On The Hooghly – another humorous chapter….

CHAPTER XV

The river boats—Wildfowl shooting—A lady wildfowler—The bank manager’s crocodile—Elefant roarrf—Animal cargoes—The testy captain and the escaped tiger—Dinghy wallahs—Vaccination and strikes—A boat upset.

types of boat. At Colombo and round the coast of Ceylon one sees the catamaran, a narrow boat with an outrigger to balance it. At Madras there is the masullah boat, constructed to stand the shock of being hurled on to the beach by the heavy surf which always seems to be rolling in there. Nails are not used in building it, the planking being sewn together with coir or coconut fibre. At Chittagong the sampan, the boat of the Far East, makes its appearance. But the boat which has been evolved on the Hooghly. whether large or small, has one distinctive feature—a high stern. This is to enable it to cope successfully with the tidal bore which occurs there at certain seasons. As the bore travels up the river with the first of the flood tide, the boatmen can be heard miles away crying out a warning, and all the river craft lying alongside the bank push off into midstream and present their stems to the approaching wave. After the danger has passed, they tie up again. The large bhurs, the budgeroits, bholios, pansways, and dinghys, all have a family likeness in that their sterns arc suited to meet’ and ride over an approaching wave.

The boats used by the fishermen arc not built with a high stem, neither are the boats of the towboat wallahs or native leadsmen, whom we always used to employ in the sailing ships to run the lines to the tug when passing hawsers, and

1S8 THE TOWBOAT WALLAHS

187

to keep the lead going all the time when under way. They were most expert boatmen and leadsmen—small, dark men of the fisherman class. They looked to the pilots for their employment, and would swarm round us at the entrance to the Port Office, telling us what ships were leaving and asking us to take them. On leaving the house in the early morning for a stroll, before the sun got up, one of them would be waiting at the gate, so as to be first in the field to secure a job. A towboat would have a crew of ten men and their fee was only four rupees a day, but it cost them very little for their food, and still less for their clothing, which consisted of a loincloth. They were invaluable for passing hawsers, heaving the lead, or for putting us on board an outward-bound vessel in the Reach in a strong tide. Sometimes they were useful in other ways.

Shortly after joining the Service I was heaving the lead down in a ship in tow of one of the paddle tugs, from which a man fell overboard as we were passing Fultah. We had a towboat astern, and the pilot gave me permission to take the boat and pick the man up, telling rac to rejoin him at Diamond Harbour, where he intended to anchor. I dropped into the boat, and having picked up the man, pulled alongside the bank to get into the slack, as the flood was still running. The man would not say what he was, or how he had got into the water, but suddenly, when we were close to the bank, jumped overboard and swam ashore. We beached the boat and went after him, up over the top of the bund, down the other side, and through the ditch, which had several feet of water in it. He ran across a paddy field, going well, and the towboat wallahs after him like a pack of beagles. I cheered them on with a promise of eight annas to the man who caught him. This increased the pace and we got him in less than a mile, and took him back to the towboat, tied him down, and made for Diamond Harbour. There was a nice breeze, and as the tide was now making down we hoisted the sail and worked to the anchorage, where we found our vessel. The captain of the 188

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tug was very glad to see his fireman again. There might have been all sorts of trouble about the man if we had not retrieved him.

As we passed Kokrahatti, a village on the western bank, the towboat wallahs told me that the place was terrorised by a band of large, grey, black-faced monkeys who had taken up their abode in a tope nearby. The women of the village being afraid to venture out after nightfall because of the unwelcome attentions of the animals.

I found the towboats very useful to land me on the bank when I went after wildfowl, which were plentiful on the mud flats at half-tide. I always carried a gun, even as a leadsman, and if the tide did not permit of the vessel leaving before eight or nine o’clock, would go ashore a little before daybreak and walk along the mud flats as the day came in. The air would be full of the cries of all sorts of birds picking up food on the mud—sandpipers, red shanks, green shanks, godwit, curlew and stone plover; I have seen avocet, and in the north-east monsoon golden plover and all sorts of duck and geese, though these were difficult to approach on the mud.

