From Empire to Independence: Indian Rowing Reincarnated

The Hindu deity, Lord Rama, is rowed across the River Ganges by Kevat, a ferryman who refused to take payment from the god for the trip on the grounds that they both did the same work; Kevat ferried people from one riverbank to another and Rama ferried people from the materialistic world across to the world of eternal bliss.

30 May 2019

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch goes out in the midday sun.

For several hundred years, the British had a habit that foreigners found a bit annoying – they stole countries that they thought could make them some money. Other nations had done this before, and a few have tried it since, but not many succeeded in eventually having a quarter of the world’s population under its rule. The most profitable part of what became the British Empire was India. This ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of Britain’s overseas possessions then included what is now Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Burma (Myanmar), Nepal and Bhutan were also part of the British Indian Empire.

The British Empire in 1910. It was the custom to colour British possessions on such maps pink or a sort of Leander cerise. It was as if using this effete shade made empire building seem like a gentle pastime.

While the British Raj (from the Hindi ‘Rule’) in India lasted only from 1858 to 1947, the English/British had held ‘interests’ in the region since 1600 when Elizabeth I granted a Royal Charter (i.e. an official monopoly) to the British East India Company, originally to trade for spices. Over time, what began as a commercial enterprise became a military and diplomatic organisation, which exerted its authority through a mixture of trade treaties, collusion with easily corruptible Indian princes and plain brute force.

In 1833, the British Government in London ended the company’s trading business, and the East India Company became the de facto government in India. Fabulous wealth was produced for the British rulers and with it came vast corruption. The local population increasingly resented this bloated and uncaring foreign presence and the rapid cultural changes that it imposed. In 1857, this lead to what the British still refer to as ‘The Indian Mutiny’ but which many people of the subcontinent call ‘The First War of Independence’.

Following victory in the Mutiny/War, the British government abolished both the Mughal Dynasty, which had ruled India more or less for 300 years and the East India Company. Control of the profitable country was given over to a British Governor-General, who reported back to Parliament in London. Even those parts of India still officially under the control of local princes were effectively ruled by the Raj until the whole country gained independence in 1947.

The British Indian Empire in 1909. British India is shaded pink, the states officially ruled by Indian Princes are yellow. A tiny number of British officials and soldiers ruled a population of over 300 million. Britain could not have controlled the country without the co-operation of huge numbers of Indians, from princes to policemen. It was observed that ‘If every Indian spat at us, we should drown’.

The legacy of Britain’s 350 years in India is still much debated. British imperial interests were prioritised over domestic interests and few Indians benefited for the wealth generated under British rule. There is little awareness in the UK of some terrible acts committed by the Imperial Power, even those that occurred in the 20th century. These include the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, inaction over the Bengal Famine of 1943 and the rushed and disastrous Partition of India in preparation for independence in 1947.

The British – but also some Indians – tend to dwell on the alleged positives. Notably, there is the English language, India has the largest number of English speakers in the world. Some Indians, however, describe things such as call centre jobs as ‘modern coolie work’. Many credit the British for giving India a legal system, parliamentary democracy, constitutional government, a civil service, police and army. However, some hold that an administrative structure that was designed to run an imperial possession is used now to run a modern democracy and that this has produced corruption and inefficiency. Why is India not as rich as China? Perhaps some of the less controversial legacies of the Raj include the (admittedly unintended) gifts of tea, railways, cricket – and a little bit of rowing.

The Oriental Cricket Club in 1890.

Cricket, often described as an Indian sport discovered by the English, is the most popular game in the subcontinent and an important part of the culture of India and its neighbours. Were long-running tensions between India and Pakistan not frequently fought out on the cricket field, they would perhaps have manifested themselves on the battlefield. The first club in India, the Calcutta Cricket Club, was established by and for the British in 1792, but the first for Indians, the Oriental Cricket Club, was founded in Bombay in 1848.

Officers of North Lancashire Regiment in Cawnpore (Kanpur), Uttar Pradesh, Northern India in 1936 representing the range of sports they played. These seem to include several types of shooting (perhaps tigers, rhinoceros, gazelle and other game and fowl), pig-sticking, polo, cricket, horse racing, athletics, rugby, soccer, tennis, badminton, fencing and boxing. Sadly, no rowing is represented – even though Kanpur is on the River Ganges.

Cricket was not the only sport introduced or popularised by the British. The Indian Army and Civil Service offered many opportunities for younger sons of upper-class families and those of the ambitious middle class. They were raised in the tradition of the British public schools’ belief that team games and the way in which they were played developed the qualities deemed necessary to win and maintain the empire. Games enabled players to demonstrate leadership, loyalty, group work and solidarity, sacrifice, self-control and fitness as well as initiative and personality. The stereotypical colonial administrators were ‘first class hearties with third class minds’. Part of the Indian Civil Service exam was a horse riding test. The Sudan Political Service had so many men with Oxbridge sporting honours that it prompted the quip that Sudan was a nation of ‘blacks ruled by Blues’.

