On the Hooghly – Chapter 20

CHAPTER XX

The loss of Anglia—Colonel Crawford’s account—Mr Elson and his observations—The sacred paper weight—Superstitious Bengalis—Snipe-shooting—The ghost train—The Indian problem —My model—Indian servants.

OF all the unfortunate happenings on the river during my time probably the most tragic was the loss of the Anglia at Mud Point anchorage on August 24th, 1892. She was a steamer of 2,120 tons register belonging to the Anchor Line, and left Calcutta with a general cargo, in pilotage charge of Mr. S. R. Elson, Branch Pilot, and was lost when turning to anchor at Mud Point.

When a pilot decided to ‘ come-to’ at that anchorage he would get as close as possible to the western side of the channel and turn with starboard helm to the eastward. The reason for this was that the ebb tide ran much more strongly down the western side of the channel than on the eastern, where it was comparatively slack. The recent sketch charts issued at the time showed that a lump had formed in the channel rather to the west of the centre, and it was necessary to turn either well above the lump or pass it and turn below it.

Mr. Elson elected to turn and anchor below the lump; but as the steamer came round, and was athwart the channel, she took the ground and capsized immediately. At the court of enquiry which sat to investigate the cause of the accident, it was held that the lump had shifted its position and formed lower down.

On taking the ground the Anglia went completely over, putting her funnel in the water. Of the crew of thirty-nine asi 252

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men, five were in the forecastle at the time of the disaster. The forecastle doors became jammed and the men were trapped. The port side of the forecastle remained above

water, and the imprisoned men were able to put their heads through the scuttles, which were, however, too small for the men to climb through. The B.I.S.N. Com–. pany’s steamer Goa, which was also bound down, anchored close to, sent her boats away to the wreck, and took the people off; but she could do nothing to help the unfortunate fellows trapped in the forecastle.

At first it was thought that it would be possible to cut through the iron plates of the forecastle and release them. The engineers of the Goa, with some of the engineroom staff, worked at the plates with cold chisels and encouraged the prisoners with a hope of speedy release. There was no time to waste, as the flood tide, when it made, would certainly cover the wreck entirely.

But after the plate had been cut through it was found that the plates were double, and that there was another, and thicker plate, under the top one. The engineers worked away with feverish haste, for it was now after low water and the tide beginning to rise; but they were unable to effect an entrance into the forecastle before the water covered it and flowed into the scuttles, drowning everyone inside. An attempt was made to pull one slightly-built man through one of the scuttles. They got him half-way out but were unable to extricate him altogether, as his pelvis would not come through the narrow opening. He implored them to push him back again as he was in agony, and they had to do so, and reluctantly abandon their efforts at rescue.

On the morning of August 25th I left Saugor in pilotage charge of the S.S. Argus, bound from Melbourne to Calcutta with horses. Wc started from Saugor on the first quarterflood. It was raining and the visibility poor, but I sighted a white ship’s boat bottom-up on the Mizen Sand, which was not yet covered by the rising tide. At the head of COLONEL CRAWFORD’S ACCOUNT

253

the Eden Channel I met the S.S. Goa outward-bound, and saw that the pilot, Mr. Marshall, wanted to hail me. As we passed each other he told me to look out for a wreck in the channel. It was very thick but I kept a bright look-out, and suddenly sighted the two masts of the Anglia right ahead. I ported and passed to the eastward of her, feeling grateful to Marshall for the timely warning.

In Bengal Past and Present of July-December, 1909, there appeared an account of the loss of the Anglia, with a letter written by Lieut.-Colonel D. G. Crawford, M.B.,

^>1

S. R. ELSON

I.M.S., who was a passenger on board the steamer. The letter was written shortly after the occurrence, and I reproduce part of it here, as it gives a vivid description of what happened:

” On the morning of the 24th, Wednesday, Booth took me down in a steam launch to Garden Reach, and I went on board the Anglia. There was also another passenger, a man called Mackenzie from one of the jute mills. As pilot we had Elson, who has the reputation of being the best man in the Service, with a young chap called Curran as his assistant or leadsman, and another pilot called Cox was going down to the pilot brigs as a passenger. All went well till we reached the bottom of the sandbank called the Jellingham Lump about twelve miles above. Saugor Lighthouse. Here Elson meant to anchor for the 254

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night, and the ship was just turning round to anchor with her head up-stream, when she touched the bottom, and in ten seconds or less, I should think, was down on her right side with her masts under water.

