Two Men and a Railway Line

Steam Power, the Opium Trade, and Calcutta of the 1840s

In the 1840s, as the opium trade flourished in its secrecy, and with its unprecedented successes, two men had ambitions of building India's first railway line. The railway line running north-eastwards from Calcutta was envisaged earlier than the one from Bombay and those who spoke for it were two men with distinctly opposite backgrounds. Dwarkanath Tagore, Calcutta's merchant prince and Rowland Macdonald Stephenson, engineer and railway enthusiast par excellence who were drawn together in circumstances unique to that period. It was a time when the idea of empire and the relation a colony bore to the former was still being debated, a period when other freedoms, especially that of trade were passionately championed. This is the story of two men, born in an age of apparent freedoms, with unparalleled opportunities; men who were as much victims of their age, just as they constituted in several ways its great success stories.

Calcutta in the East Asian World

"Opium is a pernicious article of luxury, which ought not to be permitted but for the purpose of foreign commerce only." -- Warren Hastings in 1783.

By the early 1840s, the railway bubble that had drawn great enthusiasm in Britain, and had seen breakneck construction, investment, petered out with a bang. There were by this time one too many railway companies, lines had become became unprofitable, duplicated themselves, and engineers who had been pioneers of all this and who now found themselves its victims realised it was time to look elsewhere. Britain had its colonies, a growing empire that afforded chances and opportunities and a failed banker turned engineer called Rowland Macdonald Stephenson availed himself of one such. He moved to Calcutta, the centre of Britain's colonial operations. This was the city where the East India Company (EIC) had established itself, and where Stephenson's forebears had already served as private traders and in the armies of the EIC.

It was with Calcutta as its base that the EIC had expanded not merely into India but also to the southeast. In the 1820s, Penang and Singapore were part of the Straits Settlements, ruled from Calcutta. The pattern of the EIC's growth as traders and rulers, however had a certain imbalance, for it always needed profits to sustain its very mode of existence. In the early years of its domination of India, tea was increasingly a popular source of consumption sourced from China and it had to be paid for in silver. To prevent this outflow, the EIC from the late 1780s had its sights and heart set on opium, grown in large quantities in the east. At the same time, its monopoly as sole traders was increasingly threatened as the 19th century set in, and free trade principles became de rigueur. In 1813, its monopoly on trade in India ended and in 1833, more private traders entered the scene, especially in the opium trade with the China. Nevertheless, the EIC still retained its position as the premier cultivator of opium in East India. All this was to lead to a covert, very profitable relationship between the EIC, private traders based across a wide swath of region in south east Asia, south Asia and China, as well as agents, merchants, bankers and even landlords of Bengal. Calcutta in particular thrived in this period, it was a period of great efflorescence but it rested on shaky foundations.

The dependence the private traders had on the EIC was symbiotic and mutual. The former bought the Company's opium, sailed with it, and paid the trade proceeds into the EIC's treasury at Canton, which was used to buy tea. This mutual dependence was a fluid, amorphous one, never following the clear-cut lines of orderly trade. Ships were all owned by private companies, and these could be Portuguese (the Barrettos), other Europeans, the Parsis and increasingly American traders too, in a complex cross-holding pattern. For example, the leading traders Jardine Matheson invested in every ship but never actually owned any. Lending agencies were a wide variety of individuals and firms, with varied interests, from land to mining to shipping.

One man who came to wield great influence was Dwarkanath Tagore, a scion of the impressive landholding family and who became foremost of the 'merchant princes' of the period. In the range of his activities, the sphere of his influence, there was no one who could compare, but as with the city during this period that held much promise, his rise proved ephemeral for his fortunes were invariably linked to the EIC. And it was the latter that set the pattern for most things in this period, its impetus for action came from wider trade movements in the east Asia as well as political directives from the West, i.e., London.

