Hello, and welcome to my blog: TravelWriterLife. For the next six years my other blog, CurseOfTheTraveller, will be dedicated to daily posts of entries from my travel diaries written between September 1988 and June 1994.
With that in mind, I decided to launch another blog where my travel stories, photography and other bits could appear. Here you will find links to my published work, occasional articles by other writers, travel and adventure stories previously published on CurseOfTheTraveller, excerpts from the book I am writing, and any other bits and pieces that take my fancy.
Sometimes the journey is the destination; sometimes the destination becomes a journey. All travel is an adventure; every journey is exceptional. And all genuine knowledge originates in direct experience.
You’re in by Karumba, Where the fishing boats come in; I can’t believe this feeling, But I wish that I was there, Every passing day… – Goanna, Every Passing Day
Fifteen nautical miles north-west of Karumba the oppressive air presses down on us with an almost tactile force. Thunderheads massed on the horizon foretell a cooling storm to come, but for now the four of us aboard the Kathryn M2 are at the mercy of the monsoonal heat. The boat’s hull cleaves the water of the Gulf of Carpentaria with a sibilant hiss; the diesel engine thrums beneath the deck plates. We are making eighteen knots, heading back to port with our day’s catch: three decent barracuda, a black kingfish and half a dozen Spanish mackerel. Standing on the bridge, with a cold beer in my hand, I watch the green smudge of the Australian coast drawing slowly nearer. Behind us, the boat’s wake unfolds across the sea which lies like a sheet of obsidian beneath the luminous immensity of the sky.
Karumba is situated in the south-east corner of the Gulf of Carpentaria: the southernmost extremity of the Arafura Sea. Nearby, where the sluggish Norman River falls into the Gulf, a delta of tidal creeks and wetlands extend inland in a series of meandering saltwater estuaries. This mangrove-choked landscape is the habitat of estuarine crocodiles (the bad ol’ boys of the crocodile world) and a vast array of bird species. The Gulf is located on the migratory path known as the East Asian Flyway and hundreds of thousands of birds use the region as a jumping-off point for their flights into Asia and beyond. Flocks of eastern bar-tailed godwits, fresh from their summer on the Avon-Heathcote Estuary, at Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand, stop off to rest here en route back to their breeding grounds in Alaska.
The Port of Karumba was originally a refuelling and repair stop for the Empire Flying Boats, which connected Sydney to Great Britain. The aircraft landed on the stretch of the river in front of the town and during WW2 were the only aerial connection Australia had with the rest of the world. Karumba was also a Catalina Flying Boat base for the Royal Australian Air Force and the ramp onto which these amphibians taxied now forms one of the town’s streets.
I first heard of Karumba in the mid-eighties in a song called Every Passing Day by Australian band Goanna. At the time I was working on a High Country sheep station, deep in the heart of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. It was a world of sheep dogs and horses, hobnail boots and musterer’s huts, harsh winters and late snows. For me, Karumba was out on the edge of the world, about as far removed from the High Country as it was possible to get. Lying on my bed in the shepherd’s quarters, listening to that song while the nor’ west wind shrieked around the eaves, I imagined steaming mangrove swamps, crocodiles and tidal mud, fishing boats coming home in the sunset and endless, punishing heat. Karumba seemed like the sort of beyond the pale place I would never visit. And yet, in one of those strange twists that life can take, here I was, sailing home to Karumba after a day’s fishing on the Gulf, with the first flickers of lightning exploding across the sky and the air heavy with the scent of rain.
By the time we reach shore it is raining: a heavy, blattering downpour which pock-marks the opaque water of the river and runs in deluges from the scuppers. We adjourn to the Sunset Tavern (one of the few places in Eastern Australia where you can watch the sun set over the ocean) to relive the day’s escapades. Outside, sixty millimetres of rain falls in less than an hour. By nightfall the storm has moved on and a watery sliver of moon hangs in the sky.
Karumba is the southernmost port on the Arafura Sea: surely the most evocatively-named sea in the world. The name is redolent of pirates and pearling luggers, of spice islands and hidden mangrove coastlines. It’s the sort of sea that a character in a Joseph Conrad novel would set sail across: “blue and profound, without a stir, without a ripple, without a wrinkle, viscous, stagnant, dead.”
Prior to the European discovery of Australia, the Arafura Sea was the haunt of Macassan fleets from the Celebes Islands. The Macassans harvested beche-de-mer (a type of sea cucumber resembling a black, tumescent penis) which they cured on the beaches and sold to the Chinese as an aphrodisiac. Later, pearl divers came, then shrimp fisherman. Today, Karumba is home base for Australia’s largest shrimping fleet.
The day after my fishing trip is a Saturday. Nothing much is happening in Karumba. A few fishing boats come and go at the pier; the tide rises and falls among the mangroves and mooring ropes along the Norman River; mirages shimmer on the asphalt road leading out of town and into the Outback. Ceiling fans stir the tepid air in the Animal Bar of the Karumba Lodge Pub; next door, the Suave Bar is empty. I sit in the shade of a spreading fig tree outside the Post Office drinking chilled orange juice from a plastic bottle. Ants are nesting in a crack in the concrete sidewalk. A girl arrives in a dusty 4WD and empties the mail from box 71 of the 233 red mail boxes set into the wall. Magpie larks play in a listless, desultory fashion on the blue and orange phone boxes.
All day thunderheads have grumbled out on the plains. The sun is incandescent in the pewter dome of the sky. As afternoon wears on the heat grows more and more oppressive. Mosquitoes feed on my exposed skin and flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos fly screeching from tree to tree. It is as if the natural world knows something is about to happen and is restive.
As the sun begins its descent into the sea, the horizon is shrouded by roiling clouds. Bolts of lightning jump earthward from the black belly of the storm. The atmosphere seems charged electricity and heavy with moisture. This is the real deal: the full spectacle of heat, convection, air masses, water vapour, static electricity and raw energy. The sun has gone out. All that remains is a pale, flat, eerie glow which casts no shadows. Huge knives of lightning slice the sky, thunder detonates overhead with ear-shattering force and the air turns the colour of soot. As the storm rages all around I take off my shirt and let the rain beat on my bare skin like a benediction.
