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The Life and Times of General Sir James Browne
Chapter IV - North Frontier Engineer Work: 1860-3


HAVING finished this digression to the matter of the fanaticism on the northern borders, we return to Browne, whom we left about to join at Attock, an historical fort and position commanding the passage of the Indus—the greatest of the Western Himalaya rivers. At this time Lord Canning was still the viceroy, and was visiting these northern regions to learn personally the development of the Punjab which Lord Dalhousie had started by Henry Lawrence’s agency and had checked under Sir John’s. Browne’s actual charge was the Indus section of the Lahore and Peshawur road; and, with numerous other officers* he was under the executive control of Colonel Alexander Taylor, already so pre-eminent as an engineer at Delhi and Lucknow. Of Taylor it is said that John Nicholson had announced in his dying hours that, if he lived, the world should know that it was Alick Taylor who had taken Delhi. Now Browne was a man after Taylor’s own heart, and a warm and lasting friendship at once sprang up between the two. Taylor was the ablest and soundest of engineers, and under him Browne was thrown into a congenial atmosphere of real work, with full scope for his own ingenuity and skill, and into the midst of the very class of natives with whom he was best suited to deal.

Here too, with all the exceptional characteristics of the life, the locality, and the people, he was in the very centre of the experiences that were best suited to him, and that gave the tone to his whole future life—the tone of simplicity and vigour, and earnestness. The variety of the people he had to deal with was very great; but he soon singled out and made special friends of the men of the Ghilzye tribes from the heart of Afghanistan.

His first employment was at the Attock fort itself, and for the clearance of whatever was in confusion or arrears, especially as regarded the accounts. He was wont afterwards to refer occasionally to “the fearful and wonderful questions from the Audit Office." What would he have said to the older system!

This done, his first special task was the construction of the Indus Tunnel Drift, eight feet broad and seven feet high, passing under the bed of the Indus at the Attock ferry. At this, and at other work on the river there or its banks, he remained for a few months, during which he came to know the people and their ways and language.

Up till now he had not had much real opportunity, however great his anxiety, to acquire a knowledge of public events and of the position on and beyond the frontier. But he soon learned what has been described in the last chapters, and also the anxiety caused by the aggressive attitude of Russia in one direction and by the fanatical action of the Wahabee sect in another, with its special centralisation in the mountains to the immediate north of Attock.

One particular point may be mentioned—almost a family matter, but of some importance and interest in his career: the presence at Peshawur of his brother-in-law, Robert Clark—a leading and very influential missionary, who, with his colleague, Mr. Lowenthal, was exercising a valuable influence there—not merely local, but widespread. With their religious views and broad-minded aims in entire unison, their ffearness and accessibility to each other was a matter of much happiness to Browne.

Another strong friendship was also now formed at Peshawur—to wit, with Captain, afterwards Sir John, McQueen, an officer who had distinguished himself greatly during the Mutiny. At the first outset he had made his mark, by practically checking the Peshawur rising at the very moment of its outbreak. A jovial Highlander, of herculean frame, he had been a keen student of native athletics—a noted performer in the akhara, as the wrestling-ground of the Sepoy and other native gymnasts is called. This was a practice very prevalent in those days, when brigadiers and officers of standing were renowned champions. McQueen’s special trainer had been the right-hand grenadier of his company—a favourite soldier. But he had been poisoned with the taint of the Mutiny; and on the great general parade designed for the disarming of the Sepoys, this champion had suddenly sprung forward out of the ranks and shouted to his comrades to rise. But McQueen, on the alert, felled him senseless with the hilt of his sword. The effect was electric—the outbreak was averted. With McQueen’s example, Browne eventually took to the akhara, as he did to everything athletic when he had a chance; but at present he was a novice. A specially close and intimate friendship was also now begun with his brother Engineer officer, Henry Blair, whose name can never be disassociated from the frontier.

In those days, owing to the unfinished state of the roads, and for other reasons, there was not much travelling of the English upper classes, especially of ladies; and, as the nature of the work—in the midst of river foundations and the like—demanded it, Browne was as much in the beds of the river and streams as on dry land, and on such occasions was of course clad in the customary bathing costume. “Oh, look at that man down there!” was an exclamation once heard; “he is so fair, you could hardly suppose him to be a native." “Well,” was the answer, “he may look white enough, but he is really Browne\"

In these first days he had one experience which must be mentioned. The workmen had taken a fancy for him, especially the Ghilzyes. But there were also Afreedees, Eusufzais—and other tribesmen from the surrounding clans—and these were all much impressed not only with his cheeriness and good-nature, but also with his physique, and, in talking of it, are supposed to have chaffed one of their own body, a noted puhlwan, or wrestler, with invidious comparisons as to the probable issue in case of a struggle. The natural result followed.

