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The Life and Times of General Sir James Browne
Chapter VIII - Foreign Politics and the Sukkur Bridge: 1871-6


FURLOUGH : ENGINEER TRAVELS—SUKKUR BRIDGE—THE CANTILEVER SYSTEM—LORD NORTHBROOK’S RULE— RUSSIAN ADVANCE—SUPPRESSION OF SLAVE TRADE— AFGHANISTAN AND RUSSIA.

WITH such a position and outlook in India as has been described, Browne proceeded on furlough while Lord Mayo was Viceroy, and arrived in London early in 1871. His father had died in 1870, the family home was broken up, and he was free to spend much of his time in travel, and he spent it accordingly—and further, in accordance with his tastes and proclivities, in that sort of travel in which he could combine amusement and enjoyment of life with the study of practical engineering, both civil and military. For the Franco-German war was in full swing, and the battlefields and scenes and episodes of the wars which Prussia had been waging with Denmark and Austria were still only a matter of yesterday.

So, after a spell of London and England, he spent most of his first year of furlough in Europe; and then, when his military studies were over, he concentrated his attention on the engineering of Holland and Belgium: its dykes and dams; its warfare against the action and encroachment of the sea; its reclamations ; its protective and regulative works; its mines, factories, and bridges; its machinery and railways. All these specialities, combined with the local interests resulting from his own partially Dutch descent, made this an especially pleasant experience.

This study in Europe was hardly over when the intelligence he received from India led him to recognise that the new activity in the Public Works of India, under Lord Mayo, was not a mere flash in the pan, but the beginning of a genuine and widespread development. So he continued his study of engineering, but transferred it to the even more appropriate field of America. For Lord Mayo had started, as shown in the last chapter, not only a vigorous expansion of work, but at the same time a wisely economical as well as progressive policy; and Browne’s inquiry led to the conclusion that in America he would most readily find and be able to study the class of enterprise needed for India.

The railway work carried out in India had as yet been of the stereotyped massive broad gauge style of the Guaranteed Railways; and their engineers, when referred to by Lord Mayo, had refused to depart from it and adopt any lighter style, such as a narrow gauge, or at any smaller cost—i.e. anything much under 20,000 a mile; while Lord Mayo aimed at 8,000 to 10,000. He was now consequently organising arrangements for the construction of these railways through the agency of his own Engineer officers. Hence Browne’s determination to study the American works on the spot, and to this study he devoted the second year of his furlough.

He was already, to start with, an expert mathematician, both theoretical and practical, and much given to professional correspondence and controversy on the subject; and in America he studied the local systems thoroughly, working out the calculations for the component parts of the structures, and discussing them with the American engineers and mathematical experts.

The fulness of his study in America may be gathered from the variety of the works and places he visited, such as New York and Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Omaha, Nebraska, Utah, San Francisco, Chicago, Montreal. All this involved hard and tough work and considerable vigour and gymnastic skill; for he was thorough, and went climbing about the girders and structures, and probing into details, so as to acquire direct personal knowledge of them. Browne was specially pleased with the helpful readiness and friendliness he found there, the outcome probably, in a measure at any rate, of the determined good-will and unison betokened by Lord Ripon’s far-seeing award in the Alabama case.

On going back from America to England, Browne had to prepare for his return to India, where he would take with him the vast store of professional knowledge and information he had acquired, of which the intelligence had preceded him.

On rejoining in India, he found himself reposted to Dalhousie, which was now constituted a Division, but which had formerly been only a subdivision of his Kangra Valley charge; and he soon realised how work had been expanding in India, of which the accounts he had heard while absent were far short of the reality.

This Dalhousie charge, though he held it for only a brief period, was useful in giving him the needful insight into the present state of public affairs, before joining in more important operations. To this Division, then, Browne found himself now nominally appointed towards the end of 1873. The word “nominally" is used advisedly, for though, as will be seen, he carried out the duties and furthered the works of the charge as heartily as any man could have done, it was virtually only a temporary post, pending arrangements for the special employment for which he was destined and on which his studies in America could be more specifically utilised.

But even while employed in this Dalhousie Division, he was further assigned some of the special work of designing iron bridges, and that not even for his own Government, the Punjab, but for the North-west Provinces. Among these, of which some had spans of 200 and 300 feet, one was specially notable—a suspension bridge across the Jumna at Khalsi, the largest in India, with a centre span of 260 feet and two others of 140 feet each. He prepared not only the general designs and estimates, but also the working drawings for guidance in the erection. On these designs they were constructed, not by himself, but by the local engineers—and they stood, with complete success, the severe tests to which, in view of the novelty of some of the designs, they are said to have been subjected.