” At the time it happened I was standing in a passage on the upper deck, into which the companion ladder leading down into the cabin or saloon opens. Being a cargo boat she had no regular deckhouses or smoking saloon. I had been talking to Cox most of the day. He sometimes used to play football in the old Black Watch Club. He had just brought up from his cabin some photos of the Sunderbunds to show me (one minute later and he would have been drowned in his cabin to a certainty), and had just put the first into my hands when she touched. Cox said, ‘ She’s aground; she’ll right herself immediately.’ But she heeled over further and further. When she got on her beam-ends, she seemed to hesitate for a second or so, as to whether she would go over or not, and then went right over on her side with her masts under water, from butt to top, and one side of her hull right out to the keel. A few minutes later her masts came out of water again, all but the first few feet above the deck. She was then on her side, at about a right angle to what she should have been, so that the rigging from the bulwarks to the mast was quite flat and level.

” When she began to heel over more and more, Cox and I scrambled out of the passage on to the side of the deck, which we reached just about the time she was hesitating as to whether she would go over any further. After that we found ourselves standing on the side of the captain’s cabin, with the deck like a wall beside us. A railing across the part of the hurricane deck was standing up like a ladder by us. Cox called out, ‘ Up here, sharp,’ and we went up it sharp, and found ourselves standing on the side of the ship. We were the first there, and were there, I should think, within one minute from the CURRAN’S LUCKY ESCAPE

255

time she struck. Men were pouring up on every side until there were twenty-one there in all,

” Most of those below had no possible chance of escape, but there was one man shut up in the wheelhouse above the captain’s cabin who was got out after a little by two other men. She went over on her right side with her left side up. The only places from which it would have been possible to save anyone were the officers’ cabins on the left and, as it happened, they were all empty at the time. There were four poor fellows shut up in the forecastle, but we could do nothing for them, as we had no implements but an axe. With this some men managed to wrench off the brass ring round the scuttle, but even then it was too small to let them through, and the poor fellows were drowned as the tide came up. The others must have been killed instantaneously at the first inrush of the water.

” Fifteen lives in all were lost, including the second engineer, chief steward, Elson’s native servant, all the saloon waiters, who, of course, were below at the time, two sailors, and several firemen. One sailor jumped overboard and was drowned. Elson, the captain, the first and second officers, were all on the bridge at the time, which was the safest place they could have been in; the third officer also turned up from somewhere. There were several wonderful escapes. One was Curran, the leadsman, who was heaving the lead on the right side of the ship. When the ship came over on top of him, he jumped into the river as far as he could, and swam, getting into the rigging as the masts came over. Also the men in the engine-room somehow were all washed up, though those who were in the stokehole were drowned. The other passenger, Mackenzie, was sitting on the upper side of the deck, and was up on the side before we were.

” When we got up there, that is those who escaped, the captain told us to get into the rigging or remain near it in case she rolled over any further, or in case she rolled 256

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over on the other side. I sat up there for some time (it was really on a level with the side, not above the side at all), but after a while, seeing that the ship seemed firm enough, I came down again on to the side. The first and second officers’ cabins were above water, and they managed to save a good deal of their kit, including a sextant and another instrument belonging to the chief officer. One of them also got out a box of cheroots, which he handed round. Somebody also got a lot of cork jackets from somewhere, and we each put one on.

” The B.I.S.S. Goa, the mail to Rangoon, was coming down the river behind us, and when we got settled, we saw her nearly abreast us. Some of the men began to wave jackets, etc., to her, but there was no use doing that, as they could not possibly help seeing us. Indeed some of the people on board her saw us go over. The place where we were was near the middle of the river, but rather to the Midnapur side, about five miles from Kedgeree, and perhaps seven from the Saugor Island side. The Goa came down a long way to the east of us, and then came slowly round to the south-west. Then she went away to the south-east and dropped a couple of boats. Then she went and anchored to the southwest. When her boats came within a quarter of a mile of us Cox hailed them, and told them not to try to come alongside, but to anchor there and wait till slack water, which they did. The river and the tide were running like a millrace round both sides of the Anglia, and boiling in and around the masts and rigging. Through this a boat would have had to come.

