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No. 423. NEW SERIES. SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 7, 1852. PRICE 1-1/2 _d._


Three years ago, I received orders to proceed from Kur√Ęchee to Roree
by the river route, for the purpose of joining the siege-train then
assembling for the reduction of Mooltan. Subsequent events caused my
final destination to be changed to Sukkur. Although my journey was
thus not so long as I had both expected and wished, yet I had an
opportunity of seeing some three or four hundred miles of a river that
the records of the past, and the anticipations of the future, alike
combine to render interesting, and which in itself differs in many
respects from the other rivers of India. My position in life - that of
a non-commissioned officer of the ordnance department - has prevented
me from gleaning information on the subject, either from books or
official sources; but it may be that a narration of what I merely
_saw_, will not prove altogether without interest for those who must
run while they read - who have neither time, nor perhaps inclination,
to acquire any more than a superficial knowledge of distant countries.

Having been provided with a passage in one of the steamers of the
Indus flotilla, and informed that the vessel was to start at daybreak
on the following morning, I hastened to procure the necessary
documents to authorise my obtaining ten days' sea-rations from the
commissariat department. The following was the proportion of food for
each day, and I may remark, that I received it from government gratis,
with the exception of the spirits, as I was proceeding on
field-service: - 1 lb. of biscuits, 1 lb. of salt beef or pork, 1-4th
of 1 lb. of rice, 1 oz. and 2-7ths of sugar, 5-7ths of 1 oz. of tea,
and 2 drams, or about 1-4th of a bottle of arrack, 24 degrees under
proof. Having secured the provant, my mind was now perfectly at ease,
and I leisurely set about completing my arrangements for the voyage.
These consisted mainly in locking my only box, and tying up in a
cotton quilt a blanket and the thick sheet of goat's-hair-felt that
served me for a bed. It was dark before I left camp; and as I was
detained a considerable time at the _bunder_ or landing-place, waiting
for a boat to take me off to the steamer, it was late in the night
when I got on board.

The steam-boat was about the size of the largest of those that ply
above bridge on the Thames. When I had scrambled on deck, I found that
the forepart of the vessel was crowded with the bodies of natives,
every one of whom was testifying the soundness of his repose by notes
both loud and deep. Having selected the only spot where there was room
even to sit down, I began, in a somewhat high key, to warble a lively
strain calculated to cheer the drooping spirits of such of my
neighbours as had that evening undergone the pang of parting from
their friends. This proceeding soon had the effect of drawing all eyes
upon me, and, indeed, not a few of the tongues also; for the now
thoroughly awakened sleepers - with great want of taste - growled out,
at the expense both of myself and of my performance, sundry
maledictions, with a fervency peculiar to the country, until at length
I may say I was clad with curses as with a garment. At this juncture,
I took out of my provision-bag a remarkably fine piece of pork, and
began to contemplate it by the light of the moon with the critical eye
of a connoisseur. The reader is no doubt aware, that among the natives
of India the popular prejudice does not run in favour of this
wholesome article of food; and perhaps to this fact I must attribute
it that the surrounding Mussulmans and Hindoos became wondrously
polite all on a sudden, and left a wide circle vacant around me, so
that I had ample room to make down my bed; nor was I disturbed from a
hearty sleep till the morning.

