Go to the Indian Marine, Bombay Marine & Indian Navy 1613-1858

The Bengal Marine





From the sources so far seen, I have not been able to determine when the Bengal Marine was formed, but John Keay’s history of the Company states that they had pilots certainly by the late 1680s or early 1690s. Even although there was no properly established settlement, the River Hughli (or variants of spellings such as Hoogli) is well known to have been so routinely hazardous to navigation, it would not have been out of the question to have employed pilots from the beginning. c.1640.

From the first (known) surviving edition of The East India Calendar of 1791, it can be seen that there was a local marine board, with pilots, masters and mates (as well as ‘free mariners’) listed. An East-India Register and Directory, of 1803, gives much more info though. As well as those on the marine board are ‘Europeans employed in the Company’s Marine’ - all the way down to boatswains and seamen. Not only are twelve pilot schooners detailed, so two are other vessels employed by this board. They were one agent vessel, Charlotte; one buoy vessel, Abercrombie; two river transports, George and Charles; and one anchor boat apparently named Diamond Harbour.

With this (and further info quoted below) in mind, it is not unlikely that a pilot service was formed early on, under the administrative control of a marine board. As there were also other local maritime requirements, political/martial and commercial, these too were dealt with as one organisation as and when required.

Although there are occasional mentions of the Bengal Marine supplying vessels for martial operations in the published histories of the H.E.I.C. emphasising maritime activities, no particular detail is given for the period of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815). Nevertheless, one entry in The Original Calcutta Annual Directory and Calendar, of 1813, prints an extract from a Company despatch of August 1798. For the sake of interest, I quote this in full:-



         PAR. 58.- In order to preserve due respect and attention to the officers of your marine, who on important occasions, especially during war, are associated with the military, and assist in operations of a warlike nature, we have resolved that certain ranks should be assigned for your marine officers, corresponding with those of the military, and we therefore direct,

That the Commodore have equal rank with Colonels in the army.

         The Captains of the larger vessels of 28 guns, equal rank with Lieut.-Colonels in the army.

         The Captains of small vessels under 28 guns, equal rank with Majors in the army.

         The 1st Lieutenants equal rank with Captains in the army.

         And the 2d Lieutenants, rank with Lieutenants in the army.

         PAR. 59.- In all cases the dates of the respective commissions, are to regulate the precedence of military or marine officers...’.


Although the Bombay Marine undoubtedly contributed more minor men-o-war to the joint amphibious force that took Java in 1811, the Company’s naval element was under the command of an officer of the Bengal Presidency. He was John Hayes, described in this edition of the above-mentioned Calcutta register as ‘Senior Officer of the H.C.’s Marine Forces, Eastern Side of India’ and further as ‘senior Captain in the Line, Master Attendant’.

The entries in the various published directories and registers can be frustrating in some respects. While the description of the employment of named vessels are frequently different, whether they were ‘government yachts’, or ‘state boats’, is not intrinsically problematical. Neither is the fact that individual vessels could be used surveying one year and on some other duty on another. But, the physical appearance can be difficult to understand sometimes. Of course, small two-masted vessels could be described as brigs and snows interchangeably - depending on whether some auxiliary spars were rigged or not. But, brigs and schooners cannot be seen in the same light. Re-rigging of sailing vessels was not infrequently carried out, but the idea of entire tranches of craft being re-rigged from one year to another does not appear to make sense (to me anyway).

Bearing in mind events about to happen, in October 1822 port regulations at Chittagong, were instituted by the Company’s Governor-General. Later that same year there was also a notification of the newly found Phillip’s Channel relating to the Straits of Singapore.

In terms of naval force, it is not until the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26) that any particular detail is given in the published history (of the Indian Navy by Charles Rathbone Low). In this it is said that their wooden-hulled, steam-powered paddle-steamer Diana, newly built in Kiddepore, was the ‘first steam vessel ever seen Eastern waters’.

According to published listings the first steam vessel operated by the Bengal Marine was the Enterprize in 1826, although this was probably not the case, since she did not even arrive at Calcutta until early December of that year. So, Charles Low was probably correct.

The Ganges and Irrawaddy appear in the listings three years later; the Burranpooter and Hooghly in 1830. The only technical information that I have found out on these early steam vessels apparently relates to the Hooghly. She was built by the Howrah Dock Company; of 89 tons; launched in 1825; for the East India Company’s service; and was employed ‘on the river’ in 1839.

