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(63) Travelling by water, the Sunderbunds, fire-wood, sharks, bull-headed alligator [[437-442]]

[[437]] During the dry months, the whole of the commodities transmitted from the upper provinces to the Presidency, with the exception of some few articles of small compass, which may be landed at Bagwangolah, and proceed to Augah-Deep overland, are sent down the Ganges for the purpose of proceeding through the Soonderbunds. This highly interesting but difficult navigation reaches from the Megna to Calcutta, near which a canal offers a safe and easy communication between the Hoogly and the Salt-Water Lake, which lies at the back of Calcutta.

The generality of trading and passage vessels proceed by this cut, paying a moderate toll, either on the tonnage of the former, or the number of oars of the latter. But the salt vessels despatched from Joynaghur, &c., with the produce of the different pans in that quarter, commonly take the lower passages near Chingree-Cauly and Culpee, which are by far the most dangerous, though rather more direct.

The Soonderbunds, or Sunderbunds, consist of an immense wilderness, full fifty miles in depth, and in length about an hundred and eighty. This wilderness, which borders the coast to the water's edge, forming a strong natural barrier in that quarter, occupies the whole of what is called the Delta of the Ganges. It is everywhere intersected by great rivers and innumerable creeks, in which the tides are so intermixed that a pilot is absolutely necessary, both to thread the intricacies of the passage, and to point out at what particular parts the [[438]] currents will, at certain times, be favourable in proceeding either to the east or the west.

In many places there is scarcely breadth for the passage of a single boat, and even then the boughs of the immense trees, and of the subordinate jungle, are found so frequently to hang over, as nearly to debar the progress of ordinary trading vessels. Fortunately these narrow creeks are short, or at least have in various parts such little bays as enable boats to pass. One or two are, however, so limited throughout in width as to render it expedient that musquets should be discharged before a boat proceeds, in order that others may not enter at the opposite end of the narrows: but for such a precaution, one of them would be compelled to put back.

The water being brackish, or rather absolutely salt, throughout the Sunderbunds, it is necessary for all who navigate this passage to take a stock of fresh water equal to at least a fortnight's service. Even the villages here and there on the banks of the great rivers, are sometimes supplied from a great distance; especially during the dry season, when the tides are very powerful. The regular trading vessels, which pass through the Sunderbunds perhaps every month or two, are usually provided with very large nauds, or gounlahs, made like a flat turnip of a black earth which bakes very hard.

Casks are never used in India for water; all ships in the country trade have one or more tanks made of teak wood, rendered perfectly water-tight, and containing from twenty to fifty butts. The water is thus carried in a small compass, and remains sweet much longer than in casks. Even could no other reason be assigned, it were obvious that in a tank, the surface of wood necessary to contain fifty butts of water will not exceed six hundred and fifty square feet; whereas each of the fifty [[439]] butts would present a surface of more than forty feet, whence the whole must amount to two thousand square feet.

Where a ship is navigated by lascars, many rules and ceremonies are adopted for the preservation of the water from impure contact. When native troops are on board, only particular persons are allowed to lay it in, or to serve it out, and even under such precaution, many of the more fastidious show great aversion to using the tank water; often suffering greatly both from hunger and thirst rather than drink of it, or even taste of viands prepared with it. But this prejudice has of late years subsided considerably, in consequence of the frequent occasions the British government have had to send native troops by sea, on distant expeditions.

Casks would certainly prove obnoxious to servants, and others, proceeding through the Sunderbunds, owing to an opinion general among them that we convey spirits, meat, &c., in such vessels. These having once been used for such a purpose, could never be viewed by them as receptacles for beverage, without disgust and execration.

The town of Calcutta is supplied with firing by persons who resort to the woods about twenty-five miles from Calcutta, where they cut the smaller kinds of serress, jar-rool, soondry, g'hob, &c., into junks about four feet in length, which are rived into two or four pieces, according to their diameter, then carried to market and delivered at a purchaser's door. This is the only fuel used in the kitchens of Europeans, and forms the supply of nine-tenths of the native population also: the remainder use the gutties made of dung.

