Dhubri is situated on the westernmost part of Assam; this place with a rich history as the gateway to undivided Assam is where the mighty Brahmaputra ends before entering Bangladesh. The geographical location and picturesque beauty of this part of Assam surrounded with forests, hills, rivers, lush green fields and plantations has attracted many past conquerors of different period to rule and settle here, including the Britishers. After the arrival of the British, Dhubri became an important administrative seat of the western powers. The present district has been carved out from the greater Goalpara district in the year 1983 after serving as the district headquarter for four consecutive years . The important elements of colonial architecture exhibited through the civic, administrative, institutional and utilitarian buildings in Dhubri reminds about the colonial legacy of the British Empire. It has been speculated that before the East India Company it were the Armenian traders who arrived in Dhubri sailing through the Brahmaputra on their onward journey to Bangladesh from Calcutta.
Dhubri flourished as a major river port zone with traces of many navigational activities happening before and during the British rule. The river Brahmaputra serves as the lifeline of the place as most of the occupational and productive activities are related to the river. When the British entered Assam, Brahmaputra was the main artery of communication. After the first steam vessel “The Assam” plied in 1841, subsequently, a number of organised steamer vessels were introduced by the companies namely the River Navigation System (RNS) and Indian General Steam Navigation Company Limited (IGSNC).
The archaeological expeditions in Dhubri have also highlighted the presence of kingdoms and empires that once flourished under various rulers. The historical monuments, architectural remnants and buildings found in the region describe the region as a rich repository of settlement of various rulers. In the month of October, 2019 a new archaeological discovery was made on the riverbed of Brahmaputra in the Majerchar river block, 11 kms from Dhubri town, when a group of local boys while having a leisurely time swimming and sporting in the river accidentally bumped into a hard object. When pulled out from under two metre of sediment, this hard object that enticed the gathered locals at the site appeared to be an absolute unit of large sized iron Anchor of ship wreckage. Twenty people came together to securely pull out this heavy weight from underneath the water bed. The iron chains attached to the anchor was found absorbed in the hump of sand dunes on its bank. The weight of the anchor made it impossible to retrieve the end part of the chain with bare hands, also, unavailability of necessary mechanical equipment and expertise was another factor to consider. On my second visit to the site in the month of November the anchor was found lying abandoned at the river bank with the chains still attached and buried on the sand dunes. Nevertheless, this discovery has opened up a new chapter in the history of navigational activity that took place in the region during the 16th century and onwards. The experts revelling in this discovery are of the opinion that the iron anchor must be of a large ship that went down or must have been abandoned for reasons unknown. Since Dhubri was a major river port at the time of the British rule, spotting such vessels was not an unusual sight. In addition, it has been further speculated that it may be a part of the vessel used by the Armenians, whereas, to some, it might be from one of the many passenger steamers that the British used to ply. Personal observation of the anchor indicated signs of wider possibility of finding more behind the buried iron chains on the north side. The direction of the anchor with the attached chains suggests for a possible finding of the ship wreckage some 40 metres away from the anchor, only if excavation is carried out. However, from such observations nothing could be ascertained until deeper study and research is propounded. Since Dhubri is prone to destructive floods every year and the earthquake of 1951 left major impact on the course of river systems and the riverbeds, therefore an in-depth research, investigation and analysis into this finding could lead to a fresh clue in unfolding of many new discoveries.
Though the condition of the anchor was found intact but its identity remained a mystery at the beginning. After close investigation and study of its design it was ascertained that the anchor belonged to the category of Stockless Bow Anchor which was manufactured in Britain in 1800s and named the Hall Anchor. This particular type of anchor was one of the most popular and commonly used types of Stockless Bow Anchor introduced in the year 1886 in Britain. The placement and position of the anchor at the time of discovery suggests that it was casted on the water bed to moor a ship at that particular place by means of flukes and prevent it from drifting away due to storms or water currents in the Brahmaputra. This observation suggests that there must be a steamer vessel stationed in that particular location at some point, which got lost over time, engulfed by the river and the sand dunes. The anchor has long and heavy tilting flukes, a pin at the end where the chains are attached to. The rectangular base to which the flukes are projected plays an important mechanical function while anchoring the ships. Hall Anchors were used in most of the large ships and have replaced the older designs making it easy to handle and stow. Here, the shank is drawn up into a pocket in the ship’s side. At the beginning of the 20th century the Hall Anchor was principally being used by the British navy ships. The discovery of the Anchor quite close to the river port of Dhubri affirms the route used by the steamer vessels. However, studying and researching about the Anchor and finding the exact name of the ship to which it was affixed, its use and time would involve a massive maritime archaeological exercise.
As mentioned in the Gazetteers and other British records the steamer service between Calcutta and Gauhati was started in 1847 during the administration of Colonel Jenkins. From 1862 this service got regularised and by the year 1869 sixteen more steamers were added to service. A daily mail steamer service was started between Dibrugarh and Dhubri in the year 1884 connecting the other streamers running between Dhubri and Jatrapur. This newly introduced inland water transportation system by the British and its impact on the inhabitants residing nearby the riverside has been captured by Surya Kumar Bhuyan in his book “Early British Relations with Assam”, where he writes, “on hearing the sound of the siren, the unsophisticated village folks would line themselves on the banks of the river to witness the majestic sight, and make offerings of flower and betel-nut, to the divine power which manifested itself in the propulsion of the steam boats.”
Subsequently, when Dhubri got connected with Calcutta by the Assam Bengal Railway line in the year 1902 it eased the travel of the passengers. With introduction of this service the passengers would take the steamers to Dhubri port to catch the connecting rail service to other parts of the country. This made the inland waterway traffic heavier than any other times. These large ships or steamer vessels sailing through the treacherous tributaries of the Brahmaputra transported passengers and were also used to export commodities like tea, jute and silk.
The recent discovery of the Anchor in Majechar river block is a clear indication of the navigational activities that took place in this route during colonial period. To unfold the story further a well equipped exploration and excavation on the river bed and sand dunes has to be taken up with the help of the methods and equipments such as sonar survey, robotic camera, magnetometer, sub bottom profiler, hydro scan, and metal detector survey along with a team of experts. Thus, it can be summarised that with the finding of the Hall Anchor there are hopes for providing and reconstructing the characteristics of ships that floated in the region.
First Published: Eastern panorama, Monthly Magazine, May 2020,Vol XXVIII, No 2