Tagore, Sherlock Holmes, Indian crows and a ship named after Naldehra near Shimla

If your next-life wish is to be born a bird in Australia, try not to be an Indian crow. They really hate it Down Under. The continent has its own wild crows but the Indian or house crow is a pest. This is what the government of West Australia has to say about it:

“The house crow poses an extreme threat (the highest of four categories) to Australia… could threaten biodiversity… causes severe damage to vegetables and fruit crops… will attack and can kill poultry, newborn calves and kid goats. Adult livestock are harassed and can be injured… causes considerable nuisance to people as it scatters rubbish, damages electrical wiring, blocks drainpipes and interferes with power supplies. Large flocks are very noisy, make a mess with droppings, and pose a bird strike hazard to aircraft… may spread disease to people and it can attack people to steal food and shiny jewellery.”

The Indian crow might never have reached Australia but for international shipping. The first recorded infiltration happened only 90 years ago. As a steamer on the London-Sydney route docked at Fremantle on Australia’s western coast, two Indian crows were seen to fly ashore from it, Dracula-like.

The names of those corvid pioneers are not known but the ship was called—hold your breath—SS Naldera. Yes, like the SS Narkunda I wrote about last week, the Naldera too was named after a favourite British getaway near Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, India.

The steamer named after Naldehra, a favourite of Lords Lytton, Lansdowne and Curzon, was a sister ship of the SS Narkunda, and both were ordered a few days apart, albeit at different shipbuilders. The order for SS Naldera was placed at Caird & Co Ltd, Greenock, on November 3, 1913, but work was not taken up until December 29, 1917, because of the ongoing war.

The 177-metre-long Naldera was completed as a troopship in May 1918, but stood unused as the mandarins repeatedly changed their mind. They wanted it to be an armed merchant cruiser with two low funnels (eventually it had three, like the Narkunda), a fast cargo liner, troopship, hospital ship, and even a seaplane carrier. The only role they did not imagine her playing was a submarine’s.

SS Naldera was the first ship with three funnels in The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company’s fleet, and the last one to go out with coal-burning engines. The Narkunda was converted to burn oil in 1927.

The ship’s saloon was tastefully done up in ‘old ivory’ colour but to the eyes of its nouveau riche patrons, it was merely ‘dirty white’ from the time it started its Sydney runs on April 10, 1920. However, it did carry royalty once when the Shah of Persia travelled to Bombay (now Mumbai) by it, in November 1922.

Apart from the Shah and the Indian crows, other notable travellers in SS Naldera’s 18-year life included Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who sailed for Canada from Bombay on March 1, 1929, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Conan Doyle even had a psychic experience about the ship. He writes in Memories and Adventures that the word ‘Nalderu’ entered his mind in sleep, a month before he heard of the SS Naldera. He woke up, wrote it down on his chequebook and dozed off again.

“I have several times in my life awakened from sleep with some strong impressions of knowledge gained still lingering in my brain. In one case, for example, I got the strange name Nalderu so vividly that I wrote it down between two stretches of insensibility and found it on the outside of my chequebook next morning. A month later (August 13, 1920) I started for Australia in the SS Naldera, of which I had then never heard.”

The Narkunda was sunk by German bombers off Algeria, in 1942 but the Naldera’s end was more prosaic. She was simply sold for scrap on November 9, 1938. However, she nearly played a part in an important episode in the build-up to World War II. She was hired to carry 2,000 British volunteers to Sudetenland for a plebiscite in September 1938. It would have been her last voyage. But Hitler reneged on the deal and the trip was cancelled.

Naldera’s lasting contribution to world history, then, remains the Indian crows in Australia.

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