Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Forgotten History: The Port Canning Disaster

Blogger Soham Chandra first drew my attention to a crumbling building near the Sunderbans in South Bengal that he called “Lord Canning’s Bungalow”. The British Governor General, he said, had once had this house constructed, which is why the city in the South 24 Parganas District of West Bengal is also called Canning. But this struck me as rather odd. Lord Canning had died in 1862 and back then, this part of Bengal was malarial, tiger-infested jungle. Why would the Governor General of India ever want to live here? And if it wasn’t him, then whose was the once-magnificent colonial building? My research led me to one of the biggest commercial debacles of British India – the Port Canning disaster.



The Hooghly River had been the lifeblood of commerce in Bengal since the first European trading ships made their way up the river. However, as early as 1853, the Bengal Chamber of Commerce drew the attention of the colonial government to the fact that the Hooghly was silting up. This would spell disaster for riverine commerce. As the depth of the river decreased with silting, ships would find it more and more difficult to travel up the river, and Calcutta’s port would get choked. Once the sepoy mutiny of 1857 had been suppressed, the government finally turned its attention to developing a new port in the Sunderban area. A team sent to survey the Matla River in the Sunderbans reported that a spot near the junction of the Bidyadhari and Matla rivers would be an ideal location for the new port. This was to be Port Canning, named after the then Governor General, Lord Canning, since he was the one behind the economic reorganization of India following 1857.

The initial plans were impressive. A port and a town were to be developed, and for these two lots comprising 8000 and 650 acres were set aside. While some parts of this land were under cultivation, the majority of it was jungle, which was to be cleared. The proposal was to set up 20 jetties, each capable of holding 2 ships, a tramway along a “Strand Road” connecting the warehouses of the merchants with a railway station which would transfer goods from the new port to Calcutta. A new municipality was formed in 1862 which would have the rights to collect revenues from both fishing in the area, and forest products, such as wood etc. However, right from the start, it seems Port Canning had trouble raising the money it needed for constructing the port and the town. The government in Calcutta, on multiple occasions, refused to loan it money, insisting instead, that it raise money from the public through debentures. This leads me to believe that the government did not really have much confidence in the success of the new port. However, not even debentures could raise enough money, and in 1864 a certain Mr. Ferdinand Schiller, set up a company called The Port Canning Land Investment, Reclamation and Dock Company which would develop the town. However, this was at the height of the speculative mania of 1864, when investment in the port was being fuelled by a bubble. Shares of the new company rose dramatically in price to £1200 and then crashed just as rapidly.

The port had begun operations in 1861-62, with the number of ships arriving increasing steadily until around 1867. But a series of unfortunate events caused its revenues to fall steadily. A major part of the port’s income came from ships which carried indentured labourers from India to British Guiana. But when a ship named the Eagle Speed, carrying indentured labourers was grounded and sank off Hamilton Island in the August of 1865, the government issued an order stating that Port Canning was not to be used for emigration. In any case, both the Bidyadhari and the Matla are hugely dependant on tides, with it being possible at low tide, to cross the river by walking across the river bed. Added to that, the sharp bends in the meandering streams make them especially difficult for large ships to navigate. The fishing rights that the company had were taken away when local fishermen contested them. Around 1868-69, on the basis of numerous complaints received by the government of depredations committed by the company’s employees against woodcutters etc., an investigation established that the company’s monopoly rights to collect revenues from forest goods was against the public interest, and therefore this was taken away as well. But the event that really did in Port Canning was one they had been warned about well in advance.

Canning House


In 1838, an English merchant captain by the name of Henry Piddington, who was then residing in Calcutta, came across a text called The Law of Storms, by Lt. Col. William Reid. Deeply interested, he began a study of storms at sea using ships logs. He was the first to note that these storms had a calm centre and that the winds around them ran anticlockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. Because of the helical nature of the winds, he named these storms “cyclone”, based on the Greek word kyklos, meaning circle. He published his findings in “The Horn-Book for the Law of Storms for the Indian and China Seas”, which began to be used by sailors worldwide. Most literature on cyclones at the time, concentrated on wind damage, but Piddington highlighted another aspect of the storms – the devastating impact when they made landfall, through what was then called “storm wave”, which we now know as storm surge.