Karumba is the sort of place which epitomises the adage “the journey is the destination”. You need to make a real effort to get there by driving west from Cairns through 800 kilometres of empty Outback. And, let’s face it, there’s not a lot to see once you’ve arrived. Sure, people come from all over the world for the excellent fishing. Campers spend months at the Sunset Point Caravan Park just doing nothing. And there is a zinc smelter to visit if you’re really stuck for entertainment.
But the real attraction of visiting a place like Karumba is being on the edge of the world. Tropical towns by the sea have a different feel to inland places. They look outwards, towards the emptiness of the ocean, away from the security and certainties of the land. For me the pleasure of being in Karumba lies in simply watching the sun set over the sea while the Sunset Tavern regulars, oblivious to the solar spectacle outside, gamble on television horses racing in other parts of Australia. It lies in the thrill of watching the violent arrival of a tropical storm after the ennui of a 45 degree day. And, best of all, it lies in the pure, unexpected delight of being in a place I have dreamed of for so long.
In Karumba I can smell the warm breath of Asia. Across the narrow waters of the Arafura Sea lie the jungle islands of Irian Jaya, the coral atolls of the Moluccas and the teeming shores of Indonesia. Yet even this close to Asia I am rooted firmly in white Australia. Satellite dishes beam the latest news of the world into town; every meal comes with chips and beetroot; men in grubby shorts and tee-shirts drink copious quantities of Victoria Bitter beer from ice-cold glasses; and, on the edge of town, Aboriginal people move like ghosts in their own land.
On my last evening in Karumba I drift down to the Sunset Tavern to watch my final Arafura sunset. Day ends suddenly in the tropics. Sunsets are always brief but spectacular. I sit on a rocky outcrop, still warm from the day’s heat, as the sun sinks inexorably into the sea and the sky turns the colour of spilled blood. Distant thunder clouds, piled on the horizon, are lit from within by strobes of lightning. As the sun disappears, the colour bleeds from the sky, the sea fades from pink to indigo, and night comes down like a theatrical curtain.
I sit for a while in the gloaming listening to the pulse of the ocean. The incoming tide roars on the shoreline with a noise like a distant cheering crowd. Karumba had once been a place which existed only as a collection of images conjured in my imagination by the words of a song. But now that I have seen it, Karumba is real. It has been burned into my memory during the time I have spent out here, under the sun on the edge of the world. The ocean glitters in the starlight and I know that, for the rest of my life, I will go to Karumba in my mind, once or twice every passing day.
FOOTNOTE: Goanna’s 1984 album Oceania is a forgotten masterpiece. Upon its release it failed to chart and quickly disappeared from view. I bought a cassette copy of the album in 1985 from a record shop in Timaru on the South Island of New Zealand. I have it still: worn out, spliced and almost inaudible after thousands of playings. Oceania was never released on CD and, until August 2020, was unavailable in any form whatsoever. But in September 2020, after my daughter asked me what my all time favourite song is, I discovered that a remastered edition of the album had appeared on Spotify. I am listening to it now. It is my favourite album of all time and the song Every Passing Day, upon which this story is based, is my favourite song ever. The story itself, which appeared in the magazine Avenues in 2005, won a QANTAS Media Award for Best Magazine Travel Story in 2006. I’d like to return to Karumba some time soon, to smell the warm breath of Asia and watch the passing days out there on the edge of the world.
The river stretches a braided thread of silver along the valley floor.
Morning in the High Country. On a hillside far above the Phantom River, a musterer gives his sheepdogs a command: “Speak up!” His four black and tan huntaways immediately set up a cacophony of loud barking. The musterer joins in with his own voice, shouting out “hey, hey, hey” into the still morning air. Even his heading dogs, Queen and Chucky, normally silent and observant, add a few high-pitched yaps into the mix.
High above, on top of the High Claytons range, another musterer’s dogs answer the bark-up. From below, the dogs of the three other men, who are spaced at intervals down the hillside, complete the chorus. The noise echoes back back from the gullies and ravines on the opposite side of the valley, which lies in deep, hazy shadow. The river stretches a braided thread of silver along the valley floor.
The barking alarms the merino wethers who have been grazing alone and in pairs on the tussock-clad hillside. It is early April and the fine-wooled wethers have spent the summer months roaming the hills of the station’s 35,000 acres. The sheep form themselves into long lines and move off ahead of the dogs’ noise. The musterers begin moving too, following the sheep south-west across the hillside towards the distant ramparts of the Two Thumb Range.
It is the third day of the autumn muster: an annual event which brings the sheep down off the high tops before the winter snows arrive. At 4am, the musterers had gathered for breakfast around the big kitchen table in the station’s homestead. Fortified with bacon, eggs, sausages and toast, washed down with copious quantities of tea, each of the five musterers had made a pile of sandwiches for lunch while the runholder explained each man’s beat (the route they would follow across the hillsides) for the day.
An hour later, as the rising sun cleared the triangular bulk of Mount Peel, the musterers were atop the High Claytons. In earlier times they would have spent three hours climbing out on foot. But these days, 4WDs are used to carry musterers and their dogs to the hilltops. Although the air has an early morning chill, the day promises to be sunny and hot.
The hills shimmer as alpine breezes ripple through the vast fields of snow tussock, which can grow to a height of a metre or more. As the musterers walk their beats through the steep, rocky faces they encounter not only wild deer and chamois, but dozens of Himalayan tahr. Introduced into the Southern Alps in 1904 these agile mountain goats can climb the most perpendicular rock faces with speed and grace.
For the shepherds and musterers who work on the High Country stations down the length of the South Island, work is slowly disappearing. Years of low wool prices have meant the farming of sheep has become less economically viable in the High Country. Vast tracts of land have been closed up or taken over by the conservation estate, and as the usage of the high country has changed, so the demand for high country mustering skills has diminished.
Mustering gangs once camped out for weeks at a time in backcountry huts where traditions and hierarchies were observed and maintained. Now, musters are completed in days using helicopters and 4WDs. Hobnailed boots, billy tea and camp ovens have been replaced by GPS locators, energy drinks and Vibram rubber soles.
