True story of False Point

K. J. S. Chatrath visits the first lighthouse on the east coast of India

FALSE Point — it was the unusual name that caught my attention. I was fascinated enough by the intriguing name to take a two-hour boat from Paradip Port, on the eastern coast of Orissa, to reach the place.

False Point is an old harbour with a lighthouse, about 45 km from Kendrapada in Orissa, on the north of the Mahanadi estuary. The lighthouse is situated on a large island created by the Mahanadi river delta. It takes its name from the fact that it was often mistaken by ships for Point Palmyras (Palmyras is a sort of palm), which lies one degree farther north. Point Palmyras was the spot from where the ships moved towards the Ganga. In fact, many incoming ships used to take sailors from the town of Balasore as guides because they were considered well versed in navigating the tricky mouth of the river.

A channel on way to False Point
A channel on way to False Point Photos by the writer

At False Point, the ships had to anchor in a comparatively exposed roadway. Hence loading and unloading could be carried on only in fair weather. Nonetheless, a considerable export of rice, chiefly to Mauritius and Ceylon, used to take place from here.

Like most harbours, False Point, too, has a lighthouse but what makes it special is that it is the first lighthouse installed on the eastern coast of India. It is situated in a village named Batighar, on the other bank of the Kharinasi river. Batighar, as the name suggests means a lighthouse. In olden times, it was known as Kaudia Dweep, and used as hunting ground of Kujanga Kings.

Construction of the lighthouse was started in December, 1836, and finished in October, 1837. A plaque at the lighthouse says that the first light was exhibited on March 1, 1838, by Second Lieutenant H. Righly, Executive Engineer. The stones used were transported from Barabati Fort, Cuttack. The height of the structure is 125 feet. To reach the top, one has to climb 138 steps and a 16-step ladder. The speciality of this lighthouse is that it has remained operational from the date of its lighting.

Just next to the boundary wall of the lighthouse is a small cluster of graves. These are the graves of the English superintendents of the lighthouse, their assistants and the families. Inscription on a grave reminds us of Capt. H.A. Harris, the Conservator of Orissa Ports who died by drowning in May 1877.

About an hour’s further boat ride lies the island of Hukitola. Near the island are visible the remains of a sunken ship. The ship is believed to be a French ship ‘Velleda’. John Beames, who served as Collector of Cuttack from 1875 to 1878 and later as Collector of Balasore district from 1869 to 1873 has, in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Bengal Civilian, described this ship.

Beames’ book makes a fascinating reading, and what he wrote about the sunken French ship and the False Point is quite different from what has been quoted by writers in the recent past. He wrote, "One day one of these ships, the Velleda, was driven ashore in a storm. The sagacious police, for some reason best known to themselves — the workings of a native policeman’s mind are dark and tortuous and hard to understand — arrested the Captain and the crew, and put a guard on the vessel as she lay on the beach at the mouth of the river Daya. The latter precaution was wise and saved the vessel from being plundered.

"The Magistrate of Pooree, an eccentric person, Joseph Armstrong, telegraphed to me for orders as to what he was to do with the men. In reply I instructed him to supply them with food and anything else they might require, and to get carts and send them to Cuttack at once. After a few days they arrived — a hungry, dirty, ragged, dishevelled party of about a dozen Frenchmen. We accommodated them in the Police Barracks, and gave them food and clothing and medical aid. The Captain, named Semelin, was a merry, little, round Sancho Panza of a man and amused us very much while he remained at Cuttack."

It was not easy for the Europeans to tolerate the climate of coastal India and this took its toll on the French captain. Beames narrates this touching end in a simple but effective way, "Then poor little Sancho Panza Semelin fell ill, and the doctor said he had better be sent to Calcutta, where he would find a French doctor who could understand him. His disease was some internal ailment of an obscure nature. So I shipped him off and his crew to Calcutta, whence, I was informed, they shipped on board various French vessels and so got home. Poor Semelin, however, died in the hospital in Calcutta, and I received a touching letter of thanks from the Consul-General for my kindness to him."

So all this makes it clear that the Velleda was broken up and sold and, therefore, the ship, parts of which are presently visible near Hukitola is not Velleda. Furthermore there were no causalities of French sailors when Velleda ran aground, and the there are no Frenchmen lying buried in that area. The graves near the lighthouse are of Englishmen posted there and of their families.

Of course that area was notorious for shipwrecks and who knows, the researchers might find something even more fascinating in the remains of the ship near Hukitola.