Sahib, p.14Richard Holmes
The loss of the Birkenhead was only one of the spectacular disasters to befall troopships. On 1 March 1825, the East Indiaman Kent, carrying half HM’s 31st Foot, caught fire in the Bay of Biscay. The ship eventually blew up, but 296 members of the 31st, forty-six of the regiment’s wives and fifty-two children were saved, together with nineteen passengers, the captain and 139 of the crew: fifty-four men, one woman, and twenty-one children perished. One soldier’s wife was immediately delivered of a robust baby boy aboard the rescuing Cambria. The soldiers behaved so well – some put their comrades’ children on their backs and swam with them to the boats – that Lieutenant Colonel Fearon, commanding the 31st, was appointed Companion of the Order of the Bath. Captain James Spence, who survived the shipwreck, commanded the 31st at Sobraon, where he bore a charmed life: he had musket balls through his cap and sword scabbard, and his sword hilt was smashed by a grapeshot. His sword broke in a hand-to-hand battle with a Sikh, but he was saved when a private soldier bayoneted the man.
On 11 November 1858, the troopship Sarah Sands caught fire near Mauritius, and although all the women and children were put into the boats, the men of HM’s 54th helped the sailors to put out the blaze and pump out the hull which was flooded by water used for fire-fighting. The colours of the 54th were saved ‘at the hazard of their lives’ by Private William Wiles of the regiment, and Richard Richmond, one of the ship’s quartermasters. On 2 June 1859, the Eastern Monarch, full of wounded soldiers from Bengal, blew up at Spithead. One man, one woman and five children were killed, but the detachment commander acknowledged that the loss would have been far greater had it not been for
the very excellent behaviour of the troops, and the great assistance I received from every individual officer under my command; so cool, collected and energetic were they all, that I feel it is only due to them to bring their names respectively before His Royal Highness.46
The Royal Navy’s strong grip on the sea meant that passages to and from India were not usually subject to interference by hostile vessels. The one major exception was during the later stages of the American War of Independence, when a vengeful France joined the fledgling United States. In 1781 Admiral Pierre-André de Suffren de Saint-Tropez beat a British squadron off West Africa, and then reached India, where he had the better of a series of clashes with Rear Admiral Sir Edward Hughes. It was then difficult for the armies of the three presidencies to support one another by land. When Madras came under pressure Eyre Coote, Commander in Chief, India, declared that he had ‘one foot in the grave and one on the edge of it’, but still set off from Calcutta to help, in the armed Indiaman Resolution. Chased by Suffren, he died at sea off Madras. Those captured by Suffren discovered that, as William Hickey sneered, he looked like ‘a little fat, vulgar English butcher’, and received his captives with his breeches unbuttoned at the knees, his collar undone and his sleeves rolled up.
Privateers or isolated frigates could create havoc amongst coastal traffic on lone Indiamen. When they appeared, ships were cleared for action, cabins demolished and women and children sent below into the fetid hold. Gentlemen usually remained on deck in an effort to help, sketching out a few defensive cuts with borrowed cutlasses and generally getting in the way of those whose job it was to fight the ship. The capture of a commerce raider was a matter for rejoicing. When HMS La Sibylle took the French national frigate La Forte in Belasore Roads on 28 February 1799, the insurance office of Madras, and the Calcutta, Bengal and Amicable Insurance Companies presented two fine swords to Captain Lucius Ferdinand Hardiman. In gilt and ivory, the swords were at the very apogee of Georgian military elegance, and are evidence of the damage that La Forte was doing to trade.47
Many ships containing India-bound troops were never heard of again, however. In January 1831, the Thames-built Guildford (521 tons) disappeared somewhere in the Indian Ocean, and was reported ‘lost at sea with all hands’. She probably went down in a tropical storm, but there is a chance that she was taken by pirates, for a European female – according to some sources a passenger named Ann Presgrave – was later sold to a Malay chief in Brunei.48
SOMETHING STRANGE TO US ALL