At daybreak, I was aroused by the crew getting up the anchor: in a few
minutes, the head of the 'fire-boat,' as my dusky neighbours termed
it, was turned down the coast, and on we went, steaming, smoking, and
splashing, after the most orthodox fashion of fire-boats in general. I
had now time and opportunity to look around me. Every available spot
of the deck and paddle-boxes of the small, flat-bottomed iron steamer,
was crowded with as motley a set of passengers as ever sailed since
the days of Captain Noah. Sepoys returning from furlough to join their
regiments; lascars, or enlisted workmen belonging to the different
civil branches of the army; and camp-followers in all their varieties,
were everywhere squatted on their haunches, and although muffled up to
their eyes in wrappers of cotton-cloth, were all looking miserably
cold from the sharpness of the morning breeze. The crew consisted of
about twenty sailors - half of whom were Europeans, and evidently
picked hands. Under the influence of good pay, fresh provisions
without stint, sleeping all night in their hammocks, and constant
change of scene, they were as healthy-looking and good-humoured a lot
of seamen as I had ever met with. Their principal employment seemed to
be to take their turn at the wheel; and as the natives performed most
of the little work that was to be done in a vessel of this
description, carrying no sails, I presume they were entertained only
with the view of manning the two small howitzers and half-a-dozen
swivel-guns, in case our little craft should find it necessary to shew
her teeth. The remaining portion of the men were even finer specimens
of humanity than the Europeans. With the exception of two tall, bony
Scindians, they were all Seedies, or negroes, and there was not one
among them that might not have served as a model for a Hercules. Their
huge bodies presented an appearance of massiveness and immense
strength; and the enormous muscles had even more than the prominence
we find in some statues, but so seldom meet with in men of these
effeminate times. These particulars were the more easily noted, as
their style of costume, in the daytime at least, approached very
closely to nudity. But their size was as nothing to their appetites;
and deep and vasty as their internal accommodations must have been, it
remains a matter of perplexity to me to this day to determine by what
mysterious process they managed to stow away one-half of what they
devoured. I have repeatedly watched one of these overgrown animals
seat himself before a wooden trencher, some three-quarters of a yard
broad, and clear from it, as if by magic, a mess piled up to the
greatest capacity of the vessel, and consisting of rice, garnished at
the top with a couple of pounds or so of curried meat or fish; after
which, glaring around him in a hungry and dissatisfied manner,
calculated to raise unpleasant sensations in a nervous bystander, he
would sullenly catch hold of the hookah common to the party, and seek
to deaden his appetite by swallowing down long and repeated draughts
of tobacco-smoke, until the tears came into his eyes, and he was
forced to desist by a paroxysm of coughing.

Among the passengers, there were two or three persons of my own
standing, and on the quarter-deck a small group of officers, one of
whom was accompanied by his wife. The lady had certainly no reason to
grumble at the inattention of her companions. The fair sex, although
much more plentiful at the time I speak of than ten years ago, was
still rather scarce in these parts, ladies being few and far between
in the stations beyond Kur√Ęchee. With a praiseworthy desire to make
the most of the honour, the skipper was bustling about, giving all
sorts of orders that might in any way conduce to the comfort of his
fair passenger, and apparently in a state of mental agony when a
momentary turn of the vessel would render the awning and screens
ineffectual in preserving her from a chance ray of the sun. Two young
subalterns were tumbling over one another in the anxious endeavour to
be the first to bring a footstool; a couple of their seniors were
standing by, rubbing their hands and smiling blandly, to keep their
minds in a fit state for the perpetration of a compliment on the first
possible occasion; while even the grim old major was trying very hard
to unbend: not that it was a part of his principles to be particularly
gallant to the ladies, but as he was going to a place where he might
not have the advantage of seeing any of them for some years, and would
thus run the chance of growing rusty, he thought he might as well keep
his hand in while he had the opportunity.

After running down the coast till the sun became so uncomfortably hot
as to render an awning over the whole vessel an indispensable
necessary, we suddenly struck into one of the many creeks with which
the Delta of the Indus is everywhere interlaced. The vessel did not
answer her helm well; and as the breadth of the stream did not much
exceed her length, we were for some time running ashore, first on one
bank, and then on the opposite one. However, as the banks were steep,
and composed of a mixture of sand and mud, we were not so much delayed
by these accidents as might have been expected; for after grounding
with a shock sufficient to floor any one unused to the navigation of
the Indus, the tough little craft would slide back of her own accord
into her proper element, and go ahead again as if nothing had
happened. The first time this took place, I was sent on my beam-ends,
and was not a little alarmed into the bargain; but the crew seemed to
take it as a matter of course, and in reply to my anxious inquiries as
to the extent of damage that had been occasioned, they informed me
that she had only brushed the cobwebs off her keel. On entering the
creek, we startled large flocks of wild geese and ducks; and here and
there a pair of pelicans, after gazing at us for a few seconds, would
slowly wing their way to some more sequestered stream, unprofaned by
noisy, smoky civilisation.