But change is an integral part of the High Country. The grey slopes of scree and shingle, the beetling bluffs of black rock and the endless ridges and summits – which generations of musterers, in typical understatement have simply called “The Hill” – are in a constant state of change as the elements shape and reshape the landscape.
By 2PM, the musterers are nearing the end of the block. The long lines of wethers, which have moved ahead of the musterers and their dogs all day, descend a steep ridge towards Spurs Flat. The huntaways keep the sheep moving while heading dogs cast left and right to bring individual sheep into the main mob which is gathering on the edge of the flat.
Each musterer controls his dogs with unique whistled commands. The older, experienced dogs instinctively watch the sheep, turning runaways back into the mob and keeping the animals moving. The younger dogs run boisterously alongside, learning the skills from their teammates and from the occasional profanity-laden command from their human masters.
The infant Orari River marks the end of the day’s muster. Beyond the river, which here is merely a trickle of crystal water bled from the snowfields of the Two Thumb Range, Horse Spur rises in a rounded fold of russet and gold tussock. The mob will be left on the spur to be gathered up tomorrow: the final day of the muster.
But the wethers, creatures of habit and suspicion, are reluctant to cross even this small creek bubbling across grey shingle between grassy banks smudged with matagouri. The dogs move the mob to the water’s edge. An older wether leaps across and soon the mob is following. The sheep string out across the hillside beyond.
The musterers sit in the tussocks discussing the day’s work. Each has a story of good runs by their dogs and difficult sheep which had to be carefully extricated from a gully or ridge using cunning and skill. The runholder arrives in a 4WD with flasks of tea and a fruit cake. The dogs sprawl around in the sun, mark their territory with squirts of piss, occasionally snarling at errant youngsters.
The wethers have dispersed across the face of Horse Spur. The afternoon sun glitters on the waters of the Orari River as it begins its journey down through the muscular hills. The musterers load their dogs onto the 4WD for the long journey back to the homestead.
At dawn tomorrow, the musterers and their dogs will once again be out here among the tussocks and rocks, mustering the Merino wethers ahead of them as they move across the flanks of the High Claytons like shadows on the hill.
The tumult and shouting dies; The captains and the kings depart. Far-called, our navies melt away; On dunes and headlands sinks the fire. Lo, all our pomp of yesterday, is one with Nineveh and Tyre… – Rudyard Kipling, Recessional.
And so I came, at last, to my final destination in India: the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. I had wandered through the stone garden of the Park Street Cemetery, sat quietly in the grand neo-Gothic St. Paul’s Cathedral and walked along busy, crowded Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Road to the gardens of the Maidan.
The British loved to build. To them, as it was with most great empires, it was their buildings that spoke of their power, their cleverness, their capabilities. In the Victoria Memorial, the technology and vision that they had perfected over the previous century or so came together in what is, to me, one of the greatest buildings in the world.
Completed in 1926, the Victoria Memorial was commissioned by Baron Curzon, the Viceroy of India, as a monument to Queen Victoria, who had died in 1901. It was designed by the British architect William Emerson, who also designed the lovely blue-domed buildings at the University of Allahabad that I had loved so much ( see my earlier post The Blue Dome ), and its foundation stone was laid by the Prince of Wales, later King George V, on January 4th, 1906. A public subscription was opened to pay for the building’s construction and the entire project was financed by donations.
It was designed to be not only a fitting monument to Queen Victoria but also a museum: a place where future generations could come and experience the history and power of the British Raj. To this end, its anti-chambers and rooms were filled with paintings depicting the great moments of Indian history; with weapons used in the great wars fought by its rulers; and with sculptures of the great men who forged the Empire. As Curzon had put it:
Let us, therefore, have a building, stately, spacious, monumental and grand, to which every newcomer in Calcutta will turn, to which all the resident population, European and Native, will flock, where all classes will learn the lessons of history, and see revived before their eyes the marvels of the past.
But nothing lasts forever. By the time the monument was completed, the Raj’s seat of power had been transferred to Delhi. For all its grand colonial buildings, Calcutta had become a provincial capital. And the world was changing. The Great War had wrought rifts in the Empire from which it would not recover. The Empire was beginning to fade, just as the Persian poet Omar Khayyam had prophesied in his oft-quoted Rubaiyat:
Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai, Whose doorways are alternate night and day. How Sultan after Sultan with is pomp, Abode his hour or two, and went his way…
These were words that Kipling had echoed in his poem Recessional, written to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. He foresaw, just as Khayyam had, eight hundred years before, that all empires will eventually fall, leaving nothing behind but the buildings that the sultans, the emperors and the kings had built in their own names.
I walked slowly around the perimeter of the building to its grand front entrance. A marble bridge, designed by Emerson’s assistant, Vincent Jerome Esch, spanned a lake of reflective green water. Atop the bridge, a sculpture of Queen Victoria, resplendent in the ceremonial robes of the Star of India. I took out my phone and recorded a Snapchat of what I was seeing.
And here she is, Queen Victoria, Empress of India, sculpted in bronze towards the end of her life when she was fat, half mad and clinging to life. And you’ve gotta hand it to the Brits. When they built, they built big. They liked to build these massive edifices that said “look at us, look how fucking good we are.” Of course the Germans also tried that during the nineteen thirties with those square, box-like, blocky buildings of Nuremberg and Berlin. But they just ended up looking stupid, overdone and megalomaniacal. The Victorians combined Mughal architecture with their high-tech construction methods and sense of scale and proportion in order to create buildings like this which still look beautiful a hundred years later.
Nearby, bas-relief panels of burnished brass told the tales of India; of Sepoys and servants, Nawabs and Kings. A sweep of vast marble steps cascaded from the memorial’s entrance like a pure white waterfall. I climbed to the door and words failed me. To my Snapchat audience I said:
You walk inside this memorial to Queen Victoria and it just leaves you speechless. So I’m not even going to try to describe it. I’m just going to show you…
Later, outside in the garden, I stood beside a fountain, that quintessentially Moghul ornament, and looked back at the Victoria Memorial, framed by arcing, crystal jets of water. Bright red flowers grew in colourful profusion around the fountain’s perimeter. Crows balanced on the green-painted railings. Women in bright saris promenaded along the nearby paths beneath groves of peepal and guava trees.
