Capt. Arthur David LINKLATER

Extract from Captain John Mason's
‘Before the Mast in Sailing Ships’

Kirkwall: W.R. Mackintosh, The Orcadian Office, 1928

From the chapter “In Steam. To India on a new Clan liner.” Pps 188-191

The above book was in a job lot that I bought in Orkney. The author started his apprenticeship a little over a decade before Dum but otherwise trod a more or less identical path; sailing in similar waters and ships, and making a similar change into steam. The only difference was that, unlike Dum, Mason never “swallowed the anchor” till he retired. Here is what he had to say about the Hooghly, Hooghly Pilots and Calcutta. Spelling and language are as in the original but in green; [my interpolations as here].

The passage from Madras to the Sand Heads was fairly fine, and we arrived at the pilot brig about nine o'clock on a Sunday forenoon. The Calcutta pilots at that time were great Burra Sahibs; no Spanish Grandee, Indian Potentate, or Chinese Mandarin, could be compared with them and the dignified airs they put on. One would imagine when one of those pilots came on board that he was the Lord of Creation.

Since 1883 [when he started apprentice] I have visited mostly every country in the world, and during all my travels I never came across a man I could compare to one of those white nabobs. He came alongside with a boatload of baggage, which took the crew some time to haul up the ship's side. With his pure white gloves, solo topee [not ‘solar’ but ‘sola’ or ‘shola’ from the Hindi name of a plant, and ‘topi’, a hat.], and immaculate white suit, he was very pleased with himself. He was accompanied by his leadsman and his servant whom he called “boy” - generally an old man with a long grey beard, who had to stand at attention nearly all the time. He (the pilot) expected everybody on board to kow-tow to him - even the captain of the vessel. He was not long on board before he called out, “Boy, boy, brandy and sowda low.” His leadsman was an apprentice pilot who had put in a couple of years as a cadet in the Conway or Worcester, and if he had not a long pedigree he was despised by the others. The Calcutta pilots in the early eighties were not above taking a gratuity, although it was against the rules. They were stationed on board smart little brigs, off the Sand Heads, which could be manoeuvred very easily. They could back and fill and turn round almost within their own length.

Calcutta was still a very sickly port at that time, with cholera, smallpox, malaria, jungle fever, diarrhoea, and dysentery. I had the misfortune to go down with cholera, which came on very suddenly. The pain is terrific, and after a short time the patient becomes delirious and cannot straighten himself out, but must lie with his knees drawn up towards his chin. My case most probably would have been serious if it had not been taken in time. Being a passenger ship we carried a doctor, who was on the spot as soon as I became ill. Calcutta River (Hooghly) was responsible for a large amount of illness on board ships at this particular time. The health authorities recommended that ships' awnings should be laced to the rails during the night, so that the crews would not be exposed to the night haze and dampness off the river.

It was nothing unusual to see a dozen bodies of human beings floating past during the day, and a vulture feasting on each. Those vultures are very large birds of a dark brown colour, are the Scavengers of the river - like the street dogs in Constantinople - and have a voracious manner of eating. The bodies often got doubled up across ships' cables and hung there for some time, until the crew pushed them clear, when they again continued their journey down the river with the tide. It was therefore no wonder that cholera was so prevalent in Calcutta.

Boys going to Calcutta for the first time often fall victims to cholera through drinking cheap lemonade with a piece of ice in it. The boys get thirsty through walking about the streets on a hot evening and get drinking this trashy stuff from a native lemonade shop. The boys like it, it is fine and sweet, and the lump of ice makes it cool and refreshing. It was the Calcutta lemonade which gave me cholera. Any stranger going to an Indian port should avoid drinking any kind of native drinks - even clean water is dangerous if taken to excess. Fruit in those days was always a carrier of cholera and smallpox through being handled by so many people before reaching the consumer.

The white men treated the natives very badly at this time. Ships' officers and seamen used to treat the coolies working on board most brutally. The coolie had to work ten hours a day on board a ship for the magnificent sum of half a rupee (one shilling) per day. They were chased around, kicked, and sworn at by ships' officers and foremen stevedores. We had a considerable amount of heavy iron pipes and girders on board which required skilful handling, under the supervision of a West Indian negro, who mauled the poor coolies most unmercifully. Sailormen on shore also treated the natives very badly.

My recollection of Dum bears no resemblance to Mason's description of a Hooghly Pilot. Whether he was the exception that proved the rule or had merely mellowed with time is beyond my ken.


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