Monday, November 11, 2013

Sir Rowland Macdonald Stephenson and Calcutta Railways

Sir Rowland Macdonald Stephenson is a name familiar to most railway enthusiasts in Calcutta. Or is it? Just to be sure: he was the first Managing Director of the East India Railway Company, which was founded in 1845 and is responsible for the first railway lines connecting the Eastern and Northern parts of India. The first train to run in India, as we of the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education learnt from our history books, covered a distance of roughly 21 miles in little less than an hour, between Bombay and Thane. In 1845 London-based publishers Kelly & Co. brought out a Report upon the Practicability and Advantages of the Introduction of Railways into British India, with "copies of miscellaneous correspondence; and documents with plans and sketches in illustration" by R. Macdonald Stephenson, C.E. As the title page informs us, the author was also Associate and Corresponding Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and member of the Asiatic Society and of the Bengal Agricultural and Horticultural Society. Seems like a colourful chap.

The Government Gazette published on 24 August 1844 the correspondence (deemed to be of great public importance by the Deputy Governor of Bengal) between Stephenson and Fredrick James Halliday. Stephenson had written a letter in July 1844 pointing out the advantages of laying down rail tracks in British India. The Government, he says, would gain equally with the public, and "[t]hat the subject is one of paramount importance to the best interests of the country, and calculated in a military as well as a commercial point of view to be productive of the most beneficial results." He asks to what extent he can expect the support of Government in this regard. The capital, Stephenson claims, can be raised in London and he asks that the ground or land that will be required be granted, and that the Government appoint a proportion of the Directors. Like a paranoid student writing a research proposal he also clarifies certain points (paragraph no. 7, to be precise) five days after sending the first letter.

The Honourable Deputy Governor of Bengal informed him that it is not in his power to "authorise a Rail Road Company to treat for the purchase of land, as for a public object", but that he would be happy to help out with the legislative work if a company with sufficient capital were to be floated. (The Under-Secretary at the time was Cecil Beadon, lieutenant-governor of Bengal, after whom the street and the 'Row' were named.)

Several letters were exchanged between Stephenson and various eminent citizens of Calcutta. Some of the correspondents were engineers, some were members of the administration, and some capitalists. Baboo Mutty Loll Seal appears to be one of the few 'native' correspondents. In the letter 26 August 1844 he expresses unreserved enthusiasm for the project, declining, however, to become "one of a Local Committee of Management" for shortage of time. The Bengal Chamber of Commerce and the Calcutta Trader's Association responded positively too.

The correspondents offered more than just their opinions. By September 1844 Mutty Loll Seal had also mailed Stephenson a list of the estimated quantities of stable articles of commerce that were imported "into Calcutta from Hindostan", from both the west and the east of Ghazeepore. J. Macintosh of Messrs Burn & Co. would send him "eight specimens of country wood", namely Teak ("the best wood I know in any country"), Saul, Sissoo, Toon, Soondree, Red Jarroll, Gimiblar and Poon. A series of questions were answered by one Prince Dwarkanauth Tagore: "What is the extent of the present trade in coal between Burdwan and Calcutta, by the Damooda?" Reply: "About twenty lakhs of maunds. The present collieries are capable of producing fifty." "What quantity lost, stolen, or wasted in transitu?" Reply: "Twenty per cent at least." So on and forth. The following excerpt(s), which deal with means of travelling from Calcutta to Benares, I found particularly interesting.

So far so good. I think that we would all acknowledge with a certain degree of respect the good work that Stephenson had accomplished. But just when you're beginning to relax, to sit back and say, "Ah, here's a sensible fellow if I ever saw one", The Calcutta Review prompts you to review your judgement.

