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VOL. XXIII NO. 18, JANUARY 1-15, 2014

Into the drink off the City's beach, 1851

The Madras Balloon

(by Simeon Mascarenhas)

Not very long ago there was an account in these pages of early aviators in Madras. If I remember correctly, a hot air balloon was mentioned. On a recent research expedition to Canberra, I came across a journal kept by a certain Alexander Weynton (active 1841-1860) who was Master of the Orwell, a passenger clipper for the “Blackwall Line of Packets to London Direct”. One of these three journals was serendipitously open at just the right page for me, the display caption reading “Rescue off Madras 20 Oct 1851”. Needless to say, I spent a long time examining the exhibit in the dim light, painstakingly deciphering the writing and trying to identify the Madras landmarks in the hazy distance of the accompanying watercolour. With the exception of a few words that were too faded to read or indecipherable due to the dim light in the gallery, I managed to copy the entry on page 184 of Volume 1 of journal three. Where words were indecipherable, I have provided blanks. I have faithfully copied what I saw and have made no attempt to correct spelling errors in order to preserve the original flavour of Weynton’s writing. Whatever was not clear is indicated by a question mark.

The Madras Balloon by Alexander Weynton.

“Monday 20th. In the afternoon a hot air balloon ascended from Madras. And the machine after attaining a great height met with a different current of air which took the avionant out towards the sea at a rate rather too rapid to be pleasant. By letting the gas escape quietly it settled in the water about 5 miles from the beach. All the ships/boats in the roadstead went to his assistance in this... in the balloon by att... up to his side in ... a pleasant predicament then being felt by fall of dark.”

The foregoing entry was added at the bottom of the page after an entry was made for Saturday October 30th. At the top of the page appears this entry, obviously written before noon:

“Wednesday 22nd. Employed ... for taking in cargo. Received a load of 93 bales cotton, ... turmeric and beeswax.

“Friday 24th. Cleared lower deck for coolies, 150 of which interesting individuals and am going to take to Mauritius, received on board 350 bags of rice for ... 25th to 28th employed it in the same manner. 1500 bags of .... just enough (for?) the (journey?).

“Thursday Oct 30th. Early in the morning Mrs. P came on board also. Capt. and Mrs Gitts (?) the (former of child?) but the Capn. the day after he got a phvic (?) (physic?) on other passengers in Mr Griffiths. he came out to Madras in the ship last voyage, and is disgusted with the country. 1 P.M. here that coolies all on board and ship a perfect hold lifted the anchor off the ground, and dropped down, clear of the other shipping waiting for a start, on doing which we ... ... pleasing (?) post (?) of British Ensign Union.

30th the captain came on board weighed and ... all said with a ... ...

8 PM Madras light hardly visible bearing N for G.A.

“Friday Oct 31st, Squally unsettled weather with rain until daylight when it partially decial (?) ...... car...... d like blackfellows, jabbering and grinning like monkeys.”

Alexander Weynton is described as a “colonial-era” English water-colourist and master mariner who was born in London in 1827. He kept a detailed log, in separate journals, of nine voyages to Australia between 1847 and 1860 on merchant ships. The use of the term blackfellows shows that Weynton was familiar with Australian usage: Aboriginals were called Blackfellows, and the word has entered the Australian lexicon as Blackfella. Naturally, the whites are called Whitefellas. Australia as an independent country did not exist then – the various states of Modern Australia were colonies of Britain. They united in 1901 to form the Commonwealth of Australia. This union, incidentally, gave added impetus to the Independence Movement in India.

Weynton’s journals are meticulous, encompassing all details of his observations - ship’s log, gossip, sketchbook and his personal opinion on all that he saw. His writing is neat and the entries orderly. Nevertheless, some words are hard to recognise. Although the books are in excellent condition, their corners reveal that the pages have been turned many times, indicating that they were read and re-read. The entry of the Madras balloon is accompanied by a charming watercolour, the size of a postcard, of the ill-fated balloon floating in a forlorn heap off the Marina, its gondola half-sunk. The sky is overcast, even forbidding, and serves to emphasise some large Madras buildings shimmering ghost-like in the far gloom. There is little doubt that Weynton was attempting to portray the Chepauk Palace and Fort St. George, but showing true artistic feel, Weynton places the focus on the subject, the hapless balloon. Ships and catamarans dot the water. Weynton obviously had as much talent for painting as he did for observation.

