The British Empire Library

Epic Engineering: Great Canals and Barrages of Victorian India

by Alan Robertson

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Engineers working in India before 1947 are the poor relations of the British Raj, seldom featuring in those nostalgic histories of the period and even less so in romantic novels. In fact one would be hard pressed to name a book or a film in which an engineer features as hero. Yet engineering could be seen as an heroic occupation, particularly at the start of the nineteenth century when young Britons, just out of the military seminary at Addiscombe, were put in charge of enormous projects in India and an equally large workforce. These early engineers were part of the 'technical regiments' of the East India Company, like the Madras Sappers and Miners or the Bombay Engineering Corps, and they retained their army rank even when engaged in civil projects. British military engineers were responsible for many fine buildings in the sub-continent, and were frequently 'lent' by the Company to local rulers to build European-style palaces. When Arthur Cotton was recuperating from a fairly serious accident in 1841, (he had been experimenting with a steam-engine that blew up), he was assigned the 'suitable light duty ' of building a church at Vizagapatam. Cotton, later Sir Arthur Cotton, is certainly one of the two heroes of this book - the other is Sir Proby Cautley, and it is their work in tapping and diverting the waters of India's great rivers, that provides the engineering epics of the title. There had been successful efforts at damming the rivers as far back as the second century AD when the Chola kings built a thousand-foot long barrage across a branch of the Cauvery river. Indeed, the word 'anicut,' used to describe these early riverine diversions comes from the Tamil anai kattu, meaning a dam.

Quite apart from the technical details of water control, which are lucidly explained with excellent illustrations, it is the rivalry between Cotton and Cautley , mediated by the East India Company, always watching the rupees, that is explored here in detail. Cotton wanted irrigation canals to benefit the local farmers, while Cautley was more interested in solving hydraulic problems and writing a three volume engineering manual. Today it is Arthur Cotton who is more fondly remembered in India, with a handsome post-Independence statue and a modern barrage across the Godaveri that bears his name. He was 'a natural rebel' who believed the Government 'was there to help him realise his dreams, not to demand accurate budgets'. Cautley, on the other hand , was very much a pro-government establishment figure , who survived the scandal of divorce following his wife's adultery. It has to be said that this handsome, beautifully produced book does lose some of its momentum, once these two characters disappear from the stage.

Sadly, the author Alan Robertson, died before it was finished. After a successful career in the computer industry he took a Master's degree m Imperial and Commonwealth History at King's College, London and had become fascinated with the work of the great Victonan water engineers. The book was therefore edited and completed by Jeremy Berkoff, an expert in Asian irrigation and water management. It's a good read, and no-one should be put off by the word 'engineering' in the title. It is time that the work of these pioneers was properly recognized, and this is a very good starting point.

British Empire Book
Alan Robertson
‎ Beechwood Melrose Publishing
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2013 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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