I tried to think of some glib closing line to say: something pithy and intellectual to close off my broadcasts from India. But I had nothing. The monument had left me speechless. I took out my phone and launched Snapchat for the final time in India and said:
Well…I don’t think that I can top that, so I’m not going to try. Goodnight everybody.
…the tomb of Nithar, lies reflected in the shimmering pool.
In Allahabad I find a secret garden. I have been walking for hours: exploring the parks of the city’s centre, the exquisite domed buildings of the University, the sad, barricaded, derelict cathedral. I have fallen asleep on a concrete bench beneath a shady tree in Prince Alfred Park, and followed back streets through leafy suburbs. Now, I stand before a high wall of betel-splattered stucco. Inside, under the high blue dome of the sky, lies Jahangir’s garden.
Beyond the vaulted gateway, where vendors sell chai, puris and cold drinks, and a barber plies his blades on a worn wooden chair, a geometric pattern of flagstone pathways, lined with graceful palm trees leads towards a walled inner garden. Sprinklers shimmer in the midday sunlight. Families picnic on colourful blankets laid out in shady spots. Young men pose theatrically for photographs.
Inside the walls, three sandstone tombs, each of differing design, stand in a line flanked by gardens and flagstone paths. Begun in 1606, the tomb complex, known as the Khusrau Bagh, was designed by Aqa Reza, the court artist to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. The first tomb to be constructed was that of Shah Begum, Jahangir’s wife, who had died by suicide in 1604. Distressed by the enmity between her husband and their son, Khusrau (who had tried to usurp his father’s throne), Shah Begum had swallowed an overdose of opium. Her three-tiered tomb, surmounted by a rectangular divan, draws its inspiration from Fatehpur Sikri, the Mughal’s capital city in Northern India built by the first Great Mughal Emperor, Akbar.
I follow a path along the outer wall of the garden. There are rows of pale roses planted along the edges. Beyond the wall, in a grove of fig trees, goats graze on fallen leaves. Crows gurgle in the undergrowth. A couple of older men, the complex’s groundsmen perhaps, sit on a bench in the shade while a hose spills water onto a patch of lawn in front of them. The second tomb, the tomb of Nithar, Jahangir’s daughter, lies reflected in the shimmering pool.
The tomb stands on an elevated platform recessed with alcoves decorated with fretted stonework. Its central dome is flanked by four delicate cupolas. Some of the alcoves are closed with heavy doors of dark red wood. A group of schoolgirls, clad in white saris with colourful sashes, sit in a semicircle on another patch of grass in front of the tomb of Nithar.
I climb a set of steps set into the plinth of Nithar’s tomb and sit on a sandstone ledge beside a carved wooden door inset with iron studs. Flights of pigeons circled the dome of the third and final tomb, the Tomb of Khusrau himself. Khusrau Mirza was the Emperor’s second son. He rebelled against his father in 1606 in a bid to succeed the Emperor Akbar as the ruler of the Moghul Empire but was defeated in the battle of Bhairowal. He fled to Kabul but he was captured and taken to Agra where he was imprisoned.
In the Moghul world, succession wasn’t simply a matter of the eldest son inheriting the throne from his father. Rather, siblings competed against each other with intrigue, patronage and outright violence until a winner emerged. It was often the case that the sibling who gained the upper hand would have the rest of his family – brothers, sisters, cousins – put to death in order to guarantee that there was no one left to threaten his position.
In 1607, Khusrau was blinded as a punishment for rebelling against his father. Then, in 1622, he was killed on the orders of his brother, Prince Khurram, who had succeeded the throne and taken the title of Shah Jahan: possibly the most famous of the Mughal rulers.
I sit on the cool stone of Nithar’s tomb writing my notes and watching the scene below. A group of young people chatter and run. Beside me, the heavy timber door is weathered and cracked. Graffiti has been scratched into its blackened and cracked surface. The iron hasps and bolts are rusted and bent. The slow, inexorable hand of time has worked on the tombs, etching the history of years into every surface. The flights of pigeons circle the tombs and settle, momentarily, on the domes and cupolas before erupting into flight again to circle, wheeling in the high blue sky above Jahangir’s garden.
On the square plinth beneath his booted feet was carved one word: CLIVE.
It is sometimes said that Britain obtained its empire in a fit of absentmindedness. It wasn’t so much a desire to conquer and rule that motivated the British. Rather, it was more of a slow acquisition of territories by default: a kind of global game of pickup sticks where the sticks were colonies, countries and resources. At its zenith, the British Empire extended over 25% of the globe and contained within it a similar percentage of the world’s population. In school atlases, the pale pink wash denoting the countries and territories of the Empire was familiar to every pupil for generations. The sun never set on the British Empire and it was always time for a G and T somewhere. And the jewel in the Empire’s crown was India.
The British never set out to conquer India. It was actually a small company, housed in a nondescript building on Leadenhall Street in London, that set in motion the events that would lead to the control of the Empire’s greatest asset. That institution was called The East India Company.
On the 22nd of February, 1599, a group of merchants and financiers convened in a pub called the Nags Head Inn opposite the church of St. Botolph in Bishopsgate, London. Their aim was to establish a company to trade in spices from the East Indies, a trade dominated at that time by the Dutch and the Portuguese. Armed with a Royal Charter guaranteeing them exclusive access to all the seas and countries east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan, the East India Company, as it came to be known, began trading with the kings and rulers of Asia.
The risks involved were huge. Many ships were lost, along with their crews and cargoes. Piracy, danger, hardship and violence were the only factors that could be relied upon. But the profits were enormous. As its trading links with the rest of the world expanded, the company began gradually to establish footholds on the continents and territories it traded with. In India, the company’s first trading post, or factory as such outposts came to be called, was established at Surat on an inlet of the Arabian Sea on the western coast of the subcontinent in 1612. Bombay (now Mumbai) was added in 1668 and further factories were established around the entire coastline of India.
The company’s greatest factory was established on the Hooghly River, an exit tributary of the Ganges, in 1698. There were three villages in the area – Kalikata, Gobindapur and Sutanuti – and the town that grew up around them took its name from one of them: Kolkata. Initially, the company built a fort they named Fort William on the eastern bank of the Hooglhy at Kolkata.
