On the Hooghly – a humorous true account


Coolie ships—The Albyn and her skipper—A quick run—” None so deaf . . .”—The B.I. steamers—An unusual head-dress—captains and their ways—” Nosey ” and his mates—Beer and souvenirsThe China mail-steamers—A very superior boy—The sinking of the Kowshing—German liners—A fat skipper.

A PILOT identifies himself with the vessel of which for the time being he has become the directing intelligence, becoming absorbed in its movements and behaviour to the exclusion of all other interests. He will, it is true, be mindful of the interests of other vessels to the extent of giving them sufficient space in which to pass him, if they are overtaking or meeting him, and in the case of a vessel meeting him would give her pilot any important information which it would be essential for him to know. But beyond that he will not, as a rule, concern himself with the doings of vessels other than the one which he is himself conducting.

There are, however, exceptions to every rule, and on being told by J. Page that he had been appointed to take away a French barque without steam, it occurred to me that I might be able to help him. He was going to leave the next day with the barque, and I was going to leave Budge Budge (about eight miles below Calcutta) on the morning following. It was the month of March, the end of the north-east monsoon, and the wind was southerly. Sailing down through the upper reaches against a southerly wind was likely to prove a tedious business. I told Page that if he could manage to be dropping past Budge Budge, as my steamer hauled out of moorings, I would take him in tow and tow him as far as he liked.

It all worked according to plan. The captain of the



steamer, who was a very nice man, raised no objection, and as we hauled out of moorings on the first of the ebb the French barque went drifting slowly past.

I steamed up above the moorings, turned round, went close to the barque, which was lying across the tide with her head to the eastward, stopped under her bows while Page’s towboat wallahs took from us a line with which we hove the end of the barque’s hawser on board, and when that was secured to our after-bollard we proceeded on our way followed by the French vessel, whose captain I learnt

afterwards was greatly impressed by the kindly act of a strange steamer.

We went along nicely together, but not very quickly, for the steamer was a slow tramp whose best speed would not be more than nine knots an hour, and with the barque in tow we did about seven through the water. At Fisherman’s Point we opened up the Hooghly Point semaphore, and I saw that by the time we got to the Eastern Gut there would not be too much water for the barque, which was drawing about seventeen feet. Wc should be all right with our draught of fourteen.

As we rounded Fultah Point and opened up the semaphore again I saw that it was going to be a close thing.

Page went on to the forecastle of his vessel and asked me by means of a blackboard what I thought about it. I replied through the megaphone, ” I leave it to you.”

He then said, ” Cast off,” and we let go his hawser. He let the barque lose her way, then dropped his anchor under 216


foot, let her turn to it and brought up just above the anchoring creek. He was quite right, for by the time we got on to the bar there was only about six inches more than his draught, and that only in one track. The tow we gave him certainly saved him a day or two of troublesome work in the upper reaches.

He got across the Gut and to Diamond Harbour on the next tide, and eventually to sea.

In the ‘nineties the traffic on the river was becoming mostly ‘ steam,’ but there was still a sprinkling of sailing vessels of large size, such as the Cairnie Hill, Milton Stewart or Muncaster Castle to mention one or two of them, and the carrying of coolies to the West Indies was still done by Nourse’s ships, and very well done, too.

There were some three or four doctors whose lives were spent in travelling with the coolies, who were placed entirely in their charge. The masters of the ships were, of course, responsible for the navigation of the vessels, but the organisation and care of the six or seven hundred coolies who composed the cargo, were the business of the doctor. I do not know who was responsible for selecting these latter, but, whoever he was, he was certainly master of his job.

I took several of these ‘ coolie ships ‘ down the river and was always greatly impressed with the efficient arrangements of the doctor. The coolies would have been recruited from Northern Bengal, Bihar, or Assam, and collected in barracks at the Dep6t in Garden Reach, where they were well fed and cared for, and every precaution taken to keep them healthy and free from disease. They were divided into small gangs or squads which were placed under the control of men who were very carefully selected from among the crowd, so that when embarked on the vessel which was to be their home for three months or so, they were already under some sort of discipline, and easy to handle. On boarding one of these ships to take her down, I was always impressed by the absence of disorder or confusion. The coolies might have been living there for weeks, instead of THE BARQUE ” ALBYN”


having just come on board. They did not hamper the movements of the crew at all as these latter went about the business of passing hawsers with the tug and getting under way. The coolies were young and well-made people, and always looked as though they had been well fed at the Dep6t. When the time arrived for the morning meal, the leaders of the gangs collected and shepherded their people in the spot allotted to them, the cooks brought along the dekchis of curry and rice, and everyone was quite at home and happy.

