Of ships imagined and colonial capital

Suchetana Chattopadhyay

‘The ship we could see no longer/it was far too dark overhead’. 

Heinrich Heine

An apocalyptic mood descended on Calcutta during the First World War. The rumours circulating in the public sphere, war-time profit seeking by colonial capital, imperial surveillance, policing the cityscape, forecasts of doom and aspirations for momentous changes became entangled in the early war-time perceptions of ships that were imagined. The naval power of the British Empire and its control over sea routes through which colonialism had arrived came to be challenged as inter-imperialist rivalry erupted into a full-scale world war. The colonial overlords of air and water, as well as their subjects, were suddenly confronted by the spectre of imagined ships.

Wartime urban anxieties

Embedded urban inequality was magnified by the war. Those at the middle and the bottom of the social hierarchy were hit by spiraling food prices and house rent in the absence of any government control; a regional ‘cloth’ famine raged and assumed severe proportions from 1916 onwards as supply of manufactured products from England dried up; death from infectious diseases climbed upward and took a heavy toll, especially in the Indian neighbourhoods and slum quarters. In contrast, urban remodeling and war profits further improved the lives of those at the top, especially the custodians of colonial capital. The unequal distribution of material benefits, organized through a convergence of race and class was reinforced by the war-time privations and intensified the gulf separating the colonizers from the colonized. The micro-enclaves of prosperity among the Indian rich also highlighted the division existing within the colonized subject populations, the social chasm of class that could not be bridged by a shared subordination to the imperial state and colonial capital.

Fantastic German vessels

Fantastic German vessels, pouring destruction upon the city by air and water, overwhelmed the popular imagination during the early months of the First World War. European officials, voices representing colonial capital and the colonized subjects waited for this possibility with varying degrees of fear, dejection, thrill, and excitement. At the beginning of the war, the wider material, social, and political tensions in the city were registered on a day-to-day basis. Despite repeated declarations of loyalty to the British Empire by associations and individuals, the popular mood in the city was often interpreted as ‘informally pro-German’, or at least expectant of British defeat. This volatile undercurrent grew because of war induced material hardship and was a source of recurring anxiety to the colonial authorities. Stray incidents, making their way into police records, vividly painted such a scenario. On an August evening in 1914, thousands of ‘natives’ were caught star-gazing in the Maidan (the open space at the centre of the city) and the streets; they had mistaken a terrestrial body, glittering in the sky as a German airship, sent to pulverize the imperial order. The European police official recording the incident was struck by the ‘credulity of the native’ behind the ‘solemn’ glances: ‘In reality it was Venus seen through a small cloud. The planet is at present exceedingly bright, being at the furthest visible eastern distance from the sun, and after sunset for a short time is the most brilliant object in the sky.’

Rumours of war

Away from the music of the spheres, floating rumours related losses of sea-going vessels in the maelstrom of war as signals of an impending collapse of British power. Clerks of Mackinnon Mackenzie, a Scottish monopolistic business firm with a large share in the shipping trade, allegedly spun an imaginary tale, and it was repeated by their friends working for the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry, that the majority of the company’s ships—22 out of 40—requisitioned for the war, had been sunk by the German navy. They also spoke of the deaths of 20,000 Indian troops being carried in these vessels. They held that the steamship Golkonda, one of the remaining ships and one of the finest owned by Mackinnon Mackenzie, was lost and that no news was forthcoming. They thought the Indian troops already dispatched overseas will not fight alongside the Allied forces. The clerks insisted their European employers, the sahibs, had forbidden them to divulge any news related to the war and threatened them with dismissal.

The Emden Effect

These popular perceptions, emerging from the novelty of German air-raids in Western Europe, whose ‘slender foundations’ the authorities were at pains to refute, gave way to a full-blown panic. This was triggered by the sudden arrival of the German cruiser Emden in the Bay of Bengal. The belief in the unshakeable hold of the largest empire of capital over the eastern seas, cultivated since the eighteenth century, came to be abruptly challenged by an unexpected rival. The enemy ship’s appearance interrupted the calm confidence of the British colonizers. Emden quickly became known for its stealth. The ship appeared unnoticed in the mouth of the river Hooghly on 15 September and destroyed five English vessels coming down from Calcutta.