As we continued on our course, the landscape - a level plain, that
stretched away for miles till it met the horizon - was covered with
camels grazing upon tamarisk-bushes, which, with a few mangostans, an
occasional specimen of acanthus, and a coarse and scanty herbage, were
the only specimens of the vegetable kingdom that met our gaze. The
scene during the remainder of the afternoon was the same, the monotony
being relieved only when we stopped for half an hour to take a supply
of wood from a large pile collected on the bank for this purpose, and
thus had an opportunity of stretching our legs on _terra firma_. At
dusk, the steam-boat was run ashore, the steam blown off, and here we
were to remain for the night. The natives immediately rushed on shore,
and began preparing fires to cook their provisions. The ship's cook
had already supplied me with a cup, or rather a tin pot of tea; but as
the growing coolness of the evening, and the example of my neighbours,
rather encouraged my appetite, I resolved to make a second edition of
my evening meal, and accordingly took under my arm the copper canteen
which formed the sum-total of my culinary apparatus - the lid being my
only plate or dish - and furnished with a supply of tea, sugar, cold
meat, and biscuit, made my way to a spot a short distance off, where I
might take my food on the solitary system, according to the custom
that we Englishmen most delight in. When I had lighted the fire, and
put the water on to boil, I cast myself on the ground, and
complacently puffing away at my pipe, gazed at the wild but
picturesque scene before me. The position of the river was marked out
by a semicircle of some fifty or sixty fires, before which dark and
ill-defined figures were ever and anon flitting like phantoms; while,
in the midst, the funnel of the steam-boat loomed tall and black above
the veil of smoke that hung around - like some dark and horrid object
Of heathen idolatry surrounded by its sacrificial fires. The sounds
that met my ear, however, dispelled this somewhat fanciful idea; for
in the stillness of the night voices grow distinct, while forms are
indebted to the imagination for filling up their outlines.

The native passengers, who had remained, silent and dull, in a
constrained position during the whole of the day, felt a load taken
off their spirits as soon as they set foot on dry land; and in a trice
the silence that had hitherto reigned was broken by a very Babel of
tongues, among which could be distinguished the guttural jargon of the
Scindian, the bastard dialect of Mahratti, of the Hindoo from the
Deccan, and the ungrammatical _patois_ of Hindostani, which - although,
when exclusively used, it marked out the Mussulman - was yet the
_lingua franca_ of the whole party; but amidst the unceasing torrent
of words, little could be distinguished, save when the ear was saluted
with an outburst of nature's universal and unvaried language in the
shape of a light-hearted laugh. By and by, my attention became
directed, by an occasional shout of merriment, to a group of Seedies
clustered round a fire near me. Negroes in this country are much the
same as in other parts of the World - a happy, easily-contented race,
forgetful of the past, and careless of the future. After keeping up
their noisy confabulation for some time, they removed to a level spot
close to where I was lying: one of them squatted down on the ground,
and commenced singing to the music of a sort of tambourine, that he
beat with the flat of his hand; and the others at once formed a
circle, and commenced a rude dance, which had probably been brought
by themselves or their fathers from the shores of Eastern Africa. The
air was at first low and monotonous, the time seeming to be more
studied than any variation of the tune; but after some minutes a few
notes in a higher key were occasionally introduced, giving the music a
strangely wild and melancholy character. The dance consisted
principally of low jumps, each foot being alternately advanced in
strict time with the music. Sometimes the dancers joined hands; again
they would pass into one another's places, until they had made the
circuit of the ring; and every now and then, in going through these
movements, they would leap completely round, apparently without an
effort, but as a natural consequence of the momentum produced by the
celerity of their motions, and the weight of their huge bodies. The
whole affair was gone through in a serious and business-like manner,
unusual in the negro. How long I watched them I cannot say; but it
seemed to me as if they went on for hours without slackening the pace,
or moving one muscle of their countenances, until my eyes became heavy
with looking at them. At length, the figures appeared to grow dim, and
among them I thought I recognised faces of friends then many thousands
of miles from me, and forms that the earth had long before covered
over. A death-like chill came over me: by a sudden impulse, I rushed
forward, and awoke. With bewildered feelings, I rose on my elbow, and
gazed around. The moon had risen; her cold, clear light making every
object near me either startlingly distinct, or else a mass of dark
shade, while a deep and solemn silence reigned around. All had
vanished - the singer and the dancers - the flaming, sparkling, roaring
fires, and the noisy groups around them; and I might have imagined
that I had awaked to find myself in another world, had it not been for
the heap of black ashes beside me, and the dark outline of the
steam-boat in the distance. I arose, stiff, cold, and drowsy, and
tucking my kitchen under my arm, slowly wended my way on board.

