Sahib, p.13
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       Sahib, p.13

           Richard Holmes

  Soldiers travelled on the troop deck, usually two decks down, with officers and civilian passengers a deck above them. Indiamen were generally armed, and could usually see off pirates and, if sailing in company, with the senior of their captains acting as commodore, might successfully take on a privateer. In early 1804, when there was a real danger from French frigates or privateers, Richard Purvis sailed aboard Sir William Bensley in company with the Indiaman Fame and the frigate HMS Brilliant. Surgeon Walter Henry of HM’s 66th Foot sailed for India in 1815, and although the Treaty of Ghent had just ended the inaptly named ‘War of 1812’ with the United States, his convoy took every precaution.

  We sailed in a fleet of five ships – all Indiamen – our Captain being Commodore. One of the ships – the Princess Charlotte – the fastest sailor, was employed as a look-out frigate, to reconnoitre any suspicious strangers, as we were not quite sure that we might not fall in with an American frigate in our course; ignorant, most probably, of the Treaty of Ghent that had just been concluded. All the ships had troops on board, and we were determined to make a good fight.22

  The need to clear for action meant that the partitions between cabins were made of canvas so that they could be struck if the ship was brought to action stations. But the partitions were as readily demolished if furniture, procured by the passengers from fitters-out at the docks, slid about during a storm. Mirza Abutakt, a Moslem gentleman travelling by Indiaman, complained of how

  Mr Grand, who was of enormous size, and whose cabin was separated from mine only by a canvas partition, fell with all his weight upon my breast and hurt me exceedingly. What rendered this circumstance more provoking was that if, by any accident, the smallest noise was made in my apartment, he would call out, with all the overbearing insolence which characterises the vulgar part of the English in their conduct to Orientals, ‘What are you about? You don’t let me get a wink of sleep’ and other such rude expressions.23

  The purpose-built troopships of the 1870s had large troop decks for the rank and file. Private Frank Richards of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who went out to India in 1902, ‘enjoyed every day of his voyage’. His battalion embarked from Southampton, and the voyage to Bombay took twenty-one days. ‘The food was excellent,’ he wrote, ‘and the ship’s bakers, who provided us with excellent bread, made money too by selling us penny buns.’ Sailors, too, made some extra money by charging a penny for a Bombay fizzer – a glass of fresh water with sherbet in it. The men slept in hammocks, and after the ship had passed Gibraltar they were allowed to sleep up on the hurricane deck or forecastle, rather than on the sweltering troop deck below. There was an hour’s ‘Swedish drill’ in the morning, and most of the rest of the time was spent gambling: ‘There were card-parties of Kitty-nap and Brag dotted here and there on the hurricane deck and forecastle, but Under and Over, Crown and Anchor, and House were the most popular games.’24 A young officer, however, complained that troopships were poorly provided with first-class accommodation:

  This was aft, over the screw, its main feature being a long saloon with cabins on either hand, those of the naval officers being on the starboard side while on the port side was an elongated rookery in which ladies and children were herded. There were also a large ladies’ cabin on the deck below, known as the ‘dovecote’, and senior officers dwelt on this deck, inside sombre, ill-ventilated structures dubbed ‘horse-boxes’. Pandemonium, which provided berthing for the meaner sort, was a deck below this again, well beneath sea level, where rats abounded and the air was tinned; it was no paradise, even if it hardly deserved the title by which it was invariably designated. Oddly enough, only on my fourth and last voyage on an Indian trooper, did I ever find myself relegated to these unpleasant quarters.25

