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Ch 1. Downing College

Ch 2. Gold Coast/Ghana

Ch 3. East Pakistan

Ch 4. Zambia

Ch 5. Bangladesh

Ch 6. Retirement

Ch 7. Afterthoughts


Ch 7. Afterthoughts


Myths 1: Science 0

Despite all that I have written to the contrary over the past almost 50 years, it is still generally believed in Bangladesh and by foreigners that the reputed fertility of Bangladesh’s soils derives from annual increments of river alluvium deposited during the seasonal floods. I made another attempt to puncture this myth in my Book 10 (see the publications list); but past history gives me no confidence that I will succeed: as Galileo discovered, people much prefer the manifestly obvious to scientific proof.

To summarise the proof, our soil surveys in East Pakistan in the mid-1960s already showed that the greater part of the country’s floodplains had soils 25−>100 cm deep, not the raw alluvium that would have prevailed if annual sedimentation was occurring (and as, in fact, does occur on the strip of ‘active floodplains’ immediately alongside and on islands within the rivers). Our surveys also showed that most of the soils had strongly acid topsoils, even on the Ganges River Floodplain where new alluvium contains lime.


Travelling in the monsoon season also showed that the greater part of the floodplains – the so-called meander floodplains lying between the rivers − were flooded by rainwater and the raised groundwater-table ponded on the land when the major rivers were running at high levels in the monsoon season with water entering the country from their upper catchment areas, over 90 percent of which lay outside East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Several times when travelling by road during the monsoon season I saw land flooded by clear water, sometimes within short distances of major river channels: see Figure 7.1. The silty water sometimes seen in floodplain basins came from surface wash from higher floodplain ridge soils exposed to heavy pre-monsoon and monsoon rainfall before the latter sites were flooded; and soils in the clay washed into basin sites were very strongly acid, sometimes to depths of more than 50 cm, which could not have been the case if the clay had been derived solely from neutral to alkaline new river alluvium.


Figure 7.1  Ganges river and floodplain in the monsoon season

Reminiscences of a career in Geography

Two other factors were found to contribute to soil fertility in seasonally-flooded soils. One was the important finding – made by a scientist working with deepwater rice in Bangladesh in the 1970s − that blue-green algae living on the soils and on submerged plant stems could provide significant amounts of nitrogen to soils. The other factor was ferrolysis, the process of clay destruction by reduced iron in flooded soils worked out by my colleague Robert Brinkman, a process which also released minerals such as potash and calcium into topsoils. Such natural fertility sources were sufficient to produce the modest crop yields obtained with traditional crop varieties and cultivation practices up to the 1950s, but considerable amounts of fertilisers together with modern crop varieties (and supplemented by irrigation in the dry season) are now required to provide the yields and production needed to support a population three times bigger than it was at the end of the 1950s.


Best experience

On reflection, I think the happiest memory of my field days is of my first visit to the Haluaghat area in East Pakistan in November 1961 on which, in Chapter 3, I recalled my Bengali colleague not being able to find more than a single egg in the market for our intended evening meal. But it was on that visit, in the clear ‘autumn’ weather following the retreat of the monsoon circulation, that I recall experiencing the overwhelming feeling of elation associated with seeing the maturing aman rice crop, a feeling engendered solely by viewing the golden fields, before I met any of the farmers in the area (Figure 7.2). It was a deeply satisfying experience that was to follow many times, for our field season each year in East Pakistan started at the beginning of the dry season as the aman rice crop was being harvested. I can feel that joyful sensation now as I reflect on the experience. Come to think of it, I experience similar elation when I witness ripening wheat fields in the U.K. in August (and of sadness when I see storm-damaged crops): clearly, I have deep-rooted Neolithic instincts!


Figure 7.2  Aman paddy harvest near Haluaghat November 1961

There were many other pleasant experiences, of course. Fieldwork provided opportunities to see landscapes, vegetation and cultural structures off the beaten track that ordinary visitors would not see (such as seeing Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas from the NW tip of East Pakistan on my first visit North in 1961); and field work in Zambia and attendance at international meetings provided wonderful opportunities to visit game parks and countries that would have cost a fortune to visit as a tourist (and might not even have been thought of for that purpose: Russia and the Ukraine in 1968, for instance). I grew very fond of viewing the paddy fields of East Pakistan/Bangladesh, and came to appreciate the centimetric differences in floodplain elevations recognised by the farmers that are significant for rice cultivation (but which a Chilean colleague, used to mega-metric differences in elevation in his home country, confessed to me on his departure that he had never been able to recognise).