There were frequent skirmishes with the French in the region and the fort and factories were sacked by the Nawab of Bengal, resulting in the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta incident, in 1756. But the town of Kolkata (or Calcutta as the British called it) survived and grew to become the seat of power for the company.
At the Victoria Monument, a vast domed marble edifice surrounded by fountains and gardens in the centre of Kolkata, I came face to face with the East India Company in the form of a statue. The subject stood resolute on its marble plinth. His eyes, set in a strong face with a rigid jaw and a slight scowl, stared rigidly out into the distance. In his left hand, he held a half-rolled scroll of documents; his right hand rested lightly on his sword. On the square plinth beneath his booted feet was carved one word: CLIVE.
Robert Clive (1725-1774), First Baron Clive, KB, FRS was the man who took the East India Company from a predominantly commercial trading company to a full-fledged military power with suzerainty over the entire Indian subcontinent. Prior to the Battle of Plassey in 1757, in which the company’s forces under the command of Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal, the East India Company (or John Company, as it was informally known) had concentrated on trade. For one hundred and fifty years the company had been content with buying goods – predominantly spices and cotton – for shipment back to England. But Clive changed all that.
By the time of the Battle of Plassey, the EIC already had a substantial army, composed mainly of Indian troops known as Sepoys. The troops were used to enforce the company’s often unpopular regulations, to protect its interests and assets and to generally ensure that what the company wanted, the company got. After Plassey, the company essentially became the rulers of India.
For the next ninety years the East India Company treated India like a cash cow, milking it of resources and establishing the highly dubious trade in opium which gave rise to the mid-century conflicts with China known as the Opium Wars. But all was not well in John Company. Since its zenith in the 18th century, the company’s profits had steadily declined. Its increasingly patrician (and, in many cases, oppressive) rule of the subcontinent had grown more and more unpopular among Indians.
In the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, in which the sepoys rose up against their oppressors, the British Government took over control of the company. By then, the East India Company was in decline. Its assets were nationalised by the British Government. Its army, possessions and all of the machinery for administering and controlling India were ceded to the Crown.
John Company was finally dissolved on June 1st 1877. In an editorial, The Times commented that:
It accomplished a work such as in the whole history of the human race no other trading Company ever attempted, and such as none, surely, is likely to attempt in the years to come.
In my travels across India I encountered the legacy of John Company, and its successor, the British Raj everywhere I went. In the buildings, the railways, the bureaucracy; in the vast self-indulgent monuments, in the cemeteries, in the layout of towns and in the place names.
In the 1980s, a group of Indian entrepreneurs bought the rights to the name East India Company and established a clothing brand under that name. The company traded until the early 1990s when it too folded. In 2010, the moribund corporate name was once again acquired as the trading name for a clothing brand. Today, a British company trades under the name The East India Company, London. It sells tea, coffee, chocolates, nuts and spices. John Company still lives. It didn’t set out to create an empire. But it did.
There is a simplicity and decency in a military burial, even in its plainest form…
I am not the first Blakiston in India. My ancestor, Major John Blakiston, served as an officer in both the British Army and with the East India Company from 1802 until 1814. His book Twelve Years Military Adventures in Three Quarters of the Globe gives a fascinating insight of life on the sub-continent as a soldier. Blakiston served under Arthur Wellesley, later to become the Duke of Wellington, during the Second Anglo-Maratha War and the book is dedicated to the Duke with the following words:
My Lord Duke. There is no one to whom I can, with so much propriety, dedicate these memoirs, as your grace; first, as being the most distinguished ornament of the profession to which I belong; and next, because I began and ended my Military career under your grace.
Blakiston had graduated from the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, London, in 1802. According to his entry in Hart’s Military List (an annual publication that recorded army personnel and their service records) he “proceeded to India as a cadet of the East India Company’s service being then on half-pay as a lieutenant in HM Services.
“ In 1803 he served in the campaign against the Mahrattas [sic] and was engaged in the battles of Assaya [sic] and Argaum, and at the sieges and assaults of Ahmednuggur and Gawilghur. At the suppression of the mutiny at Vellore in 1805 he directed the guns by which the gate was blown open.”
After his service in India, Blakiston spent almost a decade serving in military campaigns across the British Empire. When he left the army, he wrote several books, became a magistrate and, finally, a politician. He died on June 4th, 1867, aged 82 years (Blakistons are notoriously long-livers!) and is buried in the churchyard of St. Wilfred’s, Mobberly, Cheshire. His headstone bears the inscription:
IN MEMORY OF MAJOR JOHN BLAKISTON OF MOBBERLY WHO DIED JUNE FORTH 1867 AGED 82 YEARS IN YOUTH HE WAS A DISTINGUISHED SOLDIER IN MIDDLE AGE AN ACTIVE POLITICIAN THE PASSED THE EVENINGS OF THEIR DAYS IN RETIREMENT IN THIS PARISH LOVED AND RESPECTED BY THEIR FAMILY AND NEIGHBOURS.
Walking among the tombs of the Park Street Cemetery I was struck by the tenderness of the inscriptions some of the tombs bore. Many of the graves were those of soldiers, mariners and men of business who had succumbed to disease, were lost at sea or who fell in battle. As was often the case, a subscription had to be raised among the victim’s peers to pay for his burial and the tomb in which he would rest for eternity.
Many of these men died far from home and from their loved ones. So it was natural that their comrades became their family. In his book, Blakiston describes a scene where a comrade is borne to his last resting-place after succumbing to a disease of some kind.
“Among the victims who fell, a sacrifice to the hardships of this period, was Lieutenant Rowley of the Engineers, a young man of the most admirable qualities and of first-rate talents. He was about six years my elder, and had considerable experience in his profession.
“Poor fellow! He expired in my arms. To one so young as myself, and unaccustomed to such scenes, this could not but be a most painful circumstance; but independently of this, I have always viewed a soldier’s death, on any other than the bed of honour, as a most melancholy event. I could contemplate the havoc of battle with composure, for the field is a soldier’s natural death-bed: but to see that manly frame, the energies of which have been gladly executed in its country’s cause, wasting away by degrees; to see the soldier yielding by inches, and with painful reluctance, that life which he would have willingly surrender in the field of battle; to see death, which he had openly defied perhaps in many a bloody field, stealing upon him unawares, has always been to me a painful sight.