Tagore was the man Rowland Stephenson came into contact with when he arrived in Calcutta in 1843. They had common interests and both dreamed big. Stephenson came as representative of a steam navigation company but he soon began writing for The Englishman, a paper that Tagore had bought from another Englishman Joachim Stocqueler, who also at times called himself Joachim Siddons.

Stephenson came later to own this paper but it was here in its pages that in 1844, he made his first eloquent espousal of the railways. He proposed six different lines, covering 5000km of the country. Stephenson's plans would be seen as grandiose but when he wrote this piece, his passionate avowals did get Tagore's attentions. Tagore soon had his own ideas too, and a year later, the two men would fall apart on this and other issues. In the story of their rivalry, the story of two different railway lines and companies, and the arrival finally of the railways in eastern India, lies the story of Calcutta in this period, and the twists and turns of global trade, centred on opium. In 1842, Britain fighting in the interests of its traders and freedom to trade, had secured more concessions under the Treaty of Nanking. The Treaty made no reference to opium which made a more strengthened EIC to develop its trade even more surreptitiously, moves that would link more closely Calcutta to Canton, and set the entire direction of the world economics then.

Networks of Trade

The Tagores were among the first native groups of Calcutta, who flocked here following the EIC's emergence in 1750s, and they mainly assisted as contractors, agents and brokers. There were other communities such as Armenians and Baghdadi Jews, and also Marwaris and Khatris who came here in large numbers. The Tagores actually began as priests for the fishing villages originally around Calcutta. Later, they became suppliers or commissariats for the EIC at Fort William and the merchantmen, i.e., ships owned by other traders, that were always docked in the river's lower reaches. All these networks and connections developed in this early period were to prove good as the opium trade assumed dominance, and forged even greater intimate connections between these groups. The Parsi ship-owner Rustom Cowasjee, for example, supplied ships first to Jardine Matheson. But he was also a close associate of Dwarkanath Tagore; Cowasjee's ships were built in the Kidderpore Docks partly owned by Tagore and he in turn invested in Tagore's companies notably the Great Western Bengal Railway Company.

The EIC made its first shipment of opium to Britain in 1609, and it became very popular for its 'medicinal properties'. Opium cultivation in the Bengal region grew by leaps and bounds. First, under the Dutch whose trade the EIC usurped in 1760. Between 1785-1799, cultivation of opium was placed on a more secure footing. It was contracted out to several thousand cultivators, who were directly bound to the Company, and then there were two government appointed opium agents at Patna and Benares. The method of how indigo had been cultivated earlier, helped later in securing opium cultivation, production and trade on a large scale, except that the opium cultivation was a more carefully directed enterprise. The indigo trade had always been too speculative and fortunes were lost gambling on its sale, since cultivation and production almost took two years. The trade worked on the hypothecation system, where bills exchanged for transport and sale of goods such as indigo. but the system collapsed because of over-speculation.

All this was in part to see a spectacular collapse of the agency houses in early 1830s -- especially those that had invested heavily in indigo trade.

Opium cultivation actively encouraged by the East India Company even when the trade came into private hands. William Bentinck, Governor General in the early 1830s helped increase the land substantially under opium cultivation in the middle Gangetic plain. More than 5000 farmers were contracted to cultivate opium, and it sustained an entire economy of clerks, accountants and other officials. More land was brought under cultivation in the east. and the peasant came into contact with fluctuations in the world market system. The EIC invested more heavily and in a far more early period in the Bengal Opium than in the Malwa opium, which was concentrated in the hands of the Parsis, Portuguese and other traders. In 1834, iron steamboats had already begun operating on the Ganga; due to its costs, only special goods of high value could use it. The EIC had its own flotilla of ships to transport the opium downriver.

