These are the marks left by turtles which have crawled to above high-water mark to lay their round yellow eggs in holes which they dig with their flippers, leaving them to be hatched by the sun.

The numerous creeks running down to the sea are inhabited by crocodiles, which are said to attain a length of thirty feet and at half-tide may be seen lying on the mudflats, slithering into the water if disturbed. Curlew and all sorts of waders pick up a living on the mud, and jungle fowl 110


live in the bushes. L»eer are plentiful, and although personally I have only seen spotted deer, cheetal, there arc sambhur to the eastward. Tiger are there to live on the deer, pig also are to be found, and large lizards of the iguana kind. But on landing the impression one receives is of loneliness and desolation.

One of the older members of the Service told me how he had once, when on a shooting trip to the Sunderbunds,


chanced on a creek where, lying half-hidden by vegetation, was the stern of some old ship of long ago, which may have been washed up a century before.

Another tale was of a coolie ship winch had been wrecked on the Sunderbunds and how the survivors had made their way along the coast feeding on roots and shellfish until they had been found by a rescue party. At the crossing of the creeks the coolies had been reluctant to swim over for fear of the crocodiles, and the pilot (I think he was Mr. Matson, but am not sure) had always to go first and give them a lead. He was never touched, the crocodiles attacking the last men who swam over. NO. 3 REFUGE HOUSE


There are evidences that, in the past, attempts have been made to inhabit this low-lying region of swamp and jungle. At Middleton Point, near Saugor Lighthouse, the foreshore having subsided, the encroachment of the sea in washing the jungle away laid bare the remains of former villages. The brickwork of a well was exposed in one place, and some metal ornaments were picked up. Saugor Lighthouse is surrounded by a high bund to protect it from inundations, and by a stockade to keep out wild animals. ‘ Or at all events such was the case at the time of which I write.

Mr. Ewin and Allen in their attempt to make their way westward had to traverse several creeks, and as the former was unable to swim, Allen had to swim across with him on his back. No easy job, for Ewin was a big, heavy man and at the first creek lost his head and nearly throttled Allen, who threatened to leave him unless he could control himself and not grip so tightly. They crossed two or three creeks without being attacked by the crocodiles, and at last when they were nearly played out arrived at No. 3 Refuge House situated on Bulchery Island. There they found some water in the tank, a supply of biscuits, and some tinned provisions. Allen’s body was nearly raw from exposure to the sun and salt water, and he was glad to rub himself over with the fat from a tin of Australian mutton. The relief of being able to lie down and sleep in security was great, but while sleeping Allen was several times attacked and bitten by rats.

They decided to remain where they were at No. 3 Refuge House, as they did not feel equal to the fatigue of struggling along the coast to the next one to the westward.

Whilst there they were visited several times by a tiger, who came and lay down underneath them, but, of course, could not ascend the ladder which gave access to the hut, and they were inconvenienced by the stench from a dead body, which lay only a few yards away. It was probably one of the unfortunate passengers of the Mohussir. Dread of the tiger prevented them going down to bury it. 112


As soon as the loss of the Mohussir became known in town one of the survey launches was sent down to search the refuge houses for any survivors. It was only by great good luck that the two were found, for after visiting Nos. 1 and 2 houses the officer in charge of the launch decided that it was no use going farther east, and was about to abandon the search; but the engineer, Mr. Gomez, a brother of Madame Gomez, the celebrated singer, persuaded the officer to continue the search as far as No. 3, where they found Mr. Ewin and Allen. Years later, when special pilot of the Rangoon Mail steamers, Allen was lost overboard in heavy weather off the Alguada reef.

I chummed for some little time, in a small bungalow at Kidderpur, with Shaw, Allen, and a German named Dreyer who was curator of the Museum and very well informed on all manner of subjects. He had served in the FrancoPrussian War as a lieutenant in one of the Westphalian regiments and had many interesting things to tell us about the campaign. He was a collector of Hymenoptera, commonly known as wasps, and one Sunday I accompanied him on a collecting expedition to the Botanical Gardens.

There were a good many of his little pets about, and he seemed to be doing good business with his butterfly net and killing bottle, when we heard cries of alarm from a nearby thicket. On investigation we found that they arose from a picnic party, which had been disturbed by a snake about four feet long which had started to crawl across their tablecloth. I hit it with my stick, and Dreyer told me to pick it up, as he would like to take it to a confrere at the Museum who was interested in Ophidia. While carrying it over my shoulder the reptile, which had only been stunned, became lively and twined itself round my leg. I gave it another whack, which kept it quiet, but it was still alive when we got back home and Dreyer placed it in a box for the night. He had said he thought it a harmless variety or I should not have handled it so cheerfully ; but on the following evening he mentioned casually that his friend the Ophidian expert AN ILL-SUITED COUPLE


had pronounced it to be a snake of the most venomous description.