FOR MOST OF THE PERIOD, British troops – and many British civilians – arriving in India disembarked at Calcutta. Relief at the sight of land was tempered by the fact that safe landing was still some way off, because the Hooghly River estuary, with its shifting sandbanks, was notoriously difficult to navigate. The distinctive James and Mary shoal, near the mouth of the river, was named after a 1690s shipwreck there. Smaller vessels were conned up the river by Hooghly pilots, while larger ones would anchor at the mouth of the river and passengers would be disembarked into tenders for the last leg of the voyage. John Luard’s troop sergeant major summed up his first impressions of India as they made their way upstream, declaring that it was: ‘Hotter than Hades, and a damned sight less interesting.’49
William Forbes-Mitchell of the 93rd, diverted to India because of the outbreak of the Mutiny, recalled how:
We had two tug steamers, and the pilot and tug commanders all sent bundles of the latest Calcutta papers on board, from which we learnt the first news of the sieges of Delhi and Lucknow, of the horrible massacre at Cawnpore, and of the gallant advance of the small force under generals Havelock, Neill and Outram for the relief of Lucknow. When passing Garden Reach, every balcony, verandah and housetop was crowded with ladies and gentlemen waving their handkerchiefs and cheering us, all our men being in full Highland dress and the pipes playing on the poop. In passing the present No 46 Garden Reach … we anchored for an hour just opposite … Frank Henderson said to me, ‘Forbes-Mitchell, how would you like to be owner of a palace like that?’ When I, on the spur of the moment without any thought replied, ‘I’ll be master of that house and garden yet before I leave India.’ … Just thirty two years after, I took possession of the house No 46, where I have established the Bon Accord Rope Works.
When his regiment disembarked, Forbes-Mitchell was pleased to see that fellow Scots ‘who had long been exiled from home’ forced beer on the thirsty warriors, ‘and the Highlanders required but little pressing, for the sun was hot, and, to use their own vernacular, the exercise “made them gey an drauthy”’.50
Calcutta, the capital of British India until its replacement by New Delhi in 1911, became the liveliest of Indian cities. Captain Alexander Hamilton complained, however, that its origins were unpropitious:
The English settled there about the year 1690 … Mr Job Charnock, then being the Company’s agent in Bengal, had liberty to settle an Emporium in any part of the River’s side below Hughly [Hooghly], and for the sake of a large shady tree chose that place, tho’ he could not have chosen a more unhealthful place on the whole river; for three miles to the North Eastward is a saltwater lake that overflows in September and October and then prodigious numbers of fish resort thither, but in November and December, when the floods are dissipated these fish are left dry and with their putrefaction affect the air with stinking vapours, which the North-East Winds bring with them to Fort William, that they cause a yearly Mortality.
The fort itself, in the most literal sense of one of the key bastions of British rule in India, followed the best principles of artillery fortification:
Fort William was built in a regular Tetraon of brick and mortar called Puckah, which is a composition of brick-dust, Lime Molasses and cut hemp and is as hard and tougher than firm stone or brick, and the town was built without Order as the Builders thought most convenient for their own Affairs, everyone taking in what ground most pleased them for gardening so that in most houses you must pass through a Garden into the House, the English building near the River’s side and the natives within land … About fifty yards from Fort William stands the Church built for the pious charity of Merchants residing there … 51
Robert Clive described Calcutta as:
One of the most wicked places in the Universe. Corruption, Licentiousness and a want of Principle seem to have possessed the
In 1856 Ensign Charles MacGregor remarked that he thought Calcutta was ‘not much of a place. It is all very well if you like balls, and that sort of thing.’53 The capture of the city by Suraj-ud-Daula in 1756 was only a brief check to its rise; Mrs Sherwood recalled:
The splendid sloth and the languid debauchery of European Society in those days – English gentlemen, overwhelmed with the consequences of extravagance, hampered by Hindoo women and by crowds of olive-coloured children, without either the will or the power to leave the shores of India … Great men ride about in state coaches, with a dozen servants running before or behind them to bawl out their titles; and little men lounged in palanquins or drove a chariot for which they had never intended to pay, drawn by horses which they had bullied or cajoled out of the stables of wealthy Baboos.54