At its most basic, sport played in far corners of the Empire helped alleviate a life of loneliness and responsibility but, later on, games came to play a crucial role in the development and maintenance of the British Empire, especially in the transmission of its values at a time when it was claimed that it had a moral dimension, a so-called ‘mission to civilise’.

The discovery of the picture below inspired me to produce this piece on Britain’s rowing legacy in India. It is not, however, a comprehensive history.

British Army Officers of the Chattar Manzil Club coxed by Miss Maxwell in front of the Chattar Manzil or Umbrella Palace on the Gomti River, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, Northern India, 1871. Picture: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Open Content Program.
At the Lucknow Regatta of 1912, Mrs Gratton coxed the Royal Army Medical Corps to victory in the Challenge Fours. Picture from Chris Dodd’s “The Story of World Rowing”.
A postcard of the Gomti outside the Chattar Manzil showing an Indian servant holding an outrigged four.
A picture from 1858. The Chattar Manzil had been badly damaged in the previous year’s Mutiny/War of Independence. The fish is an ancient symbol of sovereignty that had long been associated with the Nawabs (Muslim noblemen) of Lucknow and this fish boat belonged to one of them.
As this frustratingly small picture seems to show, the Nawab’s fish boat could be propelled by eight oars on each side or by sails.
I can find no more information on the Chattar Manzil Club, but this article from a January 2019 edition of the “Hindustan Times” indicates that it still survives in some form.

The Wikipedia page of the Rowing Federation of India says:

The British brought (rowing to) India and it was organised wherever suitable stretches of water were found near their settlements. The Calcutta Rowing Club was founded in 1858 followed by the Madras Boat Club in 1867, the Royal Connaught Boat Club, Poona (Pune) in 1868, Karachi Boat Club in (1881)…. Ten active members from the Rowing Clubs of Calcutta and Madras, feeling a need for National and International status for the sport in India, formed the Rowing Federation of India on August 30, 1976. 

‘The Calcutta Four’, “The Illustrated Sports and Dramatic News”, 21 April 1877.

A history of the Calcutta Rowing Club (CRC) says:

The Calcutta Rowing Club… was founded by a small number of enthusiastic oarsmen in 1858. This makes it one year older than the club founded in Shanghai and probably the oldest club in the east. Records show that the first boat the CRC owned was a six-oar…. An Eight was imported in 1866 and two more in 1870… Up to this time, all the boats had fixed seats, but, about 1872, one of the members of the Club brought back with him from England a sculling boat fitted with a sliding seat…

Still in the city now called Kolkata, the Calcutta University Rowing Club began in 1918 and a neighbouring club to the CRC, The Bengal Rowing Club (BRC), was founded in 1929. Before Independence in 1947, it was called the Marwari Club. Its Wikipedia page says that Bengal RCcame to notice for its casual attire rules and intake of women members, which was in stark contrast to some of the other British clubs around the city’.

Today, while both the CRC and the BRC still have rowing as a part of their operation, both are really ‘country clubs’ with a majority non-rowing membership. The BRC, for example, has a membership of 2,600 and, apart from 50 rowing boats, it offers a gym, swimming pool, badminton and squash, snooker and pool, two restaurants and ‘a small pub’. Its website says that the club ‘held on to its Indian roots yet welcomed progressive ideas (and) membership (is) much sought after from diverse communities such as Punjabis, Gujaratis, Bengalis and …. Marwaris’. The CRC offers similar facilities – and a library.

Standards are maintained at the Calcutta Rowing Club though I would like someone to explain why the ‘traditional dress’ in the top right is acceptable, but that in the bottom right is not (this may be opening a cultural or religious can of worms – or whatever the vegetarian or halal equivalent is).

Probably the second oldest existing rowing club in the former British Indian Empire is the Colombo Rowing Club in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), founded in 1864. The club’s Wikipedia page says of its origins:

The club was founded on July 15, 1864, by Sir Edward Creasy, the former Chief Justice of Ceylon…. The Colombo Rowing Club adopted the club colours of Oxford: Oxford Blue and White. The membership of the club was predominately made up of colonialists affiliated with the many government departments and plantations in the island. In 1898, the first Boat Race took place between the Colombo Rowing Club and the Madras Boat Club (now Chennai, India) and rivalry prevails until the present day. 

The rather splendid looking bar of the Columbo Rowing Club. The results of the Columbo – Madras Boat Race are illuminated on the walls.