Piddington first saw the destructive power of a storm surge in Coringa on the Bay of Bengal in December 1789, when the area’s 20,000 residents simply vanished after being hit by 3 successive storm surges. 50 years later, another storm surge would kill another 20,000 people and wipe out once again, the reconstructed town. Based on his studies, Piddington believed he could predict which stretches of the coastline were especially vulnerable to storm surges, and when he found out that a new port was being proposed on the Matla river, he was convinced that it was a very bad idea. He shot off a letter to the then Governor-General in the form of a printed pamphlet which detailed in six sections, the nature of the storm surge, historical examples of their destructive power and why he believed that the location of Port Canning made it vulnerable to storm surges. If the new port was built, Piddington wrote, “everyone and everything must be prepared to see a day when, in the midst of the horrors of a hurricane, they will find a terrific mass of salt water rolling in, or rising up upon them, with such rapidity that the whole settlement will be inundated to a depth of from five to fifteen feet”. But his advice was ignored and Piddington died on the 7th of April, 1858 and was buried in the French Cemetery in Chandannagar. 9 years after his death, his warning came true.

Passage in Canning House


Late of the night of 1st November, 1867, a cyclone made landfall in South Bengal, passing over Port Canning with “fearful violence”. The Englishman newspaper reported, “A storm wave nearly 6 feet high carried away a portion of the riverbank jetties; the railway is much injured and the station destroyed”. The eye of the storm had, in fact, passed over Port Canning itself, according to the Bengal government’s Annual Report for 1867-68. “The station house, goods sheds and the railway hotel were all blown down; the Port Canning Company’s store hulk Hashemy carried away a great portion of the Railway Jetty, and the fresh water tanks were salted by the storm-wave”. Some 90 people and 500 heads of cattle were reported lost and even the survivors suffered greatly for want of drinking water, since everything, including wells, had been inundated by sea water. The port and the town had been reduced to a “bleached skeleton”.

90 might seem like a small number and to be sure, the destruction was far greater in Calcutta, but it is important to remember that Port Canning at that point was a newly built town which had barely been settled. The destruction in Calcutta was reported to be even greater than during the great cyclone of 1864, but there is an important caveat to that. The 1864 cyclone was not accompanied by a storm surge. In Port Canning it had damaged the jetties, but little more. In 1867, Calcutta escaped the destruction from the storm surge because it was located far inland, while Port Canning was exposed, even more so because the mangrove forests, a natural barrier to storm surges in South Bengal, had been completely cleared by the Port Canning Company. In the wake of the cyclone, an attempt was made to revive the port. Repairs were made to the port and it limped on for another 3 years, but there was barely any business. Between 1868 and 1870, only 3 ships visited Port Canning, and 2 of those had been driven there by tides and navigational difficulties.

By this time the government had also lost interest in Port Canning. By 1867, it was apparent that the fears about the silting of the Hooghly had been greatly overstated, and simply putting a dredger (appropriately named Agitator) to work in the Hooghly was far more cost-effective than trying to build a whole new port. The company did make one last effort to revive the port, by getting the government to declare Port Canning a free port, but even this failed to attract business. Rice mills had been developed by the company, but even they proved unprofitable. In a meeting in May 1870, the shareholders decided to liquidate the company and transfer all assets to a new company, The Port Canning Land Company Limited. The head office was shifted to Bombay (now Mumbai) and local expenditure was reduced to £400. The only job of the new company was to improve revenue from the estates that it inherited. The Times of India reported on 16th September 1871, that the government had decided to “close Port Canning and to withdraw all harbour establishment from the Matla”. By April 1873, the Commissioner of the Sunderbans reported that, “...with the exception of the Agent and other employed by the new Port Canning Land Company, and a dak munshi or deputy Post Master, no one lives at Canning”. The only positive thing to have come out of the whole affair was the railway line. The Sealdah-Canning Line was the first of 4 lines that today form the Sealdah South Section.

One of the many brass door handles of Canning House


The building is known as Lord Canning’s house or Lord Canning’s bungalow. It is even marked on Google maps and a report in The Hindu on 12th August, 2004 referred to it as “the former residence of British India's last Governor-General and first Viceroy Lord Canning”. But why would the Governor General of India want to live in the godforsaken, swampy, marshy jungles of south Bengal, so far away from the comforts of Calcutta? I do not believe the building, which in sale documents is referred to as “Canning House” was ever meant for the use of the Governor General. It is much more likely to have been the headquarters of Port Canning. The building was purchased by its caretaker J.M. Ghosh, in 1962 from the Port Canning Land Company Limited and his family have resided in it ever since. But Canning House is on its last legs. The Ghosh family cannot bear the financial strain of maintaining the enormous structure and several portions of the roof have collapsed and most the building’s 27 rooms are now unusable. The upper floors are completely inaccessible.