Opium trade for all its amorphousness was closely regulated, and so much so that it rarely figures in government records. It certainly didn't feature in the Treaty of Nanking (1842) that secured for the traders even more concessions in its trade with China. The world of private traders saw immense change too in this period. Those with better coordinated networks, agents in every market as Jardine Matheson had, and ably provided with the new fast-moving clippers, flourished. William Jardine had travelled to Bombay in 1820, and involved himself in the opium trade from thereon. The cotton trade was then very depressed for American cotton more than supplied the Lancashire demands. The time was just right to invest heavily in the opium trade. In 1820, an opium syndicate formed between leading European Canton agents. Jardine Matheson and Company was set up in the 1830s and it rented and operated its own opium clippers, and its network of agents, collaborators and associates helped it maintain an effective control and dominance over the trade for the next few decades. It was the Jardine clipper Sarah that carried tea to China once EIC monopoly had ended in 1833. On the other hand, no one also quite symbolised this change than the rise and fall of Palmer and Company involved in the opium trade till the 1820s and that collapsed too suddenly.

The clippers used extensively from the mid-1830s onward were fast-plying machines. In 1835, clippers made in New York and Boston were giving the East Indiamen a run for their money. They were fast, and could move against the wind very effectively. The clippers saw major innovations. Faster and sleeker, they could make two journeys to Canton in a year. Later, they were steam-powered. The trade was supported by an extensive infrastructure of men and machinery and land too. The EIC controlled the cultivation strictly and while it rented steam boats to transport the opium, they tried hard not to depend too much on Tagore (the largest coal supplier from 1836 onwards) even as it tried to ensure ever more concessions and profits for the British coal producers (promising them a return of 13 per cent during the mid-1840s).

The ships were owned by a whole range of influential people beginning from the prince regent of England (later king George IV). The Barings family that had married into Jardine Matheson owned and operated clippers and later steam ships. From 1843, these ships began to be increasingly built outside India. Jardine complained that even repairing ships in Bombay was beginning to be costly. There is also a reference that ships made in Calcutta were costlier, from where in 1829, the opium ship Red Rover first sailed, but more and more ships began to be built outside. The dockyards of Calcutta reached their peak in 1821 when 272 ships made, many heavy-built ones like the East Indiamen. By the 1830s, Kidderpore and Howrah dockyards were solely involved in repairing ships, and in 1836, Calcutta Docking Company was formed to purchase these yards. Among the promoters was Rustom Cowasjee as was Tagore. Carr, Tagore and Company also purchased the lower Howrah Docks from Barretto and Company. In 1841, it was leased again to the Calcutta Docking Company.

Remington and Crawford operating from Bombay obtained their ships from Liverpool and Gosport (England). Dwarkanath's ships, a couple of which were used for opium trade, were used more for transporting war correspondence during the First Opium War.

The Merchant Prince

Dwarkanath Tagore (1794-1845) was a rich landlord and merchant, and he gambled well on his holdings. Dwarkanath first made his mark, as he began working with British agents, who were in turn actively associated with the Company. Tagore also employed Europeans as managers of his estates. His indigo plantations and those he invested in or lent money to, would make him prosperous beyond measure but also be the cause of his downfall; his managing agency house Carr, Tagore and Company was to fold up in years after his death in 1845. Between 1822-1834 he managed the salt agency of the 24 Parganas under the EIC's Board of Customs, Salt, and Opium, where he supervised the production and distribution of salt.

There was some controversy during this time when one of his subordinates accused him of demanding money that was adjusted from credit provided to the salt growers. The case went all the way up to the India Office and Tagore was let off, as the accusations didn't appear to legally hold, and the main accused, the darogha died in the meantime. But he resigned from this position to concentrate on his business.

He speculated in cargoes of indigo and silks, as King cites. He leased a ship with another merchant, that sailed to Brazil. It carried spices (rum, aniseed, nutmeg, evidently from Spice Islands), but it is believed that the voyage was not very commercially successful. In the late 1820s, he was key in the setting up of the Union Bank, along with other prominent merchants (foreign and a few Indian). And when the older Commercial Bank, part of the operations of the agency house Mackintosh and Company (in which James Matheson worked as an apprentice in Calcutta) failed, he assured that he would honour its debts. His solvency was due in large part to his zamindari holdings.