When the chummery at Hastings broke up, Shaw, Allen and I took the ground flat in a large house, and were joined by Mackinnon, another Worcester boy who had come out to the Service. On the floor above lived a solicitor and his wife who did not hit it off very well together, and in the top flat lived a gentleman who was a partner in one of the large business firms.

We had not been long installed when we felt called upon to interfere in the affairs of the people who lived just above us. Prolonged screaming proclaimed that something had gone wrong there, so up we trooped in a body to enquire into the disturbance. The wife declared that the husband had hit her. The husband ordered us to clear out, but could not very well tackle the three of us, Shaw especially being a very powerful young man who played forward at Rugger for Calcutta. I pointed out to the others that owing to our youth and inexperience we were obviously unfitted to advise or lecture a married couple, but that the gentleman on the top flat, an old married man, was the proper person to deal with the situation. So we sent a servant up to ask him if he would kindly step down, which he did. We explained the case to him, and asked him to be so good as to tell the husband how he ought to behave in that capacity. The husband’s face was an interesting study of stifled and futile rage as the old gentleman told him how wrong it was to strike any woman, especially his partner in life, and when he had finished we told the husband that if he did such a thing again we would send Shaw up to thrash him.

But we doubted afterwards whether the lady was really deserving of much sympathy ; for about a week later, while we were at breakfast, the solicitor appeared in his pyjamas with a request that one of us would lend him a pair of trousers, his wife having hidden all his, and he had an important case on at the High Court in half an hour.

H 114


Again we trooped up to his flat and told the lady that she would alienate our sympathy unless she immediately restored the missing garments. She did so with a very ill grace, and we wished them both good morning.

About ten minutes afterwards we were disturbed by a crash in the hall and found that she had got him in the small of the back with a flower-pot containing a croton as he was hurrying downstairs to go to Court. It had bowled him over and the hall was full of mould and broken flowerpot, while over the balustrade leant the lady, laughing like a fiend. We brushed him down, saw him off, and returned to our own quarters impressed with the difficulties and risks of married life.

Mackimion, who had joined us, turned up one day full of importance. It appeared that a young cousin, MacC , Chief of the Clan, had just arrived from England, was staying with another cousin, the MacT , in Calcutta, and was dining with us that evening. The spread would have to be worthy of so important an occasion. As usual we were all more or less stonybroke, but we mustered sufficient cash to purchase a gallon jar of whisky, with which we filled six old whisky bottles bearing diverse labels. These made an imposing show down the centre of the dining-table and we were able to offer the MacC his choice of a varied selection of Highland dew. The evening was a great success. The various brands were all sampled, and in the small hours we escorted the Chieftain to the residence of his cousin MacT , round whose bed we ranged ourselves crowing like cocks until, boiling over with rage, he turned us all out, and I have no doubt gave the MacC a good dressing down, for he appeared to be a bad-tempered little man.

I recall another incident connected with Mackinnon when he was keeping an anchor watch at the Sandheads. The brig was lying near the Light, riding to the ebb tide, over which a French barque was slowly coming in under sail before a light southerly breeze. The commander of the OBEYING ORDERS


brig, Mr. W. O’B. West, was dozing in a long chair on the quarter deck, other pilots were doing the same on the comfortable settees, and everything was hot and peaceful.

When the French barque was about a mile away Mackinnon roused the commander and told him that the vessel was getting close. Annoyed at being disturbed, Mr. West said, ” ALL right. Call me when she hits us,” and dozed off again.

The barque continued to come along until her jibboom was over the taffrail and knocked the flagstaff away as she put her helm over and ranged alongside the brig’s quarter.

As the flagstaff went with a crash, Mackinnon said :

” I think she’s got us now, sir.”

The commander fell out of his chair, rushed to the rail and told the Frenchman what he thought of him.

All was now confusion and excitement, but there was no damage done except to the flagstaff, and the boat was sent off with a pilot. Mackinnon adopted an attitude of injured innocence and pleaded that he was merely obeying orders. But the commander in a violent outburst characterised him as an idiot of the most sanguinary description.

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