  At the beginning of the period overseas travel was rare, and men took suitable precautions when undertaking it. John Corneille was off the Canaries when ‘most of the officers and men had themselves bled by way of precaution, as we were approaching the nearer visits of the sun. It is, I believe needless when in perfect health, the only precaution to be recommended is abstemiousness in eating and drinking, and regularity in hours.’26 However, on sea as on land, soldiers were generally ready to drink to excess if they got the chance. Albert Hervey’s 1833 voyage was punctuated by ‘courts-martial innumerable amongst the recruits, several floggings, and one death’.27 Lieutenant William Gordon-Alexander’s 93rd Highlanders left Portsmouth in June 1857 and were inspected by the Queen before departure, greatly valuing this ‘highly complimentary farewell from our much-loved Queen’. But during the ceremony of ‘Crossing the Line’ some of the sailors got drunk, and several of the 93rd joined in, and were put in irons. One of them ‘a violent-tempered man of bad character’ began to drum his heels on the deck, knowing that the colonel’s cabin was directly below. When Gordon-Alexander ‘had to take measures to put a stop to the noise … two other 93rd prisoners … then broke into bad language and “threatened to be even with me” the first time we were under fire together’.28 Corneille had a rather easier time:

  There is a forfeit which custom has fixed upon those who cross the equinox for the first time. It is taxed at a quart of brandy and a pound of sugar, or half a crown. Those that are not willing to pay undergo a christening of some severity. They are hoisted by a rope tied round their waist to the end of the main yard, and from there are given three duckings. We saw all the ceremony but the ducking, which the captain would not permit to take place for fear of the sharks.29

  Albert Hervey recalled ‘the usual ceremonies of saving and ducking’. He was exempt from ‘the dirty ordeal because he had crossed the line already’, but still had to pay ‘Neptune five shillings by way of a fee’.30 In 1801 an unamused Mr Maw objected to the jollifications, and when he reached Bombay he accused the captain of assault: the justices inclined to his view, and the captain was fined a staggering £400.

  It was always more congenial to travel as an officer than a soldier or NCO, but officers travelling without their regiments had to strike bargains with sea captains for their food and accommodation. It paid to get on the right side of the captain, and to remain there, for the commanders of East Indiamen were famously autocratic: in 1818 one clapped an army lieutenant in irons for whistling in his august presence. In August 1768, William Hickey, whose father had secured him an East India Company commission to get him out of London, visited one of the Honourable Company’s officials, Mr Coggan, at India House:

  He advised me to try for a passage to Madras in the Plassey, and gave me a letter of introduction to Captain Waddell who commanded her and who was a particular friend of his.

  The letter I delivered the same day to Captain Waddell at his house in Golden Square. He received me with much civility, saying that, although he had determined not to take any more passengers … he could not refuse his friend Mr Coggan. He told me he expected to sail early in December, and that I as well as everybody else must be on board prior to the ship’s leaving Gravesend. I next ascertained what was to be paid, and found it to be fifty guineas for a seat at the captain’s table.31

  In 1804 Richard Purvis’s father was told that his son, a newly appointed East India Company cadet, was to sail aboard Sir William Bensley at the cost of £95 and for this ‘of course he is to be at the Captain’s table – I hope you will approve it – at the third mate’s he could have gone for £55’.32 The following year Captain George Elers of HM’s 12th Foot returned from Madras:

  Captain Crawford and myself made a bargain with Captain Timbrell, of the Hawkesbury, for a passage, and we got a large cabin between us, where we slung our cots. It was the last aft on the starboard side. This cabin cost us something more than £200 each, and part of the 74th Regiment’s poor, worn-out old men came on board with us; also the colours of the regiment and Lieutenant Colonel Swinton, commanding officer … [Other passengers included] a Mrs Ure, the wife of a Dr Ure of Hyderabad, who had two fine children of three and four years old under her charge, the children of Colonel Kirkpatrick of
Hyderabad, by a Princess, to whom report said he was married. Her Highness would not part with her children until £10,000 had been settled on each of them. They were a boy and a girl, and they had a faithful old black man, who was very fond of them. Mrs Ure had an infant of only a few months old, nursed by a young native woman, immensely fat, and she had also a young European woman to be her maid.33

  A traveller’s status was no guarantee of comfort, however. Warren Hastings, an outgoing governor-general, complained of:

  The Want of Rest, the violent Agitation of the Ship, the Vexation of seeing and hearing all the Moveables of your cabin tumble about you, the Pain in your Back, Days of Unquiet and Apprehension, and above all the dreadful Fall of the Globe Lantern.34

  The Hon. Emily Eden, sister to Governor-General Auckland, wrote to her friend Lady Campbell in 1836:

  I know you will shudder to hear that last Saturday, the fifth day of dead calm, not a cloud visible, and the Master threatening three weeks more of the same weather, the thermometer at 84 in the cabin – temps on the go and meals more than ever the important points of life – at this awful crisis the Steward announced that the coffee and orange-marmalade were both at an end.