On a fitting chance, the puhlwan made some paltry objection to the wage, and receiving the reply expected, rushed at Browne when off his guard and threw him. But, alas for the puhlwan! fists had not entered into his training or calculations: the consequence may be imagined, and need not be described. But the struggle had been severe, and it taught Browne that frankness of manner, however telling and of good influence, needs after all the company of some degree of discipline. It will be seen from Colonel Taylor’s remarks* how well he learnt the lesson of this experience.

His work involved a good deal of going about—of excursions into the villages of the tribesmen, and of ferrying and boating on the river. There he used to pick up much information, especially latterly, from listening to the talk of the native passengers. On one occasion an amusing and very significant altercation was overheard between a Pathan and a Sikh. The Mahomedan was dilating on the expected advent of a new prophet, the Emam Mehndee, who was to sweep away the English and rule the world with justice Quoth the Sikh, “Then the Emam himself must be English, for they alone are always victorious, and at the same time just and wise and merciful, and protectors of the poor!"

It was while engaged on these duties, or perhaps on similar work elsewhere, that Browne had to make his bow to his subordinate in a matter which it was his delight to describe. The occasion was one in which he had to use native boats wherewith to form a bridge, and it was necessary to know the safe load that could be carried. His native subordinate, known as the mistry, aided him in taking various measurements, and observed that Browne set to work to calculate the displacement, over which he spent much time, covering the papers with figures. On Browne’s announcing the result to the mistry, he was rather taken aback by being told that he was wrong in his result; and on going again over his figures, he had to acknowledge his mistake. But desiring to know how the mistry had arrived at the correct conclusion, the man explained that he had ordered coolies to fill one of the boats till it sank to the safe load line, and then took out what had been put in and weighed it!

While still an assistant Engineer, and in the same division, Browne was, after a short time, moved from the Indus and appointed to the specific task of the construction of a bridge over the Bara stream, seven miles from Peshawur. In calling the Bara a stream, its ordinary appearance is indicated; but on occasions, especially after heavy rains in the neighbouring hills, it becomes an overwhelming river, a flood, a fierce torrent—which was the factor that regulated the dimensions and character of the bridge, while the unstable and water-logged nature of its bed constituted the real difficulty to be mastered in its actual construction. Incidents, both grave and racy, were ever recurring, and his wits had to be ceaselessly at work. In other respects the construction of the bridge calls for no remark. Its site is where the great Lahore and Peshawur trunk road crosses the Bara, about seven miles to the east of Peshawur. The abutments and piers were of stone and brickwork; the superstructure was of woodwork. The bed, which was of boulders and gravel, did not admit of well sinking. Here at Bara he was favoured with a very exceptional opportunity for using his own wits, and he took full advantage of it He was practically solitary among these wild Pathan workmen, and it was this isolation which led to his exceptional intimacy with their ways, habits, character, and language, and to his wonderful and lifelong influence with them.

His simple manliness and freedom from conventionalities, his bonhomie and joviality, won their hearts and their regard. There was no danger or roughness in the work in which he did not take his full share. Was there any difficulty, under water, in the foundations or otherwise, he would don his bathing-drawers and plunge into the river, so as to learn personally the real situation and ensure that the necessary steps were taken.

The following is an instance in point, from a description given in one of his own letters to his family in June, 1861, of one of the high and sudden floods to which the Bara river was liable. The special feature of the case lay in the fact that a large pile engine had just then arrived—the only one, he was informed, in India—and therefore specially precious.

“Last Saturday,” he writes, “I had got it” (the old engine) “put up all right, a great big timber frame-work about 32 feet high, and about 20 feet long, right in the middle of the river, and expected to begin work with it on the Monday. Early on Sunday morning a man rushed in, saying the river was coming down about 5 feet deep, and that I had better look out Out I rushed and secured it with chains, ropes, bolts, as best I could (as I had no time to dismantle it), and had barely time to do it before the flood was on us. The engine gently rose, and ‘ crick, crick ’ went all the ropes and chains, to my great dismay, but after swaying about a little, it got to its right bearings and manfully stood out The worst was over, and the chains and ropes seemed quite sound and new. The river did not rise more than 5 feet, but went on flowing quietly at that depth. In the evening all seemed right, and the river was going down, so I went up to the roof of the house and to bed. About twelve o’clock I heard a great shouting from the men I had put on guard higher up the river, and tumbling out in my nightshirt, 1 rushed on to the pile engine to give the ropes an extra pull or two.