From the March 1856 issue comes an account of The World's Highway, published by John Weale in London. The publication is a collection of the correspondence (again!) between the aforementioned Stephension and various others whom he has entrapped in his wild scheme. Besides, the author provides a helpful framework and glowing encomium to Stephenson. I will sit back and quote happily.
This gentleman, whose biography will one day give to the world a new instance of what may be achieved by energy and purpose, had watched from 1835 the progress of international communication with the East. He had seen the long-continued and strenuous effort of the commercial world to accelerate the communication.
So what did Stephenson conceive of, that his energy and purpose may fulfil?
His idea was briefly this. He conceived it possible to girdle the world with an iron chain, to connect Europe and Asia from their furthest extremities by one colossal railway. A portion of this scheme is still too far in the future for us to do more than indicate its vastness. The remainder, all that falls within our scope, was to connect so much of the two continents as should enable a locomotive to travel from Calcutta to London with but two breaks, one at the Straits, and one at the Dardanelles.
Reminded me of Puck.
I'll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes. (A Midsummer Night's Dream, II.i)
৭ নম্বর আপ, হাওড়া-লন্ডন এক্সপ্রেস, ছাড়ছে ৯টা বেজে ৩০ মিনিট-এ। It is not an easy task, (you don't say!) for "[i]t crosses pathless deserts, passes regions inhabited only by tribes whose hand has been against every man since Ishmael became a warrior." The rhetoric is profoundly moving, and at a distance, comical. Take this passage for instance:
It was on these plains that the earliest of the great monarchies of the earth were founded. It was through them that Alexander marched to the conquest of the Asiatic world. They are, too, the scene of no insignificant portion of Biblical history. One-half of us when we hear of the Euphrates, think of the garden of Eden, of the flaming sword, off [sic] the four rivers which enclosed the dwelling-place of our first parents. The idea of a Railway through all this, of locomotives crossing the Euphrates, of embankments on the plains of Mesopotamia, of a station by the gates of Bagdad, of a Telegraph in the streets where good Haroun Alraschid wandered late, seems to most of us ludicrously incongruous.
...The world is but a little place after all, when viewed with the eyes of engineers instead of those of historians…A Railway from Athens to Sparta would not reach from Calcutta to Raneegunge.
Even more heart-warming is the solution the author offers to the minor problem of finding labour.
Even a Turk will work if he is well paid, and called an overseer…The climate is thoroughly invigorating, and with the slightest care even Europeans can be employed for seven months in the year in the open air. At all times they can do the work they perform in India, the task of superintendence. For actual labour, we have all the races on the shores of the great inland sea. Fellahs may be hired. Black labour may be purchased from the African coast, and in a few months, 200,000 labourers could be collected ion the Euphrates. For the Southern terminus, we have the men who are now working on the western lines of India, the labourers of Bombay and Cutch, Kattyawar, Guzerate, and Broach. The hordes of Chinese, moreover, who annually swarm off to California and Australia, to Siam and Singapore, can be as easily attracted to the Persian Gulf, and there are no better labourers in the world.
Stephenson's energy, however, is truly admirable. The reports of his travels and persuasions that are published can be used to trace his journey from Paris, to Austria, Germany, and Trieste. He met Prince Metternich, who, after a long interview, "at once understood full benefits to be obtained; promised his aid in all ways." He also went on to meet Prince Callimaki, the Turkish Ambassador in Paris, possibly Prince Schwartzenberg at Vienna, the King of France, and several other named and unnamed dignitaries.

May be it wasn't such a crazy plan after all. Perhaps it seems strange in the age of the aeroplane, when our notions of time and traversal of space have changed greatly. Even so, no harm in registering my own alarm! Let me conclude with this map, demonstrating roughly the route that the train was expected to take.


  1. Stephenson's route isn't that unfeasible since the old Orient Express ran from Paris to Istanbul. The route is surprisingly similar to Stephenson's. Those would seem to be the most favourable cities for such a line. And for the Asian leg, there's the example of the Trans-Siberian railway. Six days from Moscow to Vladivostok is when you realize Russia is a huge country.

    It's intriguing that the ponies were purchased and then sold. That's Rs.23/- per journey and it's not like they're particularly comfortable. Speed was of the essence perhaps? I wonder what the pony dealer's books looked like. That might be one way of estimating the traffic out of Calcutta.

  2. It would be some find! - the pony dealer's books. It is greatly tempting to imagine a novel which has this business as its setting.

    And I agree, that it is fairly feasible. The letters which he exchanged with the ambassadors and princes all support the project, and these aren't men who are talking through their hats. It's just that I have always accepted the Trans-Siberian railway and the Orient Express as a historical given. And I'm not sure (though they may well have been) if these two were born into a greater conception of engirdling the whole world.

    I was struck because I was seeing something that would have stretched out from my own home town, and because I was getting a glimpse into the process. These projects could not have seemed daft in their own time, of course. It's only in retrospect, and that too, because as I earlier said I did not receive this as a historical given, that I was so struck by the concept.

    1. Yeah. The idea of a globe-girdling railway does sound slightly far-fetched. I think you're right about air travel having changed our notions of spatial traversal.
      "...The world is but a little place after all, when viewed with the eyes of engineers instead of those of historians..." is a very apt way to put it.

    2. I especially loved that line. It's slightly scary also, to me at least.

      This is going off the immediate topic, but I'd also like to confess that I am utterly fascinated by the changing ideas of time and space when it comes to travelling. I'd like to write on it some day.