The Hindu report had noted that the building contained several antiques, including “…Imported brass binoculars manufactured by Lawrence and Mayo, London, compasses, British carved furniture and Belgian glass dressing tables”. J.M.’s son, Joydeb had wanted to sell off the building and had received some interest from hoteliers, but had declined. “We wanted an arrangement where the basic structure of the facade would remain the same and not be tampered with. We also want a just compensation”, he had told the correspondent. The Sundarban Tiger Reserve Project had rented five rooms on the ground floor to use as a godown, but they moved out when the building became structurally unsound. Joydeb passed away in 2015 and his widow Sabita is now the sole resident of the crumbling mansions. She lives in the couple of rooms on the ground floor that are still habitable, but during the monsoon months, she has to vacate. “We have handed over the property to the Heritage Commission last year”, she says, “but so far they have done nothing to preserve the building”. Given how completely overgrown the structure is, restoring it is an uphill task, but after seeing the near miracle that Manish Chakraborty pulled off with the Danish Tavern in Serampore, I have hope. The building has definite commercial potential, if properly restored. Canning can be a terrific weekend getaway, less than 2 hours by road from Calcutta and also connected by rail. But will something be done before it is too late? Only time will tell.

Fishing on the dry Matla river bed

An extremely illuminating report about Port Canning appeared in the Calcutta Review of 1868, just around the time when the port was failing and investors were wondering if there was any hope of getting their money back. The report reveals enormous financial and administrative irregularities in the operation of the new port. The Municipal Commissioners, for instance, who were transferring land to the newly formed The Port Canning Land Investment, Reclamation and Dock Company, were also on the board of directors of that company. This is the kind of thing that would send alarm bells ringing in any modern audit firm, but this was long before the age when audits were compulsory. The report also says that the company’s own balance sheets are not trustworthy. The overstating of the Hooghly’s silting, the government’s reluctance to finance the port, the failure to raise money through debentures, the iffy balance sheets all point to one thing – that Port Canning may have been a massive scam – a poorly thought out plan, that was forced through because some people stood to gain in the short term. Bengali readers will, no doubt, detect a strong hint of “Sree Sree Siddheswari Limited” in this whole affair. Bengali author Rajsekhar Basu had written his satirical masterpiece Sree Sree Siddheswari Limited, lampooning the loopholes of British trade laws, which made these kinds of scams possible. In India, the British are often referred to as “a nation of shopkeepers”, masters of trade, and yet it is under their watch that the Port Canning affair happened. Perhaps it is time someone wrote a different kind of history of British India – one that concentrates on scams, and the lax laws that made them possible, and how much it cost India in resources, money and lives.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


For their help with researching this article, I am grateful to Soham Chandra and Tathagata Neogi. For his help with photographing Canning House, I am grateful to Abhijit Das.


Herapath, John - Herapath’s Railway & Commercial Journal, Vol. XXVII for 1865 (London, 1865)
Sen Sarma, A. K. - Henry Piddington (1797 - 1858): A bicentennial tribute
Parker, Bruce – The Power of the Sea: Tsunamis, Storm Surges, Rogue Waves And Our Quest To Predict Disasters (Macmillan, 2012)
Buckland, C.E. - Bengal Under The Lieutenant Governors (Kedarnath Bose, 1902)
The Calcutta Review Vol: XLVII (Barham, Hill & Co., 1868)
Das, Amal Kumar (Ed) – A Focus on Sundarban (Calcutta Editions Indian, 1981)
Annual Report of the Administration of the Bengal Presidency (Bengal Secretariat Press, 1868)
O'Malley, Lewis Sydney Steward - Bengal District Gazetteers: 24 Parganas (The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, 1914)
Chatterjee Sarkar, Sutapa - The Sundarbans: Folk Deities, Monsters and Mortals (Routledge, 2017)
Roney, Cusack P. - Rambles on Railways (Effingham Wilson, 1868)
The Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle for 1868 (Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1868)
The Mutlah as an Auxiliary Port to Calcutta (Mutlah Association, 1858)
Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, Vol CLXXXI (Cornelius Buck, 1866)
Parliamentary Papers, Volume 65 – 1866
“A treasure lying uncared for at Lord Canning's house” – The Hindu, 12th August, 2004
“Collapse of Port Canning” – The Times of India, 16th September, 1871


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