Tagore deliberately called himself a merchant not a bania. His independent thinking is evident in the support and credit he accorded to an independent private trader such as John Palmer, who stood for political and economic ideals like emancipation and free trade. He also believed that the Indian merchant should actively collaborate with the foreign trader and also with the British as rulers for this would be mutually beneficial in a new age of commerce and empire.

Besides the economic changes in the period, when the local was linked to wider interests, it was also a time of social reform, a cause that caused enough conflict to divide the native society and this was best embodied in the Tagore family -- whose different branches would find itself much divided over the issue of sati. Dwarkanath himself, a protégé of Rammohun Roy, would however hesitate over fully committing himself to his senior friend and mentor's espousal of theological reform and Unitarian sympathies. The Brahmo samaj was founded in 1828. Dwarkanath Tagore though was never as iconoclastic as the man he idolised though he deferred to him in public. He realised the British support mattered especially in the matter of Sati. and he was passionate in speaking up against Sati.

Tagore also came to the rescue of his older cousin's sons when they lost heavily in the opium speculation of the mid 1820s to Barreto and sons and Alexander and Company. The Barrettos were trusted aides of Jardine Matheson, and helped them with trade in Macau and later Hong Kong. Joseph Barreto came originally from an East Indian family in Goa and he had taken on the name of his baptismal godfather.

In the next few years, Tagore would be keenly interested in harnessing the technology of the steam engine and seeking to adapt it for commercial ends. He came to set up and own steam and river boat companies; he also organised the first coal mines (Raniganj in 1836) and was one of the early promoters of the railways in India. He also invested in ocean plying ships, and in tea plantations and sugar mills.

But while the support of the EIC as rulers was important in his various ventures, he did come up against the EIC in various ways. For instance as Blair Kling tells us in 1829, a petition of the European mercantile community to own land in the mofussil areas was opposed by the officials of the EIC and some of the conservative elements of Bengali society. This was probably due to the fact that it was the EIC that personally invested in land for opium cultivation. had established two Opium collection centres. and relied heavily on steamboats and riverboats to draw the opium down the Ganga.

Tagore for his part, considered himself an 'imperial citizen', something that at times made him transcend ethnic loyalties as in this instance of his support for land settlement. This was because he cited indigo planters as having been generally beneficial in raising price of land, and commodities, and interaction would let Indians imbibe the entrepreneurial skills of Europeans.

In 1834, he set up his own managing agency, Carr, Tagore and Company; the money he would advance were actually notes drawn as surety on his landed estates. His rise was impressive considering there was so much difference and segregation in this period. The Parsis were always different, moving between countries and networks of trade. But in Calcutta for instance, the 'natives' were not allowed for long into the Chowringhee theatre, and had to dismount even when a junior subaltern passed. Indians were not allowed to promenade around Calcutta's Tank Square in the evenings. Tagore for his part patronized the Chowringhee theatre, where his friend, H M Parker, member of the board of customs, salt and opium played a key role.

When he bought the Ranigunj coal fields in 1836, he became almost the single provider of fuel to the Bengal presidency, and especially to the government's vessels. The EIC, even as it realised Tagore's utility to them and other merchants, was often hesitant grant Tagore too many concessions. and even a proposal by one of his associates to begin iron mining operations close to Raniganj as this would help the railways when it did materialize, was not acted on. Tagore sent the first shipment of tea to London in 1838 in his ships. A year later his firm assisted the tea plantations set up in Assam by the EIC but the latter weren't too keen on having too much of a presence of Carr, Tagore and Company in the plantations. The frontier areas were also, it was cited in government records, vulnerable and it needed the government's and military's presence more.

In 1840s, a crisis in coal supply resulted from floods in the Damodar valley. The Opium War meant that more coal was needed for war vessels. Tagore was the main supplier of coal and still, attempts were constantly made to obtain coal from England, and the returns promised were always higher.

