These days, the impatient visitors stream through on noisy trains and tour buses, scanning the horizon and stopping for quick refreshments at the rest-houses that line the Indian coast. Armed with costly cameras and cellphones, the travellers search their screens, seeking to snap that special shot, while savouring the spectacular sunsets and spending some seconds staring at the slanted light shimmering across the endless expanse of softly rippling water. Families take the drive down from nearby Kolkata, at weekends, to linger at a popular beach.
Crumbling remnants of Chingrikhali, a once proud Portuguese fort are fast tumbling into the cloudy sea and except for the little red and white-striped lighthouse standing on the eastern bank, there is almost nothing left to impress the sightseers or suggest the scattered broken slabs and silent ruins served as a strategic stronghold supported by several underground rooms, booming cannons and a bustling West Bengal warehouse.
Where pirates previously roamed in the world’s largest delta of the Sundarbans, straddling Bangladesh and India, the cruise boats drift by lazily. The Rupnarayan tributary joins this part of the Ganges called the Hooghly, as the mighty river bends south and widens, boosted by another branch, the Haldi further down. In autumn, there are major festivals dedicated to the beloved Mother Goddesses Durga and Laxshmi.
Every mid-January, the pilgrims still arrive by the hundreds of thousands to take a holy dip into the sacred waters off the rapidly shrinking Sagar Island nearby, at the confluence of the Ganges and the Bay of Bengal. They offer prayers or puja in the temple to mark one of Hinduism’s oldest celebrations, Makar Sankranti, signalling the end of the winter solstice and the first day of the sun’s transit into the new month of Makara and the start of longer days. Home to some 160,000 people, the vulnerable Sagar, is being battered by the extreme effects of climate change ranging from coastal erosion and fast-rising seas to unpredictable tidal surges, and violent cyclones. Several islands have already disappeared under the waves.
Earlier known as Hajipur, the locality was renamed Diamond Harbour by the ambitious British colonisers who came to these parts with their East India Company seeking fine jewels and certain conquests, and bringing fleets of large ocean-going vessels.
Now, most of the modern throngs quickly move on from the small town whose fortunes have turned with the tides of time, its significance in the 19th century international labour trade all but lost to local history. There are no picturesque piers or jetties to jump on and the depths of the waterway have receded, as the river is far too heavily silted up for much else than the feisty fishermen and their flimsy boats searching for the prized if polluted hilsa shad, a type of herring.
Back in 1838, when Captain James Swinton was ordered to sail the freshly-built “Whitby” chartered barque from Calcutta to Diamond Harbour, the powerful Surgeon-Superintendent, Dr. A.S.Wiseman was none too happy. Given the responsibility of inspecting and certifying the first set of “young, active, able-bodied people” taken aboard the “Whitby” and its’ sister vessel, the “Hesperus”, as ordered by the businessman, John Gladstone and his friends to toil as indentured labourers on sugar plantations in British Guiana, the doctor was determined to fill the ship.
Calcutta Superintendent of Police, F. W. Birch had warned the organising agents, Gillanders, Arbuthnot & Company on January 1, 1838 that “the space allotted for the Coolies is not sufficient for 300 men, taking into consideration the protracted voyage to Demerara.”
Following an inspection on Old Year’s Day, Birch advised the mercantile firm’s partner, J. Jackson, “If you could remove the bags of rice, etc. now stowed between decks, the space would be sufficiently enlarged, and the ventilation would be better than it now is; it must be of consequence to you to ensure the health of the men shipped, independent of considerations of humanity; and as the ship is, I understand, intended to touch at the Cape (of Good Hope), the quantity of rice might be reduced; in any case it would be better to diminish the cargo, stowing the provisions in the hold only, and thereby ensure
sufficient room and ventilation for the men than run the risk of their arriving in shattered health, or their dying on the passage.”
