Curious Case of Queen Victoria’s Boat in Kashmir

Few months back, the Queen Victoria’s gift which was a steam boat presented to Maharaja Ranbir Singh was in news. First i would like to share the news items related to it written in two newspapers below:

From Indian Express :

Victorian era boat rusting in Kashmir museum

Srinagar, Wed Apr 04 2012

A Victorian era boat, evidence of Kashmir’s historic connections with the British empire, is decaying and rusting in an open parking lot of SPS Museum here.

The boat was a gift from Queen Victoria of United Kingdom, who was coronated in 1838 and remained the Empress of India from 1876 until her death in 1901, to Maharaja Ranbir Singh, a monarch who ruled Jammu and Kashmir from 1857 to 1885.

In today’s Kashmir, this royal gift is withering in sun, snow and rain as it remains lying in the open parking lot of the Sri Partap Singh Museum, named after the Maharaja’s son.

What remains of the nearly 30-feet-long boat, which is up to eight feet in width, is the rusted decaying structure.

The entire body of the boat is covered with rust, at places several layers deep, and a large hole has damaged the lower frontal part of it.

Several smaller holes, of the size of a football, have also punctured the boat at its bow and stern.

The museum has no details about the year when the boat was gifted and when it reached Kashmir.

From the timeline of the two rulers, the boat was gifted to the Dogra king of Kashmir anytime between 1857 and 1885, when he was the Maharaja.

A marker on the boat, which has words engraved on it, is the only testimony that it was exchanged between the two Royals.

“Presented by H.M. Queen Victoria to H.H. Shree Maharaja Ranbir Singh Ji Bahadar,” the text — on the marker, which is a sort of an epitaph — in bold capital letters reads.

The initials mentioned in the text – H.M. – meant ‘Her Majesty’ as the Queen of United Kingdom was called and H.H. meant ‘His Highness’, then attributed to the dynastic heads of the major princely states.

The only detail available in the museum records show the boat was transferred to the museum from Tosh Khana, treasury of the Kashmir’s erstwhile monarchs, in 1987.

Since then the boat remained decaying, year after year, in a damp pit, adjoining the main museum building, until the construction for a new building began when the pit was filled, leading to boat’s relocation to a new spot — the open parking lot.

“We have a proposal with the government to have a glass fibre cover for the boat,” the curator of the museum, Mushtaq Ahmad Beigh,said.

He said the glass fibre cover will be in place once a permanent spot is decided for the boat.

“We have to wait for the designer to decide the spot,” Beigh said.

The designers, a Mumbai-based interior designing consultancy, has been tasked to design the new building, which is under construction for the last five years.

From Daily Mail :

Queen Victoria’s gift rusts in peace: Royal present reflecting Kashmir’s connection with the British Empire ends up in parking lot

PUBLISHED: 00:12 GMT, 19 August 2012

To the naked eye, it’s just a piece of rusty junk.

But look closer and you’ll find this rusty boat is of royal lineage.

Engraved on a plaque are the words: ‘Presented by H.M. Queen Victoria to H.H. Shree Maharaja Ranbir Singh Ji.’

The boat presented by Queen Victoria to Maharaja Ranbir Singh has corroded after it was shifted to a parking lot in SPS MuseumThe boat presented by Queen Victoria to Maharaja Ranbir Singh has corroded after it was shifted to a parking lot in SPS Museum
 Blue blood couldn’t be thicker. But this Victorian-era boat, which reflects Kashmir’s connection with the British Empire, has been kept in a parking lot at Sri Pratap Singh (SPS) Museum in Srinagar.

The already rusty piece is thus open to the ravages of the elements. Ranbir Singh, a Dogra Maharaja, ruled Kashmir from 1857 to 1885.

Queen Victoria, who was crowned in 1838, remained Empress of India from 1876 to 1901.

Mushtaq Ahmad Baig, the curator of the museum, said the boat will be shifted to a new museum whenever it is open.

The plaque showing the boat's royal heritageThe plaque showing the boat’s royal heritage

The new museum was built by Ghulam Nabi Azad when he was the chief minister of the state in 2007.

Azad used to personally monitor the progress of the museum.

The building came up in a record six months time and finally Azad laid its foundation stone on March 20, 2008.

He had set an 18-month deadline to complete the interiors of the building.

Azad wanted to throw the museum open during his tenure but couldn’t, thanks to his premature exit from the government in the wake of the protests against transfer of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board and subsequent withdrawal of support by coalition partner People’s Democratic Party(PDP).