Their early usage is not mentioned clearly. By 1835 there was a Controller of Steam Vessels, and in a different listing a year later there is a steam department specifically mentioned - headed by a lieutenant Royal Navy. What is more, the earlier named vessels (including the Diana) were described as ‘steam vessels for tugging & sea steamers’. There was also another listing in this marine list of 1836 - of ‘inland iron steamers’. They were the rather impressively named the Lord William Bentinck, George Swinton, Sir Charles Metcalfe and William Blunt.

Thankfully, further information can be gleaned from a few corporate histories of companies now only known of by specialists in Indian business matters. Incidentally, it may be worth mentioning that Bengal had access to locally-mined coal and so, was at real advantage over other ports regionally in advancing the use of steam.

Anyway, according to one history devoted to the Indian General Steam Navigation Company, the H.E.I.C.’s Lord William Bentinck was the first of the river steamers that worked Ganges and began her service in 1834. Within two years she had been joined by the other three steamers mentioned in the last paragraph. All four reflected the names of ‘leading officials of the day’. This was relatively short-lived though and in 1838 the latter three were renamed as the Thames, Jumna and Megna. Although they could carry freight commercially, such as for the newly-formed Assam Company, this was not really their role, which was for multifarious government duties. Not therefore providing a liner service, private capital was used to develop commercial enterprises.

Elsewhere, by 1835 newer and more powerful Government steamers had replaced the older ones. Nevertheless, they were not paid off and instead, the Enterprize, Ganges and Irrawaddy were deployed very profitably on the River Hughli as a tug service.

The Bengal Marine was also involved in the First China War (1839-42), or ‘First Opium War’ as it became known. By the end they had provided a number of paddle-steamers, being the sloop Tenasserim (4), with others of rigs as yet unknown - Queen (4), Proserpine (2), Pluto (1) and the unarmed Hooghly. And, there were two other of the Company’s vessel involved that were on the strength of the Bengal Marine. One was the new iron-hulled, paddler Nemesis, built by Laird, of Birkenhead and was in a curious position. Although never commissioned as a fighting craft; her principle officers held commissions in the Royal Navy; and she was armed with two 32-pounder cannons, along with fifteen lesser cannons and also rocket launchers. These were used to devastating effect during the Yangtse campaign, although some modern analysis reckons that she was not as overwhelmingly effective as was made out at the time). The other was Phlegethon that was similar to Nemesis, both in construction and role in China, but less written about.

According to the published listings once again, rearranged in late 1841, the steam department was by then operating what can be described as liner services. Between Calcutta and Allahabad, intermediate ports were then were Rage Mehal, Bhaungulpore, Moughyr, Dinapore, Ghazeepore, Benares and Mirzapore: carrying both freight and passengers.

Unsurprisingly, they also contributed to the naval assets used in the Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852-53). Early on a joint R.N. and Bengal Marine force took Martaban and during hostilities their Tenasserim (4), Pluto (1), Phelgethon (2), Proserpine (2), the unarmed Enterprise and Firequeen. There was also another, the Mahanuddy (or Maha Muddie in Rear-Admiral Austen’s original reports to the Admiralty, or even Mahuddy as later shown in listings), a steamer sporting 4 guns post-war, but have been unable as yet to find out if she was armed during this conflict.

By 1852 there was also a Dacca and Assam Line. Due to only some editions of the more useful directories surviving, I have not been able to determine when this was begun though. Similarly, there were liner services with Chittagong, Arracan and Moulmein in Burma. Even so, with British martial success in Burma commercial operators, such as the Calcutta and Burmah Steam Navigation Company (to become the British India Steam Navigation Company), were soon also capitalising on this and beginning their own liner services.

The organisation of the Bengal Marine would seem to have been heavily used in relation to the Great Sepoy Mutiny. The Indian Navy is definitely known to have supplied officers and men to the Bengal Government as of the summer of 1857, used variously ashore. It is highly likely that their compatriots of the Bengal Marine were similarly deployed at this time. Anyway, in a re-organisation as of May 1858 company sized detachments (approximately numbering 100), complete with 12-pounder howitzers were formed and apparently used in a less haphazard manner.

Interestingly, in dealing with the abolition of the Indian Navy in the aftermath of these monstrously terrible events, good explanatory information is given on the past nature of the Bengal Marine. In a despatch from the Secretary of State for India, dated 28th November 1862, it is stated that:-

‘...5. The manner in which the Bengal Marine has answered the purposes of the Government of India proves that there are many Maritime duties which can be performed with efficiency by a temporary Service, fluctuating in numbers as the demand for vessels may increase or diminish; and Her Majesty’s Government consider that such duties on the West coast of India as have hitherto been performed by the Indian Navy, but for which it may not be convenient to employ ships of the Royal Navy - namely, the transport of troops and stores, and other civil duties - can be performed for the future by a local Service entitled the Bombay Marine, on the same footing as that which the Bengal Marine has always been, and not under martial law...’