On the night of 22 September, it shelled the storage tanks of the Burma Oil Company and the storage batteries in the Madras Docks. During the early months of the War, Emden destabilized sea-routes, commerce and mail-connections between the British, French, and Dutch colonial empires in Eastern Asia. Shipping in Calcutta was directly disrupted by the Emden effect. Rising unemployment among casual labourers at the dock was accompanied by the refusal of many passengers to embark at the port. European opinion-makers regarded the ship as a source of menace and danger, as an agent of devastation in the realm of profit-making and capital accumulation. Losses were anticipated and bemoaned. Emden’s rapid success in destroying British capital assets was seen as ‘so monotonously frequent’ that ‘its possible depredations’ were ‘taken into account as a normal business risk in times of war’. A sense of doom invaded the jute trade, and the related British concerns regarding merchant ships and maritime commerce. As the ship retreated further eastwards and its threatening presence from the immediate vicinity of Calcutta was removed, Emden became a source of thrilling entertainment and drama to the European public in the city. The ship was observed from a distance as a chameleon with the ability to deceive ‘watchful’ Japanese vessels.

Apocalyptic visions

While the ship was being vested with an aura of mythical invincibility in the European circles, common people in Calcutta were gripped by an apocalyptic vision. From 16 September, the day after Emden had raided and sunk the British steamers, the colonial officials noted that panic-driven rumours were gaining ground. Words were spreading that the government was planning to transplant its seat of power to the interiors of Bengal by shifting from Calcutta to Dhaka, German cruisers were about to invade Calcutta, and the German navy had greater strength in the waters of Eastern Asia. Many contemplated an escape from the city with their families. The final flight of the colonizers was visualized at a time when they had already removed their central administrative headquarters to New Delhi. In the face of a concentrated German offensive, British authority was seen as a force of imperialism-in-retreat, ready to abandon the city to its doom. A social disaster of unknown magnitude was imagined, induced by the exit of the colonial masters and the erasure of the civic infrastructure by the invading German forces.

Yet, the anticipated annihilation of the city and colonial capital did not materialize. The Emden effect wore off with the destruction of the ship. The Captain was feted as a war-hero in enemy uniform. He and his vessel instantly assumed a place within imperial military folklore associated with codes of ‘gentlemanly’ honour and enterprise, specific to the self-image of white male ‘master-races’ in colonial settings. Emden also became a symbol of subversion and noble conduct among cross-class, multilingual, and religious segments of the Indian urban population. Al Hilal, an Urdu pan-Islamist weekly edited by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, declared in September that Emden, sunk by a Russian ship, had resurrected itself and wreaked havoc. At a mosque, some Muslims were overheard discussing the vessel with admiration; they claimed its German crew had treated captured Muslim lascars ‘very well’ even though the latter were fighting for a British victory. In northern neighbourhoods of Calcutta, ‘large objectionable placards’ in Bengali announced: ‘Bharat Samudre abar Emden’ (Emden returns to Indian Ocean) in red letters. They had been posted to advertise the services of a kaviraj; this was explained in smaller print below the attention grabbing exercise. The police, instead of customers, distinctly un-amused by the trick, visited Bejoya Press owned by Ramesh Chandra Choudhury, a ‘well-known’ bhadralok nationalist ‘suspect’ from Sylhet; he was ‘brought’ before high-ranking officials and interrogated on his intentions for publishing the material.

Colonial Capital and floating ‘danger’

The spectre of German invasion remained unrealized. It nestled, for a while, in the imagination of the colonizers and their subjects. It was observed, on behalf of colonial capital, that ‘consuming countries are now in the position that they must have jute or gunnies, as the case may be; so business is proceeding in spite of the Emden’s successful deception.’ With the continuation of the super-profitable jute trade, which initially suffered from the vanishing of the continental market, particularly in Germany and Austria-Hungary, the anxiety of European proprietors subsided. The colonized subjects also realized that the colonizers were not yet ready to leave the city. Their sense of dread and dissent against colonial authority at a time of rising hardship was expressed through other outlets.

War-time watch on the river by the colonial authorities persisted, as did the rumours surrounding the vessels arriving from the East. Soon, the imaginary and distant battle-ships, charting the sky and the sea, were replaced by the ships of sedition. With the arrival of the Komagata Maru and other ‘Ghadar’ ships in late 1914 and early 1915 and the ‘Bolshevik’ and ‘White’ ships in 1918 following the Russian Revolution of 1917 at the end of the war, new dimensions were added to the perceptions of ships and contributed to the colonial-official anxieties and popular expectations of colonial subjects.

The author teaches History at Jadavpur University