Snodgrass and his Beacon Island

It is an architectural marvel with a conical pillar and a small room constructed on a submerged mass of rocks in Rambha bay near Ghantsilar hill, popularly known as ‘Beacon Point’. The small room and the gleaming white spire are visible from a distance both on sunny days and on full moon nights.

Today, it is a “must visit” for all those who come to the Chilika lake. However, few know the interesting history behind this little island. It was home for Thomas Snodgrass, who was the Collector of Ganjam under the East India Company from 1791 to 1797. This beautiful little structure is a symbol of the colonial rulers and an icon of the idiosyncrasies that they indulged in.

Thomas Snodgrass was born in 1759 and obtained a Madras Government writership in 1777 when he was just 18 years of age. The East India Company  used to employ  many junior clerks  known as ‘writers’, to record the details of accounting, managerial decisions, minutes of meetings, copies of Company orders and contracts, and for the  filing of reports and copies of ship’s logs.

Snodgrass worked his way up from the ranks and was appointed Collector of Ganjam in 1791. Those were the heydays of the Company Raj. Snodgrass sailed from Fort St. George in Madras for Ganjam. His headquarters was inside Potagarh fort near Chattrapur. After his arrival, he toured the district to discharge his duties. On arriving at Rambha, he was so enamoured by Chilka that he decided to build a big mansion on its banks.  It was a sprawling house with stables for his horses and elephants. Far away from the humdrum existence of Madras, Snodgrass succumbed to his new-found power and freedom. He lived lavishly and extended hospitality to every Englishman who passed through the district.

Just opposite his residence, about two miles from the bank of the lake, lay a small island, about fifteen feet square. Snodgrass built a small room for himself on it. He put up a conical pillar, which stands till today. He called this room his office and would retreat there for days with his books. He would fly a flag from the pillar and at night hang a lamp. The fishermen of the lake were prohibited to go near the island.  He soon became addicted to the seclusion, and started doing most of his official work from there. He enjoyed fishing on the lake and also indulged in shooting and trapping birds.

The Company’s officers in Madras soon realised that revenue from the district was falling. They got reports of the princely style in which their representative was living, and they wrote to him reprimanding him to improve or face the consequences. Snodgrass just ignored the letter.

The Company sent its bookkeepers who asked Snodgrass to render the accounts and hand over the books which would be sent to Madras. But he threatened them and sent them away. Ganjam was a difficult outpost as the ports of Puri and Chattrapur were inaccessible during the monsoons. The overland route took more than a month of travel, and Snodgrass felt that he was safe in this faraway place.

The Company wrote to him to account for “defalcification of revenue coupled with fraud and wholesale oppression.” Snodgrass’s reply was curt and frivolous. The Company elders replied that “a more extraordinary statement in extenuation of a gross defalcation had never, we believe, been submitted by any collector” and sent a Mr. Brown to relieve him. But Snodgrass was not to be browbeaten. He threatened to shoot down Mr. Brown if he came to the district.

For two years, he kept the officials at bay. The Governor then decided to send a small body of soldiers to Rambha to take over the Collectorate and bring Mr. Snodgrass and his books to Madras. Snodgrass knew that it would take the soldiers two months to march along the Trunk Road to Rambha, and he sent scouts out to warn him of their arrival. When the detachment was about a week’s journey from Ganjam, he ordered his men to put all the office books and papers in a boat. Midway, he sunk the boat along with all his records in the deepest part of the lake.

When the soldiers arrived, Snodgrass expressed regret for the accident; but he was taken to Madras, found guilty of using the revenues of the Company for his own private use, and dismissed from service without a pension.

That, however, was not the end of the story. After returning to England, Snodgrass went to the East India Company Office at Leadenhall Street in London and demanded his pension. When denied, he proceeded from words to deeds. He established himself as a sweeper in front of India House. Barefooted and clad in rags, he would sweep the crossing in front of the building. He would relate his plight to all whom passed by. The people could judge for themselves by seeing the regal status maintained by the masters and the present plight of Snodgrass after slaving for them for thirty years

The pompous and wealthy Directors had to pass by their former servant daily. He had been reduced by the Company to this humiliating position. The outraged Directors were soon the laughing-stock of the city. Snodgrass could not be dislodged. The law was powerless to assist them. He was violating no civic regulation. To escape the public ridicule awaiting them in the front, the Company Directors were soon going in and out by the messenger’s gate in the rear of the premises. Public opinion, or maybe pity, made them call a meeting in which it was decided that Mr. Snodgrass had been sufficiently punished. They opened negotiations with him and he was told that if he would give up sweeping they would reconsider his case. Snodgrass pooh-poohed the idea. How could he abandon his “only source of income” unless he was assured of his pension from the date “his long and honourable service” had come to an end.  After some further parleying, the Directors abjectly surrendered and gave him all that he asked for.

The very next day, attired in a frock coat and top hat, he drove up in a carriage and four to thank them personally for their kind response to his humble petition for redress. Adding to the hard-earned savings that he had brought from India, the pension would now bring his total income to 5,000 Pounds per year.

Later, Snodgrass was a founder member of   the Oriental Club in London formed in 1824. The club was designed to attract persons who had resided or travelled in the East. Membership was initially almost exclusively reserved for servants of the East India Company, both civil and military, who, finding themselves in London after service abroad, sought the company of like- minded gentlemen with whom they could share their experiences.

I managed to get two photographs of portraits of Snodgrass from the Secretary of the Oriental Club. In one of them, one can definitely see the small hill and the sails of fishing boats on Chilka. Snodgrass’s house at Rambha was later taken over by the Raja of  Khallikote and is now the Panthanivas.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same).

Image source: Odisha Tourism