” Then after a while the chief officer and some men managed to cut away one of the Anglid’s boats, and it floated, though it had not any rudder. Three of the boats were smashed up underneath her when she went over; the others were swung downwards towards the masts and funnel. Cox offered to take this boat out to communicate with the Goa, to try and get some tools, ABOUT MR. ELSON

257

to cut out the men shut up in the forecastle. The second officer took charge of the boat. Cox, Mackenzie and I went with him, also Curran, who was pulling an oar, and about eight men. We drifted and rowed down to one of the Goo’s boats. Then they took their anchor and attached it to the Anglia’s boat, while the Goa’s boat took us to the Goa. We were very hospitably received on board the Goa, which we reached about 6.30 p.m. The captain, and the first and third officers, remained on the Anglia until 8.0, when they had to leave, too. All those who got on to the side of the ship were saved, and none of them seriously hurt.”

Colonel Crawford goes on to say that the Goa transferred the survivors to the tug Rescue on the following day at Saugor, that the Rescue took them all up to Calcutta, and that he sailed for home in the S.S. Dalmatia a few days later. Curran, who was Mr. Elson’s leadsman, became a pilot, and was in pilotage charge of the steamer Deepdale when she was lost at Pir Serang crossing, touching the ground and capsizing as suddenly as the Anglia had done.

I have a sketch of Mr. Elson working at his signal book which I made on board the brig, and which is fairly like him. He was rather a remarkable person. He had been a bluejacket in the Navy, and had joined the Bengal Pilot Service as a licensed pilot, when the licensed service was started by the Government, as I have mentioned previously.

Not all the people thus introduced made good, but Mr. Elson was one of those who did so. He was a self-educated man, possessed of considerable ability. He compiled a very elaborate book of signals for the use of the Service, and wrote a guide to the Hooghly, which was a textbook for the leadsmen. He was also an authority on meteorology, and for years kept a record of the density of the water at the Sandheads, at different times of tide, and at the different seasons of the year. He used an

R 258

ON THE HOOGHLY

hydrometer which he had manufactured himself from a soda-water bottle weighted with lead inside, and he had some little discs of tin and lead which he used to slip over a pin stuck into the cork. When at the Sandheads he would draw up a bucket of water from alongside, measure the gravity carefully with his home-made instrument, and enter the reading in a little book reserved for the purpose. This he would do several times during the day.

On one occasion while he was leaning over the side, engaged in filling his bucket, a mischievous leadsman removed his soda-water bottle, to his intense annoyance. He said that he had been given to understand that the Service was now recruited from sons of gentlemen, but that he found himself as a matter of fact in the society of sons of female dogs. While he was thus relieving his feelings the bottle was deftly replaced, and the culprit tried to persuade him that it had been there all the time. As a leadsman, I hove the lead with him in many vessels, and found him very interesting. He had some amusing anecdotes to relate about his service on the China station when Sir Edward Pellew was in command.

For a time I shared the top flat over Traill’s the printers in Mango Lane with two other members of my Service, who like myself were grass widowers, our respective wives being in England. The durwan, or gatekeeper, was a Hindu, a tall, good-looking man, and very devout. Just within the gateway of the entrance to Traill’s stood a peepul tree, the sacred tree of the Hindus, and under the tree was placed a large, smooth, oblong stone to represent a lingam. The durwan, who kept the spot well swept, neat and tidy, spent most of his time seated under the peepul, resting. But at night, when we wanted to sleep, he became very wideawake indeed and would chant or recite long passages from one of his holy books in a loud but monotonous tone which, to a man who was trying to get some sleep, was simply maddening. THE GIFT FROM ABOVE

209

On the”writing-desk in our sitting-room, and used as a paper-weight, stood a block of old red sandstone about eight inches high which had carved on it a deer and some figures, representing an incident in the life of Gautama Buddha. This block came from the great Buddhist Temple of Buddha Gaya, where it had perhaps been deposited by some devout pilgrim as a votive offering

THE SACRED STONE

some two thousand years ago. It had been given to me by a friend, who had received it from a relative who had been engaged in the work of restoring a part of the temple, which was in a state of dilapidation.

One very hot night, after we had turned in and were attempting to get some necessary sleep before turning out again at three o’clock to go on board our vessels in Garden Reach, the durwan began his evening hymn. After standing it patiently for half an hour or so my companion hailed him and asked him to desist. But the 260

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durwan was wound up and in his religious fervour paid no attention whatever to the entreaty, but continued his monotonous chant, which rose with painful clearness on the hot, still air.