Minnie Wood was unhappily married to an officer in the Company’s service. She had no idea of the hardships of life in India, and he wrongly thought that he had married an heiress. In 1856 she wrote home to her mother in England:
I do not like Calcutta at all – the smells are awful, indeed I do not see one redeeming quality in the place. The country round is very pretty, but the Indians and their habits are disgusting. It is nothing uncommon to see a man stark naked begging, as do boys who run by the side of our carriage.55
Most newly arrived officers were housed in the barracks or in the casemates of Fort William: Henry Havelock found the barracks so crowded in 1823 that subalterns were lodged two to a room. Fred Roberts’s father, commanding the Lahore Division, advised him to put up at a hotel until ordered to report to the Bengal Artillery depot at Dum Dum. He felt lonely because his comrades from the steamer had all gone off to barracks, and:
was still more depressed later on by finding myself at dinner tête à tête with a first-class specimen of the results of an Indian climate. He belonged to my own regiment, and was going home on a medical certificate, but did not look as if he would ever reach England.56
He was shocked to find that:
The men were crowded into badly ventilated buildings, and the sanitary arrangements were as deplorable as the state of the water supply. The very efficient scavengers were the large birds of prey called adjutants, and so great was the dependence placed on exertions of these unclean creatures that any injury done to them would be treated as gross misconduct. The natural result of this state of affairs was endemic sickness, and a death-rate of over ten per cent per annum.
Once the East India Company’s rule had extended into Bengal, new arrivals did not stay in Calcutta for long. The Company’s young officers were quickly posted off to learn their trade. Ensign MacGregor went to 40th BNI at Dinapur:
I play rackets and ride, and in fact take an immense lot of exercise. We have got a gymnasium in our compound, and leaping-poles, dumb-bells, &c, besides single-staves and foils. I declare life would be intolerable if it was not for something of that kind. Unless you can do something … India is the slowest place in the world, not even excluding Bognor. However, with all these things I manage to get on very well. Tomorrow I begin those delightful drills. I look forward to them with such joy.57
Exercise was welcome, for most travellers had put on weight during the long passage from England, as Lieutenant Bayley of HM’s 52nd Light Infantry wrote of his arrival in 1853:
We used to watch the men at their dinners, and they were so well and plentifully supplied that, in spite of their sea-appetite, many could not get through their rations … and I shall never forget the appearance of the detachment on our arrival in India, when their canvas suits were laid aside, and they tried to button their coatees. Half of them could not be got to meet round the waist.
Soldiers who arrived in Calcutta in drafts were taken by steamer to Chinsurah, the depot for British units serving in Bengal. John Pearman, who reached India in October 1845, recalled how:
We had a parade at 10 am, got white clothing served out, took our sea clearance money, and like soldiers, went off at once to spend it. At night we could not sleep, what with the heat and the noise the jackals made. In the morning before it was light the black men came into the rooms, which are very large open rooms, only iron and wood rails for walls. They sat at the foot of your bedstead with a large earthen vessel on their heads, holding two or three gallons, calling out ‘Hot coffee, Sahib.’ This was done so much that my comrade, by name Makepiece but wrongly named, threw a boot at the poor fellow, broke the vessel and the hot coffee ran down his body, but did not scald him. Of course Makepiece had to pay for the coffee.58
Journeys further up the Ganges were often difficult, as Gunner Richard Hardcastle of the Royal Horse Artillery discovered in 1857:
Nov 27th: Succeeded in getting off the sand at about 6pm yesterday having been on 30 hours. This morning we are on our way to Gazepore and I only hope we may not have another stoppage. Seeing the apparent useless attempts of our native seamen to get our vessel off the sand, our Sgt Maj asked the Captain to allow some of our men to work the capstan he refused saying that their slow movements would ameliorate the ship’s progress better than if stronger men were employed. The captain appears to give a good account of the natives generally and says they are better than English sailors for this sort of work. He has seen them, he said, work from morn’ till night, nearly one half of their time in the water, without a grumble. The little time I have been here among them I can see they are very patient and spite of you will be your slave. Even if you find one that has the advantage of a good education and speak to him as though you consider him as an equal he still thinks himself your inferior … [They] have thin lips, fine aquiline nose, noble foreheads and above all a splendid set of white teeth.59