They were not quite so happy when towing out from Saugor, and for the matter of that neither was I, as I ate my lunch to an accompaniment of the noises made by several hundred people all being seasick together. The doctors received so much per head, I was told, for each coolie landed safe and sound at the destination, and in the event of the voyage being unduly prolonged through adverse winds, the tedium of the passage was likely to be compensated for by the birth of a few little coolies to increase the total.

It had become unusual for any vessel to sail up the river, but one afternoon I was put on board the four-masted barque Albyn in ballast, and H. D. Lindquist accompanied me as leadsman. We sailed into Saugor and anchored for the night. The captain said, ” I suppose we wait here for a tug.” But I had been feeling rather out of sorts, and it occurred to me that it would probably do me good to sail up, so the next morning as there was a nice southerly breeze we weighed and ran up to Diamond Harbour, where we came to for the night.

On the following day we weighed on the last of the ebb with the wind about south. As we approached Luff Point I told the captain that I should like to have his best helmsman at the wheel as we needed to keep as close to the wind as she would lie. He said that he would take the helm himself. We managed to get into Hooghly Bight, but were unpleasantly close to Hooghly Sand, and the leadsman 218


gave me uncomfortably small water. The captain presented an interesting appearance at the wheel. It had not occurred to me that he was bald, for he had done what so many baldheaded men do to cover their deficiency, that is to say had grown his hair very long on one side and drawn it across the bald place. As he stood there without a hat, the breeze suddenly lifted his locks until they stood bolt upright, exposing his shining cranium.

We got round Hooghly Bight and across the Eastern Gut, but I found her rather a tight fit in Nurpur Bight and thought we scraped the flat above Nurpur Point as we came round. Nobody else seemed to notice anything, so very likely I was mistaken. Jogging along under easy sail we arrived at Garden Reach without any incident, and, as the flood was still running, rounded her to, dropped the anchor, and handed her over to the Harbour Master. The Albyn’s tonnage was 2,200 and I do not think that any other vessel of that tonnage has sailed up to Calcutta.

H. D. Lindquist, who hove the lead with me in the Albyn, had a very quick run up the river when in pilotage charge of the ship Jura in June, 1898. This vessel arrived at the Sandheads and was boarded by Lindquist at 6.80 a.m. It was blowing fresh from the south-south-west, and the Jura, a very smart ship employed in the coolie trade, got to Garden Reach at 6.80 p.m., having done the distance in twelve hours, a performance which I do not think has ever been beaten. She was fully laden, her draught being twenty-one feet.

Lindquist is a grandson of Commander William Lindquist who was in pilotage charge of the barque Swallow when she was lost on the James and Mary in 1822.

At about the same time that I sailed the Albyn up to Calcutta I had a rather amusing experience on an American soft-wood ship, the City of Philadelphia. The American sailing vessels were all built of wood ; as a rule they were well found, well manned, and the crew well fed. The captain of the City of Philadelphia carried his wife with MR. THOMPSON AND THE BOYS

51 fl

him. I found them both very pleasant, as was also the mate, Mr. Thompson, who hailed from Virginia, had distinguished himself in the Civil War, and was a quietmannered, pleasant-spoken man at ordinary times. We were running up the Eastern Channel before a light southerly wind and when the bell rang for tea I told the second mate to keep her on her course and went below to join the captain, his wife and Mr. Thompson. The American ships had a great reputation for their cakes, and tea was always a meal worth attending.

Mr. Thompson was chatting with the lady, and I was talking to the captain, when the sound of altercation reached us from the forecastle. ” Say, Mr. Thompson,” said the captain, ” the boys seem to be a bit fresh.” Mr. Thompson rose from his seat, put his head outside the mess-room door which opened on to the quarterdeck, and roared out, ” If you *** sons of *** don’t stop that noise by *** I’ll be amongst you.” It was quite unprintable and I looked anxiously at the lady; but she appeared to have heard nothing and was quietly eating some cake.

There was profound silence forward. Mr. Thompson resumed his seat and his conversation, and I understood that what Mr. Thompson said on deck was not heard in the cabin.

But by this time most of my work was on steamers, and sailing vessels were the exception. I preferred the B.I.S.N. Company’s to all others. There were a number of small steamers of the B.I. running on the coast, such as the Chupra, Chindwara, Byculla, Colaba, which used to fall to my lot from time to time, and which I was always glad to board. The men in command were generally old friends ; we understood one another and had mutual friends and common topics of interest to discuss.

The accommodation on the steamers was comfortable and the messing good. The extraordinary thing about the messing was that it seemed to be exactly the same on all the B.I. steamers. This was particularly noticeable with the 220


Irish stew, which always appeared on the menu, and was always just the same and very good. I used to wonder how they did it, and concluded that someone must drill all the cooks to do the thing in the same way.