As already mentioned in the main page, the vessels that were earmarked for retention came both from the Indian Navy and the Bengal Marine. In total there were eleven of these. Of six steam transports, four were to be ‘ready for sea’, split equally between Bombay and Calcutta, with two in reserve. The Bengal Marine’s contribution was to comprise the unarmed screw-steamers Sydney, Australian and the paddle-steamer Arracan). Three sailing transports were to be retained, one at Calcutta and two in reserve - all from the Bengal Marine. They were Sesostris (turned over to the Bengal Presidency in 1853, she seems to have been re-built as a sailing vessel between 1858 and 1859), Tubal Cain and Walter Morrice. There were also two steam vessels ‘for general service’ of the Government of India, both from the Indian Navy. In the case of Calcutta, Ferooz was detailed.

Incidentally, the above mentioned despatch also dealt with the Madras Presidency. This stated that:-

‘...There is not need for a separate Marine for Madras; the vessels required there for transport services have always been furnished from other Presidencies where there are docks and conveniences for the repair and fitting of ships, as well as for their lying in safety during the adverse monsoon. One or two of the Government vessels retained on the Bengal side, might be considered as available for transport service of Madras upon the requisition of the Government of the Presidency, and while detached upon such Service they should be under the orders and charge of that Government...’

Again from the published listings, in the latter half of 1868 it would appear that the Bengal Marine lost not only it’s ‘commercial’ operations, but also it’s surveying responsibilities. Nevertheless, it still retained its pilot service.

Finally, the Bengal Marine only survived independently in terms of supplying naval power until 1877, when it became part of Her Majesty’s Indian Marine. Nevertheless, the eastern division remained based on Calcutta and unsurprisingly, the Government of Bengal still had its other marine responsibilities, including surveying, but also seemingly shed of everything commercial. It is clear that there were weaknesses in standards of Calcutta pilots and so, covenanted pilots were introduced around this time.


Tracing individuals in the Bengal Marine


So, in many respects, apart from the marine board controlling maritime affairs for the Bengal Presidency, the pilot service was an integral element of the Bengal Marine. Nevertheless, pilots’ duties (along with those dealing with the maintenance of buoys and other inshore and harbour work) were essentially different to those of the mariners employed in commercial and/or military operations. Therefore, as far as possible I have split the records relating to the ‘static’ and ‘seagoing’ activities. That does not mean to say that individuals could not be employed in both elements (as can be seen occasionally).



Unless this has been affected through decisions on retention for posterity, it would seem that the day-to-day records of the pilot service were inherently different from the other parts of the Bengal Marine. Those specifically for the pilot service at the British library so far found are nominations and associated records of appointment including original nominations, baptisms etc., showing their entry. There are numerous volumes of seniority lists from c.1793 through to 1869, with some ‘casualty’ returns for tracing careers, although the various published listings might also be of use. Among the standard certificates of service, printed annually for all officials in the Indian Government’s employment, are those for pilots covering 1896 to 1926. There are also some pay documents, but quite frankly, do not make exciting reading and are of little use to most researchers!



In many respects similar to the documentation for their compatriots on the West Coast of India, the careers of individuals can be establishment and casualty lists. Unless within the above referred to records for the pilot service and just not noticed by me, there would appear to be no nominations, baptism forms, records of appointments or pay records. Again there are certificates of service for the period 1896 to 1926 for officials in this Presidency’s marine service. It should be noted that some of these individuals had come from the Royal Indian Marine.



There are two volumes of records relating to the Naval Brigades. One of these is stated as a ‘list of European Officers and Seamen who served on the books of H.M.’s vessel Calcutta’ from August 1858 to December 1859. There is fascinating detail in this, whereby it can be seen that a great many ‘white’ foreigners in Bengal acted in the defence of British interests. For instance there were numerous Prussians that volunteered in August 1858. These records are important at a personal level, as there are details not only of joining, but also of their fate: whether discharged, discharged dead, or had run (deserted) and when. The other shows the order of battle of the naval brigades in 1860, down to the level of individuals. Helpfully, there is also a separate listing of those from the Indian Navy.