The museum hasn’t been opened to public since then.

The present SPS Museum has been declared as an unsafe building.

Maharaja Pratap Singh had established it in 1898 in his guest house at Lal Mandi.

The SPS Museum houses a precious collection of archaeological excavations, ancient coins, seals, terracotta, inscriptions, paintings, shawls, stuffed birds and animals and silver and bronze utensils of different civilizations.

But the delay in the completion of the new building has hampered its shifting.

‘It is sad that the royal boat is in the open. It should not have been there at the first place.

‘But because of lack of space in our old museum, we have no alternative,’ Baig said.

The curator also said that a number of artifacts  mostly stones, have been kept in the open as they would not face any damage.

‘We have kept less important things of archival value in open air.

‘But once the new museum is handed over to us, we will select a proper space for the boat and cover it with fibreglass.’ Baig added.


Recently i came across a book which talked about the above mentioned Steam Boat in detail & out of curiosity also began to search more about the steam boat. First on searching upon the subject, i came across another book Titled, ‘Central Asia: An Outline History’ written by Professor Ram Rahul. The writer on Page 83 writes :

Muhammad Yaqub ( who actually was a Fort Commander of Kashgarh) sent Yakub Khan Tora as an envoy to Maharaja Ranbir Singh of Jammu and Kashmir in 1871, with the request that the British Government in India could be persuaded  to enter into a political alliance with him. Maharaja Ranbir Singh supported his request. From Srinagar, Yaqub Khan went to Constantinople (now Istanbul), There he agreed to the recitation of the Khutba in the name of Sultan Abdel Aziz of Turkey in the mosques of Kashgarh, i.e Sultan Abdul Aziz as the Khalifa of the Muslims of Kashgarhia. Sultan Abdul Aziz gave Muhammad Yaqub the tile of Amir ul Moomineen, ‘Commander of the Faithful’, i.e the Muslims.

          Lord Thomas George Baring Northbookof Stratton, the Viceroy and Governor-General of India (Calcutta) from 1872 to 1876, appointed Thomas Douglas Forsyth to conduct a mission to Yarkand, Kashgarhia. The staff, native assistants of the Forsyth Mission included Nain Singh & Kishan Singh – the surveyor pandits of Survey of India. Yakub Beig who was on his way back from Constantinople, accompanied the Forsyth Mission. British India and Kashgarhia concluded their treaty of commerce at Kashgarh on 2nd February 1874. Queen Victoria sent a small steam boat to Maharaja Ranbir Singh for his services to the Forsyth Mission. 

So from the excerpt of the book, it is clear that Queen Victoria had given the gift of Steam Boat after February 1874 to Maharaja Ranbir Singh.

It should be noted that Cecil Earle Tyndale Biscoe   mentions about the Steam Boat also in his book here : ‘Moored to the bank (on Jehlum, near Shergarhi) opposite the palace is an elegant steam launch presented to his Highness by Queen Victoria, also a modern fast motor launch from Thornycroft’s.’ 

The most detailed account ( actually the book i was reading initially) talking about the Steam Launch is the William Wakefield’s book, The Happy Valley: Sketches of Kashmir & the Kashmiris. In the Preface of the book, the author, who actually served as a medical officer to the Forces writes that he had visited the valley in the Summer of 1875. The author writes in his memoirs that he was fortunate that during his visit to Srinagar, he received an invitation from Maharaja at the Shalimar Bagh on the occasion of launching of a small steam vessel on the Dal Lake. Following is the excerpt from the book telling us about the launch of steam vessel in the summer of 1875 :

In a minor degree we were so fortunate as to see it in its greatest perfection, even if shorn of some of its former elegance, as we were bidden to a fete within its walls, given by the Maharajah in honour of the launching of a small steam-vessel upon the lake. 

