On The Hooghly – last chapter……..


A tribute to the Service—The immaculate pilot—I leave .the Service—Conditions on the Hooghly to-day—Qualities of a good pilot—Indianising the Service—Pilots in the War—A chat with Jimmy Keymer—Envoi.

IN the Pall Mall Gazette of September 19th, 1911, under the heading ‘ The Bengal Pilot,’ appeared a contribution from a writer who had made the passage down the Hooghly in a cargo steamer. It struck me as being a good sketch of one of my confreres, so I kept it and reproduce some extracts from it here. It runs as follows :

” Ships leaving Calcutta anchor oH Garden Reach to await the tide. It is here that the pilot arrives on board. Let it be carefully noted that he arrives—-he does not come, he is too great a man. He arrives in State, accompanied by his Leadsman and his servant. For the Bengal Pilot Service is different to other services. Its senior members —Branch Pilots they are called—earn from two to three thousand rupees a month (the latter when trade is good and ships are plentiful), and a man who earns the salary which a civilian does not attain until he becomes a Commissioner of Division is entitled to much respect. He demands this respect, and exacts it from everybody indiscriminately.

” The Amaryllis was on time-charter, carrying coal between Calcutta and Bombay, and I was her only passenger, when the pilot arrived on board at Garden Reach. He arrived in all the glory of a beautifullystarched white suit, and a resplendently varnished solar topee of imposing dimensions. In appearance he was tall and lanky (wire all through), with a clean-shaven,



clear-cut, tanned face, that would have become a naval officer and at once conveyed the impression that its owner was a strong man. He gave his orders in a curt, quiet manner, and in five minutes we were under way.

” I learnt to admire that pilot long before we parted with him at the brig off the Sandheads. Despite the coal dust which lay everywhere, and covered everything at least one inch thick in grime, his immaculate suit managed to retain, somehow or other, all its spotless purity, and although the sweltering heat was sufficient to make the most stiffly-starched collar scragged and limp, the starch in his held out until the end.

” I was filled with a great longing to mount the bridge and ask him respectfully to admit me to the secret by which all this was achieved, but fortunately for myself I recollected in time that I was only a passenger on a tramp collier, while he was a member of the great Bengal Pilot Service. I therefore dusted off some of the grime which had settled upon my easy-chair on the poop, wiped some smuts off my nose, and in doing so smudged my cheek all over, and settled myself down comfortably to watch my pilot and his ways.

” He stood under the awning over the bridge with telescope at his eye, watching intently the various signals which were placed along the banks of the Hooghly to intimate the different depths of water obtaining in the stream. Ever and anon, on the sultry breeze, the voice of his leadsman rose and fell: ” By the mark five.” ” And a half four.” ” By the mark four,” and so on. Ever and anon he rasped out some curt order, which the subservient mate of the watch passed on to the man at the wheel; round went the spokes with many creaks and groans, and the snub nose of the old Amaryllis swung off’ two or three points on to another course. All of which as a mere landsman I found vastly interesting.

” Gradually as the day wore on we slipped down the muddy Hooghly, and gradually and by degrees the colour 292


of the flowing waters changed from a dirty, evil-looking brown, to a more refreshing green, showing that slowly but surely our pilot was bringing us out to sea. As the shades of night fell (swiftly as is their habit in the East) we anchored at Mud Point—the dreary, dismal-looking expanse of mud-covered shore visible from the ship emphatically justifying the name. The pilot came down to the cuddy to dinner, and afterwards unbent just a little, proving that he was a good fellow. He discussed the skippers of other ships on the coast with the captain, and the slump in the Bengal coal market with me. Like most of us in Calcutta, he had been tempted to his fall, had speculated in coal shares, and was loaded up with many thousands of rupees’ worth of Sudamdih, Bilbera, Phularitand and Sinidih shares, all of which were a bad investment for him, as he had bought during the boom at prices ranging from ten to fifteen rupees each. Which goes to prove that my pilot was essentially human ; first, in that his two to three thousand rupees a month salary was insufficient for him, and he desired to grow rich quickly by means of speculation, and, secondly, in that he had been sufficiently foolish to allow shares of nebulous value to be unloaded on him in a falling market. I advised him to desist, whereupon he became positively chilly. He did not require advice. My pilot was very, very human.