To turn now from these exceptional and additional tasks to his normal duties at Dalhousie. Browne, it will be remembered, was not undertaking a charge to which he was new—as he had designed and estimated the road to it from the plains, and worked there in 1870 and earlier; but since then the station—like other hill stations—had been progressing under the policy and support of Lord Mayo and Lord Napier. Double-storied barracks and cognate buildings were under construction, and road work was in full swing. One noticeable feature in the arrangements was that much of the work, especially the latter—the road work—was executed by the troops there, of whom some 2,000 were at his disposal. He not only guided and controlled them in the work, but also, with the concurrence and support of their own regimental officers, improvised or aided in the arrangements for their hutting and comforts, their food and their movements. The insight into such matters which he here acquired was of much value to him afterwards in the similar but more arduous case of the Hurnai road. From all the quarters and authorities with whom these duties brought him into contact he received the highest commendation, especially from the military authorities at Lahore, who expressed themselves most warmly as to the speedy construction of the buildings and the management of the troops on the road work.

Besides these works for the troops Browne was assigned the, to him, perfectly novel task of designing and carrying out the water supply. For this the only precedent he could obtain for guidance was that of Calcutta; but it was more a theoretical than a practical precedent, for the circumstances and conditions at Dalhousie were so wholly different. In the one case, there were level plains, a huge river with a permanent supply, and all the machinery and structural appliances that were needed immediately available; in the other there was mountainous ground, and streams varying from almost dry watercourses to rushing torrents, with a head of water of nigh 500 feet, to contend against. Still, with his wonted care and practical bent, he carried out this task with entire success.

But now the time had arrived for the further special employment on which he was to be engaged. Mr. (now Sir) Guilford Molesworth, the Government Consulting Engineer for Railways, was ready to have the surveys begun for the designing of the railway bridge over the Indus at Sukkur. Browne, being selected for the task, now proceeded to join him at his office at Simla, where he received full instructions, and made all the arrangements needed, including the preliminary surveys, borings, and other investigations.

Besides the point that the site of the bridge was famed in ancient history, the leading fact, for the time, was that railways were already under construction along the banks of the Indus—one on the left bank from the Punjab down to Sukkur, the other on the right bank from Kurrachee up to Sukkur; and this proposed bridge was wanted to connect the two lines properly, as well as for other purposes.

The prominent site for the crossing is at the Island of Bukkur, a rock lying mid-channel between the city of Sukkur on the right bank, and the town of Rohri on the left, and Browne, of course, surveyed this position thoroughly; but, not content with this, he surveyed and explored fully all other possible passages. Then, when he had finished these inquiries completely, so much so as to have formed his own conclusions as to the proper sites for the bridge—or rather bridges—he returned to Simla to lay the surveys and results before Mr. Molesworth, and work up the designs, in his office, on such style or principle as might then be decided on.

It may be at once explained that the idea of any other .passage than by the Island of Bukkur was soon set aside, and the general tenor of the arrangement was (1) a bridge across the comparatively narrow channel between Sukkur and the Island of Bukkur, (2) a railway line across that island, and (3) a large single-span bridge from the island to the bank at Rohri. This span would be from 850 to 880 feet according to the precise spot selected. About the bridge over the narrow channel there was little question, as there were good sites for piers; but the large single-span bridge would constitute the difficulty of the undertaking.

Having completed the surveys, Browne returned to Simla, and placed the whole matter before Mr. Molesworth, who was much satisfied with the thoroughness of Browne’s investigations, and the good judgment of his conclusions. Having considered and discussed the matter fully, Mr. Molesworth, while holding other alternatives in view, set Browne to the preparation of a design, on the principle known as “stiffened suspension,” at the site at which the present bridge was eventually erected.

Browne duly set to work, prepared the detailed designs, and worked out the calculations for the component parts, in a manner which elicited the highest encomiums from Sir Alexander Rendel, the Consulting Engineer to the India Office, and the other authorities concerned. They gave him special credit for “ the skill and ingenuity with which he had applied the suspension principle, and the completeness and admirable finish of the designs and drawings.”

