In 1837 I was accepted by the London Missionary Society as one of its agents. On September 15, 1838, I embarked at Portsmouth with thirty other passengers on the Duke of Buccleugh
, a vessel of 650 tons burthen, and landed in Calcutta on January 19, 1839, en route
to Benares, to which I had been appointed. The only land we sighted from Portsmouth to Saugar Island was a rock in the Indian Ocean. The time we thus spent at sea was four months and five days. Every now and then speedier voyages were made, but a few years previously this voyage would have been deemed rapid. The Duke of Buccleugh
, on her next voyage to India, went to pieces on a sandbank at the mouth of the Hoogly, but happily the weather was moderate, and passengers and crew were saved.
The route by the Cape of Good Hope has been abandoned for passengers for many years, and now Bombay is reached by the Straits of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal in a month, sometimes in less, while another week is required for the voyage to Calcutta. Those who travel with the Indian mails across the Continent of Europe can reach their port in less than three weeks, and distant parts of India by rail in four weeks or less.
All on board -- officials returning to their posts, and persons going out for the first time -- were delighted to find the voyage coming to an end; but new-comers like myself were under the spell of novelty, which gave new interest to everything we saw. At Kedgeree, near the mouth of the Hoogly, the Post Office boat came to our ship with welcome letters from friends, who were looking out for our arrival. The level land on each side of the river, with its rich tropical vegetation; the numerous villages on the banks, with their beehive-like huts; the craft on the river, large and small, many of them so heavily laden as to bring them down almost to the water's edge; the little boats, with plantains and other fruits, which tried to attach themselves to our ship in the hope of getting purchasers; the strange appearance of the people, with their only covering of cloth round the middle -- all gave us a thrill of excitement which can be known only in similar circumstances. Then, we were about to set foot on the great land, of which we had read much, to which we had looked with the deepest interest, and where we purposed to spend our days in the service of Christ. Though so many years have since elapsed, we can yet vividly remember the peculiar feeling of that time.
The day before we landed, the Native agent of the mercantile house to which our ship was consigned made his appearance with letters and fresh supplies. To the surprise of us new-comers, roast beef was on our dinner-table that day. We thought it strange that in the land where the cow was worshipped, beef should be one of the first things brought to us.
Our missionary friends in Calcutta had heard of the arrival of our ship, and arranged for our accommodation. Some of them came on board when we anchored in the Hoogly, off Fort William, and gave us a hearty welcome. We were right glad to find ourselves on land again.
[Sidenote: THE CITY OF PALACES.]
Calcutta is a hundred miles from the sea, but the country is so level that the tide runs up in great strength many miles beyond, and the tidal wave, which comes in at certain times, is very dangerous to small craft, and requires care on the part of large ships. The great trade of the city is shown by the vast number of ships at anchor in the river, many of them stately vessels of large tonnage, of which in our day many are steamers.
On landing, a stranger gets the impression that Calcutta is rightly called the city of palaces. On the great plain adjoining the river, at some distance from each other, are two notable objects -- Fort William and Government House. Beyond the plain lies Chowringhee, a range of lofty houses extending for more than a mile, with balconies and flat roofs, giving one an impression of grandeur, which is scarcely sustained when more nearly seen, as that which looked at a distance like marble is found to be stucco and plaster. Behind Chowringhee are a number of wide streets with similar, but generally smaller houses, each apart, with offices and servants' houses in the enclosure. When entering the city one sees that strange combination of meanness and dirt with grandeur with which travellers in Eastern lands are so familiar. In the neighbourhood of Government House there are a number of shops in the European fashion, but a very large proportion of the business of Calcutta, we suppose the most of it, is carried on in bazaars, in which there are no showy shops, but where there is abundance of goods of every description. When we went to India, and for many years afterwards, in front of these shops were open sewers, over which customers had to pass on slabs of stone. Amidst houses for Europeans, even in the most aristocratic part of the city, were native houses of every description, many of them miserable grass huts.
Since the time of which I speak, some forty-five years ago, Calcutta has been greatly improved. It has been drained, supplied with good water, instead of being dependent on great open tanks, to which all had access, which no arrangement could keep tolerably pure, and is lit with gas. Open sewers are no longer to be seen, and from the best parts of the city many native houses have disappeared. The changes effected must conduce immensely to the health and comfort of the inhabitants. There is no part of India, we suppose, free from the plague of the musquito, but in all my Indian life I have not been so much tormented in any place by it as I have been in Calcutta. It adds insult to injury. If it would only bite, sharp though its bite be, one could put up with it; but before it bites, and after, it goes on buzzing, as if mocking you, and evades every attempt to catch it. The last time we were there musquitoes were comparatively few, and they seemed to have lost much of their former mischievous vigour. We suppose the improved sanitary arrangements have not agreed with them.