” Next morning on the bridge he was the same unapproachable, impeccable figure he had been the day before—telescope to eye, jerking out sharp orders, the temporary master of the ship. At dusk we sighted the pilot brig and rapidly drew up to her. From on board came sounds of music, then a burst of song. The hfe of a Bengal Pilot, even at sea, is not all work. A boat shot out, came alongside of us, the pilot clambered down into it, and the rowers gave way.

” The mate on the bridge turned the handle of the engine-room telegraph, and sounded full-speed ahead. THE WORK TO-DAY


Prom the bowels of the ship came an answering ring. The snout of the Amaryllis swung round sou’west and by south, and we sped away in the rapidly gathering gloaming towards our destination.”

I retired from the Service in 1913, and since then all sorts of changes have taken place. The river has been lighted from Calcutta to Moyapur, and from Hospital Point to sea, and the Service has been put on pay instead of receiving fifty per cent, of the pilotage. A lot of the work is now done at night, for which extra night fees are paid. The bars in the upper part of the river are kept open by powerful dredgers, and the steamers coming to the port are larger and draw more water.

The following extract from a letter received from one of the Senior Branch Pilots last October will give some idea of what the work is now like :

” During about seven months of the year, owing to the deterioration of Sankral Reach, Pir Serang and Poojali crossings, all ships over—say—25 feet draught go to Ooloobaria anchorage at night. Swing flood next morning and proceed.

” Draughts of 30 feet are common. The maximum so far is, I believe, 31 feet 3 inches. The Middleton Bar below Saugor is the shoalest spot—at present 14 feet 9 inches at lower water, but has been 13 feet 6 inches.

” The usual procedure for a 28-foot ship would be : leave Garden Reach, straight out of dock, or from the Garden Reach jetties, at half-flood at night. Anchor at Ooloobaria at high-water slack. Swing ebb. Swing flood next morning, and go to Kulpee. Leave there at night and go to Saugor. And out to sea on the next morning’s tide. All ships navigating at night above the Eastern Channel Light pay a night fee, and vessels that have to go to Ooloobaria at night pay an additional night fee. The Service is in good fettle. A good type of keen, energetic men, but overworked. The night work is taking its toll, and people are cracking up earlier than 294


they used to. One man aged 45, and another of 464, have applied for their pensions, as they cannot stand the work. The Government have decided to abolish recruitment from England. The last home appointment was nearly three years ago.

” They have cut the pay for future entrants to an absurd figure. Maximum pay, rupees 1,300 after 28 years’ service. The present maximum pay is rupees 2,200 per mensum, plus £30 a month overseas’ pay, plus night fees which vary, and may amount to rupees 500 a month, and plus four first-class return passages, Bombay to London, during 30 years’ service. None of these allowances, even night fees, are to be given to future candidates.”

As I have stated earlier in this book, the Service has been recruited in all sorts of ways, and very casually. The strength would be allowed to dwindle, and then the authorities would wake up and bring in a lot of people, some of whom would make good, and some would prove unsuited to the work. For it is not every man who possesses the qualities essential to a successful pilot. Of the men who joined after myself from the training ships, quite a large percentage dropped out from one cause or another, and comparatively few reached the grade of Branch Pilot. With the lighting up of the river, there can be no question that the work which was always strenuous has become much more so and will call for men of very tough fibre in addition to the ordinary qualities of nerve and quick-wittedness.

I have a letter in my possession from my old Commander, Mr. R. C. Rutherford, dated 1920, and written not long before he died. In it he speaks with bitterness of the introduction of the Licensed Pilots, and says : ” It was a wicked act and a breach of faith with us, as we joined a service with closed grades.”

It was not until I was nearly half-way through with this record of my recollections of life on the Hooghly that I learnt with surprise that the Government were INDIANISING THE SERVICE


introducing Indian recruits to the Bengal Pilot Service. I suppose that I ought not to have been surprised, but I was.

My mentality probably resembles that of the beadle of the Scotch parish, who when asked if he could recommend a good reliable beadle to replace one who had just died in a neighbouring parish replied, ” Now if you asked me to find you an elder or twa, or even a Meenister, I could have suited you fine ; but to get a really responsible beadle is well nigh an impossibeelity.”