Worst experience

I don’t remember a particular worst experience. That isn’t to say that there weren’t bad experiences. There were unpleasant experiences: exposure to extreme heat and rain (and even a sleepless night spent in a tent in the west of Dhaka District in 1963 when the night temperature went down to 430F); stomach upsets; my single experience of malaria (on a field trip in Northern Gold Coast); concern about the well-being of field parties not returning to camp on time and sending out search parties to find them; brushes with mindless bureaucracy in East Pakistan and Bangladesh; the helpless feeling engendered by the sense of lack of government during coups; and the fear and revulsion generated by the 1971 political trauma in Dhaka. Exhaustion from extreme heat and desiccation on a mission to Saudi Arabia must rank close to my worst field experiences; and, as described below, mangrove swamps were not my favourite work environment.


Least favourite environment

I do not hold the romantic views of mangrove forest that some environmentalists patently do. Without a doubt, mangrove swamps provided amongst the most unpleasant environments that I recall working in during my soil survey career. They were of three kinds.


My first experience of mangroves was in the Volta delta on the soil survey of the Accra Plains. With its pin-cushion roots sticking out of the soil, Avicennia swamp makes a highly unpleasant environment to walk through; and the stilt roots of Rhizophora mangrove are not only difficult to cut through, but the underlying soils exposed at low tide are slippery to walk on and foul smelling to sample. In all such environments, one had also to be careful to retreat before rapidly advancing tides on ground that was difficult to hasten over.


Mangrove swamps in East Pakistan/Bangladesh occurred in two areas, unpleasant in different ways in which to survey soils. I made two visits to examine soils in the Khulna Sunderbans in the south-west, the last refuge of the Bengal tiger, and on both occasions saw recent tiger pug marks in the mud in every place that we sampled, an observation somewhat distracting from calm scientific observation (Figures 7.3 A and B).


Figure 7.3 (A) Aerial breathing roots (pseumataphores) of sundri and (B) tiger pug marks in the Khulna Sunderbans

In the Chakaria Sunderbans in the south-east, the mangrove trees had been cleared and partly replaced by a thicket of a shrub with 4-inch spines (Acanthus ilicifolia, if my memory is correct). On an exploratory visit that a Bengali colleague and I made to this area, a tiger and its old cub had passed in front of our Land Rover as we drove down the main road to the area; and as we walked down a track into the survey area the following day, a man asked if was I a doctor: a person had been mauled by a tiger further down the track that morning. Fortunately, the man’s body had been recovered and taken to a nearby hospital by the time that we reached the spot; but I recall my Bengali colleague saying, as we began our soil sampling, that he wouldn’t so much mind being caught by a tiger as it dragging him through the spiny thicket that we were working in.


The longest day

The longest walk I ever did in a day was 18 miles. It occurred on the soil survey of Dhaka District in April 1963. We were camped on a boat on the Dhaleswari river south of Dhaka and I decided to make one traverse of nine miles myself, considering (with the ex-colonial paternalism of the day) that my young East Pakistani colleagues might not be equal to the task. I set out with a young labourer at dawn so as to get as much of the walk and work done before the great heat of the pre-monsoon-season day. We walked the nine miles out to the end of the traverse first, then dug, sampled and described the soils on the return journey. I recall being refreshed and relieved on my by-then-exhausted way back by being offered sliced tomatoes sprinkled with salt in a small settlement we passed.


Foolish steps

I remember similar unsolicited and welcome relief being offered to me once in the extreme south-west of the Gold Coast when – foolishly − I had walked alone one or two miles through the forest from visiting a field party back to my car on the nearest road (and had to out-run a swarm of bees that I disturbed). I sat down on a fallen log to rest in a forest clearing, and the farmer cultivating the site came to me with a sliced pineapple from his plot to refresh me. We didn’t have a word in common, but surely communicated effectively.


Even more foolishly, I recall once walking by myself the 1-1/4 miles between soil survey parties on two neighbouring field traverses in long grass savannah in the north of the Gold Coast in an area where lions could have been present. Maybe if we had still worn solar topees in those days − I wore an English trilby hat, as illustrated in Figure 2.1 − my brain might have been less addled by the tropical sun!