Units which arrived intact, like HM’s 32nd in 1846, immediately set off for their garrison up-country. ‘We were drilled to pitching and striking of tents,’ wrote Private Waterfield,
so as not to be lost when on the road. The bustle attendant upon a European camp in India was something strange to us all. The constant jabbering of the natives, and the roaring of the camels, together with elephants and buffaloes, reminds one of the striking contrast between India and peaceful England. It’s an old saying that there’s no stopping a woman’s tongue, but the women of Bengal beat all I ever saw, for they will fight, and keep up such a chatter that they may be heard above the din of the Camp.60
In March 1834, HM’s 38th had reached Berhampore when, as Sergeant Thomas Duckworth told his parents, a drunken man was killed in an accident:
We came to this Station and he fell down the Stares when drunk and killed himself in the Company that I belong to not less than 9 or 10 Men as come to untimely end by being drunk, some drowned, some smothered, others going out to the Country and ill-treating the Natives and getting killed by them. The Barracks in Berhampore are 3 in number they are like Cotton Factorys for anything that you ever see they are 2 storeys high with flat roofs … the Barracks up the country are never more than one storey and thatched and those are not made with Brick and Mortar there is not so much Vermine in those Barracks as up the Country.61
Landing at Madraspatam – soon to be shortened by the British to Madras – was another matter altogether. There was no natural harbour, and new arrivals disembarked into local craft, either massulah surf boats or primitive catamarans, which made the perilous journey through the surf. Major Armine Mountain of HM’s 26th landed at Madras in 1829, and was shocked at the sight of the ‘catamaran’ which was to take him ashore:
It is impossible to conceive a more primitive vehicle; it consists simply of three logs of wood, some seven or eight feet long, lashed together without any attempt at excavation of bulwark, and awkwardly, though not always, brought to a point in front. On this rudest of rude rafts, generally, three natives stand in line stark naked, and with only a string tied round the waist, just above the hips; but I immediately observed the truth of Bishop Heber
In 1833 Cadet Hervey, still recovering from having received his first salute from a grenadier sergeant who came on board to explain disembarkation procedures, affirmed that:
In crossing the surf some degree of skill is necessary to strand the boats in safety, and the boatmen usually demand a present for the job; but griffins [i.e. newly arrived young officers] are 50 kind and so liberal, and these boatmen are such acute judges of physiognomy, that they can tell at a glance, whether there is a possibility of success or not. If refused, they sometimes bring their boats broadside on to the surf; the consequence is a good ducking, if not an upset altogether into the briny element; this is by way of revenge …
We crossed the dreaded surf and landed in safety. Passengers are either carried out of the way of the water in a chair or on the backs of boatmen. Upon gaining a footing, I was instantly surrounded by a multitude of naked-looking savages, all jabbering away in broken English and Malabar, asking me to take a palankeen, and some actually seized hold of me, and were about to lift me into one; however, I asked the sergeant, who was with me, for his cane, which being obtained, I laid about me right and left, and soon cleared myself of the crowd.63
When Lieutenant Walter Campbell reached Madras with his regiment in 1830, he described how he was immediately
beset by hawkers, jugglers, snake-charmers, ‘coolies’ and mendicants begging for coppers … After standing on the beach for upwards of an hour, braving the fury of a tropical sun and keeping our assailants at bay as well we could, the debarkation of the troops was completed and we were marched up to Bridge seven miles from Madras where we found tents pitched for our reception, and where we are to remain ten days or a fortnight to make the necessary preparations for marching up country to Bangalore.64
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