There is a much more to this story than a balloon mishap - it illustrates the extent of shipping and trade that passed through Madras in the mid-19th Century, and emigration from the South of India. Although this journal of Weynton’s deals with a sailing from Australia to London, I have uncovered evidence that there was a great deal of trade between Indian and the Australian Colonies in the 19th Century.

There is record of ballooning in Pondicherry – after all, the French began it all. At least that is the popular Anglo/Gallo-centric version. The facts are a little different: the first documented balloon flight in Europe was demonstrated by Bartolomeu de Gusmão on August 8, 1709 in Lisbon. He managed to lift a balloon full of hot air about 20 palmos (about 4.5 metres, a palmo being a hand-span of 22 cm) in front of King John V and the Portuguese court. Not until September 19, 1783 did the French brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier demonstrate a similar feat. The first manned flight (tethered) was demonstrated by Etienne Mongolfier in October 1783. All rather academic – the Chinese use of small hot air balloons dates back to the Three Kingdoms era between 220 and 280 CE. General Zhuge Liang of the Shu Han kingdom used small airborne lanterns, known as Kong Ming lanterns, for military signalling.

It is hardly surprising that the Portuguese were the first Europeans to make use of heated air to raise a balloon. During the 15th and 16th Centuries, Portugal was at the forefront of technological invention in Europe, particularly maritime technology, building and map-making, and had had contact with China from 1513, when the Portuguese explorer Jorge Alvares arrived in Guangzhao and established trade with China. Incidentally, the relationship, generally but not always cordial as with any political nexus, lasted until 1999 when Macau was amicably returned to China.

Was the balloon that Weynton saw the same one that is claimed to have taken off from Pondicherry and strayed as far as Madras? I have been up in the gondola (basket) of a hot air balloon and I can tell you with the utmost confidence that once you are airborne in that gondola, you are completely and utterly at the mercy of the elements. Whether or not you are religious, you soon understand the idea of ‘putting your trust in God’. There is not much else you can do, anyway. But I was too enthralled by the exquisite beauty of floating in eerie silence above an endless carpet of cloud to think about anything, let alone my safety.

A Melbourne daily newspaper, The Age, of May 22, 1861, carried an advertisement notifying the public that “the favourite passenger ship Orwell, 1400 tons, A1 at Lloyd’s” and “still under the experienced command of Captain Weynton”, would sail “POSITIVELY on THURSDAY 13th of June direct for London.” Under the description of the first class cabins is the delightful assurance that “A milch cow will be placed on board”. Weynton was a regular sailor between London and Australia, stopping at ports along the way to load or unload cargo, both human and commercial. Not all ships stopped at Madras between the UK and Australia: they did so only for good commercial or military reason. The more usual port of call was Colombo. In 1851, however, the Orwell had good reason to put into Madras and collect turmeric, since it was bound for London via Mauritius, the second-largest of As Ilhas Mascarenhas (the Mascarenhas Islands, named after Dom Pedro Mascarenhas who discovered them in 1507), where an Indian population was growing rapidly once Indian labour was introduced in 1834.

The Gentleman’s Magazine, July-December 1861 (a copy of which is held at Harvard College Library and my source for the following information) records the death “at sea, on board the Swiftsure, aged 33, Capt. Alexander Weynton, late of the ship Orwell, son of.. .” etc. I cannot help thinking how much more we might have been treated to had this man lived longer. Weynton commenced writing his journals in 1851, when he was 24 years old. His journals were organised into two volumes, the first of which contains 71 watercolour sketches and eight issues of a manuscript ship’s newspaper “Windsor review”, dated August-September 1852. It also includes a list of passengers on the Windsor.

But who was this unfortunate Madras balloonist? What was the occasion? What took place in Madras on October 20 in 1851? Or was it a special occasion elsewhere that went a bit too far, so to speak? I wonder what disgusted Mr Griffiths so much that he had to leave Madras after only one season. If only I could get my hands on Griffiths’ journal..!

NOTE: Alexander Weynton’s journals are part of the “Treasures” section of the Manuscripts Collection held at the National Library of Australia, Canberra.

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In this issue

Still waiting for a Tree Act
What does the Metro Plan for RSRM Choultry
Sadir to Bharata Natyam
The Madras Balloon
A Further Look at our Trees
Krishnan and his Tamil Writings
Headlines & Tailpieces

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Readers Write
Quizzin' With Ram'nan
Madras Eye
Dates for Your Diary


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