My Gold Coast boss, Cecil Charter, had a servant lined up for me on the day that I arrived at Aburi who served me faithfully as cook-bearer until the day that I left Ghana ten years later. Kofi had been in the army during the war: I think he must have picked up his English cooking, his English and his military Saah! while working as a batman to a British officer. He had also learnt Hausa, the language used by the British West African forces. While we were at Aburi, he would be speaking five languages almost every day: Dagarti with other servants from his home area in the far NW of the Gold Coast; Twi with his wife who came from the forest zone in the south of the country; Hausa with the night watchmen; Akwapim, the language at Aburi, when he went to the village market; and English with me. He only once got his languages mixed up with me. I don’t remember that he ever had a day off in the ten years that he was with me; even when I was away, including on six-month home leaves, he stayed at my residence guarding my things. Relations with such servants were beyond normal employer-employee: they were symbiotic (like Jeeves-Wooster).


I had closely similar experiences in East Pakistan and Bangladesh. However, it was customary there to have several servants, (presumably a relic of earlier days when menial tasks were divided between different Hindu castes). Andrew, my cook and major domo, who served me, at home and in the field, throughout the ten years that I was in East Pakistan, was a Christian. He, too, had been in the army during WW-II. I had a Hindu mali (gardener) and a Muslim chowkidar (night-watchman). Later, Andrew brought in his son, Arun, as a bearer (mainly to train him, I think).


I did not need personal servants during my Zambian interlude: I stayed in a rest-house at Mt Makulu headquarters, and in either rest-houses or small hotels when on field trips. When I returned to Dhaka in 1974, Andrew had retired, and his son Arun took over as cook. I also had a Hindu mali, plus Muslim day and night chowkidars; later, they were joined by a young Christian bearer, Francis. When Arun left to go to the Middle-East (to follow a nurse that his father objected to him marrying), I took on an older Buddhist cook: with all four major religions represented, I was fully insured! Figure 7.4 shows us all, plus the faithful FAO driver, Rashid, who served me like a member of my domestic staff throughout my Bangladesh innings.


Figure 7.4  With domestic servants in Dhaka in the 1980s

Medical practice

On my initial appointment in the Gold Coast, the Crown Agents for the Colonies issued me with a small, 47-page handbook ‘Hints on the preservation of health in tropical Africa’ (which I later found included neither onchocerciasis nor elephantiasis infections which, as I described in Chapter 2, I later picked up). In charge of field parties sometimes working in remote areas, I had to be prepared to provide emergency medical attention if necessary, so I later bought a copy of the much more voluminous Black’s Medical Dictionary.


The latter proved especially helpful one day in East Pakistan during the soil survey of Dacca District when a driver fell sick and everyone – officers and labourers alike − fled the camp thinking that he had smallpox (which was still prevalent in the Province in the 1960s). Examining the driver’s suppurating spots with Black in hand, I found that it was chickenpox that he had; and I was able to make a similar relieved and relieving diagnosis a few years later when two of my servants fell sick with alarming rashes. In retrospect, I realise that I was fortunate not to pick up chickenpox myself, for I had not had it as a child: the symptoms can be much more severe in adults, as I found in treating the driver and my domestic ‘patients; and I have escaped susceptibility to shingles as an adult that earlier infection with chickenpox can create.

Postscript 2018

Further provocations in the four years since I drafted the sections above have led to my writing several more articles aiming to correct continuing misconceptions about Bangladesh's physical geography and climate.  Clearly, my books are not being read by teachers and students in Bangladesh.  I discussed this problem with Dr Saleemul Huq, Bangladesh's leading climate change scientist, in June 2017.  Dr Saleem, whom I have known for over twenty years, suggested that I write a number of short monographs on relevant subjects addressed to college-level students which could be translated into Bengali and published in pdf format, recognising that students today read computer screens, not books.  So I did that, drafting six 'lessons' on Bangladesh's physical geography and climate, listed below.  I added a seventh article that I had drafted ten years earlier giving an autobiographical description of my geographical experiences in Bangladesh. The articles are currently (February 2018)  being processed for publication in English.  They will then be translated into Bengali.


2016: Floods, cyclones, drought and climate change in Bangladesh: a reality check.  Int. J. of Environment Studies 73.6: 865-886

2017: Bangladesh's diverse and complex physical geography: implications for agricultural development. Int. J. of Environment Studies 74.1: 1-27

(In press)

Lessons on the physical geography, soils, climate and agricultural disaster management in Bangladesh

I.    The physical geography of Bangladesh

II.   The soils of Bangladesh

III.  The physiographic regions of Bangladesh

IV.  The climate of Bangladesh

V.   How to analyse meteorological data to measure climate change

VI.  Agricultural disaster management in Bangladesh

VII. A career in Geography.  Looking back.  Looking forward. 

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