Capt. Arthur David LINKLATER

HAZARDS OF THE HOOGHLY (vii)

With slight adaptations from an article by Peter Crookston in the Observer colour supplement 13 June 1982 in a series on ‘Great Rivers of the World’.

On the wall of his den there are photographs of him being led in on his horse Sir Galahad after winning a gentleman's event in the forties. There is also a picture of the old pilot vessel Lady Fraser, in which he survived a 140 mph cyclone in 1942 that blew the bridge wing off its mounting, stove in the wheelhouse windows and drove them ashore in the Saugor Roads where the Hooghly meets the Bay of Bengal. As they pounded on the bottom in the surf, people were running in all directions. Three pilots were injured, one of whom had half his scalp hanging off and was bleeding heavily. They plied him with whisky an anaesthetic while Captain Brice sewed it back on, using the ship's first aid kit. The chief engineer made a tourniquet from a length of copper wire which he wrapped around the unfortunate pilot's head, with a twist at the back to keep it tight. Somehow they all survived the terrible cyclone, and floated off the sandbank on the next tide. As they steamed up river for repairs they passed floating islands of corpses, people and animals, drowned when the storm flooded the delta.

Captain Brice, who looks the soul of sobriety and fitness, confirmed for me that the pre-breakfast cocktails were a tradition of the British pilots. "Yes, we liked a drink when we were at sea. As soon as I woke up in the morning my bearer would bring me a gin and ginger beer, not a cup of tea. But of course we were living in the finest conditions you could think of, far from the heat and dirt of Calcutta. It was a marvellous life."

To meet Captain Brice was to find the epilogue to the saga of the Hooghly and its pilotage. He worked the river in its greatest days, when Calcutta was the second-largest city of the British Empire.

The men he trained are still living the marvellous life he remembers, but there is a touch of melancholy about it now; a feeling that it may not last forever. Fewer big ships come to Calcutta these days. The new container port at Haldia, near the river entrance has creamed off the largest cargo carriers; constant labour disputes among the militant dockers of Calcutta make many owners reluctant to send their ships to the port. No matter how skilled the pilots, or how much their past work has contributed to the prosperity of India, factors over which they have no control may force their proud service into extinction.

Future generations may not know what it was that made them so special. If the Hooghly finally silts up as more and more of its water is diverted for irrigation, and if Calcutta as a great port ceases to function, they may not remember how hard it was to keep this extraordinary waterway navigable for so many hundreds of years.

A paragraph of Kipling might remind them; "Almost any pilot will tell you that his work is more difficult than you imagine, but the pilots of the Hooghly know that they have 100 miles of the most difficult river on earth running through their hands, and they say nothing."


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© 2018 Duncan Linklater