Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Fazilka that once sailed the seas

Aarish Chhabra

Chandigarh/Fazilka, September 12 Fazilka, the namesake of a small town in Punjab, was once a steamship that dumped Indian labourers at Fiji.

Not many, including the inhabitants of this sleepy little town tucked away in a corner of Punjab, will know that there was once a steamship that not only dumped Indian labourers at Fiji, the country they starting ruling half a century later, but the ship even carried the name of their town - Fazilka.

The story behind the name is a mystery, though. Henk Jungerius, a Holland-based ship enthusiast and historian, says the ship was named after a town in Sirsa district of northern India.

Adds Navdeep Asija, a researcher based in Chandigarh, “More information about how the name came about is not available, but the town of Fazilka did have a special place in the Britishers’ heart. This is because Fazilka was as far as they could go inside Punjab, before the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.”

In British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd, the practice of naming ships on places in India was common enought. Joseph Conrad, in his book, ‘Lord Jim’, refers to ‘The Patna’ and ‘The Rawalpindi’.

‘The Fazilka’ is listed in the book, ‘BI The British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd’ by W A Laxon and F W Perry. It is stated to be a 4,152-ton single-cylinder steamship, built by William Doxford and Sons in 1890. Fazilka made six trips to Fiji, carrying a total of 4,972 passengers.

There’s more. Fazilka SS (Steam Ship) has some terrific and terrifying tales associated with it. It was first used to carry troops from India to South Africa, during the Boer war. During a return trip from South Africa, a shaft of the ship broke between Mauritius and Colombo on February 6, 1900. After some excruciating days of hard labour, the Fazilka was able to make her way to Colombo at a reduced speed of 9 knots on March 3, a total of 48 days after the breakdown, with all hope of rescuing the ship long lost.John Macdonald, the third Engineer, received a gold watch and the sum of £30 for steering the ship safely - something that his grandson Ian Macdonald still proudly boasts of possessing.

After repairs, the Fazilka found itself ferrying soldiers to China for the Boxer Rebellion. It ran aground on the east coast of the Great Nicobar Island while sailing from Penang to Calcutta on October 31, 1919. No deaths were reported, though some peg the number of casualties at six.

“There were some odd tales about some of the crew involved in skullduggery and gold bullion too,” writes J B Hollingworth in his article ‘Sail, steam and seaplanes’ . Hollingworth’s grandfather Vivian Lockyer Wiles was in command of the ship at the time of its wreckage, and was rescued. Records of it being in Australian waters are found in the state records of New South Wales of the 1890s. “Even the Lutine Bell was rung when it was wrecked,” claims Ian Macdonald.

Whether this is true or not needs confirmation, but The Fazilka’s place in Indian history will forever be derived from Fazilka, a town more than the proverbial thousand miles away from shore


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