Chennai (formerly Madras) in Tamil Nadu is home to India’s second oldest existing club, Madras Boat Club (MBC), founded in 1867. The history page of the MBC website says:

Madras, being home to three rivers, i.e., the Kosathalayar, Cooum, and Adyar, was home to one of the first rowing centres started by the British…

The first available record of MBC, the annual report for 1874 and the 8th since the Club’s inception, speaks of 32 rowing and 24 non-rowing members. The Club, by then, had also the position of Captain of Boats, a tradition followed till date. This annual report speaks of sending a team to Poona (Pune) for a regatta. Annual Regattas soon followed which included events such as Coxed Ladies Pair.

Pictures of the 1872 Madras Regatta are here.

Towards the end of the century, rowing… was active in all categories of boats including Eights. And in the year 1898, the club coat – dark blue with brass buttons – and the club monogram, which is in use even today without modification, were adopted by the then committee.

Fun at Madras in the days of the Raj.
Madras Boat Club, another Indian rowing club that today flourishes as a multi-facility country club.

Pune (formerly Poona) was already home to both the Royal Artillery Boat Club and the Kirkee Boat Club when the Poona Boat Club (PBC) was established in 1868. By 1888, PBC had assimilated the two older clubs and, in 1889, renamed itself ‘Poona Royal Connaught Boat Club’ to honour the Duke of Connaught, the then Commander-in-Chief of the Bombay Army. In 1928 the club became simply ‘The Royal Connaught Boat Club’.

Rowing at Poona, 1877.
The Service Regimental Fours winners, Poona Regatta, 1908.
The clubhouse of the Royal Connaught Boat Club in the 1930s.

The history page of the Royal Connaught Boat Club (RCBC) has an interesting story of what happened to the club at the time of Indian independence in 1947. It is worth reproducing at length and it may not be a unique story:

(By the 1940s) the club had developed excellent infrastructure for boating and allied sports on a large scale…. it had acquired over eighty boats and a membership of eighty-nine, of which twenty-three were Indian and also boasted of two lady members. 

Dr B. B. Gokhale now over 84, and perhaps the oldest surviving club member today, recalls… ‘Indian membership was restricted and only those highly placed individuals, who could assimilate the British etiquette and protocol….’ 

With an overwhelming majority in the club, as the departure of the British from India became imminent, (in 1947) the British Members decided to liquidate the club and its assets and share the bounty…

Overnight the club property, silver and furniture vanished. The British members clandestinely sold off as much as they could, for meagre amounts as they left India for the distant motherland… 

In the face of such ominous situation, the fraternity of Indian members of the club acted swiftly and entrusted the future of the club to the judiciary…

Prolonged litigation was a big drain on the meagre club resources. The club coffers were empty. Eventually, a compromise was worked out… (In 1953, Receivers were appointed who) were to act in a manner conducive to the continuation of club activity. The name of the club ‘Royal Connaught Boat Club’ remained as it is, the basic activity being specified as sailing or rowing or both. The club was required to pay $1000 as a donation to an English rowing/sailing club in the UK. 

However, for various reasons, the legal battles continued till 2nd February 1967, when the final landmark judgment was delivered and the custody of the club came into the hands of the Indian members…

The Indian bureaucracy and legal system are famously slow and ponderous but taking 20 years to sort out the affairs of the boat club is reminiscent of Dickens’s Jarndyce and Jarndyce. However, the RCBC has reinvented itself as a prestigious members’ club with some rowing attached, as seems to be the case with most of the surviving clubs founded by the British. The first few minutes of the promotional video below are worth watching – there are not many rowing clubs where you enter through high double iron gates opened by a pair of turbaned and white-gloved gatekeepers.

The Karachi Boat Club (KBC) was established in Karachi, Sindh, in what is now Pakistan in 1881. As with its Indian counterparts, it is now a prestigious social club with many non-rowing members.

Rowing in Karachi in the 1880s. The use of lady coxswains seems to have been a common practice ‘out east’.
Sculling past the KBC boathouse today.

I do not know when Burma’s Rangoon Boat Club was founded but it was pictured looking well established in 1897. In 1910 it was noted:

Regattas are held in December, and sometimes during the monsoons, and on these occasions, the club is at home to the whole of the European community in Rangoon…. In addition to pleasure craft, the club has a number of clinker-built pairs and fours, whilst for the sculling members, there are a number of light racing boats… as well as numerous clinker-built whiffs.

During the Japanese occupation in the Second World War, the club became an officer’s ‘welfare department’ (possibly a brothel), in 1948 it became the National Biological Museum and in 1979 it became a hotel – which burned down in 2017.

The Rangoon Boat Club, 1897.

Fortunately, the sad fate of the Rangoon Boat Club has not been shared by all of the rowing clubs in the former British Indian Empire. They do not survive, of course, in the form that the British left them but how could they? In most, rowing has been marginalised in favour of less demanding social activities but this just reflects a country with a growing and ambitious middle class. Ironically, these are the same sort of people that made up much of the British Raj.

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