It was these conflict of several interests, economic and the political, and -- wider interests conflicting with local ones that ensured that for all Tagore's efforts, the EIC covertly stepped on Tagore's toes on many an occasion. But perhaps it didn't single out Tagore in any way. Any industry, even if small and local that threatened competition with British ones were forced to close down. WIlliam Jones in 1811 established a cartridge factory in short supply during the Java expedition, but the court of directors discouraged it on account that it was competing with paper manufacturers in England.

Steam Power

Businessmen like Tagore came to invest in steam powered industries despite the paucity of capital in the early 1840s. Tagore and his agency house first invested and built steam engines, and used these on tug boats to dredge the Hughli river. The Steam Tug Association he set up operated tug boats from Calcutta to the mouth of the Hughli river, which was a dangerous stretch of water, with deceptive sand levels and shallows. Sailing ships took 15 days and a tug boat two to cross this stretch.

But most steam engines were also imported from Britain. and used in sugar mills, steamers, collieries, rice and paper mills. Tagore and company soon became biggest shareholders of this company while others dropped out, and a Bengali paper attributed it to jealousy. In 1848, there were problems found in accounting and as it turned out major expenses had to be provided in depreciation and frequent repair of the tugboats.

Tagore also promoted the Steam Ferry Bridge, to transport men and goods across the Hughli to Howrah. It envisaged an iron floating bridge across the river. But this failed too in 1844, and was blamed on a poor survey, and bad man management practices.

Tagore's concept of business, as in his keenness to pursue the Steam Ferry Bridge, always had a philanthropic, philosophical tone. Business, he also thought, to improve the lot of others, mattered more. And the government of the time caught between the need to promote economic development in a colony and the doctrine of laissez faire, vacillated. The latter doctrine moreover worked to the advantage of the opium trade.

At the same time, Tagore was a man who didn't for long sustain his energies in any one venture. Yet with all his contradictions, he persisted in his own way, no matter how innocuously difficult the circumstances. By the 1840s, like most far-sighted Indians, other than Parsis, he had invested in ocean shipping. One of Tagore's partners in the new firm was David McLeod Gordon, related to James Gordon associated with the opium trade and the firm of Jardine Matheson. Tagore owned two other opium clippers, one built at Kidderpore called the Ariel and the other Mavis built at Akyab (in Rakhine state as it was called then in present day Myanmar). Ariel was seized by Commissioner Lin Zexu during the Opium standoff with private traders in 1839, and Mavis was struck by lightning in 1842. His company had shares in other ships engaged in Indo-British trade. The Water Witch was a clipper owned by Tagore and it sometimes operated on the opium trade. In 1848, it was bought by the firm Lancelot and John Dent and Company, one of the bigger opium firms in Canton.

More discouragement came Tagore's way when he put forward his plans to set up the Indian General Steam navigation company, to operate riverboats down the Ganga. At the same time, his plans to operate a mail steamship to operate between Calcutta and London led to the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) being awarded the contract to do so in India. P&O would in a big way get involved in the opium trade from the late 1840s soon after it began operations in Calcutta.

The Steam Navigation Company was the arena where Rowland Stephenson and Tagore would soon come into conflict. Stephenson was part of the Indian General Steam Navigation Company as it was floated but there was disagreement on letting Carr, Tagore and Company have controlling ownership of it. Stephenson wanted to be MD of the Company but in the end, a candidate favoured by Carr Tagore and Company was favoured. These differences would play out in the matter of the railways too, especially on how it would be built.

In 1845, Tagore was behind the setting up of the Great Western Bengal Railway Company (GWBRC) to help in the easy transportation of Raniganj coal to Calcutta while Stephenson wanted to set up the East India Railway Company (EIR), to make, as he wrote, the markets of the west and the northwest accessible to Calcutta and its port. Stephenson had written in his 1844 piece in the Englishman how a line up north would help in the indigo, opium, and saltpetre transportation for which Bihar was a key centre.

