The British Empire Library

Journal of a Voyage from England to Calcutta by the Overland Route

by David Waldie

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
This well presented paperback is interesting from two angles, its historical notes which form an introduction, and the actual verbatim Journal which covers Waldie's journey from Southampton on 19th March to Calcutta on 17th May 1853. The fifty or so pages of historical introduction are excellent. They explain the position then and the problems of getting to India for both the East India Company officials and any civilians. Waldie was a Scot, as were so many of the British in India at the time of course, but he was unusual in that he worked as a chemist. He left a post in Liverpool for Calcutta to work for Malcolm & Co. a Scottish firm of chemists. They were an early manufacturing company, but were slowly failing as a business. By 1858 Waldie had recognised the situation and set up his own more modern business as D. Waldie & Co. He remained in Bengal for the remainder of his life, and is buried in the famous Scottish Cemetery in Calcutta. Besides his journal he has two other claims to fame. He worked for many years in the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and was indeed its Vice-President in 1884 and 1885, publishing several papers on the age-old problem of the water supply of Calcutta, and the filtration of the Hooghly water for the city. He is internationally famous for his earlier work with Dr James Simpson on the use of chloroform in surgery. Neither of these fascinating details appear in his Journal, but it is interesting to have the importance of his whole life outlined in the introduction by Alan Young. The journal is an almost daily record of Waldie's overland journey. It details the two ships he used, Waghorn's bone-breaking wagons to cross seventy - odd miles of desert, the Sunday services and two burials at sea, and the conditions (food, cabins, recreation, fire alarms, etc) on board. It is fascinating to compare Waldie's journey with a slightly earlier passage from Calcutta to Liverpool by the journalist James Sutherland in 1831. Sutherland's Journal is alas lost but it is partially quoted in some existing letters he sent back to friends. Sutherland had to sail round the Cape - and his journey took nearly five months, whereas Waldie took two steam ships and under two months for his journey two decades later.

The book is unusually well illustrated, with contemporary prints of all the major ports en route, and no less than six pictures to cover the tricky land crossing of Egypt. Waldie sailed on PS Bentinck and PS Ripon, prints of both were found in the National Maritime Museum. Waldie was clearly an interested traveller who went on land at every opportunity to see the ports and their hinterland. He thus gives a contemporary account of each coaling or military station; their bazaars, customs, boats and population - women and slave markets included! The Journal was only intended to record the journey and places of interest on the way for his immediate friends. He concluded his account with his arrival in Calcutta. This is a great pity since so sharp an observer and thoughtful a commentator would have had much to offer on his impressions of his new abode. Warmly recommended .

British Empire Book
David Waldie
First Published
Linlithgow Heritage Trust
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2014 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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