Williamson 1810 vol. 2: ((354))  It is to be lamented that Government have never adopted a plan I long ago offered, of employing the convicts in clearing away a sufficient tract around Diamond Harbour, which is now peculiarly unhealthy, and is the grave of full one-fourth of the crews of the India Company's, and other, ships that generally are moored there for months.

I am aware that objections have been stated in regard to clearing away the forests in the ((355)) Soonderbunds, on account of their being considered a natural defence in that quarter; but, without entering upon the policy, or otherwise, of such a retention of that 'wilderness of all wildernesses', there does not appear to me any sound reason for suffering the principal naval station to be backed and flanked by woods and swamps, from which disease is poured forth amidst our unfortunate countrymen.

I have been assured that, taking one year with another, full three hundred European sailors die of diseases incident to the laying up of ships for a while in the river, of whom the larger portion are taken ill at, or below, Diamond Harbour. 

Those who have occasion to pass through the Sunderbunds, which can only be done by water, should be extremely [[440]] careful not to venture ashore, unless at some of the little towns, whose vicinity from the jungle having been partially cleared away, may afford some security against the attacks of tigers. The romantic scenery, everywhere inviting the eye, must not allure the traveller to relax his caution; nor should the abundance of game, especially of deer, lead him among those dangerous coverts.

Nor are the waters less dangerous. Sharks, of an uncommon size, are every where numerous and greedy; while their competitors, the alligators, not only infest the streams, but often lie among the grass and low jungle, waiting for a prey, with which they immediately plunge into the water.

Instances have been known, both of tigers swimming off to board boats, and of alligators striking the dandies (boatmen) out of the boats with their tails, and snapping their victims up with a nimbleness fully proving the falsehood of that doctrine which teaches to escape from the crocodile by running out of the right line, because the animal cannot turn to follow.

If those who either gave, or believed in, such advice, were to see with what facility an alligator can turn about, or with what agility he can pursue and catch the large fishes that abound in the great rivers of India, the folly would be so self-evident, as to cause an immediate dereliction of so preposterous an opinion.

Besides, the koomer, or bull-headed alligator, which generally speaking is the only kind to be seen in brackish waters, is peculiarly fierce and active; far more so than could be supposed, at first sight, of an amphibious animal of the lacerta tribe (for it is nothing more than an immense lizard, or iguana) whose length has been thirty feet, and whose girth has equalled twelve feet.

[[441]] Such is the ravenous disposition of the koomer, that it will not hesitate to seize cattle that proceed to drink of the river water where it is fresh. This, however, does not often happen; the places where cattle proceed to slake their thirst, being for the most part rather shallow, so that an alligator sufficiently formidable for such an attack could not lie concealed. Oxen have been seized by the head or the fore leg, but have either been rescued by their drovers, or succeeded in escaping from their merciless enemy. They were all so lacerated as to be completely disfigured.

The size of a boat may make much difference as to the time required to make the Sunderbund-passage. Generally, from ten to twelve days will elapse in making the shortest cut in a budjrow of from twelve to sixteen oars; while a light pulwar that can pass through the lesser creeks and make way against the tides, which are extremely intricate on account of the numerous channels that wind in every direction, may perhaps get through in seven or eight days.

Much will depend on the route. If Dacca, or any part of the Megna, be the destination, full ten days will be requisite; but if the Comercolly track, which opens into the Ganges nearly opposite to Nattore, be followed, the great body of the wilderness will be avoided, and the fertile districts of Jessore, Mahomed-pore, and Comercolly will be passed through with facility and gratification.

Many opinions, and some bold assertions, have been offered regarding the Sunderbunds. Some consider the immense wilderness that borders the coast to be of no great antiquity, and pretend that probably one hundred years would be too much to allow for the duration of that soil now covered with such stupendous forests. [[442]] That the whole of the country south of the Ganges, from Bogwangolah to Saugur, and in the other direction to Luckypore, &c., was formerly covered by the ocean, may be readily believed, both from the nature of the soil in general, and from the various marine productions found occasionally, when wells are dug to any considerable depth. 


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