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Bengal and the Tides

Ports on the Bay of Bengal: ° Chennai ° Chittagong ° Kolkata ° Mongla ° Paradip; ° Titicorin ° Visakhapatnam ° Yangon

Bengal formed part of most of the early empires that controlled northern India. For much of its history, Bengal was split up into several independent kingdoms, completely unifying only several times. In ancient times, Bengal consisted of the kingdoms of Pundra, Suhma, Anga, Vanga, Samatata and Harikela. Along with Bihar, parts of northwestern Bengal were also incorporated into the kingdom of Magadha.

Bengal, India.

From the 8th to the 12th century, Bengal was under the Buddhist Pala dynasty, based in what is now the neighbouring Bihar state.

After about 1200 it was governed by semi-independent Muslim rulers, and from 1576 it belonged to the Mughal Empire. When Mughal power declined in the 18th century, a separate dynasty emerged in Bengal, Bihar, and what is now Odisha state. Its rulers, known as the nawabs of Bengal, soon came into conflict with the British, who had established themselves at Calcutta (Kolkata) in western Bengal in 1690 and who took possession of the nawabs’ realm in 1757–64.

The Anglo-French conflicts that began in the 1750s ended in 1763 with a British ascendancy in the southeast and most significantly in Bengal. There the local ruler actually took the Company's Calcutta settlement in 1756, only to be driven out of it by British troops under Robert Clive, whose victory at Plassey in the following year enabled a new British satellite ruler to be installed. British influence quickly gave way to outright rule over Bengal, formally conceded to Clive in 1765 by the still symbolically important, if militarily impotent, Mughal emperor.

British Women Writers and the Asiatic Society of Bengal. 1785-1835.

Bengal was thenceforth the base for British expansion in India. From 1773 its governor-general was the chief executive of British India; from 1834 he bore the title “governor-general of India.” British involvement in India during the 18th century can be divided into two phases, one ending and the other beginning at mid-century. In the first half of the century, the British were a trading presence at certain points along the coast; from the 1750s they began to wage war on land in eastern and south-eastern India and to reap the reward of successful warfare, which was the exercise of political power, notably over the rich province of Bengal.

In the early 1800's, the British in India ended the constant warfare between the Indian states. The modern military technology brought by the Europeans, such as heavy artillery and rapid-firing infantry muskets, had enabled Indian states to engage in increased warfare.

The Assam region to the northeast was joined to Bengal from 1838 to 1874. In 1854 the government of India was separated from that of Bengal, though Calcutta remained India’s capital until 1912.

With the end of British rule in 1947, West Bengal, Bihar, and Odisha became part of the Republic of India. East Bengal became East Pakistan, but in 1971 it separated from the parent country to become the independent state of Bangladesh.

Bengal's Bore

The Bay of Bengal is the largest bay in the world. It forms the northeastern part of the Indian Ocean. Roughly triangular in shape, it is bordered mostly by India and Sri Lanka to the west, Bangaladesh to the north, and Burma (Myanmar) and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the east). The Bay occupies an area of 2,172,000 km. A number of large rivers -- the Ganges and its tributaries such as Padmas and Hooghly, the Bramaputra and its distributaries, other rivers such as Irrawaddy River, Godavari, Mahandi, Krishna and Kaveri flow into the Bay of Bengal.

From Sea of Poppies (A Novel. 1800s India)From Sea of Poppies.

Sea of Poppies. The Ibis Trilogy. Amitav Ghosh.

The ban, or bore, is a tidal phenomenon that sends walls of water hurtling upriver from the coast. Bores are never more hazardous than in the periods around Holi and Diwali, when the seasons turn upon an ecquinoctial hinge; at those times, rising to formidable heights and travelling at great speed, the waves can pose a serious threat to the river's traffic. It was one such wave that determined when the Ibis would weigh anchor: the announcement of teh hazard having been made well in time, it was decided that the schooner would ride the bore out at her moorings. Her passengers would come on board the day after.

On the river, the day began with a warning from the harbourmaster that the bore was expected around sunset. From then on, the riverfront was a-buzz with preparations; fishermen worked together to carry dinghies, pansaris and even the lighter paunchways out of the water an dup the enbankments, taking them beyond the river's reach. Patelis, budgerows, batelos and other river craft that were too heavy to be lifted from the water were spaced out at safe intervals, while brigs, brigantines, schooners and other ocean-going vessels struck their royal and t'gallant yards, and unbent their sails.

During his stya in Calcutta, Zachary had twice joined the crowds that gathered on the river's banks to watch the passing of the bore; he had learnt to isten for the distant murmur that heralded the weave's approach; he had watched the water rising suddenly into a great roaring head that was topped by a foaming white mane...He too, like the urchins along the shore, had cheered and shouted...it took no more than a few minutes for the water to resume its normal flow...

Bengal District Gazetteers.

October 1876

India: Bay of Bengal, Calcutta, Ganges, Upper Burma. Bartholomew. c.1900India. Bay of Bengal.

Bartholomew map c.1900, India.

The effects of this disaster were graphically described by the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Richard Temple: There was a severe cyclone in the Bay of Bengal on the night of the 31st October 1876. But it was not the wind which proved so distructive...It was the storm-wave, sweeping along to a height from 10 to 20 feet, according to different localities; in some places, where it met with any resistance, mounting even higher than that. In the evening teh weather was somewhat windy and dhzy, and had been unusually hot, but the people retired to rest apprehending nothing. Before 11 o'clock the wind suddenly freshened, and about midnight there arose a cry of "the water is on us," and a great wave several feet high burst over the country. It was followed by another wave, and again by a third, all three waves rushing rapidly oneards, the air and wind being chilly cold. The people were thus caught up before they had time even to clib on to their roofs, and were lifted to the surface of the surging flood, together with the beams and thatches of their cottages. But the homesteads are surrounded by trees — palms, bamboos and a large thorny species. The people were then borne by the water onto the tops and branches of these trees. Those who were thus stopped were saved, those who were not must have been swept away and were lost. The bodies of the lost were carried to considerable distances, where they could nto be identified...they were left unbured in numbers all over the country. Weather-tossed seamen in the Bay of Bengal saw many corpses floated out from land with the waves.

It is estimated that, in the few hours during which the country was submerged, 12,000 persons were drowned in the Chittagong district alone, and 14,788 are said to have perished in the cholera epidemic which followed.

South East Asia.

1899. World's Fleet. Boston Daily Globe

Lloyds Register of Shipping gives the entire fleet of the world as 28,180 steamers and sailing vessels, with a total tonnage of 27,673,628, of which 39 perent are British.

Great Britain10,990 vessels, total tonnage of 10,792,714
United States 3,010 vessels, total tonnage of 2,405,887
Norway 2,528 vessels, tonnage of 1,604,230
Germany 1,676 vessels, with a tonnage of 2,453,334, in which are included her particularly large ships.
Sweden 1,408 vessels with a tonnage of 643, 527
Italy1,150 vessels
France 1,182 vessels

For Historical Comparison
Top 10 Maritime Nations Ranked by Value (2017)

  Country # of Vessels







1 Greece 4,453 206.47 $88.0
2 Japan 4,317 150.26 $79.8
3 China 4,938 159.71 $71.7
4 USA 2,399 55.92 $46.5
5 Singapore 2,662 64.03 $41.7
6 Norway 1,668 39.68 $41.1
7 Germany 2,923 81.17 $30.3
8 UK 883 28.78 $24.3
9 Denmark 1,040 36.17 $23.4
10 South Korea 1,484 49.88 $20.1
Total 26,767 87.21 $466.9

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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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