« PreviousContinue »
"About this time four very large dingees larger than the pinnace, each having about 50 men on board, passed us at a prodigious rate. We reckoned them Dacoits (pirates or robbers) from their appearance, and when we called to them they returned no answer, nor paid the least attention; it is very probable that may be a set of fellows going out to look for boats in distress, that have been separated from the regular fleets by stress of weather, and of course helpless against such a number of men."
The description of the wild beasts as extracted from the Field books of the brothers Morrieson, bearing date 1812-1818, is applicable to the state of the Soonderbuns in 1859; the line of cultivation may have been, since their day, pushed a few hundred yards further South, but the tigers to this day are as savage and as numerous as they were then; the alligators are as hungry and as cruel; and the rhinoceros as plentiful and as stupid; the deer still abound in herds, and pigs are found everywhere; but we are happy to say that all biped nuisances such as pirates, have been, under the continued and unceasing harrying of our Magistrates, completely cleared out of all the once pirateinfested rivers and creeks.
We take our leave of the Field books with regret, and in doing so we cannot refrain from giving the last entry made by Hugh Morrieson; it is dated the 28th February 1818 and is as follows:
"I am now so ill that I can no longer carry on the survey, I have therefore got bearers to carry me by Dawk to the Station of Jessore." There it is supposed he died; the deadly Jungle Fever had seized upon our bold surveyor.
The names of the rivers and creeks in the Soonderbuns are for the most part of Sanscrit, Hindee or Bengalee extraction the Mahomedans have named but few, the English none, unless the Hooghly, the most important but by no means the largest river, can be said to have been named by them. Most of the names allude to the Hindoo Gods and Goddesses, some to the trees most common on their banks, a few to the animals most numerous in their vicinity; all are named, well known and frequented. The following few names with their meanings will give an idea of the good taste or otherwise of the namers of these rivers.
Brahmapootra.-The Son of Brahma, the creator of the world. Megna." Meg" a cloud "na" not; the advice given by boatmen not to attempt the passage of this dangerous river if the weather is cloudy or threatening.
Ganges." Gunga" The River, par excellence.
Deer abound along the banks of this river.
Arapungassya.-Manufactory of punga or salt.
Juboona.-The sister of Jum, Hindoo God of hell.
Debeechur.-The alluvion or Island of Debee, the Goddess of hell.
Beeskhal. The poisonous creek.
A slight glance at the fauna of the Soonderbuns may not be uninteresting. In the quotations from the Field books of the brothers Morrieson we have touched pretty freely upon the depredations caused by the tigers, we will now merely mention the names of the principal animals found in this tract, with a few interspersed anecdotes of some of the most remarkable ones. Of Mammalia we find the rhinoceros, hog, spotted deer, buffaloe, bara singha or large stag, tiger, leopard, wild cat, otter, red monkey, jackal.
Ophidia-Boa constrictors, cobra de capello, water-snakes, tree-snakes, kurait, sea serpents, and many others, besides, gosamp, lizards, scarlet crabs, shrimps and insects in abundance, not to forget musquitoes that swarm in black clouds.
The rivers everywhere abound in delicious fish; amongst the curious fish may be mentioned the Anabas Scandens (Koee -Hindoostani) an ugly, voracious little fish about five inches in length, mottled brown and yellow. They may be seen hanging on to the mangrove stems by spines arranged along the margin of the gills, three and four feet above the level of the receding tide, from which elevated position they drop into the water by scores when disturbed by a boat or a steamer passing, or they may be seen floundering about upon the black mud where they lie in hundreds sunning their little ugly bodies.
The Periopthalmus is another ugly little mud fish found in great quantities on all the mud banks in company with the scarlet crab. Sharks are numerous in the Soonderbuns; the hammer headed shark, a frightful animal (zygona), is also occasionally caught off the Sandheads.
Birds ;—adjutants of two kinds, one the common Ardea Gigantea, the other the marabout adjutant, from which is obtained the beautiful feathers bearing that name. Fishing and other eagles, vultures, kites, hawks, owls, minahs, doves, parroquets, flycatchers, orioles, jungle fowl, woodpeckers, sandpipers, egrets, waders, small and large spoonbills, one kind not much larger than a small snipe, pelicans, storks, paddy birds, herons, snipe and many other birds are found in abundance. Crocodiles properly so called (Hind-Mugger-Koomeer) of enormous size are seen in every creek, in every river; they have a broad flattened muzzle with unequal teeth of a formidable size and shape, the
outline of the jaw, where the teeth are seen protruding interlocked with each other, is a waving line giving to this ugly animal a fierce and cruel aspect. These animals varying in size from a span in length to 18 and 23 feet, are usually seen lying on the surface of the black mud basking in the sun; they sleep very soundly for we have seen a steamer going at full speed and making the usual splash and noise pass within ten paces of a sleeping crocodile without disturbing its slumbers. To a casual observer they resemble mud-covered logs of wood, and it is not until the large square and glittering scales which are of exceeding strength and beauty when closely examined, and the elevated and doubly dentelated ridge or crest that runs along either side of the tail, become visible, or are seen to glisten in the sun, that the shapeless mass is found to be a fierce, carnivorous and dangerous animal.