” Throw something at him, and then perhaps he will stop,” I suggested. My fellow-sufferer grabbed something and flung it in the direction of the noise, which immediately ceased. ” I hope it did not hit him,” said my companion ; ” for it was that heavy paper-weight.” I hoped so, too, but as silence now reigned we got off to sleep, and slept soundly enough until our boys called us with the intelligence that the gharry was waiting to take us to the ghat. Having dressed we went down. There we found the durwan standing in the moonlight under the peepul tree and showing to an interested knot of co-religionists the wonderful sacred stone which had suddenly fallen from the skies while he was engaged in his religious exercises, and which now held a place of honour next to the lingam. We did not claim it, for it had now fallen into the possession of one who valued it more highly than we did. The Bengalis are extraordinarily credulous and superstitious. They are firm believers in ghosts and goblins.

My principal relaxation when ashore was snipe-shooting. Nothing took one so completely away from the work on the river as a long day in the big open spaces, and I attribute the perfect health which I enjoyed during my thirty-five years’ service on the Hooghly to my habit of getting away from the work and into the paddy fields whenever I could do so. For many years I retained the services of a shikarry, Kushoo, whose duty it was to explore the surrounding country while I was down the river, and to take me to some spot where I should be sure to find some birds, as soon as I returned to Calcutta.

He never failed me. On arriving after a long and tiring day’s work, he would put in an appearance with the news that there were half a dozen couple of birds at Sam- IN THE PADDY FIELDS

2«1

nugger, Naihati, or Chinsura, or perhaps down the Budge Budge road, and that we should have to start for the railway station very early on the following morning. If he said that there were half a dozen couple of birds, I knew that I should see that number and probably more.

It was on one of these excursions that I was amused by a discussion about ghosts, and impressed by the superstition of the Bengali peasants. We had caught an early train to Chinsura where we were joined by two coolies whom Kushoo had engaged as beaters, and with them we marched to the ground where he said he had located eight snipe. It was in July, very hot when it was not raining, and the paddy fields looking their best, a wide expanse of the most beautiful green, standing in about six inches of clear limpid water. I could never look at a paddy field without reflecting on the prodigious amount of labour which it represented. The rice was sown in small square patches, and when it had attained a height of nine or ten inches was transplanted over a stretch of many acres. Each stalk had to be planted separately and at a regular distance from the next. The amount of patient toil which this involved all over the rice-bearing districts of Bengal filled me with wonder and admiration. I was always extremely careful not to walk in such a manner as to damage the standing crop which had been planted with so much care.

On this occasion we found the birds scattered over a wide stretch of ground, about half a mile to a bird, and having bagged one or two, were glad to knock off for lunch and a little rest under the trees close to a village, inhabited by the people who had planted the rice.

While eating my sandwiches we were joined by a couple of young men clad simply in loincloths, who looked like field labourers; but Kushoo told me that they were the proprietors of the land round the village. Kushoo asked them about a ghost train which he understood was in the habit of running through Chinsura railway 262

ON THE HOOGHLY

station every night at a certain hour, and which he believed was causing some concern to the railway officials. They said that it was quite true, that it generally ran through the station without stopping, but that two nights ago the people at the station had watched its lights approaching, had seen it slow down and stop, and then suddenly disappear. That night an old resident of the village had died.

There was a large peepul tree close to where we were seated, and I asked whether it was haunted or inhabited by ghosts. They were not certain, but rather thought it was, and in any case would be very loath to climb into it at night.

One of the coolies then had a tale to tell of a long white form which had walked by his side one dark night, and did not leave him until he reached his hut. I asked him if he had been carrying any fish at the time. He was very indignant at the suggestion, and said, ” Am I mad to walk about with fish at night to attract ghosts ? ” I think the belief in ghosts and evil spirits is pretty general in Bengal, where the people are extraordinarily ignorant. I always found the peasantry simple and inoffensive, and it was impossible not to like them. British rule has given them security of fife and property; they are no longer harried by marauding bands of Pindaries, and improved communications have abolished famine. But this very security of life and property has permitted the population to increase enormously, and accentuated the struggle for existence.

The problem is a very difficult one indeed. I am quite sure that Swaraj is not going to solve it. They are probably in the same state of mental development as they were thousands of years ago. As a race they are suited to their environment, and are not likely to be displaced by any other race less suited to exist in the moist heat of Bengal. So they will probably persist for many thousands of years to come, and in some way perhaps things may A GOOD MODEL

2fly

right themselves. Or will they always be overcrowded and compelled to accept a very low standard of living ?

