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Friday, April 18, 2014

Ants, jackals, and snakes

Eleanor Reid continues her diary in Calcutta, October 1800

I must confess I thought this country full of plagues, arising equally from the air, the water, and the land; for, without great precautions, Europeans could not exist, nor are they neglected by the opulent natives. The air is full of devouring animals, from the majestic adjutant to the small musquito, from whose tormenting attacks nothing but a gauze completely round your bed with preserve you. 

On land objects of terror and annoyance are innumerable, from the royal tiger to the ant; the latter you are obliged to keep from the bed by a trench of water, the foot of each bed-post being placed in a large brass or stone cup of water, to prevent their ascending among the bed-clothes. The destroyers in the river I have already mentioned; many human beings are devoured by the ravenous sharks. One melancholy instance occurred to Mr. Henderson, the boatswain of our ship, while we were here, who by some accident fell from a small boat called a dingay, which was lying alongside the ship: he sunk to rise no more. Much blood was seen to discolour the water astern of the ship immediately after the accident; as this could not be occasioned by the fall, we concluded that he was immediately seized by some monster. The loss of this worthy man and good seaman was severely felt by the captain and officers.

When our live stock was collecting for the voyage, the poultry was sadly destroyed by jackalls, who came over the walls of the compound, although it exceeded seven feet in height. A trap, made of a wine chest, open at one end, was set for them. The first night a very large jackall was caught; it was shot in the trap, but none of the servants would touch it, and we were obliged to get scavengers to take it away. Its legs appeared short in proportion to its body; it was covered with bites and scars, and had but little hair: it had a strong offensive smell.

A covering was made for the poultry of mats and gram [pea] sticks, but still they were molested by these animals, and I have no doubt that if a dozen had been killed on one night, as many more would have appeared the next, rending the air with their dreadful howlings.

One forenoon some natives came to the gate with large round baskets, asking leave to exhibit the snake dance; when I permitted them to proceed, a man opened one of the baskets, where I observed a large snake about eleven feet long coiled up, which when irritated, sprung out, darted his forked tongue upon the man, who caught it near the head, and flung it from his several times; at length he let him bite his forehead, and the blood started from the wound. This appeared to me very surprising, but I afterwards understood they have a method of extracting the poison from the fangs when the animal is first caught. 

They also exhibited smaller snakes, one called the cobra di capello, the most dangerous of the serpent tribe; they appeared perfectly under command, and when the baskets were again opened they instantly crept in and coiled themselves up. The native music, the tom-tom and pipe, was played during this exhibition. At their departure I gave the men a rupee, with which they were well satisfied, and went away, making me many salams.

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