There were many interesting characters among the commanders and officers of the Company. An amusing


tale was told of one of the latter. I think his name was Bland. He had been taken to task by the Marine Superintendent, Captain Atkinson, for not being properly dressed in the Company’s uniform when tallying in cargo. He promised to mend hib ways, but the next day, on boarding the steamer, the Superintendent was startled to see him working at his hatch, wearing a top hat with two white bands round it in imitation of the steamer’s funnel. CAPTAIN GEORGE BROWN


I always enjoyed meeting Captain Sheldrake, whom I piloted in all sorts of steamers, big and small, belonging to the B.I. He had a dry humour which was very pleasant. Captain George Brown was also a notable person, a stout man with a big voice. On boarding his vessel on one occasion I found him in a state of great indignation over a mishap which had happened to him at Rangoon. It appeared that he was in the habit of going ashore there to <~ imble, and on the evening before sailing he had left the t> Learner for that purpose with a goodly wallet of notes in his trouser pocket, but had not proceeded far from the vessel when he was attacked by some thieves who were lying in wait for him, and in their eagerness to get at the spoil tore his trouser leg completely off, and with it the pocket containing all his money. ” But,” he said, ” they won’t get a haul like that another time. No, sir, for I will distribute the notes all over my body in different pockets.” There was another story about a gamecock which he picked up at Singapore, a very fine bird. He took it to Rangoon and issued a challenge, which was taken up by the Chinamen, and a meeting arranged. When Brown turned up with his bird, expecting to win the stakes, the Chinaman produced a veritable giant of a cock which gave the bird from Singapore no chance whatever.

I recollect on one occasion, when taking him up the river, watching Captain Brown and the topas trying to wash a white Persian cat, which the captain hoped to sell at a handsome profit in Calcutta. There were several Browns in the B.I. service known by a variety of nicknames, such as Bangle Brown, Blinky Brown and Muckraputti Brown, from some peculiarity or incident connected with them. Another very interesting character amongst the commanders running on the coast, or travelling east, was a tall, spare-built man, who for obvious reasons was known as’ Nosey.’

Standing by the side of the pilot on the bridge as they left Saugor in the early morning, on their way to Calcutta, 222


the large-nosed captain looked thoughtfully at a youthful officer who had just emerged on deck and was standing by the rail. ” That,” said he, ” is Mr. Wilkins the fourth officer. He comes on deck, blows his nose, lights a cigarette and his work’s finished for the day. The tall handsome man with the blue eyes,” he continued, ” is Mr. Jones the third officer, a splendid fellow but unobservant. We were bound for Melbourne and were expecting to sight land. Mr. Jones was on watch and I told him to call me if he sighted anything. An hour or so had elapsed and nothing having been reported I went up on the bridge and asked Mr. Jones if anything was yet in sight. He replied, ‘ No, sir.’ ‘ But what is that on the port bow ? ‘ I enquired. Mr. Jones gazed carefully through his telescope and exclaimed, ‘ It looks like an island, sir.’ ‘ You’re right,’ I said ; ‘ it’s the bally island of Australia. That’s where we’re bound for, Mr. Jones.’ “

Once, when taking him down, I went into his cabin and found him gazing at a cat and five kittens which were lying comfortably in his bunk. On seeing me he started to curse the cat and said he had a good mind to throw it and its kittens overboard; but the cat merely continued to purr, and it was obvious that he and the cat were really on very good terms.

After the Chinese war he brought a British regiment from Shanghai to Calcutta, and while going up the river showed the pilot a fine collection of silken things and ivory curios which he had got from the troops. ” And I had a job to get them, too,” he said. ” After we left Shanghai I asked the men to show me any little treasures they might have acquired in the way of loot. But they would not hear of it. 4 We’ve got some things,’ they said, ‘ but we mean to keep them till we get to England and sell them there.’

” I thought it over, and a happy thought struck me. I asked the butler how much beer he had got on board. It was some hundred dozen bottles. ‘ All right,’ I said ; ‘ it’s all wanted in the cabin and you don’t sell any to the CHINA MAIL BOATS


soldiers without first consulting me.’ The next day a deputation of the men came to see me about beer. I explained to them that it was all wanted in the cabin, but that if they wanted it very badly, we might come to some amicable arrangement, and in the meantime they might let me have a look at their collection of Chinese curios.”

The result of it all was that the men got their favourite beverage and Nosey got some nice souvenirs of a happy voyage.

The last time I met him was at the beginning of the War when with another retired Bengal Pilot, H. S. Tozer, I was working in the recruiting office at Eastbourne. Tozer suddenly exclaimed : ” Why, here’s old Nosey I ” He was standing in the doorway with a small fluffy dog on a lead. He had not come to enlist, but having heard that we were there had come to pay us a visit. He explained that he was staying with an elderly aunt, and amongst other things took her little dog for a walk. He had retired from the sea and, I believe, died not long afterwards. He was really a very good-natured, kindhearted man, like most seafarers.