“In about three or four minutes I saw the water coming down, one huge wave, about 200 feet wide and about 16 feet deep, one wall of roaring water. On it came, at the rate of fifteen or sixteen miles an hour, tearing down the river banks as it came, foaming and fretting in the moonlight. It was a very grand sight, but not at all to my liking. By this time I had about 200 coolies assembled, with guy ropes, so I scuttled on shore and anxiously expected the effect of the first shock. Down it came like a wild beast, breaking high over the pile engine, which bent and swayed and rocked, whilst the chains were tightened till they were like solid bars of iron. Suddenly a great haystack appeared, bearing down with tremendous velocity on my unfortunate charge. One snap, one shock like the report of a rifle, and one of the small chains broke. One after another the chains went, sending the coolies flying in all directions, with cut faces and bruised bodies; and off went the huge machine, bobbing and ducking as if chaffing us all for our trouble. The guy ropes were torn from the coolies’ hands in a moment

“Four of my Sikh guard and myself then plunged in after it, ana down we went, holding on like grim death, with a regular pandemonium of blackies rushing all along the bank. First one side, then on the other, going round the corners with tremendous velocity, now turning round and round in an eddy like a top, now plunging along in a straight reach, now stopping for a second and then off again with a jerk. During these manoeuvres the Sikhs and myself twisted four of the chains together. These we fastened to the great ram for driving in the piles, a huge mass of iron weighing about 2 tons, which was prevented slipping into the water by two large beams, between which it slid. A carpenter swam out to us with a hatchet, and turn by turn we went at these beams, hitting as never men hit before, till, with a plump, the huge piece of iron slipped into the water. Slower and slower we went along, the chains tightening more and more, with a slip and a jerk now and then, and at last we were still, and firmly moored by the ram, which had caught into the ground and held us firm as a rock. In that short time we had gone down about four and a half miles, and a mile farther on was a fall in the river about 15 feet high. Five minutes more and we would have been over it We were in no danger, as we could have easily saved ourselves by swimming ashore, but not a vestige of the pile engine would have remained, as it would nave been all smashed to pieces in the fall.

“As it is, we have saved everything, thank God. One of my men was bitten by a snake, of which at least a hundred were crawling about the pile engine. It was nasty seeing their cold scales and eyes glistening about, and feeling afraid of touching anything for fear of being bitten, Knowing as we did that most of the snakes were poisonous. The worst of it was that I had to walk home for five miles without shoes, as not a shoe had we in the company. It would have rather startled you to see me walking, as I did,-into my bungalow that day in my nightshirt and praeterea nthtl, and covered with mud ana water from head to foot"

The following is an account of his methods and their results from the pen of his distinguished chief, Colonel, now General, Sir Alexander Taylor.

“Early in his service Browne was attached to the Lahore and Peshawur trunk road, then under construction, and was posted as an assistant Engineer to the frontier division near Peshawur.

“The work requiring the earliest attention was the bridge over the Bara River (the same river that caused so much trouble at the end of the recent expedition into Afridi Land), and the chief difficulties in the way of its construction were the depth of the bed, soft mud in which the piers had to be founded, and the liability of the river to sudden and heavy floods.

“Browne put work in hand at the close of the rainy season, and not long after I paid a visit of inspection. In the mud two open excavations for the piers were in hand, and every one was very busy. Near one of the excavations, seated on the top of a not very dry mound of earth, was Browne, his shirt sleeves rolled up and his shirt front open. On the same mound, but on a lower level and somewhat to his left, was a cashier with a supply of small coin. In a similar position, somewhat to his right, was a sweetmeat man, while between them were musicians of the country playing spirit-stirring airs.

“The procedure was this. The mud-drenched coolie came up the slope from the excavation with a basket full of mud on his head. Having emptied the basket in the prescribed place, he walked to the cashier and received a coin, which he placed in security. He then moved to the sweetmeats, and receiving one, put it into his mouth, much to his satisfaction, while the stirring sounds of the musicians helped to circulate his blood.

“Browne from his mound could see the workmen in the excavation below, and encouraged them by gesture and by words when a pause occurred in the music. So the work went busily on.