When Stephenson's efforts were initially not acted on, he returned to England and spoke eloquently for railways. Earlier in 1843, he had also written to the Chinese authorities in Beijing offering to be China's Ambassador in 1843 as a newspaper report of the day has it. His EIR was set up finally in 1845 in direct opposition to Tagore's GWBRC. It had more London men in it, and it promised to expand mercantile trade interests more than local ones. Both men put forward their own different proposals for a railway line from Calcutta to Mirzapur (Ranigunj in Tagore's case). The encouragement Tagore's railways would receive, was always limited. Even the proposal one of Tagore's associates made to mine iron ore available close to the coalfields for the proposed railway companies was not acted on by the home office.

The delay was also tied to a second financial collapse (following that of 1833). The one in 1845-47 resulted from speculation in commodities, that overreached itself, and this meant capital too wasn't forthcoming on the kind of heavy investment the railways needed. It was largely due to the wheat famine in Ireland and high American cotton prices. But in 1847, a bumper wheat crop led to speculators crashing again. In Britain, railway companies absorbed the floating capital into long term heavy capital investment, which is why initial investment was so slow and cautious in turn.

Tagore died perhaps a broken man in 1846. That decade Calcutta began with rich promise but it fell apart a bit towards the end of the 1840s. Its businessmen came to play a secondary role. Blair Kling suggests that the age of enterprise fell apart because it could not really take advantage of modern technology; for instance, steam power was embraced radically but innovations and improvement were sorely lacking, as were proper management resources. Kling also cites official policy and the anti-business sentiment that dominated the culture of Bengal.

This difference in land owning was also cited by Kling and others as a reason why businessmen in Bombay prospered. They were always traders first and were not really tied to the land. But it is not quite correct to say that social and cultural factors were to blame. The businessmen who thrived under the EIC's auspices were there were mainly interested in commercial prospects and not interested in long term investment projects. There was also the adverse effect of heavy commodity trade imbalance on prices and investments. Its products were particularly susceptible to world price fluctuations. Local industrial development was always subsumed to bigger trade interests and also imperial motives.

An Engineer with a Dream

Rowland Macdonald Stephenson (1808-1895) was one of the oldest serving members of the Institute of Civil Engineers when he died in 1895. He was most instrumental in disseminating engineering ideas in the part of the world where he made his work, India and China. He had a quite tumultuous childhood. Stephenson's father was a man who had made and unmade his own reputation as well as several fortunes many times. He even stood for Parliament. But he was soon accused of defrauding his bank and escaped with a colleague, his junior. to the US on a small boat transferring himself to a schooner some miles into the Atlantic. He was to remain in exile in the US and never returned.

Born in 1808, from Northwest England (Cumberland and Westmoreland) Rowland Macdonald (who shared his father's first name) worked in the banking industry for a while and when the firm collapsed, he joined an engineering firm at Staffordshire in 1828. It was one of the bigger firms then called the Gospel Oak Ironworks and benefited largely from the boom in railway construction that England was then experiencing. The firm also made the famous Walker cannons, among other things too. Stephenson appears to have been a largely self-taught engineer. He was also creatively inclined to use engineering is apparent too in the drawings and plans he made, ostensibly to show a more effective and efficacious arrangement of props that a theatre stage required; plans that he insisted would mean less use of labour.

Ten years later in 1838, he joined a company, that was exploring possibilities of regular steam communication in India. His association with the steam navigation company was to finally lead him eastwards, in 1843. Steam he realised would not only speed up travel, it would also fuel trade and enhance prosperity. The company he was part of would soon become part of the famous Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company incorporated in 1840. His experience of the railways in Britain would also lead him to the East India Company and to its officials in Bengal he first broached the subject of introducing the railways. This happened first in the pages of the Englishman, and then in his exchanges with the EIC's officials.

The EIC's records and exchanges with Stephenson show that their initial reaction was caution, and their inclination was to move slowly. It was suggested that white ants would destroy the sleepers that were laid out. There was always the danger of recurring floods, while weeds and other native vegetation would choke up the line. Last, it was also stressed that the 'natives' would never deign to use the railway line.

