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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Towards Calcutta

The Friendship works her way up the treacherous Hooghly River, while Eleanor Reid keeps a sharp eye out for tigers and alligators

We now crossed over the Kedgeree, and saw a neat-looking house, which belonged to the post-master. Some ships were lying off this station. We were visited by the dawk, or post-boat, for the conveyance of letters to town. Several country boats came alongside with plantains, pine-apples, oranges, pumelnoses [pomelos], bread, eggs, &c. which met a ready sale amongst our people, who had plenty of money from the sale of birds, &c. There appeared a number of straggling villages on the Kedgeree side, which looked like little thatched sheds, or mud cabins. We now passed up the river Hoogly, and anchored for the night off Hawkes’ Channel, so named from the Hawk Indiaman passing up that way to avoid an enemy’s frigate, during the American war.

Next morning we observed a number of beautiful deer grazing near our anchorage. This surprised us, as the place abounded with the tigers; Mr. P[arry] told us he had seen upwards of thirty in a herd near the same place. A gun loaded with grape-shot was fired at them; they instantly bounded into the jungle. Several alligators were seen this morning, and one was pointed out to me, but I could only observe a black floating log, which had it not sunk, and again rose to the surface of the water, I should not have imagined it to possess life; they generally kept close to the bank of the river. Mr. Parry told us, that the best swimmer would have no chance, if he had the misfortune to fall overboard, as the river abounded with sharks as well as alligators. A dead fowl, which was thrown overboard this morning, was instantly dragged under water.

About nine o’clock we proceeded up the river, the deepest water being near the eastern shore. We had a near view of the jungle and underwood, but saw no living animal other than birds. Notwithstanding the great heat which prevails at this season, the boughs of the trees are clothed with a beautiful evergreen; as the old leaves drop off, they are replaced by a succession of new ones, so quick and abundant is vegetation in this country. The beauties of the scenery presented to our eyes, might have been augmented by the rains that had just subsided; the dry season was just commencing. At this time the stream runs almost constantly towards the sea, in consequence of the great rains that had fallen, the effect of which, in causing the freshes, or constant accession to the ordinary volume of water, lasts for some time.

It was not expected we should reach town before the next spring tides; however, as the wind was favourable, we soon passed Culpee, which appeared a poor village. We next approached Diamond Harbour, where several Indiamen were lying taking in cargoes for Europe. We saw a number of square buildings, the saltpetre warehouse; the hospital, and the harbour-master’s house, appeared to be respectable edifices.

In ascending the stream, we came to an opening on our left, which is the entrance into a great river, called the Roupnaran, into which the rapidity of the tide had nearly forced the ship; but by the dexterity of the pilot we avoided this cross impulse. We had next to pass a shifting sand, called the James and Mary’s, on which a ship of that name, many years ago, was totally lost, with all the crew; the force of the tide was such when she ground that it turned her suddenly over, and completely round, carrying away her masts, after which she rolled upon the sand like a cask, and then disappeared in deep water. Scarcely a season passes in which ships are not lost on this dangerous quicksand.

By a favorable breeze we were wafted clear of this danger. The views on both sides of this fine river now began to grow interesting, particularly as we approached a village called Fultah, which before the war belonged to the Dutch East-India Company. Some of the houses seen through the openings of the plaintain and cocoa-nut trees, from being white-washed, were more picturesque than those nearer the sea. Hundreds of fine cattle were peacefully grazing on the banks of the river, which, with the paddy or rice fields at a little distance, gave us the idea of a land blest with plenty.

Whenever we anchored, numbers of native boats, called punchways, came alongside, with abundance of milk, butter, bread, eggs, fruits, and vegetables. Their approach was allowed until it was discovered that several of our people were intoxicated, and that something stronger than milk had been conveyed on board; farther intercourse with these boats was in consequence forbidden.
In our progress we saw on the left bank a large village, called Willoborough, at which was a cattle-market. A number of country boats were lying at this place, some laden with heaps of hay and straw, like floating stacks, and others with bricks and large earthern jars, all for the Calcutta market. After we had got beyond this place, a fanatic came alongside, with a very reverend devout aspect; his beard, white as wool, reached down his breast, which contrasted with his dark complexion, gave him rather a striking appearance. This sage personage was called Peor Serang; on inquiry into his office, I was told it was through his prayers the ship had come safe. Our Lascars seemed delighted to see him, and rewarded him liberally.

We next passed, on our left, a place called Fort Gloucester, and a village on our right called Budge-Budge, where stood an old ruin originally built of brick. Both banks of the river were now covered with little villages, and much cattle feeding near the brink. At a place called the powder mills is a large distillery and a respectable looking dwelling house. The wind failing, we were obliged to anchor at a place called Sangerale. Shorted after we were agreeably surprised by a handsome accommodation boat coming alongside, with a letter from Messrs. Hudson, Bacon, and Co. ship builders, saying that the boat and people were at our service, and that should any assistance be wanted they would with pleasure send it from town. This was not all; for a plentiful supply of fresh butter, bread, fruit, &c. was sent, with a fine round of corned beef, which would have done honor to an English table. This civility from a stranger was very gratifying to our feelings, as the only knowledge they had of us was by a letter from Malacca. However it was a good earnest of Indian hospitality, of which we had afterwards frequent experience. This boat was kept by the ship, and sent on shore for the little things wanted, until we arrived off the town of Calcutta.

All my pleasant thoughts were dispersed this evening, by seeing several human bodies floating down the river with the tide, and crows fasting upon the carcases. I could not at first conjecture what they were, but was informed by the pilot that those sights were so common as to excite no attention in the residents here; that he had often witnessed the horror with which a stranger from Europe was struck at first beholding them. We were told it was only the poorer class of Hindoos who throw their dead into the river, as those who could afford to purchase wood practised burning. Previous to committing the body to the sacred stream they swathe it in a piece of calico, and cause prayers to be said over it by their Bramins.

At this season of the year there is very little flood tide, so that the bodies are not floated up: but indeed this rarefy happens in any season, as they are food for the numerous sharks; or if cast ashore, they are devoured by wild dogs, jackalls, kites, vultures, &c. with which this country abounds. We happened to cast our eyes to a place in the mud, not far off, where lay a human body surrounded by crows. These were kept at a distance by three pariahs, or wild dogs, who were tearing the flesh; the sight made me shudder, and the recollection of it disturbed my repose, or deformed my dreams, during the night.

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