“ I followed my poor friend to the grave as chief mourner. There is a simplicity and decency in a military burial, even in its plainest form… The deceased soldier is borne to his last resting-place on the shoulders of his comrades; the flag, under which he has fought and died, is the pall which covers his remains; the sword and other emblems…speak more than the most eloquent funeral oration…and the last volley seems to announce the entrance of the immortal part into the portals of eternity.”
Shafts on sunlight fall through the screen of palms and peepal trees growing in lush profusion among the tombs. The roar of the city is muted to a low hum. I can hear the ever-present gurgle of crows – the spirit-keepers of India – and the chatter of the women who keep the paths swept. An artisan stone-mason’s hammer keeps up a gentle, staccato tapping somewhere deep among the tombs. As a last resting-place, this garden of stone is perfect.
Beyond the pedimented gateway, the roar of traffic on Park Street fades to a low, susurating murmur. The flagstone path is slippery with moss and from the gentle rain tapping on the blue and red umbrella that the gatekeeper has lent me. The path runs directly from the entrance to the back of the cemetery, intersecting at regular intervals with the grid of other paths laid out with geometric British precision.
I am surrounded by a garden of rainforest greenery and stone. Tombs of sandstone and brick stand in tiered rows between the trees. Their minarets and columns, domes and obelisks are rimed with moss and lichen. Acid rain has etched the limestone with black, cancerous stains. Some of the tombs are crumbling, their brick bones stripped of stucco skin. A litter of leaves and palm fronds lies scattered across the ground.
Yet amid the decay and dampness there is a quiet dignity in these silent memorials. Their plaques of polished marble tell poignant stories of great achievement and lives cut short; of devoted and unswerving service to John Company; of camaraderie and bravery; of love and loss. And even though these memento mori are almost two hundred years old, their stories still seem fresh and vital.
Opened in 1767, the Park Street Cemetery is one of the largest non-church Christian cemeteries in the world. Its tombs and monuments have stood in silent remembrance for more than two hundred years while the world around them changed. It remained in use until the 1830s.
The tomb of Hindoo Stuart stands beneath a magnolia tree in a back corner of the Park Street Cemetery. It is a smallish domed structure built from a combination of stucco-coated brickwork and black marble decorated with carvings of various Hindu deities. It’s inscription reads:
MAJOR-GENERAL CHARLES STUART (KNOWN AS HINDOO STUART) 1758-1-4-1828 QUARTERMASTER OF THE 1st BENGAL EUROPEAN REGIMENT & LATER COMMANDED THE 10th ANDIS REGIMENT
Born in Ireland, Stuart was an officer in the East India Company and was well known throughout the Company as being one of the few officers to embrace Hindu culture. Stuart was not only fascinated by Hinduism, he saw it as the most comfortable way in which to live in the torrid, crowded, disease-ridden conditions of the subcontinent. He encouraged the English ladies of the Company to adopt the “elegant, simple, sensible and sensual” saris worn by Indian women instead of the heavy (and heavily engineered) iron busks worn by the white Memsahibs. He described these as “the prodigious structural engineering European women strapped to themselves in order to hold their bellies in, project their breasts out and allow their dresses to balloon grandly up and over towards the floor.”
When Stuart died, on March 31st, 1825, he was buried in the South Park Cemetery in a tomb styled on a Hindu temple. But although he had adopted Hinduism as his religion, ha had not completely abandoned Christianity, describing the deity Krishna to be: “the spirit of God who descends upon Earth for the benefit of mankind.”
Beyond the screen of foliage and branches I can see the glass and steel towers of the city. A pair of rabbits scamper across a patch of green grass inside a quadrangle of tombs. Funereal crows, like black-winged sextons, gurgle and squawk in the trees. I stop beside the middle tomb in a row of three: squat, triangular obelisks. The white marble plaque inset into its base has an intriguing inscription which reads:
Sacred to the memory of Elizabeth Jane Barwell (The celebrated Miss. Sanderson) Married the 13th September 1776 to
RICHARD BARWELL. Esq (the friend of Warren Hastings) Member of the Council of the Hon. East India Co. Died the 9th November 1778. Aged about 23 years.
There is no indication as to what Miss Sanderson did to become “celebrated” but in the torpid, breathless, straight-laced (on the surface, at least) world of Kolkata in the early 19th century, I imagine it involved something steamy. As for Warren Hastings, he was the energetic Governor of Bengal who succeeded the psychopathic Clive in 1875. To be a friend of Warren Hastings”, as Miss Sanderson’s husband was, according to their plaque, was to be admitted to the highest echelons of power in the East India Company.
As I walk along the pathways I feel as though I am moving in slow motion, like a voyager returning from a distant galaxy to find that time has slowed down. I have a pocket full of technology and yet I am surrounded by the remains of a world that no longer exists. I stop to rest on the step of a colonnaded tomb surmounted by a graceful sandstone cupola. I take out my communicator and update my social media. I have a story to tell: a story that I discovered back in December while sitting in a café researching my trip…
The Moghuls came from Central Asia. Descended from Genghis Khan and Tamburlaine, they swept down from the steppes in the sixteenth century, conquering all who stood in their way. Adept horsemen, ruthless warriors, they lived in the saddle and took no prisoners. And they founded the greatest empire the world has ever seen.
Zahīr ud-Din Mohammad was from Uzbekistan. He was a direct descendant of Timur (Tamburlaine) and was destined to become the first Moghul Emperor. His forces defeated the Sultan of Delhi at the Battle of Panipat on April 21st, 1556. It was the first time that gunpowder and field artillery (Chinese inventions adopted and perfected by the Moghuls) had been used on the subcontinent. Against such technology, the forces of the Sultan were helpless. After the battle, the victorious Zahīr ud-Din Mohammad took the name Babur, meaning “tiger”, and established himself as Emperor of his new dominion. He married several times and one of his sons, Humayan, would become the next Emperor upon Babur’s death in 1530. But all was not well in the empire.