I recall one shooting expedition in which the towboat wallahs played a part, though not a very successful one. I was taking a sailing vessel down in tow. We anchored about one or two in the afternoon at Kulpee, and would not be getting under way again until the following morning. When I told the captain that I was going ashore to see if I could pick up a curlew, or possibly a duck, he said that he had a gun and would come along, too. But he also had a wife who said that she would come as well. I pointed out to the lady that there would be about a quarter of a mile of deep mud to walk through before we reached terra firma, but she was determined to be of the party. I rather gathered from the husband that she would not let him out of her sight. Possibly—though this is only conjecture—he may have returned from a voyage to Buenos Ayres or Valparaiso with a long black hair on his coat collar (the wife A SHOOTING

EXPEDITION

189

being a blonde), or some other indication of possible marital infidelity, which had determined the lady to accompany him afloat in future, and to keep a watchful eye on him.

However that may have been, and whatever the cause, she would not let him go ashore alone, and as he was resolved to go and shoot something, it was arranged that the towboat wallahs should use a plank as a sedan chair and carry the lady in state through the mud. It was no easy

THE UNFORTUNATE SLIP

task transferring her to the plank from the towboat, which is built V-shaped without any bilges so that it careens to a very awkward angle when its nose is resting on the bank. But we managed at length to get her on to the plank without mishap, and the procession started to stagger through the mud, the four heftiest men acting as bearers.

Now the mud was a foot or eighteen inches deep in places, and very slippery. The men did not look too happy about it, but we got along for a hundred yards or so before one of them slipped and came down, bringing his end of the plank with him, and precipitating the unfortunate lady backwards into the mud.

It took some little time to get the cavalcade going again. 190

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The wife was very excited and reluctant to trust herself again to the plank, and the towboat wallah, who had fallen face downward under the plank, had to have the mud cleaned out of his eyes and nose before he could do anything. But after considerable discussion it was decided to try again, and this time they managed to reach the bund, although the men were very nervous, and every time they staggered or made a false step their passenger gave a shrill

THE REJECTED OFFERING

scream which startled them and made matters worse. Having reached the bund the lady sat down and rested, while the captain and I wandered along to where some curlew were walking about on the mud flat, but we could not get close enough to have a pot at them.

Walking back again the captain spotted a green parrot on a bush which he successfully stalked until within a fewyards of it, when he dropped on one knee, look careful aim, and blew the unsuspecting bird out of the bush. It was badly knocked about but he was very pleased, and bore it triumphantly to where his wife was sitting gloomily nursing her wrath. He told her that the parrot would look well in a hat, but she rejected the idea with loathing and contempt, THE ” QUEDA” AT SISTER TREES

191

and expressed her opinion of him and the towboat wallalis, and the river, and Calcutta, and the ship, and everything else, in no measured terms. It was a dismal little party which staggered back to the towboat, fortunately without further mishap. Probably the captain heard more about that outing every now and then during the passage home.

Many years afterwards, shortly before my retirement, when taking down the B.I.S.S. Queda, I had reason to be grateful to the towboat wallahs. The Queda, a large turret steamer, was loaded with coal and drawing about twentyseven feet, and we had to ride out a cyclone at Sister Trees, a small anchorage above Royapur Bar. I told the towboat wallahs to show a light after dark on the bank, and they did so. Sometimes it was blown out, but they lit it again, and I found it most useful during the night. When the wind came out from the westward with a succession of violent squalls the little glimmering light enabled me to keep the vessel’s stern off the bank. We had two anchors down and I spent the night on the bridge, moving the engines when necessary and slipping into the chartroom occasionally to change into dry things. The next day there was an abnormally high tide, and in spite of our heavy draught we got down to Saugor, where wc anchored for the night. It was well we did so, for on proceeding in the morning we found the Lower Gasper and Intermediate Lights very much out of position; but in daylight were able to pick up the buoys.