We have never seen the Gangetic Garial in the Soonderbuns; he appears to love the sweeter and, comparatively speaking, quieter waters of the upper rivers and their clean sand banks, where they may be seen in scores, lying with their mouths wide open, but for what purpose it is difficult to divine, unless it is to get rid of numerous small red filamentous worms that cluster about their fauces. The lower jaw being prolonged backward beyond the skull occasions the upper jaw to appear moveable, which it is when accompanied by the whole of the skull, or entire head, but not otherwise. We have been informed by an eyewitness, and one in whom we place implicit confidence, that he has seen a small brown bird alight upon the tongue of an open mouthed alligator, and pick these worms from the throat as he lay upon a sand bank in the Ganges. It is generally believed that the crocodile, or as it is termed in India the snubbednose alligator, always remains in fresh water; this is not the case, as they are found all along the Chittagong and Arracan coast, never far from the shore it is true, but still in bonâ fide salt water, where they are as dangerous as sharks.
In the rivers of the Delta where they flow through the cultivated portions of the country, stakes are driven into the bed of the river at the watering places, or ghauts, opposite to the villages, where the inhabitants may bathe in security and draw water for domestic purposes; but even this precaution is not always sufficient to ward off the attacks of the fierce crocodiles. The crocodile being an amphibious animal finds no difficulty, when pinched by hunger, in turning the flank of the stakes, and taking up his post within the enclosure, where he silently awaits his prey. A friend of ours, whilst surveying on the banks of the Gorace, was witness to a shocking occurrence in connection with these enclosures. A young Hindoo girl about 14 years old,
came to get a pitcher of water, and had hardly put her feet into the water, when a crocodile, who had been lying in wait inside the enclosure, rushed at the poor girl, seized her in his formidable jaws, scrambled up the banks of the river, holding the shrieking, struggling girl well up in the air by the middle of her body, and plunged heavily into the river outside of the stake. A smothered scream, a ripple upon the water, a few bubbles, and the frightful scene was closed.
A more daring attack by a Soonderbun crocodile than even the above, is well known. It occurred a few years ago at Koolna: a gang of ironed convicts were being inspected by the Magistrate prior to their being sent off to another and a more distant jail; the men numbering with their guards about fifty were drawn up in line on the raised embankment or levee of the river; the examination was proceeding, when a crocodile rushed up the bank, seized a manacled prisoner by the legs, dragged him from the ranks, and in moment, and that before any assistance could possibly be rendered, had plunged into the river and disappeared.
It appears from some excellent tables prepared and printed by the Committee on the Drainage of Calcutta 1857, that the highest high water, being the highest rise of the river Hooghly spring tides during the freshes, or from July to September, from 1806 to 1835, was 20 feet 6 inches. In August 1856 neap tide rose 15 feet 6 inches, above the datum sill of the Kidderpore dock, and upon the 18th August 1856, spring tide rose to 22 feet 3 inches above the same datum.
In the dry season, the lowest fall of river spring tide at Calcutta, is to 1 foot 9 inches above the datum of Kidderpore dock; the neaps 2 feet 8 inches; whilst the tides in the Salt Lakes only fall to 7 feet 10 inches above datum.
Table Shewing the Relative height of the River Hooghly and the Salt Water
The greatest rise of the Hooghly at Calcutta being 23.4 ; average spring 17.41. The greatest rise of the Salt Lakes being 12 feet. This is on the Western side of the Delta; how different from what occurs on the Eastern side, where the tides rise from forty to eighty feet.
It has been asked, but no one has yet answered the question,
why the Soonderbuns should not be, as has been Holland, reclaimed from the sea and occupied by man. Holland and the Soonderbuns are about on the same level, that is, they are not above the level of spring tides; but Holland which has only 123 miles of sea front, to the Delta's 270 miles, is well protected all along the greater portion of the coast of the North sea by a line of broad sand hills and downs, in some parts so high as to shut out the view of the sea, even from the tops of the church spires; the inhabitants have therefore only to dam the banks of the rivers penetrating into the country through these bulwarks to preserve the country from inundation. The Soonderbuns on the contrary has no defence whatever to seaward, not even an inch in height, every spring tide and every cyclone wave dashes its waters over the land, deluging the country with waves, the impetuosity and volume of which are unknown and unheard of in Europe; waves 30, 40 and even 60 feet in height have been known to rise in the Bay of Bengal, to dash over the highest trees, and to deluge the whole country for miles inland. The Soonderbuns in their present state can never be inhabited, they are too exposed to the fury of the Tropical Hurricanes that arise in the Bay of Bengal, and their unhealthiness is so great, from the stagnated air and corrupting vegetable deposits, that no human beings can ever hope to struggle against such fearful odds; but should this tract ever share in the upheaval that is now going on near Arracan and on the Tenasserim coast, well and good; rich would be the soil that would be brought under the plough, and great would be the population that would be found to occupy the Seaboard tract. Until that time arrives, we must be content to know, that the Soonderbun tract only forms a great, an inaccessible, and an impregnable defence to India towards the sea.
The very mud at the foot of the jungle, that mud that has just been stirred up by a large striped crocodile as he lazily slipped into the water, starting in his passage shoals of bull-headed periopthalmi or mud fish that lay basking in the sun, offers a bar to invasion, and has an interest attached to it. To know from whence it was brought is impossible, but we may conjecture, we may give way to fancy, and imagine its having once formed a part and portion of the snow-clad gneiss summit of Kunchinjunga, that in ages long past was precipitated from an elevation of 28,000 feet or nearly five and a half perpendicular miles down its steep flanks to the glaciers at its feet, probably crumbled down by an earthquake to mingle with the moraines, where acted upon by snow, sharp frosts, rain and sunshine, its felspar and horneblende have been reduced to what we now see it, a black mud; its heavier particles of quartz reposing under