As will be presently seen, the design was never carried out, but the final official notice of it ran thus:

“In relieving Major Browne, it is only just to him to acknowledge the value of his services in the preparations of the bridge designs; an inspection of them will show how very voluminous and elaborate they are. The calculations have entailed enormous labour. Major Browne has not been satisfied with the calculations generally required for such works, but has investigated every principal condition in the most perfect manner. I cannot speak too highly of the ability he has shown, both in his mathematical investigations and in his practical suggestions in carrying out the details of this important structure; ana in doing so he has shown himself possessed of a rare combination of theoretical skill ana practical talent.”

When the design had been finished and the estimates for its cost were worked out, the amount involved was found to be so serious that Mr. Molesworth thought it proper to set it aside, while considering other schemes. One alternative design was for a bridge altogether avoiding and below the Bukkur Island, with a number of short spans and steel cylinders; but the results of borings led to this idea being abandoned. His next scheme was that of a steel arch, which would have been less costly than the “stiffened suspension” plan, and which some competent judges think would have been the best after all. It was duly sent to England for consideration. It included a roadway, and in England objection was raised to this, though without it the bridge would not have been sufficiently stiff.

But at this crisis—i.e. while they were disputing about it—the cantilever system or principle had just been invented and brought forward—a perfectly novel idea, which caught the fancy generally; and it was forthwith adopted (in 1875) and eventually carried out, but not till after fourteen years of steady hard work. The bridge was completed, and formally opened by Lord Reay on February 9th, 1889.

Browne, however, was, as a matter of course, not well pleased with the summary stoppage of his designs, even on the assumed superiority of the other principle; but it was not till December 9th, 1882, that he gave expression to this feeling, in writing to Government regarding their superseding by the cantilever system, on an assumed superiority of theoretical principle, the suspension system which they had originally prescribed and which he had worked out. He wrote thus:

“The East River Railway Suspension Bridge at New York, with a span of 1,000 feet, is just approaching completion. It is described in the New York Christian Weekly newspaper of December 13th, 1873, and I saw all the wire for it being made in 1876. This bridge cannot for a moment be compared as to strength and steadiness to the bridge or the Indus which I propose. The fact of its erection shows that the Americans at least have not abandoned the suspension principle.”

Before quitting the subject of the Sukkur Bridge, it may be noted that when Browne first appeared there the place was almost at the limits of civilisation—at “where three empires meet,” it may be said, at the junction of the wilds of Scinde, of Beloochistan, and of the Punjab deserts—where every one was apt to think himself his own master and superior to all others. The less his real authority and position might be, the greater generally was his assumption. Thereby hangs a tale.

A snag of a large tree, which was lying on the bank at Rohri, was interfering with Browne's work, and while talking casually on the spot to one of the gentry referred to, who may here be called Q., he remarked that he meant for that reason to throw it into the river. “Oh no,” says his friend, “I won’t let you do that. It would obstruct the navigation.” After a little chaff Browne was formally and angrily forbidden, and warned against carrying out his threat. Now Browne had a large steam launch there, so in the night he carried the snag on board and took it across to Bukkur, the island, and there landed it. His friend Q., on missing it next day, jumped to the conclusion that Browne had thrown it into the river in defiance of his warning, and forthwith handed the matter up to the Collector; and a long and very roundabout correspondence ensued, for Browne and Q. were under two different Governments—Scinde and India. Presently Browne carried the snag back to its former site, and in course of time was called on to explain his action. His answer was very simple— “The snag is where it was, and has never been thrown into the river.” The huge piles of correspondence, red tape, and circumlocution, ending with the sharp rap over the knuckles to Q., need not be described.

Lord Mayo had been assassinated during Browne’s furlough, and he had been eventually succeeded by Lord Northbrook, an administrator of liberal principles and strong practical sense, which left its impress on his Indian administration. The first prominent public event during his viceroyalty was a famine which broke out in Behar in 1874; and to Lord Northbrook belongs the credit of having, for the first time in the history of British India, succeeded completely in relieving distress and preventing deaths in an Indian famine. After the famine was over, the Prince of Wales visited India in 1875-6, and the outburst of loyalty which the visit evoked from all sections of the people in all parts of India forms one of the most memorable events of modern Indian history.

A good deal of not altogether unreasonable anxiety was expressed as to the Prince’s safety. Lord Mayo’s assassination was then fresh in people’s memory, and it was not the sole instance during late years of a high official being murdered. Religious fanatics are common in India, and with every precaution there still remained an appreciable amount of risk. This risk lay chiefly in the semi-madness of isolated individual fanatics, and very little, it would seem, in the action of emissaries of secret sects—such as those called Wahabees, though not off-shoots of the real Wahabees of the Red Sea or Arabia.