One morning, when on my way to join a steamer in the Reach, I met a towboat which had captured a crocodile about five feet long, which they asked me to purchase. I offered them three rupees for it, on condition that they took it to the Agra Bank and presented it to the Assistant Manager who had his desk to the right of the entrance; but they were to lead it up the steps with a rope round its neck, and not carry it. On the previous day when in the bank I had mentioned to the Assistant Manager that I was going down the river the next day, and asked him jokingly 192

ON THE HOOGHLY

if he would like me to bring him anything back. He said, ” Yes, bring me back a shark.” I wrote a short note for the men to hand to him. Afterwards I learnt that the entry of the reptile had caused quite a commotion amongst the money-changers who sat just inside the door with piles of rupees stacked up on the floor. The towboat wallahs

A PRESENT FOR THE BANK MANAGER

were allowed to retain the crocodile; in fact, they were paid to take it away.

The only other occasion on which I had anything to do with a deal in crocodile was when I assisted the captain of a German steamer to buy one from a fisherman who had caught it in his net. After some haggling we secured it for a small sum. The captain’s idea was to take it to Hamburg where he would be able to dispose of it at a profit, either for DELIKATESSEN

198

show purposes or as an article of diet. He had an interesting tale of an elephant which for some reason had had to be destroyed at Hamburg, and was purchased by one of the sausage manufacturers, who put on the market an Elefant Wiirst, which had a tremendous vogue and was considered the correct thing to buy. According to the captain all the best people ate the delicacy. Thus a demand had been created which was rather difficult to satisfy, as elephants do not often end their days in Hamburg. But the sausage merchants found some way out of their difficulty, for on returning to Hamburg six months later he found that Elefant Wiirst was still to be obtained, but at a greatly enhanced price. It might well be that a fortune was awaiting the man who could introduce Crocodile Wiirst to the gastronomists of the Fatherland.

Having hauled his purchase on deck, he and the carpenter carefully measured the animal, and proceeded to make an oblong box just big enough to hold him, which they caulked and made watertight. Then, having placed the prisoner in it, they nailed battens across so that he could not possibly get out. I shot several kites which thoughtlessly perched upon the jumper stay, and thus provided him with fresh meat for a day or two. But whether he survived to gladden the epicures of Hamburg I never learnt.

German steamers frequently carried consignments of birds and animals as deck passengers, and on one steamer I was amused by the behaviour of a young elephant, who was walking about loose on the after-deck, where the carpenter, a fat old fellow, was busily engaged sawing up wood and making boxes. The baby elephant kept picking up the tools when the man’s back was turned and putting them down again in a different place, to the annoyance of the carpenter who had a good deal to say about it and seemed to be on the verge of apoplexy.

While on the subject of animals I should mention that the steamers which brought horses from Australia for the Indian market would sometimes take back other animals.

N 194

ON THE HOOGHLY

I took one vessel down, I think it was the Bucephalus, full of camels with which to open up a caravan route across the centre of Australia, and on another occasion a steamer with a consignment of mongooses to deal with a plague of rats in one of the Australian ports. I was told years after that instead of destroying the rats the mongooses had formed mesalliances with them, the result being a much bigger and fiercer rat. This may have been a yarn, like the story of the tree-climbing rabbits of which I was told by a wild-eyed old salt, who assured me that owing to the repeated droughts in one district of Australia the rabbits had developed claws like cats, which had enabled them to scale the tallest trees and feed on the foliage.

One of the passenger steamers coming to Calcutta was taking home as deck passengers some leopards and a tiger. The skipper was a red-haired Scot, a strict disciplinarian, who would stand no nonsense from anyone, and was very much respected. He was also a man of regular habits, one of which was to retire to his cabin on the bridge deck after lunch and turn in for an hour, both officers and crew having strict orders that during that hour he was not to be disturbed. On this particular voyage one of the deck passengers, namely the tiger, in some unaccountable manner got out of its cage.

The first man who sighted the beast standing loose on deck gave a yell of warning and took to the rigging, where he was followed by several others. Those who did not go aloft bolted down below and barricaded themselves in the cabins. Unfortunately it was the hour of the captain’s siesta, which no man had ever dared to interrupt. But the situation was serious, and one of the quartermasters, taking his courage in both hands, ventured to knock timidly at the cabin door. There was no response. He knocked more loudly, and with a roar of rage, bristling with indignation, the potentate emerged and demanded the reason of the outrage.