  No wonder the ship is so light, we have actually ate it a foot out of the water since we left the Cape.35

  It took Garnet Wolseley fifty days to get to Table Bay. He shared a cabin with Ensign Grahame of HM’s 22nd Foot, and sometimes their large square porthole was fastened shut by the crew. ‘When so fastened down in the tropics the cabin became unbearable,’ he recalled, ‘and I for one could not sleep below, for the cockroaches flying about and settling at times on nose or face made me bound out of my cot and to hurry up into the delightful air.’36 Officers were then allowed ashore in Africa, but soldiers were confined to their ships in case they deserted. Wolseley, who made a virtue of trusting his men, found the practice appalling, for they were at the Cape for ten days. ‘I pitied the poor rank and file,’ he wrote, ‘in whom, at that period, sufficient trust was not placed to be allowed ashore.’37

  But it was often companions rather than food or accommodation that caused difficulties. Albert Hervey sailed for Madras aboard the Warren Hastings in 1833:

  My friends had secured me an excellent cabin in the poop of the ship and I had with me, as companion, a young writer [the East India Company’s most junior civil rank] fresh from Haileybury, who thought of nothing, night and noon, but hunting, riding, shooting and dissipation; and who thought it very manly and very fine to swear and curse, and to go to bed in a state of inebriety …

  I look back to those four months on board the Warren Hastings with feelings of horror … I suffered severely from sea-sickness, so that for the greater part of the voyage, and more particularly in very rough cold weather, I was confined to my cot. During this dreadful sickness, my fellow traveller would either bring company into the cabin, play cards and make such a noise I was in no enviable situation …

  I remember one night; there was a jollification in the cuddy; my friend had taken a great quantity of wine, and became very intoxicated. He came to the cabin, and turned into my bed whilst I was on the poop. He was sick, of course, and made my sleeping things in such a condition, that I was obliged to give them away to the sailors, for I could never use them again myself.38

  Philip Meadows-Taylor, on his way to take up a commission in the Nizam of Hyderabad’s army in 1824, was altogether more fortunate:

  Among the ladies especially, I had excited an interest by rescuing one of them, a lovely girl, from a watery grave. She had incautiously opened her port-hole during a storm, keeping the cabin-door shut. A great green sea poured in, flooding the whole place. I fortunately heard the rush of the water, and forcing open the door of her cabin, found her lying face downwards in the water which was pouring over the steerage deck. I carried her to the cabin of another lady and put her in, and next day was very sweetly thanked for my services.39

  Scores of young officers found love, or something like it, in the hothouse atmosphere. Drummer John Shipp of HM’s 22nd Foot was allowed ashore at the Cape in 1802 and promptly fell in love with a fifteen-year-old Dutch girl called Sabina, ‘a person of exquisite loveliness, tall and rather slim, with black hair and eyes; her small waist and light foot made her every motion entrancing’. But sadly: ‘My Commanding Officer would not, for a moment, allow me to marry young as I was, and anything less honourable than marriage I would not contemplate.’ He decided to desert, but was arrested at pistol-point before he had gone far, ‘leaving for ever the embraces of her for whose sake I was willing to sacrifice all’. An unsympathetic court martial sentenced him to receive 999 lashes – ‘more than fifty for every year of my life’ – but his kindly commanding officer let him off.40

  When Miss Elizabeth Mansell landed at Madras in 1796 she at once laid a charge of rape (then a capital offence) against Captain Cummings of the Indiaman on which she had travelled. She was the niece of a member of the presidency council, which might have told in her favour, but Cummings, fighting for his life, conducted his own defence with great skill. She had been seen ‘playing at Tagg with a couple of footmen’ soon after leaving Portsmouth, and witnesses agreed that she had been intimate with at least two other young men on the boat. The trial stopped at once, and Cummings, duly acquitted, was warned that taking away the young woman’s character ‘would be a perpetual Blot on him’. Emboldened by his new-found legal eloquence he began to announce that she had possessed no character whatever even before she came on board, but was immediately ‘stopped from proceeding in this sort’.41