The China mail steamers were always pleasant vessels to pilot. They smelt of camphor. Their deck passengers were an interesting crowd to study and the men in command were nice people to meet. Galsworthy, who commanded the Kowshing when she was sunk by the Japanese, and George Payne, who had the Kutsang and was afterwards Marine Superintendent at Shanghai, were both extremely pleasant men to pilot.

I made an involuntary voyage to Penang in the Kutsang with Captain Payne. On arriving at the Sandheads outward bound the brig refused to take me out. It was blowing hard and there was a big sea running, and they would not put the boat out. I went close to the brig and hailed her, but it was no use, they would not launch the boat, so there was nothing for it but to go on to Penang, Payne made me very comfortable and in addition to his society I had that of a judge and his wife who were going fox 224


a trip to Japan. I forget the name of the judge, but he was from Allahabad, and had a fund of anecdotes about cases he had tried. The divorce cases came to his court, and listening to his tales I acquired the conviction that a judge’s work was not without its compensations and not all dull.

On arrival at Penang, Payne took me up the hill to admire the gardens, and afterwards to the club where we played whist and spent a pleasant evening, returning to the steamer to sleep. When we got on board Payne was annoyed to find his boy dead drunk and asleep in his master’s bed. He had told the boy to make the bed on a stretcher on the upper bridge for coolness, and after making it up the boy had turned into it. However, apart from this little weakness, he was really a very superior boy. Some months previously when the Kutsang was lying at Calcutta I had gone on board to see Payne, and had asked the boy in my best pidgin whether the captain was on board. This is how I framed my question :

” That piecee captain belong topside ? “

To which the boy replied very politely, ” Captain Payne is in his cabin, sir, and I will acquaint him with your arrival.”

I remarked to Payne that his boy spoke English very well and was told that he was equally good at French.

Captain Galsworthy’s account of the sinking of the Kowshing by a Japanese cruiser was most interesting. The Kowshing was carrying a regiment of Chinese soldiers, and the Chinese officer in command refused to surrender, when summoned to do so by the Japanese. Galsworthy tried to make the Chinamen understand that resistance was out of the question to a vessel which could blow them out of the water with two or three shells, but the Chinese are peculiar people and very limited in some ways, and the old Chinese colonel said that he had a thousand men all well armed, and he was not going to surrender.

The cruiser gave the English officers and crew ten minutes in which to clear out and leave the vessel; but the THE “KOWSHING”


Chinese would not let them launch a boat. When the time limit had expired the cruiser opened fire, the first shell entering the engine-room and blowing up the boilers. There was nothing for it but to jump overboard, which the officers and crew immediately did, the Chinese firing at them as they swam away. Galsworthy told me that he kept under the surface as much as possible, only coming up to breathe, and then going under again. He pointed to a fat old Chinese quartermaster who, he said, was with him in the Kowshing, and swam away with a bucket over his head which he thought would protect him. The bucket was hit once or twice, but by good luck the man’s head escaped damage. The cruiser then closed with the sinking steamer and raked the thickly-packed decks with machine-guns. The vessel, of course, soon foundered, and Galsworthy with most of his crew were picked up by boats from the cruiser. I think he said that he was over an hour in the water. They were taken to Japan and eventually returned to Hong Kong. Galsworthy told me that he had put in a claim for compensation through the Foreign Office, but I never heard whether he got anything out of it.

It was not until some years after I had joined the Service that the German flag appeared on the river, the only foreign vessels trading to Calcutta in the ‘seventies being the French barques, the small steamer of the Messagerie Maritime Cie, which ran between Calcutta and Colombo in connection with the larger French steamers running to the Far East, an occasional steamer of the Austrian Lloyd, and now and then an American sailing vessel. But in the ‘eighties some steamers of the German Hansa Line put in an appearance. One of the first to visit the port was the Gutenfels, commanded by a very stout captain. I piloted him several times. It was a hot day in the month of June when I boarded the Gutenfels for the first time at the Sandheads and made the acquaintance of her portly commander.

As we steamed up-channel I had occasion to call my

p 9Z6


servant to fetch me something. As he did not answer my whistle, I went down to look for him, and was amused to find him massaging the fat man, who had removed all his clothing and was lying a great pink mass of flesh which my old boy Ali was kneading, pounding and slapping like a professional masseur. The captain turned his bloodshot


eyes on me as I stood in the doorway and ejaculated in a choking voice, ” Mein Gott, Pilot, it is gut.” As we were anchoring at Saugor I drew the captain’s attention to some deer standing on the shore. He looked at them through his glasses and shouted excitedly, ” And they have got kittens with them ! ” He meant fawns, of course.

The German steamers of the Hansa Line soon became more frequent visitors, and before many years had elapsed were carrying quite a large slice of the trade of the port. The later ones were fine steamers, with plenty of power and easy to handle. I alwa>s liked piloting them.

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