In frightened tones the quartermaster said: STANDING NO NONSENSE

196

” The tiger’s out, sir.”

” Then put him back again,” shouted the captain, preparing to return to his bunk.

” He won’t go back, sir.”

” What! ” roared the infuriated skipper. ” Won’t go back! I’ll see about that,” and boiling over with indignation marched aft in his pyjamas and slippers to where the tiger was standing, blinking at the sunlight. Seizing the astonished beast by the scruff of its neck the skipper kicked it into the cage, slammed the door to, bolted it, and returned to his cabin, declaring loudly what he would do

THE CAPTAIN AND THE TIGER

to anyone who let it out again or dared to disturb his afternoon rest.

To get back to the boats on the Hooghly, which are really the subject of this chapter and not tigers. The most distinctive boat on the river is undoubtedly the dinghy, the gondola of Calcutta. Every sailing vessel engaged a dinghy which was always in attendance during the ship’s stay in port. Dinghys on the look-out for a job would go down to Diamond Harbour, and in the north-east monsoon even as far as Saugor, where they would lie in wait for an inward- 190

ON THE HOOGHLY

bound ship. Their usual way of getting on board was to hook the ship’s bumkin with a boat-hook attached to a coil of coir rope, and having caught hold would pay out the rope, gradually taking the strain, until the dinghy some forty yards astern would be towing through the water with its nose well cocked up, and the manji doing some energetic steering. By degrees it would be hauled close up under the vessel’s counter, when one of the men would swarm up the rope like a monkey and with a low salaam present his

” YOU ARE MY OLD MASTER, SIR

credentials to the captain, saying, ” You are my old master, Sahib.”

Which statement might be contradicted, as it was on the Slronsa, one of Sanbach’s ships on which I was heaving the lead.

” No,” said Captain Brooks. ” My dinghy wallah is Juggernaut.”

” Juggernaut dead, Sahib ; we burn him,” said the new arrival.

The captain called down the skylight to his wife, and told her the sad news. ” Poor old Juggernaut’s dead; they’ve burnt him.” BOXO AND JUGGERNAUT

197

The lady came on deck. It was her first voyage to India, and she was ignorant of the ways and customs of the East.

” Why have they burnt him ? ” she demanded. ” What had he done ? “

It was explained to her that, being Hindus, Juggernauts were born to be burnt, whereas Boxos, being followers of the Prophet, were interred like the rest of us.

Juggernaut having been burnt, the captain told Boxo that as he was the first-comer he might have the appointment as dinghy wallah to the ship on a monthly salary. But a few miles farther on we sighted another dinghy lying in wait in mid-channel, which also managed to catch hold of- the bumkin, and in the manji the captain recognised Juggernaut whose death they had been lamenting.

” Why, Juggernaut! ” he cried ; ” Boxo said you were dead.”

” No, Sahib, I not dead,” said the indignant Juggernaut.

The captain turned to reproach the perfidious Boxo with his untruthfulness, and caught a glance of that worthy’s head as he slid down the rope into his dinghy and cast off.

Unless we had engaged a towboat we always had to employ a dinghy to put us on board any vessel which we wanted to join. They were not built for speed, but were very well handled by the dinghy wallahs and were quite safe in the strongest tideway, and amongst the buoys. I must have used them many hundreds of times by night and day, and cannot recall any accident. But on one occasion, on arriving at the ghdi on my way to join a steamer, I found that all the dinghy wallahs were on strike. There was an outbreak of bubonic plague at the time, and it was rumoured that the Government were introducing inoculation or vaccination as a preventative. The dinghy wallahs, like all Bengalis, are at the same time both suspicious and credulous. Some mischief-monger had persuaded them that the Government intended them no good by this tikka, 108

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as they called inoculation, but was merely out to slay them ; so they all went on strike by way of protest.

The same sort of thing happened at the time of the building of the Hooghly Bridge, when there was a galla cutta or throat-cutting scare, and for a week or so the lower-class Indians were chary of venturing out after dark; for they firmly believed that the authorities had given orders to their myrmidons to furnish ten thousand heads, which were to be placed beneath the foundations of the bridge ; and the native population were not taking any risks.