As far as I can determine, hardly anything has been written about this organisation at all. There will be a lot of information within the original Company and India Office files at the British Library, with other bits and pieces elsewhere. In particular, there are two volumes of annual reports relating to the period 1845 to 1857 that are excellent. Not the easiest documents to work with at first sight, after one has become used to the different clerks’ handwriting a great deal of good information can be extracted. For instance, apart from showing movements and reporting on their activities when at war, they also include financial statements on cash received from freight for the steamer services in peacetime. Pilots are also mentioned routinely as well, in tables of groundings in the Hooghly. Being such a difficult waterway, this was apparently seen as an occupational hazard and there are additional comments mentioning whether any complaints had been made against the pilots, or not.

I have absolutely no doubt that there are other similar reports within the Company’s body of administrative papers, although at this time I have not sought out any of these. The published listings also contain interesting info that can be tapped into easily enough.

There is also a card index as part of the ‘Percy Smith’ collection, part of which is now in the possession of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (the military aspects are, as far as I can determine, at the National Army Museum, Chelsea). Percy Smith was an officer in the Indian Army and on retirement active with the Society of Genealogists. From what I have seen so far, his papers are rather bizarre, inasmuch as they basically comprise a collection of lists, in all sorts of different formats.

Within this is a card index, comprising two out of eight compartments of a filing cabinet, is a listing for the Bengal Marine, with some specifically shown as in the pilot service. While I have not gone through all of these by any means, the earliest so far seen relates to 1706. Most are for the late eighteenth century, or nineteenth and the last date so far seen is 1867. It would seem that only executive officers and pilots have been included - there being no engineers. The quality and quantity of information logged is less than consistent. Some entries are lengthy with substantial genealogical info including wills, others show virtually nothing. Just occasionally there are very interesting snippets. As a damper, it should be pointed out that this collection is at one of the museum’s outstations and requires prior notice (at least of days and possibly weeks) to arrange. Therefore, some thought should be given before using this collection that could yield nothing, or as good as nothing in searches.


The primary published sources for this section have mostly been from details in the published following registers and directories; some corporate histories; and standard histories of the Indian Navy:-


Scott and Company’s Bengal Directory and Register (Calcutta: Scott & Co.)

The Bengal Almanac and Directory (Calcutta: Mirror Press)

The Bengal Directory and Annual Register (Calcutta: Mirror Press)

The Calcutta Annual Register and Directory (Calcutta: Scott & Co.)

The East-India Company Register and Army List (London, East India Company)

The East-India Registry and Directory (London: W.H. Allen)

The New Calcutta Directory (Calcutta, Frank Carbery)

Thacker’s Indian Directory (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co)

H.A. Antrobus: A History of the Assam Company 1839-1953 (Privately printed by T. & A. Constable Ltd., Edinburgh, 1957)

Alfred Brame: The India General Steam Navigation Company Limited (London: The Leadenhall Prefs, Ltd., 1900)

Cdr. D.J. Hastings R.I.N.V.R.: The Royal Indian Navy, 1612-1950 (North Carolina and London: McFarland & Co. Inc., 1988)

Charles Rathbone Low: History of the Indian Navy (1613-1863) (London: The London Stamp Exchange Ltd., 1990 reprint) in two volumes


There were also more minor (or indirect) consultations from other publications including:-


Shipping and Ship Building in India 1736-1839 (London: India Office Record, 1995)

J.J. Colledge & Ben Warlow: Ships of the Royal Navy: The Complete Record of all Fighting Ships of the Royal Navy from the 15th Century to the Present (London: Chatham Publishing, 2006 revised)

Robert Gardiner (Editor): Steel, Steam & Shellfire: The Steam Warship 1815-1905 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1992)

Captain Peter Hore R.N.: Seapower Ashore: 200 Years of Royal Navy Operations on Land (London: Chatham Publishing, 2001)

Andrew Lambert: ‘Strategy, Policy and Shipbuilding: the Bombay Dockyard, the Indian Navy and Imperial Security in Eastern Seas, 1784-1869’ in H.V. Bowen, Margarette Lincoln & Nigel Rigby (Editors): The Worlds of the East India Company (London & Leicester: The Boydell Press, N.M.M. & University of Leicester, 2002)

David Lyon & Rif Winfield: The Sail & Steam Navy List: All the Ships of the Royal Navy 1815-1889 (London: Chatham Publishing, 2004)


Also, I referred to operational records in relation to an aspect of the Anglo-Burmese War (1852-53) for the Bengal Marine:-


TNA: PRO ADM 1/5612



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