I knew, of course, that the Army was being Indianised, and the Indian Civil Service. We all had the greatest admiration for the Indian Civil Service, and I recollect a discussion on the brig, at the conclusion of which we agreed that if the British Empire had produced nothing more than that efficient, incorruptible and devoted Service, with its wonderful record of pure administration, it would have justified its existence. But together with the other Services it was being Indianised, and I thought that although it would probably lose somewhat in efficiency, it would still function, in the same way that a boy’s watch may still go after its inquisitive little owner has poked its works about with a pin. But it never occurred to me that the Bengal Pilot Service would be interfered with.

It would be absurd to suppose that among the three hundred million inhabitants of Hindustan there are not thousands who would make excellent Hooghly pilots. I had the good fortune during the War to spend eighteen months in France with Pathans and Punjabis who had been recruited for the Indian Labour Corps, and amongst them were men who would have made excellent sailormen.

I may mention here that many of the Bengal pilots volunteered to serve with the troops during the War of 1914-18. Some of them were given commissions in the Royal Engineers, for inland, water transport, and did useful work in Mesopotamia and in Belgium, reaching 296


the rank of Major and being awarded the D.S.O. Others were employed as transport officers in various ports’, or served afloat.

Recently after an evening spent in jotting down the fruits of retrospection, I turned in and dreamt a dream of the Sandheads. The sun was just rising, through the early morning mist of a day in the north-east monsoon. There was a nice little breeze to put a ripple on the water and impart a feeling of freshness and vigour. Just below me was the Eastern Channel Light, about a mile to the westward the pilot steamer Lady Fraser, and away to the northward the smoke of a steamer inward-bound. I planed down towards a group of big grey gulls who were sitting placidly together and had not yet commenced the business of the day, the chase of the succulent bumalo. As I approached them and caught a glimpse of my reflection I saw that I was one of the Brotherhood myself. Instinctively and without any hesitation I addressed myself to a big fellow who was sitting slightly apart from the rest.

” Mr. Keymer, I think ? “

” That’s me,” he replied ; ” and I never forget a friend, and well remember the day when you were taking the Drum Druid up. I had just caught a fine bumalo, and, being chased by George Smart, clumsily collided with the steamer’s foremast, and fell half-stunned on the deck. You very kindly came down off the bridge, picked up my fish, handed it to me, and enquired whether I could get up off the deck without assistance. It seems like yesterday, but it must be more than thirty years ago. And now you have come to join us. You will find them all here. There’s Le Patourel, sitting beside Lidstone. Next to them are Ben Revett, Bond and Kendal. The chap who looks as though he had not finished moulting s Jock Taylor. Yes, we are all here.” MR. KEYMER’S OPINION


” Things have altered a bit since your time, Mr. Keymer ? ” I observed.

” Yes,” he replied, ” and they are going to alter a lot more unless I am very much mistaken. But we need not worry about it. We can safely leave the Service in the hands of Mother Gunga, who will see to it that her pilots are Masters of their Craft.”

” What is your opinion, Mr. Keymer, about the present scheme of Indianising the Service ? “

” It seems only fair,” he replied, ” that the people of the country should be given a chance of doing the work, or of showing whether they are able to do it. But I think it unfair to restrict the Service entirely to Indians, to the exclusion of all the other sailormen of the Empire. Calcutta and the Bengal Pilot Service are both the result of British energy and enterprise. The men who created them were certainly not afflicted with that distressing malady, the inferiority complex. So long as the City of Calcutta exists, it will be necessary to maintain an efficient service of pilots to give access to it from the sea! “

I was about to ask his opinion as to remuneration, but the scene faded away, and on opening my eyes I found that I had been awakened by a fool of a bluebottle who, having found his way into my room by the open window, appeared unable to find his way out again.

But I have no doubt that Mr. Keymer would share my own opinion, which is, that if you want a really good article, you must pay for it.

In conclusion, I wish good luck to the men, whatever their race or complexion, who are destined in the future to conduct the traffic up and down the Hooghly.

all comments welcome!

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