Amongst the interesting Indians whom I came across during my long residence in the East, I recall a sadhu who sat to me as a model. I had always been fond of drawing, and when on long leave to England had become

r m COOLIE AND THE GHOST

a pupil of the late Mr. J. Crompton at Heatherley’s in Newman Street, among my fellow-students being Laurence Koe and Gerald Ackerman. In Calcutta I studied under Mr. Jobbins and Mr. Ilavell, who were successively Principals of the Calcutta School of Art. In Mr. Havell’s time a few of us formed a small art club, which was allowed to meet in the studio in the Calcutta Museum, and there 2U4

ON THE HOOGHLY

we drew for an hour or two, from the models engaged for the School of Art.

One afternoon the model failed to attend, and after waiting for a bit we told the durwan to bring in any passerby who was willing to sit for four annas an hour. He returned in a few minutes accompanied by a tall, well-made man, with fine features and a black beard, who looked to be about thirty years of age. We gave him

THE SADHU MODEL

an easy sitting pose, for it is no use giving the amateur model any other.

I found him an interesting study, and when the meeting broke up asked the sadhu whether he would come and sit at my rooms on the following morning. He agreed, and I commenced a head in oil. He seemed very drowsy, his head kept nodding, and he nearly fell off the packing case on which he was perched. So to keep him awake I engaged him in conversation, and he told me his story.

He had been a landed proprietor in a small way in the North-West, having succeeded to an estate which had been in his family for many generations; but from one cause and another he got into debt and into the clutches of a moneylender. I could well imagine it, for he looked A SADHU’S LIFE

265

a dreamy unpractical sort of man. In the end the moneylender took everything, and finding himself reduced to beggary, the erstwhile landed proprietor became a sadhu or religious mendicant. A pleasant enough life, and since adopting it he had wandered about all over India, and as far as Ceylon, visiting all the holy places which were worth visiting. He had just come from Puri, and was in Calcutta for a religious festival which was being held at Kali Ghat. I asked him what had become of his wife and familv. He replied reverently, ” Khoda janta ” —” God knows”.”

I was in town for several days before being sent down the river again, and my friend turned up every morning for a sitting. At the close of the second sitting he drew my attention to a patch of skin trouble on his shoulder, and asked me if I knew of any remedy. I replied that I would consult a doctor friend about it, and in the course of the day called on Colonel Maynard, who told me to send the sadhu to him at the Medical College Hospital. The next morning I gave the man a letter for Colonel Maynard, and told him to make his way to the hospital, where he would be treated and cured. He said, ” Yes, but you surely don’t expect me to walk all that way; it’s over a mile.” I said of course not and gave him his tram fare in addition to his pay for the sitting.

When I returned after a trip to the Sandheads he posed once more and showed me his shoulder from which, thanks to Colonel Maynard’s treatment, all trace of skin disease had disappeared. Some years later, when I was waiting for a tram to take me to Tollygunge, I was touched on the shoulder and, turning round, saw my old model, who asked me whether I wanted him to sit again. In reply to my enquiry he mentioned some of the places to which he had travelled since our last meeting, and said that he was once again busy with his religious duties at Kali Ghat.

But the Indians, of whom I retain the pleasanteht 300

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recollections were my ship’s boy, Syed Abbas AH, and my Ooryia bearer. They were with me for many years before my retirement, and it would have been impossible to have found two better or more reliable servants. On the river and on the pilot vessel my comfort depended largely on the boy, who brought me my meals on the bridge, provided me with dry clothing if I got wet, made a bed up for me at night, and looked after me generally. When we arrived back at my abode, he handed me and my belongings over to the old bearer and departed to his own dwelling, coming back in the evening to see if we were going down the river again.

If I had been appointed to take some vessel away, it was sufficient to tell them both the hour at which I wanted to leave the house, and I could turn in with perfect confidence that when they called me my traps would have been packed and placed on the hackney carriage and there would be nothing for me to do but get dressed and depart. This went on for many years and they never once let me down in any way. The boy kept my purse, and made what disbursements were required for drinks or anything of that sort, handing me back the balance on return to town.

When I retired, they both decided to do the same. I gave them their choice of a small pension or a lump sum, and they elected to take the latter, and to buy two small bits of ground, on which to grow sufficient foodstuffs to keep them alive. They both came from Orissa, their villages being near Cuttack. Syed Abbas Ali wrote to me three or four times a year, until a couple of years ago, when his daughter informed me that he had died. The bearer, who was a much older man, died about a vear after I left.

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