Bengal Pilot Service on River Hooghly, c 1850s

hooghlyRiverBank
হুগলী নদীর জলযান পরিসেবায় নিয়জিত বেঙ্গল পাইলট সার্ভিস, ১৬৬৯-১৯৪৫
According to James Prinsep’s Chronological Tables, in the year ‘1669 orders from home were received, to institute a pilot establishment at Hoogly, to build a pinnace to be manned with intelligent seamen from the Indiamen, to take charge of the shipping up and down’. Thus originated the Bengal Pilot Service.
Hazards of Navigation on the river Hooghly are known world over. A slight deviation from the normal course can spell a near disaster. The problems of navigation in the waters of Hooghly river approach are considerable with low lying foreshore, shoaling and no distinguishable land marks. Furthermore, the seasonal period of poor visibility during monsoon or during winter and hazards during cyclone, often makes the Pilots’ life miserable
It is worth pointing out to those who do not know, that where access to a port was any distance up a river, such as Calcutta, lying some 120 miles up the Hooghly, the size of sailing ships without any auxiliary means of propulsion that could gain access to such ports was very limited. Strong tides and currents, narrow channels constrained by hazardous sandbanks and a winding course likely to bring a sailing ship’s head foul of the wind all tended to inhibit if not totally prevent access under sail except under rare favourable conditions. With the development of effective steam propulsion manoeuvring large sailing ships up such rivers became feasible, either by the installation of secondary engines aboard the sailing ship or by the use of steam tugs. Even with an engine fitted aboard, the services of a Pilot with local knowledge was usually mandatory. The development of steam also greatly enhanced the prosperity of such ports by rendering them more accessible to ships and therefore trade. See There is a unique unpublished history of the Bengal Pilot Service in the Historical Manuscripts Collection of the National Maritime Museum by Brice and Labey. It covers a wide range of aspects to do with the service and its employee’s e.g. Appendix G ‘Obituaries’ comprises information from various sources for men of the Pilot service and their families.
The above view of series of sailing boats on Hooghly riverside near Babu ghaut was captured by an unidentified photographer, date unknown.

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