In the Englishman in 1844 that he wrote an article, making an eloquent and passionate appeal for the railways in India. He spoke in terms of trade and also social uplift, and also quoted native merchants such as Tagore, Mutty Lal Seal and others who favoured the railways. At the same time, he published in the local as well as English journals reports of other railway companies, that brought the subject alive and familiarized it to the readers.

The then governor general Ellenborough tended to regard the idea as fanciful. But WIlberforce Bird and Fred Halliday (acting governor general on Ellenborough's recall and secretary of state for India respectively) saw it favourably. Halliday's correspondence with Stephenson was even published in the Government Gazette. Stephenson was keen on some official support if the railways were to be built with the aid of private capital. Heavy investment in infrastructure wasn't possible otherwise, especially in an age when quick profits were possible. Besides the investment required, and the arguments over its real utility in India. There were the clippers that operated in the wide seas, and the EIC had its own infrastructure regulating opium traffic.

Tagore's Great Western Bengal Railway Company, which had his associates on board like D W Leod and W P Andrew was a rival in this initial period to the EIR. W P Andrew wrote his own proposed railway line. There were soon open differences on how the line was envisaged. Stephenson wanted the line to begin from a point 20 miles above Calcutta , where the line would cross the river Hughli. This line would go straight onto Benares, and subsequent later lines would develop towards Delhi and Agra. The government though had other plans. It preferred the circuitous route along the Ganga. And the line as envisaged by Dwarkanath Tagore's company was to lead onto the Rajmahal Hills and the collieries located there. Later once the EIR was sanctioned and a line following the Ganga became accepted, a 'chord line' towards the coalfields brought the line somewhat in alignment with what Tagore had foreseen.

At the same time, the Great Western Bengal Railway Company had as its chairman D W Leod who was also the chairman of the Indian General Steam Navigation Company. This dual arrangement prompted W P Andrew to suggest a line from Calcutta from Rajmahal and then to take advantage of the developments in steam navigation to suggest that steamers could then be used to go up to Mirzapur, which was a huge emporia of trade. North Bihar was the centre of economic activity leading in indigo, saltpetre and of course opium.

In early 1845, a prospectus was drawn up about the East India Railway Company, and the court of directors a few months later entered into a correspondence with the Governor in Calcutta, on the feasibility of the railways. The Court also then appointed its own engineer, F W Simms to provide his own report about the possibility of the railways in India. A year later, in February 1846, the Simms committee recommended a line from Calcutta to Delhi. It was around this time that a survey was being made in the west too, led by John Chapman and William Pole, who headed the engineering class at Elphinstone, for a line first from Bombay to Tannah (Thane).

It was around this juncture too, that the ever restless Stephenson threw in his hat for the position of the managing director of the Indian General Steam Navigation Company. Finally, it was the EIR that found favour and on Tagore's death in 1846, the GWBRC was absorbed in the EIR. The discussion over the railways took another three years and it was in 1849 that the EIC entered into an agreement with the East India Railway Company to build a railway line that was purely 'experimental' and that would not cost beyond one million pound sterling. Stephenson travelled between India and England during this time, and he had an efficient staff including the engineer George Turnbull who would be the mainstay till the line to Benares was built (1863). The EIR competed with the attention of the government with the Great Indian Peninsular Railway (GIPR) set up around the same time for a line in the west. Despite this, in the survey to be conducted in 1850, the government did not allow lines to be drawn on the ground, instead bamboo towers had to be erected to carry makeshift lines.

As the story shows, the GIPR's progress was similar. The earlier formed Indian Railway Association did not work as again it was largely native owned and it was soon merged with the GIPR. Jamshetjee Jeejeebhoy who had better relations with those that mattered in trade and the EIC circles was one of two Indian directors on board. The other was Sir Jagannath Sunkershett.