On this occasion all the dinghies refused to take me, and as I had to get off to my steamer somehow, I told them that I would take one of the dinghies and scull myself down to the vessel. But a venerable white-bearded Mussulman manji came to the rescue. I had frequently employed him, and in answer to my appeal he said, ” Atcha, Sahib ; I’ll go,” or words to that effect. None of the others would join him, so the old fellow sculled me down alone.

As we went I argued the matter with him and pointed out the folly of supposing that the Government would wish to destroy people who were useful, especially as at that time theTe was a shortage of labour at the docks. He was not to be convinced. Finally I said, ” Look here, I shall be back again in a few days, and will come with a vaccinator to the ghdt, be vaccinated by him before you all, and then you can all be vaccinated.” The Bengali rarely laughs —they have not much to laugh about—but the old boy laughed quite heartily at my simplicity. For could I not see that they would put harmless stuff into me and poison into the others ? I gave it up and having reached the steamer rewarded the venerable sceptic for helping me in my hour of need.

The boats used by the fishermen on the river are small, light, open boats, sharp at each end, and very handy. These men had a tiresome habit of placing their nets in midchannel, or in the centre of the best track across a bar. It A BOAT ADRIFT

199

was sometimes difficult to avoid passing over their boats, but during my time on the Hooghly I never to my knowledge hit a boat. A year or two before I retired, however, I was mixed up in a disaster which befell a boat. I was proceeding up from Saugor in a tramp steamer in ballast one morning. We were going up over the last of the ebb through the Eden Channel when we came across a large decked boat full of people who shouted to us for help. We

AN APPEAL FOR HELP

slowed down and went alongside of her. They told us that their sail had been blown away in a squall on the previous evening, that they had no anchor, and were drifting out to sea where they would be lost. The captain of the steamer consented to our towing them to some part of the river where they could reach the bank and tie up.

Accordingly we threw them a rope, and with the engines a t ‘ slow ‘ continued on our way. As the boat steered very badly, sheering about first on one quarter and then on the other, I stopped the engines, went aft and told them that unless they steered properly and kept right astern of the steamer we would cast them off. The engineer was told to keep the engines ‘ dead slow’ and we crawled along over the ebb until we were about half-way through the SOO

ON THE HOOGHLY

Jellingham Channel. They seemed to be following well enough, so I sat down to breakfast on the bridge.

Suddenly I heard shouts from the boat and jumped up just in time to see her take a wide sheer on the starboard quarter and capsize. She appeared to fall to pieces as she went over, the mast to which the tow-rope was attached coming clean through the bows, and there they all were in the water. The engines were stopped, and a boat manned by four men and the second officer sent away as soon as possible to pick up the people. There were about thirty of them, men and women; they all seemed able to swim and were hanging on to the wreckage. I believe we got them all, including one man who was dead when picked up, possibly from shock.

When our boat got back, the poor things all climbed up the ladder and came on board without a stitch of clothing amongst them, having shed their garments while in the water. The first thing to do, therefore, was to clothe them. I had a couple of sheets and some towels, and the captain, who seemed a very good sort, gave them several sheets and a tablecloth, which were torn into strips. The dead man was quite dead and did not appear to have been drowned, so we covered him up and decided to land them all by the ddk boat at Diamond Harbour. I wrote a letter to the Magistrate, enclosed what money I had, and three sovereigns from the captain, and asked that the money should be used in sending them to their village. One of them said that he had had two hundred rupees which were lost, and what were we going to do about it ? I told him that I was sorry but that he should have seen to it that the boat was properly steered, and that in any case he was better off than he would have been had the boat drifted out to sea.

At Diamond Harbour, after we had transferred them to the ddk boat and were about to lower the dead man as well, there was a chorus of protest: they did not want the corpse in the boat at any price. We told them that he belonged to them and would have to go in the boat, and that they could AVOIDING THE DEAD

So to

give him a proper funeral as soon as they landed. They didn’t seem to care very much whether he had a funeral or not, and all huddled together as far from the body as possible. I heard nothing more of the matter : at the time I was being kept very busy and as soon as I arrived in town was appointed to take away some other

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