The British Empire Library

Steamboats on the Indus: The Limits of Western Technological Superiority in South Asia

by Clive Dewey

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
This is such an important book that it is surprising it has not been reviewed in Britain. The distinguished author has turned conventional thinking about engineering in British India on its head, by revealing the debacle of steam-powered boats on one of India' s greatest rivers. Three companies were set up in the 19th centuty: The Bombay Flotilla; the short-lived Oriental Inland Steam Navigation Company and the lndus Steam Flotilla. 'The search for a viable vessel - a steamboat suited to the "hazards of navigation" on the lndus and its tributaries - went on for forty years. But no-one found a solution: it was like the quest for the grail.' There were three essential criteria, unfortunately all mutually exclusive. The ideal steamer had to have a very shallow draught, not more than 18 inches or it would run aground on the shifting sandbanks. It needed a powerful engine to drag barges upstream, against the current and it had to have effective steering.

But if the ship-builder increased the engine's power the additional weight meant the boat would sit deeper in the water and if the boat was built with a wide flat bottom to accommodate the engine, then it became harder to steer. The problem was never really solved. What seemed perfectly feasible on the Clyde at Glasgow was clearly not going to work on the Indus. Steamboats brought out at huge expense from Britain had to be literally rebuilt when they reached India and their working life was very limited. Then there was the problem of fuel. Wood was freely available, but was not as effective as coal, and good quality coal was hard to find. Hopes were frequently raised when coal seams were found, only to be dashed when the seams petered out. So the boats had to make frequent stops to take on board great stacks of felled trees, whose weight slowed them down, and led to deforestation.

With all these problems one might wonder why the steamboat companies persisted for so long, from 1839 to 1878, to be precise. A lot of it had to do with the unshakeable Victorian belief that technology was the way forward, not just in Britain, but throughout much of the Empire too. Railways were the obvious example, speeding up the import and export of goods and moving soldiers quickly across country where they were needed. The electric telegraph which at first ran parallel to the rail tracks was another - information between cities could now be transmitted in hours rather than days. But the Indus was where British ingenuity failed. The river was treacherous, changing course without warning, full of shoals and sandbanks that themselves moved, so that charts were useless. Every journey was different from the one before. And the boats were terribly slow. Lieutenant Christopher recorded a painful journey when it took seven days to cover fourteen miles. It had been hoped that river transport would enable soldiers to be quickly moved to trouble spots on the north-west frontier but this proved not to be the case. The Planet, for example, taking men to the first Afghan War kept running aground and when the soldiers went into the river to haul and pull the boat off, the current was so strong they lost their balance. With immense detail Dewey examines every aspect of steam travel - the high fares which meant only the rich could sail, the cost of fuel, the risk of being attacked from the banks by warring tribes, the personalities of the captains and their crew, the unsatisfactory bridges over the river, the ill-fated ferries and much else. He contrasts all this with the small country boats that used the river, 'complex and fragile' as they were, but viable and cheap. A masterful book.

British Empire Book
Clive Dewey
First Published
Oxford University Press
Review Originally Published
Spring 2015 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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