“The arrangements answered capitally. It was found to be necessary to carry the foundations to a greater depth than had been expected, but Browne’s energy ana cheery stimulation rose with the increasing difficulties, and infected every one. The piers were completed before the inevitable flood came. The workmen continued cheery and willing, and the bridge was completed in very satisfactory time. Every one employed on the work had a good word to say for Browne, and all declared that they never saw such a ‘sahib’ to work for.

“On many occasions in after years I had to visit extensive works on which large numbers of unruly trans-frontier men were employed by him and Blair, and can testify to the extraordinary influence these two officers exercised over them. Browne’s way of tackling the difficulty met with much remark and commendation.”

While thus working so entirely in unison with these wild tribesmen, being absolutely alone among them, he seized every opportunity and took every means to acquire a thorough knowledge of them. He would join them around the evening watch-fires, share their meals, and learn and sing their songs and ballads, while his clear moral and consistent bearing as a gentleman and a Christian, however hearty and jovial his humour, won their respect.

To his departmental superiors he soon became no less marked as an Engineer of skill and practical ingenuity and resource, especially for such pioneer work; and his admirable management and efficiency gained for him the complete confidence not only of Sir Alexander Taylor, but of the great body of leading Engineers whose names were household words on that northern frontier; so that he twice received the thanks of Government. Then after two years of work as an assistant Engineer he was promoted to the executive—the independently responsible—grade.

On promotion to the executive grade, his first charge was that of the Kohat division, which included not only his recent charges as a sub-division, but all else in the whole stretch of wild and virgin frontier country extending from Kohat in the north to Kusmore on the Indus far south on the borders of Scinde. To this was shortly afterwards added the Peshawur and Hazara districts, making a division of 400 miles in length! This brought him into intimate contact, through the labour he had to employ, with the whole varied series of wild frontier tribes, mainly Pathan, but partly also Beloochee, occupying the Punjab border, from Bonair and Hazara in the north, through the country of the Eusufzais, Afreedees, and Khyberees, through Kohat, Bunnoo, Tank, and the Derajat, to the Beloochee tracts occupied by the Sheoranees, Khusranees, and Moosa Kheyls, and, still farther south, the Murrees and Bhoogtees. This charge he held until the end of 1863, in a very trying climate and amidst dangerous surroundings.

The variety of the classes of work which he had to carry out was unique. Besides the ordinary buildings required for civil stations and cantonments, such as Peshawur, Kohat, Bunnoo, and Dera Ishmael Khan, he erected churches at Attock and Nowshera, numerous forts all along the frontier, casemated batteries at Khairabad opposite Attock, and barracks, with complete accessory accommodation, for a whole British regiment, at Peshawur; besides training works for the Indus in the Derajat, well-sinking everywhere, and so on.

Kusmore, at the south end of his charge, was at the bend of the Indus—where the embankments were large, as the site was ticklish, and the results of a breach would be very serious. In later years, he had to deal again with the matter; and he was instrumental in securing attention to the gravity of this question, the security of the course of the Indus— though it has never apparently been thoroughly dealt with to the present day.

At Kooshalgurh, in the course of this work, he narrowly escaped a fatal stoppage of his career. For while he was surveying along the edge of the high bank of the Indus, and moving the telescope of the theodolite round so as to bear from one point to another, he missed his footing and was precipitated down the steep cliff for about fifty feet into the river, and got much bruised and cut and tom, but fortunately no bones were broken. In what might have been a tragedy there was a bit of comedy, for as he went tumbling from one projection to another he continued to hear the cries of the attendants, in great alarm, “ Enough, Sahib, enough—stop, stop!"

It may be remarked that the varied districts in which his work lay during these first three years of frontier work, led to an exceptional knowledge not only of this north-western frontier, and of transfrontier events and politics, but also of the varying characteristics and differences of the several frontier clans, and of the habits and ways, the language and character, of the people generally. It was less an intimacy, such as was customary, with the native officers and troops there—though he also possessed and enjoyed this to a marked degree—than with the wild tribesmen of the country districts into which no one but he seemed to wander freely; sleeping in their huts, partaking of their hospitality, and joining in their songs and amusements. He saw and benefited by all the better side of their nature, and never seems to have suffered from their fanatical tendencies. As a feature of their exceptional bearing to him, they had no hesitation in sending their women-folk to guide him from one village to another.