  Albert Hervey catalogued the many ways in which soldiers passed the time. Some youngsters ruined themselves or their constitutions by drinking and gambling. Others shot seabirds – ‘such firing of guns, such shouting, such swearing’ – or ran about the ship in their new uniforms ‘to the great amusement of the officers and crew, and the detriment of their wardrobe’. One cavalry officer unwisely went aloft in his finery, and was caught by the sailors, who spread-eagled him, ‘to the great amusement of the spectators, to his great annoyance, and to the irreparable ruin of his beautiful new coat … it having become covered in pitch, tar and other marine abominations’. During his voyage to India, Surgeon Henry became a keen fisherman, catching thirteen sharks, the last of them twelve feet long. ‘This monster gave us an hour’s play,’ he wrote, ‘and I found my hands all blistered afterwards from the running out and hauling the rope – though quite unconscious of it at the time.’ Lieutenant Lambrecht of HM’s 66th was ‘clever and well read’, but was ‘spoiled by the sentimental and sensual sophistries of the French philosophical school’ and was ‘most agreeable when sober, but half mad when excited by wine’. Coming out of his cuddy drunk, he knocked down the sailor at the wheel and took his place, telling the furious captain that ‘the blackguard he had just ousted knew nothing whatever about his work’. He was forgiven the first time he did it, but was put under close arrest when he repeated the offence.42 Hervey advised his readers to ‘read, write, draw, keep a journal, work the ship’s course, take the latitude and longitude, the lunars, keep the time of the ship’s chronometers, and above all … remember … your duty to God – spend a portion of your day in thinking of, and praying to Him … ’.43

  Henry Havelock was junior lieutenant in HM’s 13th Light Infantry at the not-so-junior age of twenty-eight when he sailed for Calcutta aboard General Kydd in 1823, and experienced a profound and life-changing conversion on the voyage:

  It was while the writer was sailing across the wide Atlantic towards Bengal, that the Spirit of God came to him with its offer of peace and mandate of love, which, though for some time resisted, at length prevailed. Then was wrought the great change in his soul which has been productive of unspeakable advantage to him in time, and he trusts has secured him happiness in eternity.44

  But eternity was closer than many wished. Little could obscure the fact that the voyage to the East was a dangerous one. Between 1 December 1827 and 30 November
1828, twenty-one military officers of the East India Company died at sea, from natural causes or by accident. On his second trip to India, Garnet Wolseley, now a lieutenant in HM’s 90th Light Infantry, was nearly lost in a cyclone. ‘It is commonly supposed that most if not all the East Indiamen that have been lost eastward of the Cape have gone down in these “circular storms” and we very nearly did so,’ he wrote. ‘Our mainyard was snapped in two, and sails after sails, as they were set, were rent in pieces. We had already an unsafe amount of water in the hold, and it began to be whispered that we had sprung a leak.’

  Later on in the voyage the ship hit a rock: bugles sounded the regimental call, and officers at once went below to their men, who were clearing away breakfast. Wolseley’s company fell in, and he ordered them to keep quiet and await instructions from the crew.

  There we stood in deathly silence, and I know not for how long. The abominable candle in the lantern sputtered and went out. We were in almost absolute darkness, our only small glimmer of light coming through a very small hatchway which was reached by a long ladder. The ship began to sink by the stern, so it was evident to all thinking minds that we hung on a rock somewhere forward. The angle of our deck with the sea level above us became gradually greater, until at last we all had to hold on to the sides of our dark submarine prison … My predominant feeling was one of horrid repugnance at the possibility, which at last became the probability, of being drowned in the dark, like a rat in a trap. I should have liked to have had a swim for my life at the least …

  Happily they were ordered on deck in time to leave the ship, but the incident convinced Wolseley of the value of discipline: ‘It is based on faith, for without faith in your superiors it is only … an outward form filled with dust.’45

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