Humayun was only 22 when he succeeded his father. Inexperienced and unsure of himself, Humayun was deposed by Sher Shah Suri and forced into exile in Persia. The story of Humayun’s escape across the Thar Desert, with his pregnant wife and a small group of faithful servants is one of the great adventure stories of medieval history. Humayun remained in exile for fifteen years but was eventually able to raise an army and defeat Islam Shah (the son of Sher Shar Suri who had died in 1545) at the battle of Sirhind on June 22nd, 1555.
With the Mughal Empire restored, Humayun set about changing its character from its still largely Central Asian focus to one based on the customs and ideas of the Persians. Upon his death in 1556, Humayun was succeeded by his son Abu’l-Fath Jalal-ud-din Mohammad Akbar who consolidated the empire and established a centralised administration, unifying the many different tribes and cultures within the empire into an all-encompassing Indo-Persian culture.
Akbar was fond of literature and created a library of over 24,000 volumes in Sanskrit, Urdu, persian, Greek, Latin, Arabic and Kashmiri. He did much of the cataloguing himself. He established schools for both boys and girls throughout his empire and consulted with holy men, poets, architects and architects from all over the world. Disillusioned with orthodox Islam, Akbar created a syncretic religion derived from aspects of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. In 1572 he annexed the state of Gujarat which had, until then, been controlled by the Portuguese, thus securing the empire’s access to the Indian Ocean.
Akbar’s son, Jahangir succeeded him as emperor in 1605. Jahangir (whose birth name was Salim) ascended the Peacock Throne eight days after his father’s death. As was customary in the Moghul court, where fratricide and even patricide was common, Jahangir had to defend his right to rule from attacks by his own son, Khusrau Mirza, who had been favored by Akbar as his successor. After being defeated by Jahangir’s forces at Lahore, Khusrau Mirza’s followers were publically impaled in front of him. Khusrau himself was then blinded and in 1622 was killed by his younger brother, Prince Khurram who would later become Shah Jehan.
Historians believe that Jahangir followed no orthodox religion. He had the Sikh Guru Arjan Dev killed and his lands confiscated as punishment for supporting Khusrau Mirza in his bid for the Peacock Throne. The first English ambassador to the Mughal court, Sir Thomas Roe, described Jahangir as an atheist and wrote that the Emperor was “the most impossible man in the world to be converted, or the most easy; for he loves to hear, and hath so little religion yet, that he can well abide to have any derided.”
In 1613 the Portuguese took the Mughal treasure ship Rahimi which was laden with one hundred thousand Rupees and with pilgrims bound for Mecca. In retaliation (the ship and its contents were owned by Jahangir’s mother) Jahangir seized the Portuguese town of Damon and ordered the apprehension of all Portuguese citizens within the empire. This was the beginning of several centuries of wrangling by European powers over control of the subcontinent and its resources.
Jahangir was fascinated by art and architecture. His court adopted many European influences and paintings created during his reign were carefully dated and curated which has enabled later scholars to find context to each work. Despite this, he is considered by historians to have been a weak and ineffectual ruler. Some attribute his dissolute character to be the result of his addiction to wine and to opium. He died in 1627 from complications resulting from a severe cold. He was succeeded by his son, Khurram, who took the empire to new heights.
The reign of Shahab-ud-din-Mohammad Kurrham, known to the world as Shah Jahan (King of the World), represents the height of Moghul architectural achievement, most notably in the Taj Mahal. Under Jahan, the empire’s military might was also expanded. The Marwari cavalry horse was introduced to his armies and various new types of cannon were mass-produced.
But although he was a successful military commander, it is the architecture of the period that is Jehan’s enduring legacy. The Taj Mahal, built as a tomb and monument to the Shah’s beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, the Delhi Mosque and the exquisite Red Fort are his crowning achievements.
Jehan became ill in 1658 and his son, Dara Silīoh assumed the role of regent. This incurred the wrath of his siblings, especially Aurangzeb, who raised an army (he was already Commander-in-Chief of the empire’s military) and defeated Dara after a series of battles. Aurangzeb declared his father, who had recovered from his illness, unfit to reign and had him confined to the Agra Fort. Cared for by his daughter Jahanara, the old man lived out his days looking wistfully down the river to the Taj Mahal where Mumtaz Mahal, the love of his life, lay entombed. He died in January 1666 and was buried beside her.
Aurangzeb, the last of the so-called great Moghuls, is widely regarded as the empire’s most effective ruler. During his reign the empire reached its greatest extent, comprising four million square kilometres, a population of 158 million people and an annual revenue ten times that of Europe’s richest ruler, Louis XIV. The empire’s economy expanded and by 1700 accounted for 25% of the world’s GDP.
Aurangzeb, whose birth name was Muhi-ud-Din Muhammad and whose regal name translated as “Ornament of the Throne”, was noted for his piety. He memorized the Quran and observed the rituals and strictures of Islam. He neither pursued a luxurious lifestyle nor spent extravagantly, seeing himself more as a trustee of the Royal Treasury. His personal expenses and the costs associated with the construction of his mosques and other buildings was covered by his own earnings. These included sewing caps and the sale of his hand-written copies of the Quran.
Aurangzeb’s reign is sometimes regarded by historians as being a period of religious intolerance. Others argue that he employed significantly more Hindus in his Imperial bureaucracy than any previous of subsequent emperors and that he opposed bigotry towards Hindus and Sikhs. However, there is no doubt that by imposing Muslim rule over much of the subcontinent, Aurangzeb set in motion the conditions for the sectarian strife that still exists between Hindus and Muslims today.
Aurangzeb died at the age of 89 in February 1707. He had outlived most of his children. In his pockets he had the paltry sum of 300 Rupees which was given to charity according to his wishes. The last Great Moghul Emperors is buried in a modest open-air tomb at Khuldabad, near the city of Aurangabad. Aurangzeb decreed that his last resting-place should be open to the sky in keeping with the simple life he had led. His only great building, the Bibi Ka Maqbara, resting place of his beloved wife Dilras Banu Begum, is only a few kilometres away.
The emperors that succeeded Aurangzeb were increasingly weak and ineffectual. The Mughal Empire began to shrink and collapse as wars of succession, mismanagement and the inevitable ennui to which all empires eventually succumb, took their toll. Rival empires began to assert their control over the Mughals. The most important of these came from a small, green island far off in the west. It was called The British Empire.