               This event, and the subsequent festivities at the Shalimar, were very diverting to us, and, by way of concluding the description of the Dal lake, a short sketch of that memorable day in the history of Kashmir may very well here find a place. A memorable day indeed it was to the inhabitants of the Valley, and long talked of both before and after ; for steam power was a mystery to them, and never before had the mountains surrounding their homes echoed back the sound of the whistle, the shrill scream of that invention which proves wherever it is introduced the most civilizing agent, and the most potent uprooter of old ideas and prejudices known to man. At an early hour of the day which was to mark the first step of the onward march of progress in Kashmir, the city was full of people, and the river crowded with boats of every size and description. The entire population of the Valley were gathered together, all thrilling with excitement, and all actuated by the same motive, that of getting as good a place as possible near the scene of action, so as to obtain a sight of that mystery of mysteries, a boat moving over the water without the usual, and to them well known, agency of hands. Their first introduction to this new and unknown motive-power being made in connection with a boat one of the institutions of the country, and with the working of which all were familiar undoubtedly explained the great interest taken in the proceedings by both young and old ; for I question if the first essay had been a piece of machinery applied to any other purpose half the curiosity manifested would have been aroused. But to move a boat was intelligible enough, although the means employed were incomprehensible ; and already hopes were aroused and visions were opened of the day when the weary work of towing and paddling should be a thing of the past, and their floating homes should walk the waters, like things of life, without any exertion on their part. If applied to the vessel they were about to see, why should it not be applied to all and sundry ? 
Full of these hopes and aspirations, and bursting with curiosity, the people all .wended their way, hours before the time fixed for the ceremony, to that portion of the lake devoted to its performance, and soon the capital presented a deserted and forlorn appearance. 

    The hour fixed for the important ceremony was four o’clock ; and arriving on the scene about that hour, we found ourselves in a mass of boats, all wedged closely together and ranged in a double line, so as to keep a space of clear water in the centre for the steamer to proceed on her triumphal way. On the bank of the lake at one extremity of this space a grand stand had been erected, which was occupied by the Maharajah, his court, and the 
majority of the strangers then visiting the Valley. Soldiers stood all around, and the royal musicians were discoursing the music of their native land, which, lacking sweetness or even harmony, was yet loud enough to satisfy the Oriental taste, and add to the noise and uproar incidental to any show in the East. Directly in front of the stand’ and resting lightly on the water was the innocent cause of all this excitement ; for it was not so much a launch as a trial-trip we were to witness, the vessel having been put together and committed to its 
proper element some time before. The boat itself was one of the steam-launches usually carried by the ships of the Royal Navy, and was a present to the Maharajah from our gracious Queen, having been sent to his country in pieces, which were finally put together, under the direction of a European engineer who accompanied the gift, and who remained in charge to instruct the recipient and his attendants as to the management of the machinery. 
Very soon after our arrival the occupants of the boats that surrounded us, for we did not attempt to land or make our way to the place of honour, became if possible more excited than ever, and shrieked, gesticulated, and swayed about on their frail crafts, each laden with human beings to the utmost extent of its carrying power, and we knew the crisis was at hand. The Maharajah took his seat on the deck in a solemn and dignified manner, but having withal an anxious appearance, as if not quite certain what was going to happen. Probably he had been told that steam, like fire, is a good servant but a bad master, and that boilers sometimes burst, and accidents will happen, despite every reasonable precaution. This may have had some effect, as he was that day brought into personal 
contact with the power of steam for the first time, for he looked grave ; but with the courage worthy of his regal descent he took his seat, and gave the word to start. The whistle sounded, the musicians blew their loudest, the drummers smote their drums until their arms ached, and the people shouted so that the mountains echoed back the sound. Yet with all this the old adage of ‘ man proposes ‘ was exemplified, for the vessel would not move. We 
observed much running to and fro on the part of the engineer and his assistants, and our ears were assailed with loud and discordant shrieks from the steam whistle and escape-pipe ; but it was all of no avail, the vessel stirred not. We waited some time, but not finding our patience in. any way rewarded, pushed our way without the heaving mass, and 
rowed straight across the lake to the Shalimar Gardens, where the second part of the entertainment, the feasting, was to take place. We were almost the first to start, but the remainder of the guests were not long in following our example ; 
while the bulk of the Kashmiris, hovered about the scene for some considerable time in hopes of witnessing something remarkable. Their hopes were not, however, then fulfilled ; for it was not until the following day that the defect in the machinery which caused the failure in the proceedings was rectified. That having been done, the boat was brought through the canal from the lake on to the river Jhelam, when its acquisition proved a source of great amusement to the Maharajah, who every evening steamed up and down the 
watery highway of the city, looking as pleased as a child with a new toy, much to the delight of his faithful subjects, who clustered like bees on every commanding point that afforded a view of the royal progress. 

Thus it is clear that the steam engine presented by Queen Victoria to the Maharaja Ranbir Singh of Jammu Kashmir was in the summer of 1875 for his services to the Forsyth mission.

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