These sects occupy, among the Sunis or Turkish Moslems, much the same position as the Kojahs and other disciples of the “Old Man of the Mountain” occupy among the Shias or Persian Moslems. They are held by the learned and orthodox to be dangerous and fanatical heretics, but they are dreaded and courted by all classes. They are the natural vent for the undying fanaticism of Islam, requiring at all times to be watched, and in troubled times becoming a political force of much importance. Their headquarters in India are at Patna, whence they feed colonies, as at Sitana, on the “Black Mountain” beyond the Indus, which we destroyed in 1863. Mr. Taylor was commissioner at Patna in 1857, and, having learnt much of their secret intrigues, arrested their leader, and so saved Patna from an outbreak. There could be no doubt that very special precautions were still needed against the agents of these fanatics, but no one was better able to meet the danger without fuss or worry than Major Bradford,* who had been selected to be in constant attendance on His Royal Highness, and never to leave him while he stayed in India.

While all this was going on Browne had been engaged at Simla on his designs in connection with the Sukkur Bridge, working in Mr. Molesworth’s office—and was, of course, fully conversant there with the course of general events, both in India and on the frontier, as well as beyond it.

In regard to this, Lord Northbrook had entirely set aside Lord Mayo’s policy, and reverted to that of Lord Lawrence, yclept Masterly Inactivity. It was a singular fact, it may be remarked, that there was no continuous policy in India during Browne’s career there. Lawrence was the prototype of his own policy of Inactivity. Then came Mayo, who held out his hand to Russia and supported Shere Ali warmly: now we have Lord Northbrook going back to Inactivity, to be followed, it will be seen, by Lytton, a thorough progressive; he in his turn by Lord Ripon, another reactionary.

So Lord Northbrook, having adopted the Lawrence policy, refused to continue to the Ameer the practical countenance and support which Lord Mayo had given him. And he did this in face of the fact that the Ameer was now beginning to feel urgently, and to show vehemently that he so felt, the necessity for that support against the insidious advances and proposals of Kaufmann, the aggressive Russian Governor-General of Turkestan. For Kaufmann had now adopted a new route for his active operations and subsequent advance. The immediately previous route had, as referred to in the last chapter, been a failure ; lying eastwards from Krasnovodsk on the eastern shore of the Caspian, it became lost in hopeless desert, and his new direction started from the same point on the Caspian, but ran more southerly by Kizil Arvat and along the borders of Persia towards Herat. And he was now, in the Russian manner, playing his own independent game with Afghanistan, perfectly regardless of, and at variance with, the diplomatic action going on in higher quarters—i.e. between the courts of Russia and of England.

Lord Northbrook was carrying out, in its most complete form, the policy of Masterly Inactivity, or drift, not only in regard to the north-west frontier— i.e. towards Afghanistan and Russia, but also towards Beloochistan, which was now in a somewhat scandalous state of confusion. All the Beloochees were at feud, the minor clans among themselves, and they collectively with the head of the confederacy, the primus inter pares, the Khan of Khelat, a chief with whom Browne was to be much in contact. .And further, the various English authorities, Merewether, Phayre, Sandeman, and others, were much at variance, having lost the strong guiding hand of Sir Henry Green.

But now, in 1874, Mr. Disraeli had become Prime Minister, and a change had come over the spirit of England’s policy towards Afghanistan, which had reverted to that of Lord Mayo. The policy of maintaining that country as a strong, independent, but friendly state, had been accepted by the successive Viceroys, but carried out by differing methods. But a still more advanced policy than Lord Mayo’s was now mooted—viz. that English agents should be established in the heart of Afghanistan in order to support and guide that power more effectually. Lord Salisbury, now Secretary of State for India, had sent a dispatch embodying the new policy in January, 1875. Lord Northbrook, strong in the strength of his own convictions, remonstrated. In the following year, having again differed from the Secretary of State—this time on the financial policy of India—he received a censure, and forthwith resigned.

But Lord Northbrook’s rule cannot be justly described without referring to one special incident in it, the subject being one in which Browne’s personal interest was particularly strong, though it has no direct connection with his career. The last chapter of the history of the negro slave-trade was, at the time, generally thought to be completed by the result of the American Civil War and the collapse of slavery in the United States. The European Powers had long been united, with greater or less sincerity and zeal, in seeking to effect its abolition. In the analogous case of white slavery in Russia, the Emperor Alexander had already freed the Serfs in 1861, and paid the penalty for it by being dynamited. Hence the adhesion of the United States, whose attitude had hitherto been doubtful, gave a unanimity of support to its prohibition, which the Powers were now strong enough, if they had the will, to impose upon the whole world.