These railway companies had to be owned by London shareholders so as to enabling their being trade in the London Markets. The capital was paid by the companies into the EIC's treasury, and shareholders were assured of a five per cent guarantee that came from the Indian treasury. Also it was a chance to favour British engineering industries despite the fact that the British owned Jessop and company based in Calcutta had offered to build the first railway line from Calcutta to Diamond Harbour.

Construction of the iron works was entrusted to James Meadows Rendel. But there were always some delays, some piquant ones, for example, part of the line went through Chandannagore, which was French territory and negotiations again took time.

The ship carrying the locomotive was strangely 'misdirected' or 'rerouted' to Australia before it was sent back. The other ship carrying the carriages HMS Goodwin sank at the Sandheads near Diamond Harbour, at the mouth of the Hughli. This was a dangerous area. So the carriages were instead made in Calcutta by two companies, Stewart and Company and Seton and Company. These two delays, almost mysteriously coincidental, have never been adequately explained.

The Sandheads were feared as very dangerous areas, only an expert sailor could navigate this treacherous area. The story, An Unqualified Pilot, by Rudyard Kipling amply illustrates this. In this story, young Jim Trevor, who is 14, is keenly interested in following his father's career as a sailor. His father navigates one of the most dangerous water stretches in the world, as Kipling writes. He navigates ships from the mouth of the Hughli onwards to Calcutta. This part of the river was dangerous and deceptively so, complete with shallow banks and slippery sand reaches. Many a ship had capsized and been lost and it needed an expert sailor to steer a ship through using his smaller tugboat. Jim's father was naturally keen that his son not follow him in this occupation. But Jim can't let go his dreams and so when a Chinese sailor illegally asks him for help, Jim readily agrees. He does an expert job of steering the ship through but earns his father's wrath. The senior Trevor realises he can no longer hold Jim back and has him apprenticed to a more experienced sailor to hone his skills further.

For all its delays, the first section of the EIR was inaugurated in 1855, in February. The 1857 revolt again set back the work of the railways, when equipment was lost, damaged or stolen and there was immense loss of men too. Construction labourers had to be rounded up all over again.

Lord Dalhousie's famous Minute of 1853 helped propel the railway project forward. But Stephenson's health failed soon after and he had to return to England. He remained on board the EIR till 1892. His services were widely appreciated and rewarded. In 1857, he offered his services to set up a railway line in Turkey, that ran from Smyrna to Aidin and made up the Imperial Ottoman Railway. As far back as 1850 Stephenson had envisioned lines linking India to Britain (Calcutta to Calais) with stoppages across the English Channel and the Mediterranean. This would reduce the long journey to just seven days.

But of course, there were many others who thought it was impracticable and capitalists asked for impracticable guarantees. In 1863, he visited China soon after the Taiping Rebellion had been suppressed. This time though this was at the invitation of the firm of Jardine and Matheson (now run by a later generation of relatives and associates of the original founders). Stephenson's first proposed line was dismantled and pulled up by the suspicious Chinese authorities but he continued his ambitious work. Jardine Matheson and Company's Woosung Road Company that it had begun covertly had to fold up in three years time in 1867. Stephenson wrote another work on the railways in China, and drew up lines that would link South east China, onto the interior towards Yunnan in the southwest towards Burma and then onwards to Calcutta. All through the decades foreign companies would vie with each other to build railways from Chinese ports in the east to the interior. It might be suggested that these were attempts to beat the likin, the internal tax (that was finally ended in 1902), and extend the reach of trade into the interiors.

The age of ocean clippers soon gave way to steam ships and once the EIR was secure in its operations in India, even the transportation of opium moved to the railways, especially by 1870. China and India have today the largest rail networks in the world, while Stephenson's more extravagant dreams remain largely unfulfilled. If an age dawns when suspicion and hostility do not cloud diplomatic matters, a line linking Europe to Asia might still come about.

Material provided by Anuradha Kumar, Copyright © 2013
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