Under Pressure: steamships, global power and communications, and the East India Company — Part 2

Infrastructure, engineering, incidents and accidents

In the last blog, I discussed how steam navigation promised to change the East India Company’s ways of operating – its trade and communicational networks, its geostrategic presence, and its procedures of government and administration – and gave, I hope, a small impression of how the Company in London responded in terms of policymaking.

In this one, I want to give an impression of the demands that the new technology placed on the Company – infrastructural, human, resource, and logistical – and how the Company attempted to deal with them, on a day-by-day and week-by-week basis, over the short period of our January-March 1838 snapshot.

The Company, as we’ve seen, had committed to steam; a watered-down version of the Bentinck committee’s plan for the Indian Navy had been accepted, a new steam-savvy Superintendent was to be installed, and the building of new steam vessels not only assented to, but given the status of official policy. The adaptation to steam is already well underway; the problem, much of the time, is how to go about it.

The Company lacks neither advice nor encouragement on this score. In January alone, they receive a petition from a group of concerned citizens of Madras, requesting that the project of regular steam navigation through the Red Sea be carried forward as a matter of urgency; twelve copies of a pamphlet “On Steam Communication to India by the Cape of Good Hope”, from the chairman of the India Steam Ship Company, the first of several unsolicited publications and treatises on steam navigation to arrive during our three-month period; an offer from a Glasgow shipbuilder to build and refit steamers from the Company’s use, again one of many; a proposal from an employee at Alexandria (an expert on steam, who had appeared before the Bentinck committee) for a regular steam tug shuttle between Cairo and Alexandria, plus a system of horse-drawn cars for rapid transit from there to Suez; and a letter from a Mr C. Barwell Coles, informing the court that he has a patent pending on a revolutionary new means for propelling ships, without steam and in all weathers, by means of a large pendulum.

Meanwhile, early 1838 finds the Company scrambling to assemble an infrastructure to support the lines of steamship communication that are beginning to thread through its global shipping network. Steam power requires precision engineering, raw materials, a high level of human expertise: in the 1830s, all of these things were not only in short supply, but largely concentrated in Western Europe. If you wanted someone to build or repair a steamship in Bombay or Calcutta, you needed to send them out from Liverpool or Glasgow; the coal shipped out to Mocha, Madeira and Bombay was invariably mined in South Wales or Northumberland.

Coal is a particularly pressing issue. Coaling stations have recently been established at the Cape, at Madeira, at Alexandria and Suez, and at Mocha and Cosseir (Al-Qusayr) on the Red Sea. There is still debate about which harbours would be best placed to host depots on the Red Sea route, an area which presents not only difficult navigational conditions but the prospect of establishing stations in areas where local politics are somewhat beyond the reach of the Company’s influence and negotiations can be difficult. The Company’s Agent at Alexandra, Col. Patrick Campbell – who we last saw arranging escorts of janissaries for dispatches crossing the Suez isthmus – is kept busy negotiating with the local Pasha for the use of the buildings in Cosseir (Al-Qusayr) where the coal is to be kept; meanwhile, the French are requesting the use of the coal in the Madeira depot for their own steamships, an issue on which the Court and its committees are struggling to formulate a consistent policy.

The Red Sea: coaling depots, agencies, and sea routres

The Red Sea: coaling depots, agencies, and sea routes

The network of supply is beset by teething problems: the supply at Mocha turns out to be inadequate, and rather than send a semi-laden coaler the Company have to buy more than they intended; the Agent at Madeira forwards complaints from a shipowner about the damage done to trade by his ship having to wait a day for coaling, for which he demands compensation; and there are problems with unloading at the Cape. At home, each weekly or twice-weekly court discusses arrangements for putting out tenders for the supply and transportation of the coal itself, negotiating with the Board the conditions under which tenders and contracts can be drawn up, and answering incoming offers, many of them unsolicited. The main supply route is Llanelli to Bombay, and thence back East to the Red Sea; interestingly, the only suggestion that anyone might be thinking of prospecting for coal in India comes in a Court reply, in February, to a letter they’d received several months earlier from a Lt John Auchterlony in Madras. Auchterlony proposes to take some of the miner and sapper cadets at the Company’s military seminary at Chatham to the coal and copper districts of England to learn about mining and resource extraction. The Court rejects this plan, but assures him that it will ask the Madras Government if they can use him in an advisory capacity for mineral exploration. The sense is that Auchterlony is merely trying his luck; but the lack of any other indication that the Company might be interested in sourcing coal and metals closer to where they are needed does seem strange.

