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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Up the tiger-infested Hooghly River

Eleanor Reid continues her sea-letter as the Friendship works her way to Calcutta

We now drew near the Sand-heads, formed by the rapid streams poured out from the great river Ganges, with his hundred mouths; the river Hoogly, where Calcutta stands, being only a small branch. 

On the morning of the 10th [September 1800], we got ground at fifty fathoms, and before night the soundings gradually decreased as we approached to ten fathoms. The weather continued very bad, while the ship was repeatedly tacking to keep off the dangerous reefs, and firing guns, and burning blue lights during the night.

The next day we were not more successful, but continued beating about. Towards evening the ship was in shallow water, having only seven fathoms; the flood setting in, impelling her fast towards the reefs, compelled us to anchor. This we did most opportunely; for when it was low water we were but a short distance from a quick-sand, left alternately dry, and alternately washed by the waves rolling over it furiously. Our condition may be conceived by those who have been exposed to similar dangers.

The ship was anchored on a lee-shore, in a hard gale of wind, during a dark and howling night, with heavy squalls and much rain; the captain, mates, and seamen were constantly putting mats and ropes round the cables, to prevent their being chaffed at the hawse-holes. Meanwhile, the ship frequently pitching a sea over the forecastle, the hatches were battened down, to keep the water from getting below. Occupied by these labours and precautions, we rode within half a mile of this dangerous sand, on which, had we been driven, there was little likelihood of any person on board being saved; the few who might escape the numerous sharks and alligators, had they reached the shore, would most probably have fallen a prey to tigers.

Kind Providence permitted the ship to ride in safety during this awful night, and next day we had the satisfaction of seeing a pilot vessel at anchor in the channel, behind the sand-bank. This proved to be Mr. Parry’s schooner. The proprietor came on board himself, and took charge of us, desiring his pilot vessel to lead on. He kindly brought some Bengal sheep, poultry, and vegetables. He informed us that many ships had been taken by French privateers off this Sand-heads lately, and amongst others, a pilot vessel which they used as a decoy. In consequence of this, the pilots were very cautious in approaching any ships.

We proceeded, and crossed the eastern sea-reef, and anchored in the eastern channel during the night. We were fortunate in getting Mr. Parry; he was a worthy good man, and knew his business well; he had sent all the junior pilots to town, in different vessels, and as his limited time was out, he intended taking the ship up to Calcutta himself; he said that the distance to town from the point where he came on board was upwards of two-hundred miles. 

There is perhaps no part in the world where professional pilots suffer more anxiety than those of this station; so perpetually are they exercised by the shifting of the sands. Sometimes a hard gale of wind, or rapid tide, will wash away a sand, and deposit it a shelving bank in another place; the pilot having a clear channel one month, may find himself obliged to take a fresh survey, in conducting a ship through the same passage the next month; still, notwithstanding every device of circumspection many ships are annually lost. At day-break a wreck of one was seen on Saugur sand, which had struck there a short time before. 

The persons employed in this service have every encouragement; for when they arrive at the situation of branch pilot, their emoluments are upwards of twelve hundred pounds per annum. They rise by seniority, but the occasional attainment of accelerated promotion as a reward for distinguished conduction leaves a field for emulation. There are about twelve vessels employed, each having a branch pilot on board, besides about ten juniors, who are termed masters, mates, boatswains, leadsmen, and volunteers. There are generally two vessels looking out at a time; which number is kept up by reliefs, or augmented, if necessary.

Next morning we proceeded towards Saugor Island. All eyes were directed to the shore, thinking we should at least seen a dozen tigers guarding the beach, but not one appeared. Our pilot informed us, that a fine young man, who was third mate of a Danish ship, had been lately devoured by one of these dreadful animals. He went on shore with a party to cut wood; having in an hour collected a sufficient load from drift timber lying on the beach, Mr. Parry cautioned them not to approach the jungle. Being armed, however, they thought they might with safety enter the woods, where this young man was seized by a tiger. The horrid roar of the beast frightened the others so much that they were prevented using their muskets, each man running to the boat as fast as he could. When their panic had subsided some wanted to return, but this was overruled, when they reflected that their companion must ere then have been destroyed; and the party returned on board the Dane with the sad tale. 

The pilot concluded by saying, that scarcely a season passes but some Europeans are taken away by tigers, in consequence of fool-hardiness; while many natives are devoured amidst the perils of their necessary avocations.—Saugor Island appeared an impenetrable forest, with much jungle wood and shrubs; the only clear part was at the Sandy beach.

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