While thus engaged vigorously in practical work he learnt and mastered more and more thoroughly the local vernaculars of the tribes, besides studying the Oriental classics, such as Persian and Oordoo, and also learning Beloochee. Lastly, he passed the tests in Pushtoo, and was the first officer in India to do so. This was a valuable acquisition, as it was the vernacular language of the Pathans. In saying that he was the first officer to pass in the language, it is not meant that no officer had previously studied and acquired it; but previously there had been no test or recognition for the study. Sir Luther Vaughan had produced textbooks for the language, and was, so to speak, a past master when Browne was under examination.

At this epoch, it may be mentioned, he was devoted to engineering, and used to express the utmost repugnance to turning to the civil, the political, or any other line of employment.

The excessive burden imposed upon Browne during the short time he was at Peshawur is obvious. But in his letters he comments but slightly on this, dwelling more on the satisfaction of having his time fully occupied, and being free from any inducement to spend the midday of the hot summer months in sleep like the majority of officers on cantonment duty!

To turn to the outside world, the Russians had been advancing in the more northern regions of Central Asia; but had not been attracting much public attention. The famous Ameer of Afghanistan, Dost Mahomed, had died during the middle of the year, and consequently dissension and anarchy in that country had begun again, and now continued without cessation for six years—six years of the highest importance. Unfortunately, too, Lord Elgin, the Governor-General, now died suddenly after a very brief rule, and was succeeded after an interval of a month or so by Lord Lawrence.

Further, it was becoming obvious that, although some of the old kingly characters of the frontier, such as Herbert Edwardes, might still be there, the former vigorous, masterful style of personal rule by the local officers was being “ toned down,” so to speak, and the political guidance of the borders and the border tribes was being shifted from these local border officers to the official centre of the Punjab Government at Lahore itself, of which more presently.

At the same time, this period of his career was probably the one in which Browne enjoyed life more thoroughly than in any other. He was prospering, in much favour both with his comrades and with the natives, with whom his exceptional social relations have been already described. He was a welcome guest wherever he had to stop, and brimful of fun. He was in splendid health and vigour, and full of the most buoyant and joyous spirits; and when he and his special friend and brother officer, Henry Blair, foregathered, they were quite irrepressible. A story is told of them at Bunnoo, where on one of the hottest nights in the year, sleep being hopeless, the three chums on the roof of the house improvised a concert with a banjo and tum-tum (or drum), Browne taking in falsetto the part of the Nautch girl, as he had a very musical and correct ear. However much scandalised by the false ideas that were at first formed, even the most prim and censorious of their neighbours were much amused and entertained by the actual facts when they transpired.

While going along the frontier, he used to be somewhat rash, from exuberance of spirits, and from sympathy with the tribes, in crossing over the frontier in despite of rules, and seeing and learning for himself the ways of the people. He was regarded and treated quite differently from all others—as a really free lance. He learnt much that was strange to other Englishmen from these adventurous habits, in which, however, there was shrewdness and method, in spite of the apparent rashness.

All this, it may be observed, occurred southwards from Attock. Hazara was, it seems, the only district north of the Lahore and Peshawur line to which he had penetrated up to this time.

One of these adventures is worth recording more fully. He was going through the bazaar one day, when he saw an old Afghan, carrying some skins for sale, who was being maltreated by the natives. He had been beaten and stoned, and had received several wounds.

Browne, who always carried a stick, went to his rescue, drove off his assailants, took him home with him to his bungalow, fed him, and kept him until his wounds were healed and he had done his business of selling skins. The old man was deeply grateful, and said to him: “Sahib, you have saved my life, and I have eaten your salt. I should like to show I am grateful. Will you when you get leave come and pay me a long visit?” He then gave him a jewel, to be used as a talisman or amulet, and said, “Take care of this, show it at the frontier—it will serve as a safe conduct, and you will be cared for as if you were my son.”

This Afghan’s tribe occupied a territory in Afghanistan where no Englishman had ever been, and at that time officers could get no permission from Government to visit such countries, lest complications should arise if any harm happened to them.

Browne therefore decided not to seek the Government’s permission, but having secured three months’ leave, he started for the border, armed with his amulet and gun. He slipped past the English sentries late at night, for fear of being stopped, and once across the border, when he mentioned the Afghan’s name and showed his amulet, he was treated with the greatest courtesy. Ten men accompanied him, and after four days’ journey he reached the village, of which, as it turned out, the old fellow was mullick, or headman. He was received with open arms; and during his stay of three months he acquired the language and also a great deal of the knowledge of the border tribes for which he was so remarkable later on in his life. The old chieftain used to say to him, “The Afghan nation is like the horse with ears turned in two directions, one ear for England, the other ear for Russia—fearful of both countries and listening to their every movement.”

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