However, there must be an end to all things; and on the third day, we
emerged from the dreary net-work of creeks, and entered into the open
Indus. The scenery still remained much the same. Here and there,
beacons were erected, but they were only of temporary use, for the
channel of the river alters almost every year. The breadth of the
stream varies with the rise of the water consequent on the melting of
the snow on the distant mountains, among which it takes its source. At
Sukkur, it is as broad as the Thames at Blackwall; and nearly two
hundred miles lower down, it is sometimes found of no greater breadth;
while in other spots it spreads into a lake some two or three miles
across, depending upon the level of the surrounding country and the
rise of the river. Scinde has been called Young Egypt, from the
general resemblance of the physical features of the two countries, and
the fact, that the existence of an only river in each is the sole
cause of an immense tract of territory being prevented from becoming
throughout a parched and unprofitable desert. In Upper Scinde, there
are very rarely more than three or four showers in the year, and the
cultivator has to depend entirely upon the overflow of the river for
the growth of his crops, in the same way as the fellah of Egypt is
saved from famine by the annual inundation of the Nile. In Fort
Bukkur, there is a gauge on which the height of the river is
registered, in a similar manner to that of the celebrated one in
Egypt; and the news of the rise or fall of a few inches, is received
by the Scindians with an eager interest, not a little strange to those
who are unaware that such petty fluctuations determine whether a
nation shall feast or starve for the next twelve months. It is
pleasing to add, that there are hopes of a change for the better in
this state of uncertainty of obtaining the necessities of life, which,
in a case like this, where so little depends upon the energy of single
members of the community, acts as a sure check upon the progress of
civilisation. Canals, excavated at a time when all India was one vast
empire, but since choked up and fallen into ruins, have been cleaned
and repaired, and new ones projected. A late order of government has
led the way to the Indus being constituted, instead of the Ganges, the
highway from Europe to the fertile and important provinces of
North-Western Hindostan. Commerce, in the pride of her prosperity,
grows nice about her roads, and she will soon take the Indus in hand,
and put a stop to its little irregularities. Mere art, perhaps, could
do but little to remove the impediments to the navigation of this
immense river. This end could only be obtained by taking advantage of
the natural causes which have made a deep channel in one part and a
shoal out a few yards lower down. Dame Nature, like dames in general,
may be easily led if we can only persuade her that she is acting of
her own accord.

On we went, steaming, and smoking, and splashing more than ever,
buffeting against the muddy-looking stream, which, however, was
sometimes too much for us, so that we were fain to take advantage of
the still waters or back-current near the banks. The river being low
at this season, we ran aground, in spite of all the care of our
Scindian pilot and the Seedic leadsman, often enough to have wrecked a
moderately-sized navy. The leadsman was a rather pompous individual,
duly impressed with the importance of his position, in having charge
of the deep-sea line, which was something short of two fathoms in
length. He was stationed at the bows, and ever and anon proclaimed
aloud the depth of water in language that he fondly believed to be
English. As we dashed along in one fathom water, he seemed perfectly
at his ease, and drew the small lead from the river, and again tossed
it before him with a studied grace, turning round occasionally, with
an air of affected indifference, to read admiration in our eyes. As
the water shoaled to four feet, his brow contracted and his motions
were quickened; when it became three feet, he hurled the lead into the
water, as the gambler dashes down his last dice; and at last, as we
grazed on the tail of a hank, it was almost with a shriek that he
yelled out, _'Doo foots_!' But our hour had not yet come; and as the
water deepened to beyond the four yards that formed the extent of his
line, he assumed his former dignified ease, and leisurely made known
that there was 'No bot-t-a-a-m!' - an announcement which, although
gratifying in one respect, was yet somewhat startling.