The occasion was not long wanting. It became known that the slaves, who had been kidnapped under circumstances of horrible atrocity in the interior of Africa, were being exported in large and yearly increasing numbers from Zanzibar, Kilwa, and other places on the east coast, to the ports of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. The dhows in which they were shipped, running with their lateen sails spread before the south-west monsoon, could distance any steamer then on the coast. The English squadron, inadequate in numbers and equipment for the special service, and without the means of obtaining timely information, zealously as its men and officers performed their arduous duties, could do little to check the traffic. The captures which they made scarcely compensated for the additional suffering caused to the slaves by the increased crowding and the precautions taken by their masters against capture.

England, when Lord Palmerston was in power, had been wont to take the lead in the contest with the slave trade; and it belonged especially to England to do so in the present case, because the Zanzibar territory, whence nearly all the slaves were shipped, was, or might at her will become, as much under British influence as a native state of India; and the East African merchants who profited by the traffic were most of them Banians—British subjects from India. But though Lord Palmerston was no longer there, another Englishman now stepped into the breach, Sir Lewis Pelly—in fact two Englishmen, the other being Sir Bartle Frere; and between them, aided by the local officer, Dr. Kirk, they so acted on the Sultan of Zanzibar that on June 5th, 1873, he signed a treaty abolishing and closing slavery on his coast for ever. In this treaty he formally and explicitly engaged that the transport and export of slaves from the coast for any purpose should cease entirely, that all public slave markets in his dominions should be closed, and that protection should be given to liberated slaves. It was at the same time arranged that natives of Indian states under British protection should be prohibited from possessing slaves.

There now remained only one territory under British sway where slavery was still in force—and not only in force, but being extended by a portion of the population with all their might—and that was in South Africa among its Boer population. We all know what Mrs. Josephine Butler and Sir Charles Warren had to say on the subject.

To return. The design for the Sukkur Bridge was the concluding item in the continuous Engineer employment or study, which began on Browne’s return to India in 1864, and consequently covered a period of eleven years—and he had by this time proved himself as capable and as many-sided in varied engineering of a high class as he had done in the rough-and-ready work and ingenious contrivances of his earlier days ; and he was now about to leave it—after some preliminary explorations and surveys—for a turn of political and military experiences.

During all this period of eleven years he had been out of direct touch with public matters, excepting those in which he had been closely concerned, and which were almost entirely of only local interest. But the results of the more general and grave events at its close give an important colouring and effect to the duties on which he would soon be engaged, and they will therefore be touched on briefly.

During Lord Mayo’s rule Russia, as has been already shown, had not been making any actual advance towards the south, being occupied chiefly with the Kirghiz and other tribes on the more northern parts of Central Asia, and in approaches by the north towards such positions as Khiva.

But wijji the revival of Masterly Inactivity under Northbrook came a change. Kaufmann began an insidious correspondence with Shere Ali—insidious, that is, considering the real and recognised position of affairs, which was this: The Russian Chancellor had declared in the spring of 1869, that Afghanistan was “completely outside the sphere within which Russia may be called upon to exercise her influence,” and in the following November he had informed Sir A. Buchanan that “he saw no objection whatever to English officers visiting Cabul, though he agreed with Lord Mayo that Russian agents should not do so.”

Yet now, in spite of these assurances, Kaufmann sent Russian agents in 1870 to Cabul with letters to Shere Ali, thus starting correspondence between Tashkent and the Afghan capital which was first continued in a desultory and insidious manner until the year 1874, and then began to assume a more important aspect; for in the spring of that year General Kolpakoffsky, in Kaufmann’s absence, wrote a letter to Shere Ali which was very significant in tone, referring to "devotion" on the side of the Ameer and “grace” on the part of the Czar. After this there was a brief pause in the correspondence; but next year fresh letters were sent to the Ameer, and from that time they became more frequent and more significant in tone, Kaufmann, now again on the scene, even going so far as to propose to Shere Ali that he should sign a treaty of commerce, and also enter into an offensive and defensive alliance with the Russian Government. This was categorically denied by Prince Gortchakoff; but in spite of this the correspondence was continued, and after two years more of secret negotiations, it became evident to the Indian Government that Kaufmann had succeeded in turning Shere Ali aside from his alliance with the English.


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