The 31st in Bengal

The 31st Regiment’s introduction to life in the Bengal Army was not an auspicious one. History does not relate why the regiment was required to move by water from Calcutta to Dinapore, near Patna, some 400 miles up the River Ganges at a season when the river level was low and shallows greatly extended. Perhaps its accommodation was needed for units returning from the Burma War which was coming to an end. Possibly it was the last move in a sequence planned for the cold season which was well advanced. Perhaps it was just administrative inefficiency. Whatever the reason, it was unfortunate that the regiment had to set out in February 1826 having only come together a few months earlier after moving from Berhampore north of Calcutta to Fort William to the south of the city.

It was the time of the year when the direct route to the Ganges by the Hoogley River was impassable as it was too shallow to permit the passage of boats of any size, and it was necessary for flotillas proceeding up country first to go south toward the sea for a considerable distance before passing into the Ganges proper by way of the Sundarbans, an area of waterways, swamp, and tiger-infested jungle.

The regiment was encamped on the glacis of Fort William, close to the water-front; but it took a whole month from the date on which the order for the move was given before the boats could be obtained. The officers were obliged to supply their own, and those for the rank and file were impressed by the commissariat. The crews were unwilling and the boats, for the most part, faulty. When at last a sufficient number of boats had been assembled, many of the crews absconded, and a great deal of valuable time was lost in rounding them up, or in procuring others. It was the custom for regiments changing station to take all their possessions with them, and as many camp followers as were able to do so went along as well. It was also the custom of the commissariat to spend as little as possible on soldiers and their families.

The fleet eventually numbered some 300 craft of all sizes. The 16-oared “budgerow” which drew about two feet of water was the largest, and most of them had thatched roofs. The regiment went off by companies, the head of each one marked by a large flag, with the hospital, under a broad back pennant, bringing up the rear. It was not an orderly embarkation. One of the 31st officers later described the scene:

“Budgerows, horse-boats, baggage boats, cook-boats, hospital-boats and soldier-boats. Every officer had a sort of Noah’s ark attached to his budgerow, and the uproar to fill it with its various animals was terrible; unwilling horses and obstinate cows, with goats and sheep running in all quarters; men, women and children, in all colours and costumes; carriages, gigs, palanquins, coops of poultry, ducks, geese and turkeys, scattered about, cackling and hissing with all their might. Until we were fairly launched I do not think any person seemed to be perfectly possessed of his judgment.”

As the procession of boats made its way through the ramifications of the delta it had frequently to pass long strings of barges carrying wood from the Sundarbans jungle to Calcutta; and nothing that the officers could do prevented the crews from pilfering the timber, greatly to the indignation both of the owners and the local inhabitants. At night the boats were tied to the bank as close together as possible. On the first night two of the boatmen strayed into the jungle and were not seen again, carried off, it was supposed, by the tigers. The incident proved to be a deterrent for others who might have felt inclined to abandon the voyage. After a while the course lay through a labyrinth of creeks, lakes, and tidal mud flats. A score of boats at a time were often entangled in overhanging branches, and progress was tortuously slow. It was thirteen days before the Ganges was reached and passengers could land and stretch their legs - as long a time as might have been taken to sail from England to Gibraltar.

Progress up the Ganges continued to be slow. The water was so shallow that the boats were frequently aground and hundreds of boatmen were in the water at a time struggling to get them afloat again. Occasionally they came upon parties of Europeans beating the jungle for game and at times the 31st officers made up their own shooting parties. It was often a matter of hours before the rearmost boats closed up into their stations for the night. Each one as it arrived was moored in its allotted place, and immediately they were all reported present the troops, women and children would scramble out and run along the shore.

The soldiers’ and families’ accommodation in the boats was crowded and the provision for the sick was little better. Cholera appeared - it would have been surprising in those days had it not - and casualties were heavy, not only among the soldiers and their families, but among the native followers. When the latter died their bodies were thrown overboard, or deposited on the river bank, there to be eaten by the vultures and jackals that for days had been accompanying the convoy. The British dead were given a more decent burial in such graves as could hastily be scooped in the sand. .Every boat on board which a person fell sick was required to make for the nearest budgerow where an officer would administer a wine glass of “cholera mixture” the main ingredients of which were laudanum and brandy. The moment the draught had been swallowed the sufferers appeared to rally somewhat, and their boat dropped quietly back to the hospital. But as the disease was not recognised as contagious no effort was made at segregation, and it was thought that the cholera mixture saved many lives.

 

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