The air is humid and a few spots of rain begin to fall.
Morning at Howrah Station. As the Doon Express pulls into Platform 5, I look out through a scratched and grimy perspex window at the sun, rising pale and wan, through a haze of smoke and mist. Porters shift loads of hessian-wrapped freight along the platform, dodging and weaving among the throng of people disembarking from another train on the opposite side. The train stops with a gentle lurch. I swing up my backpack and stand in the aisle waiting for the doors to open. A steward moves through the carriage collecting rubbish. I shuffle forward with the rest of the passengers and step out onto the platform
The cavernous interior of the concourse is surprisingly clean and uncrowded. This is one of the busiest railway stations in the world yet at this hour – 7am on a Monday morning – the main rush hours are yet to begin. First completed in 1854, Howrah Station is also the oldest railway station complex in India. Two million people pass through the station daily. Its 23 platforms handle more than 600 trains each day. The tracks leaving the station branch out to 1373 other stations all over India.
As I make my way towards the exit, I remember Paul Theroux’s description of the station when he arrived here in 1978. He described a Dickensian gloom peopled with ragged figures asleep in crepuscular corners. I saw smartphone screens, businessmen and colourful saris. The walls are painted in somewhat garish shades of yellow and purple. There are armed police patrolling. No one bothers me.
Outside the station I thread my own way through the clamorous bustle of the bus station and up onto the steel lattice of the Howrah Bridge. The air is humid and a few spots of rain begin to fall. The wheels of an endless stream of cars and trucks rattle on the deck plates. Pedestrians, many carrying bundles on their heads, line the walkway on the outside of the bridge. A few beggars sit listlessly against the railing, their hands out. I donate a fifty rupee note each to a couple of them and set off across the bridge.
Kolkata is India’s seventh most populous city. The city itself has a population of 4.5 million but with the inclusion of its surrounding metro area that number grows to 14 million. Founded in the late seventeenth century by the East India Company as a fortified trading post, Calcutta (the Anglicized name was used until 2001) was the company’s administrative centre for more than one hundred and fifty years. When the British Government took over the running of India from the company following the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Calcutta became one of the jewels of the British Empire.
On the far side of the bridge I descend the curving abutment path into the decayed chaos of Mahatma Gandhi Road. A swarm of yellow taxis hurtle past, their drives peering out at me in the hope that I might be looking for a lift. I pause on a corner beside a cluster of stalls and order an Ola. While I wait for it to arrive I chat to a stallholder about the cricket. The Second Test between New Zealand and India has just commenced back home. I ask him what the score is and he turns to the sports page of the Times of India which he has spread out before him on the wooden table where his wares will soon be displayed. The Indian team elected to bat first; the score is 20 for nothing.
My Ola arrives – another battered white Hyundai – and I clamber into the back seat. I am sweating and my cold weighs heavily on my head. As the driver threads his way in and out of traffic, dives down narrow back streets, I half doze. On Chowringhee Road we join a flowing river of vehicles then decant into a side street and pull up outside the Peerless Inn Hotel.
I pay the drive twice the quoted fare for his efficient driving. A footman opens the door for me. Begging children appear as if out of thin air. The hotel towers overhead. Inside it is quiet and warm and busy. My room isn’t ready but the concierge says I can sit in the lobby until it is. I order a latte from a tiny, spotless stall. The girl brings it out and places it on the glass table in front of me. It tastes amazing. The concierge comes over and offers me an early check-in package for an extra R1,000 including a buffet breakfast.
My suite is a bit extravagant for a solo traveller. It has three rooms. Everything is upholstered with pale green baize. I shower and descend to the Oceanic Room. I am starving. I eat fresh pineapple, bread rolls, two poached eggs, and toast with butter and marmalade. The waiter brings me a pot of English Breakfast tea.
I sit at a table beside a wide plate glass window. Outside, it is raining. The raindrops splash onto the verdant foliage of palms and ferns planted in a garden. Inside, I listen to a group of American tourists discussing their day. They don’t seem to know what they will be doing but something has been organised for them. I plan to go out and find a café and maybe visit the Park Street Cemetery. But first, I need to sleep.
Her long dress is bright amid the sea of black dresses…
It is raining on Park Street. Outside the big plate glass window of the Barista Café, the black tarmac of the street gleams beneath the rush of tyres and bright yellow taxis. People hurry past on the pavement beneath undulating waves of umbrellas. The rain drips gently from an opaque sky. Above the street, beyond the spider-web tracery of power and telephone lines, the white facades of Old Calcutta – British Calcutta – loom: parapets, columns, pediments and pilasters. Black-trunked peepal trees grow along the edge of the pavement, their pale green, oblate leaves silver-glazed with rain.
A flood of cars – original Morris Oxfords, SUVs, bashed-up Hyundai Micros – stop momentarily for pedestrians. The digital clock on the building across the street reads 09:37. Another wave of umbrellas breaks along the strand of Park Street. Maroon 5 is playing on the café sound system: “this city’s made us crazy and we must get out…”
I finish my coffee and step out onto the street. I am immediately caught up in the flowing crowds: business-people on their way to work in the stone and steel towers louring overhead. After the quiet of the Barista Café, the roaring traffic, blaring horns and jostle of people is jarring. But the human current is inexorable; like a swimmer in a rip I have no choice but to go with it.
Ahead of me, I see the Lady in Red. Her long dress is bright amid the sea of black dresses, dark coats, grey umbrellas and dark jeans. She is walking with a companion. Both of them are talking into their cellphones.
There are crows on the power lines overhead. The warm rain drips from the trees. The cracked and broken pavement is littered with shimmering puddles. I pass a derelict building, the skeleton of its brickwork protruding from a skin of grimy white plaster tattooed with Arabic graffiti. The roots of a fig tree are entwined around it like a monster from a Ridley Scott sci-fi. The single, glassless eye of its window is choked with debris.
The crowds thin to a trickle: a Kolkata trickle, that is, with hundreds of people rather than thousands. The lady in red and her friend cross Dr M.L.K. Sarani Street and disappear into the city. As I lose sight of her I feel like a mariner who has lost sight of a beacon. I am in unknown waters here. But I have my chart and my course is plotted. I turn right across Park Street and into the old cemetery.