In a letter to Andrew Colville, the proprietor of the Bellevue Estate, in West Demerara who had hired him and part financed the shipment. Wiseman acknowledged, “As you were pleased to leave to my discretion the number I might think proper to take, I determined on embarking 250 men, leaving room for a limited number of women and children. From some years’ experience 1 considered I might take this quantity with the utmost safety, the ship being large, and the (area) ‘between decks’ particularly commodious and well ventilated.”
“After some difficulty and delay we received the first of the people on the 2nd January” but “on the 6th your Agents considered it necessary to send the ship to Dimond (sic) Harbour (eighty miles off). Against this step I strongly remonstrated, as it would leave those on board without medical assistance in case of sickness, while it would enable the man employed by Messrs. Gellanders (sic) & Co. to send any person on board he might think proper.” He declared, “My fears were not without foundation; Twenty-six were sent down part of them I never saw at Calcutta; part I had refused to take under any pretence whatever…”
Complaining “some were old and infirm” and “others appeared to have been diseased for years” Wiseman felt “none of them were capable of performing a day’s work.” While “it might have been expected that on finding out the imposition I should have had them re-landed but the ship was lying in a most unhealthy situation; disease was spreading fast both amongst the ship’s company (crew) and the coolies; the time required would have been at least ten days;” so “under these circumstances I considered it for the safety of the persons entrusted to my care, as well as for the interests of those for whom I was concerned, to proceed to sea immediately.”
Held up for at least ten days in the mouth of the 160-mile long treacherous Hooghly River, the boat ended up having to wait at Mud Point, on the northern side of Sagar Island, with the experienced Master River-Pilot, John Dyer at the helm. He would later testify that “there were by far too many Coolies on board for the size of the vessel (350 tons), having I think from 270 to 280 on board, besides their crew, with a rice cargo underneath, particularly so, being on so long a voyage within the tropics the greater part of the time.”
Wiseman revealed, “We sailed from Dimond Harbour on the 13th January, but it was not till the 23rd that we cleared the Sand Heads (having been detained by calms for eight days at Mud Point), and arrived at Berbice (British Guiana) on the (5)th May, with the loss of eight men on the passage.” Some 267 migrants including 129 so called “Hill coolies” were on the “Whitby” which listed seven women and 10 children, immediate families of the enlisted men.
Wiseman said, “With reference to the sickness on board, on joining the ship at Dimond Harbour, I found bowel complaints very prevalent, which increased to an alarming extent during our detention in the River. This I attributed to the sudden change of diet, from their being almost in a state of starvation to enjoying an ample supply (of food), as well as the unhealthy position in which we were unfortunately placed.”
However, “on getting to sea, the sickness gradually left us, and the people soon improved in health and appearance, with the exception of the unfortunate persons already alluded to, who were foisted upon me at Dimond Harbour, and a few cases of fever. After getting into a northern latitude there was not a single case of serious illness from the Sand Heads to the West Indies. Agreeable to your instructions, I procured for them the best provisions the market afforded, the quantity allowed to each being more than they could consume.”
“The strictest attention was paid to cleanliness; the decks were well washed and scrubbed daily, and either fumigated with Muriatic Acid Gas or sprinkled with Chloride of Lime; the people washed and oiled their persons generally every day, and washed their clothes twice weekly,” he said.
Maintaining that “no trouble was spared by Captain Swinton or myself to render them comfortable, nor could any persons be more happy and contented than while they were under my charge,” he insisted that “during the three months that I remained in the West Indies they expressed themselves satisfied with their situation, and the treatment they received.”
Most likely close relatives of those already on board, the 26 old men left Diamond Harbour and India forever, with seven dying during the 11,000-mile journey, another seven dispatched to Plantations Highbury and Waterloo up the murky Berbice River, and 12 landed at Colville’s notorious Bellevue Estate in Demerara.
ID realises it was due to the “Whitby’s” fateful set-back at Sagar Island, that the “Hesperus” managed to also reach BG’s muddy shores on the night of May 5, 1838, mere hours after the smaller barque sailed into sight.