When in Calcutta everything reminded us that we had left our own country behind, though not all our own people. We saw them on every side, but they were a mere handful in the midst of a strange people in a strange land, where man and nature presented entirely new aspects. The look of the people, the exceedingly scanty dress of the labouring class, and the long flowing robes of those in better circumstances, the marks on the foreheads and arms of the Hindus, showing the gods whose worshippers they were, their processions with noisy, unmusical music, the public buildings of the people, the mosques of the Muhammadans, and the temples of the Hindus, with a church here and there to show that Christianity had also its shrines -- all brought to our view characteristics of the great land on which we had entered. Bombay, since the opening of the Suez Canal, has made progress which somewhat affects the pre-eminence of Calcutta among the cities of India, but it still remains the capital of British India -- I ought rather to say of India -- and its position will continue to make it, what it has been in the past, a vast emporium of commerce, the abode of a great population, and a place of most stirring activity. It continues to be the resort of persons of every civilized, and almost every semi civilized, nation on the face of the earth.
My stay in Calcutta of six weeks was longer than I had anticipated, but my time was very pleasantly and profitably spent. A few days after arrival a united prayer-meeting was held: missionaries of all societies were present, the attendance was large, the spirit was earnest and devout, and I then began to realize, what it was my happiness to realize more fully afterwards, the uniting power of the missionary enterprise. I had the happiness of attending services with Native Christians, and of joining them in spirit, though not with understanding. I was especially interested in the noble Missionary Institution of the Church of Scotland, and in the smaller, but promising, school of our own Society. I felt as if the sight of such a number of boys and young men, many of them with most pleasing and intelligent countenances, all learning our language, and, what is vastly better, all taught from the Word of God, was enough in itself to repay one for the long voyage to India. I heard them examined, and was surprised at the knowledge of English possessed by some of them, at the extent of their Biblical knowledge, and at the Christian tone with which they gave replies to questions. I asked a tall, slightly built young man, with a most intelligent face, dressed in the flowing white robe of his people, who had spoken with what struck me as the accent of conviction, |Are you a Christian?| to which he replied, |Yes, in heart; but I fear persecution.| To this subject of schools I shall have often occasion to revert in the course of my reminiscences.
During my stay in Calcutta I had much pleasant intercourse with missionaries of different Societies. I was the guest of Mr. Boaz, afterwards Dr. Boaz, of Union Chapel, by whom I was treated with much kindness. Mr. Gogerly had been my fellow-passenger to India. Mr. Lacroix and Mr. Piffard were, at that time, the senior missionaries of our Society in Calcutta. Both were admirable men. Mr. Piffard was a gentleman of property, who devoted himself to missionary work, and laboured for many years most faithfully, without requiring to take, and without taking, any salary from the Society. A short time afterwards he was suddenly carried off by cholera. Mr. Lacroix lived for many years. I had the pleasure of meeting him in my visits to Calcutta, and in his visits to the North-west, and also of frequent correspondence with him. He was esteemed and loved as few have been. He was a man with a commanding presence, tall and well-built, and had a geniality of manner which won all hearts. He spoke and wrote English remarkably well, with a slight foreign accent and sprightliness, an elan, as our French friends call it, which told of his French birth and upbringing. He had a thorough knowledge of the Bengalee language, and used it with a commanding eloquence, to which his voice, look, and gesture greatly contributed. His last illness, the result of his long residence in the enervating climate of Bengal, was borne with Christian patience, and drew forth the sympathy and kindly inquiry of all classes. At his funeral such tokens of respect and love were rendered to him by every class of the community, Native and European, as have been seldom witnessed in Calcutta.
Like all newly-arrived missionaries in Calcutta, I made a pilgrimage to Serampore. The illustrious trio -- Carey, Marshman, and Ward -- whose names are indissolubly connected with that place, as first their refuge and, for many years afterwards, the scene of their plans and labours for the evangelization of India, had passed away by that time (January, 1839), but the Rev. John Mack, who had been long associated with them, and Mr. John Marshman, Dr. Marshman's eldest son, remained. I was taken by Mr. Mack to the college, the printing-office, the type manufactory, the paper manufactory, the mission chapel, the station church, Dr. Carey's garden, and the native Christian village, indeed, to every object of interest about the place. I remember seeing an elderly man engaged in type-making, and observing a little image in a niche above him. I was told this man had been many years in this department of work, and had remained so strict a Hindu that he would work only under the protection of his god. The teaching of the missionaries had had no effect in weaning him from his ancestral idolatry. Yet many were won to Christ by the Scriptures and books, for the preparation of which the work of this man, and of others of his class, was indispensable.
When visiting Serampore, and hearing from Mr. Mack of the doings and achievements of the great men whose residence at Serampore has given it a sacredness it will ever retain in the annals of Indian Missions, I felt as a young Greek would feel on being taken to Marathon and Thermopylae. I felt I was entering on a war, where there had been heroes before me, which demanded courage and endurance of a far higher order than had ever been enlisted in the cause of patriotism.