But we did not always escape in this manner. Not to speak of minor
mischances, on one occasion we stuck hard and fast for twenty-four
hours, in spite of every attempt to extricate ourselves. Here was a
predicament for the captain! He had received instructions to make the
greatest speed on his trip; his passengers were all burning with
impatience lest they should be too late to acquire glory and
prize-money - the prize-money at all events; the military stores on
board were urgently required at Mooltan; and, worse than all, the lady
began to pout! This was the climax of his misfortune; and the skipper,
growing desperate, swore a mighty oath that if the obstinate little
craft would not swim through the water, she should walk over the land,
and we should see who would get tired of it first. Accordingly, an
anchor was carried forward to a spot some forty yards off, where the
water was deeper; the greater part of the passengers were made to jump
overboard, without even going through the formality of walking the
plank; while the remainder manned the capstan-bars. The chain-cable
tightened, the capstan creaked, and the paddles dashed round; but we
did not stir an inch till the natives, who had been so unceremoniously
turned overboard, began to apply the pressure from without, when,
amidst shouts and yells, and curses in a dozen different languages, we
slid along the surface of the bank until we reached a deeper channel.
The outside passengers then scrambled on board, and again we darted
on; while the captain took snuff with the triumphant air of a man who
was not to be trifled with, and informed the lady confidentially that
she (the steam-boat) was not a bad little craft after all, but it did
not do to let her have her own way altogether.

Let it now suffice to say, that the amphibious steam-boat carried us
to Sukkur in rather less than three weeks - our voyage in some respects
resembling the midnight journey of the demon horseman -

'Tramp, tramp across the land we ride;
Splash, splash across the sea!'

Glad we were when a bend of the river shewed us the island and
picturesque fort of Bukkur, apparently blocking up all further
progress; the left bank being studded with the white bungalows of
Sukkur, half-hidden in clumps of date-trees; while the right was
clothed to the water's edge with the bright green foliage of the
gardens of Roree.


In an age of many books, there must needs be some, highly worthy of
attention, with which the general reading-public will be but
imperfectly acquainted. Though probably known to many of our readers,
we think it likely that the writings of Mr Helps are yet unknown to
many others, who might profit by the study of them, and more or less
appreciate their excellence. Under this conviction, it is proposed to
notice them in the present pages; and we have little doubt of being
able to substantiate their claims to consideration. To readers who
require of a book something more than mere amusement, or a passing
satisfaction to their curiosity; who have any regard or relish for
independent thinking - for an enlarged observation of human life - for
the results of study and experience - for practical sense and wisdom,
and a general understanding and appreciation of the varied motives,
ways, and interests of men and of society - these volumes cannot fail
to prove delightful and profitable reading.

All Mr Helps's writings have been published anonymously; and it is
only within the last two years that he has become known, out of his
own circle, to be the author. His earliest publications were, _Essays
written in the Intervals of Business_, and _An Essay on the Duties of
the Employers to the Employed_, otherwise entitled _The Claims of
Labour_. He has also published a work in two volumes under the title
of _The Conquerors of the New World and their Bondsmen_; a historical
narrative of the principal events which led to negro slavery in the
West Indies and America. But the books from his pen with which we are
best acquainted, and which have obtained the largest measure of public
attention, are a series of essays intermixed with dialogues, called
_Friends in Council_, and a supplementary volume, somewhat different

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Online LibraryVariousChambers's Edinburgh Journal, No. 423 Volume 17, New Series, February 7, 1852 → online text (page 1 of 5)