The absence outside Europe of the human capital of skills and expertise, and the plant required to effect meaningful maintenance of steam vessels, becomes apparent in December when the Berenice, newly assigned to share the Red Sea packet run with the Atalanta, breaks a paddle-wheel shaft. For the entirety of our three-month period she is laid up in Suez while the Company arranges repairs, resupplies, and the host of logistical problems that a large crippled steamship in a foreign port might cause. The range and volume of correspondence to and from the Court is impressive: the crew have to be accommodated and then given passage back to England, the doctor who attended them on the voyage “given some requital”, and the port authorities paid off. Col. Campbell appears to be in constant motion between Suez, Cairo and Alexandria, and at some points is writing three letters a day to the Court. The Admiralty, who have been examining the log, return it with thanks. John Laird (of the engineers and shipbuilders Laird’s of Birkenhead) has examined the damaged shaft, and sends a thorough analysis supported by affidavits from, the stoker and engineer present when the accident occurred. A Captain Grant, who brought the damaged shaft back to England with him, is demanding passage money again, and the court reiterate their refusal. Commander Lowe, who had been in charge of the Berenice, submits a full formal report, and says that although he is sure the repairs can take place in Egypt, they will take at least five or six weeks.

The actual repair is a feat of logistics, in which engineers in England fix a ship in the Red Sea. First, Lowe has moulds made of the parts of the engine affected, which are sent back to England with Waghorn (mentioned in our previous blog as packet agent in Alexandria – and also, apparently, well-informed about steam navigation). On arrival, these are forwarded “with immediate effect” to Napier’s engineering yard in Glasgow, where the Berenice was built. Once Board approval has been obtained (this is done quickly, in mid-February), Napier can be paid to produce new parts, which are then transported, along with senior engineers, out to Egypt for fitting.

In the midst of this storm of correspondence, however, is a sign that the Court have begun to appreciate the problems of lacking a human and technological infrastructure. They arrange to the have the mould of the engine parts duplicated in Egypt, and the copies sent out to Bombay, in the hope that future repairs might be dealt with there. If the Company had been aware before of the need for technical knowledge and resources to be available in the theatres of operation of their new ships, the Berenice affair must have brought the lesson home with considerable force.

So what can we learn from all this? Personally, I’m not sure – and a blog probably isn’t the best place to try to come to considered conclusions on raw archival data. But it’s certainly instructive to see the administrative work that made all these things happen, and watch a governmental structure begin to adapt itself to conditions which were changing faster than it could manage. As ever, reading the records of dissents and debates, inter-departmental rivalry and suspicion, and fraught exchanges between parties equally anxious about their lack of information, can give us a vivid sense of how much of the formation of policy and the practice of colonial power is attended at ground level by compromise, improvisation, bickering, boredom and the white noise of bureaucratic work. There’s also, in this case, an impression to be gained of what it looks like when an immensely powerful organisation meets a genuinely disruptive technology.

But if there’s a sense in these records that the advent of steam has thrown the Company into something of a panic, it’s worth noting that over a longer scale the transition looks very successful indeed. The Indian Navy was not renamed; by 1840, the Company was establishing an unimaginably lucrative Chinese trade by the expedient of sailing up inland rivers and demonstrating a capacity for overwhelming violence, helping to pioneer the new imperial playbook of gunboat diplomacy. However chaotic or even comic colonial power can look at its centre when studied closely, the global work of violence, appropriation and exploitation carried on with astonishing success. What studying these archives on a granular scale allows us to see is the energy of work and debate behind apparently smooth and successful transitions, and the ways in which banal bureaucratic decisions, technological innovation and engineering problem-solving in certain networked sites all facilitated violent imperialism at a distance.


Posted in 1838, India Office, Technology
4 comments on “Under Pressure: steamships, global power and communications, and the East India Company — Part 2
  1. Peter, I have read your Part 1 and 2 blogs with some fascination. I am currently involved in a community project based in Stepney, East London which is using a Heritage lottery grant to examine scientific advances promoted by the EIC. The project has a number of ‘Heritage Explorers’ who are each charged with writing a chapter/paper for a book to be published at the conclusion of the project, end 2016. My chapter is provisionally entitled From Sail to Steam and I selected this because my great great grandfather was the first appointee to the position of Chief Inspector of Machinery in the Steam Factory at Bombay.
    I do wonder how your view may be restricted by the ‘snapshot’ of 1838 as the first foray into steam, from Bombay, was with the Hugh Lindsay steamship and her first voyage into the Red Sea in 1830 and further voyages in subsequent years.

  2. Peter Mitchell says:

    Hi Blair, and thanks for this! I’m really interested in your project, which looks fascinating – do you mind if we promote it via our social media feeds?

    Re: the Hugh Lindsay, you’re absolutely right, and it should really be in this account – I think it’s a really interesting ship, in that though it was built in Bombay, the engines were constructed in Britain and shipped out there. I think there’s also a story to be told about how ship hull and propulsion technology caught up with the weight requirements of engines and their increasing efficiency. Anyway, I’d be really excited to read whatever comes out of your project.

    all best,

  3. I am sure people will be delighted if you promote the project via social media. We have a Facebook page but it is closed to the project members only: EIC Ships, Science and Technology. We have mentors from the National Maritime Museum who are being very helpful.

  4. I should have added that my great (x2) grandfather built the Hugh Lindsay when he was Assistant Builder at Mazagon dock. He was Ardaseer Cursetjee (Wadia) of the Parsi family of ship builders.

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