Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Clock that John Jacob built

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Fateh Abid Lashari, friend and fellow writer from Jacobabad says John Jacob was the most outstanding administrator that the land of Sindh ever knew. And I know at least two modern Deputy Commissioners who agree. Having read H. T. Lambrick’s John Jacob of Jacobabad it is difficult not to acquiesce; for not only did Jacob possess remarkable ability as a frontiersman, but was an administrator of outstanding ability besides being an engineer and mechanic as well. But who was John Jacob?
Born on January 11, 1812, John was one of ten children (eight sons, two daughters) of Stephen Jacob, the vicar of Woolavington (Somerset) and his wife. In 1826 when he took the entrance test for the army, his examiner, probably taking Jacob’s very bad stammer as a sign of nervousness, made it a point to inquire after it saying it would be necessary make a report of it. Jacob’s peers of course told him he would never make it, for not only did he have the speech impairment, he was also rather short-statured. But make it he did, and with distinction too.

Two years later, in 1828, he arrived in India as an artillery subaltern and was soon in action trying to bridle the willful and untamed Baloch tribesmen of what was then called The Upper Sind (sic) Frontier. Subsequently he served in the army of occupation led into Sindh by the imperious Charles Napier in the spring of 1843. The tripartite government of the Talpurs capitulated and the English set about securing their hold on the land that was to serve as a conduit for the army on its way to fight the disastrous First Afghan War. In this scheme of things Jacob became one the most exceptional frontier officers that the East India Company could boast of.

On the wide open treeless waste beyond the limit of the Indus flood waters lay the small fortress of Khangarh and its dependent collection of mud huts whose ruins, a pottery shard-strewn clayey mound, lie southwest of Jacobabad on the road leading to Usta Mohammed. From here Jacob and his officers embarked upon the restructuring of this wild and lawless land. Then, in 1848, Jacob forsook the squalid mud fortress for his newly constructed residence some twelve kilometres to the northeast. It did not take long for this bungalow to become the hub of a rapidly growing settlement that came to be known as Jacobabad – Jacob’s Town.

It would seem pompous for a man to name a town after himself and in all fairness to Jacob, it was not he who did it. Having conquered the proud Baloch the man was soon to earn their respect and it was his subjects who took to calling the new settlement ‘Jekumbad’ after their much admired ‘Jekum Sahib Bahadur.’ And Jekumbad it is even today on the lips of the illiterate. Subsequently, in 1853, the name Jacobabad appeared for the first time in an official dispatch when Bartle Frere, the Commissioner of Sindh, wrote to his favoured Political Superintendent, as the post was called, on the Upper Sind Frontier to know what limits he proposed for the ‘District around “Jacobabad.”

In December 1858 three weeks shy of 47 John Jacob died a bachelor who had spent his entire professional life spanning thirty years in Upper Sindh. He was buried in a garden outside the town. If a few milkweed bushes and acacia trees can be called a garden then garden it still is where Jacob’s remains rests. Between establishing the town and his death ten years later, Jacob planted some one million trees in the area. Of those not one remains, for the only trees that the town can now boast of are some stunted acacia and a few recently planted eucalyptus.

Not long after Jacob’s death the simple grave turned into a shrine for Muslims and Hindus alike for an oil lamp could be seen burning at its head. This practice, according to Lambrick, was discontinued on the orders of the Executive Engineer in the 1930s for the oil from the lamp left a messy stain on the grave. But Fateh Lashari still knows of Baloch villagers visiting the tomb to pray for the health of an ailing child or for happiness and wealth.

Surely there must have been something about the man to have had such an effect on his subjects. Lambrick writes of having received personal testimony to the ‘justice, humanity, eccentricity and marvellous talents of Jekum Sahib Bahadur’ not only from the Baloch but others who knew him. It is said that once the man conducted his office out of doors in the blazing heat of Jacobabad in midsummer for ‘as many hours as he had forgetfully kept some women petitioners waiting there while he was enjoying himself in his workshop.’ Oh, would that Jinnah’s Pakistan could boast of just two civil servants possessed of such conscience! Another time an aged couple whose only son had died was settled on government land on the orders of Political Superintendent Jacob who visited them regularly to ensure that they were settling down nicely.

It was only after his death that Jacob’s subjects took the comet that had appeared shortly before as a portend of the passing away of this great administrator. That he subsequently turned into a pir was no surprise at all. Some years ago it became evident that there are men even today who hold his memory dear: a misguided bureaucrat, unmindful of Jacob’s service to the land and the people in keeping with our tradition of attempting to kill history, suggested giving the town an ‘Islamic’ name. Fateh Lashari together with other intellectuals of the town rose against it and frustrated this ill-contrived scheme.

Although the memory lives on, Jacob’s town has changed in the century and a half since his death. Of the trees he planted none remain and his only relics are the bungalow, a brass clock and a dovecote. The bungalow whose building Jacob had supervised is now hardly recognisable from the several additions and alterations and the dovecote that once stood in the garden surrounding the house is now all but smothered by newer buildings housing the offices of the district administration. Recently renovated by a well meaning Assistant Commissioner the dovecote looks rather prim today. The most remarkable of Jacob’s relics, however, is the brass clock whose face bears Jacob’s coat of arms; dim now from years of polishing.

Installed inside the residence, every single piece; every wheel and cog; every lever of this brass wonder was worked by the hand of Jacob on the lathe in his own workshop. Today, almost one hundred and fifty years since it was installed, it still accurately tells the time, day, date and phases of the moon. I had expected to see at least one of these functions failed; but I was disappointed. It was the day before the full moon and sure enough the brass representation of the moon was just a sliver from repletion. In deference to the orders of a past Deputy Commissioner who probably thought they were too loud, the chimes of the clock have been stopped: the mechanism that struck the brass bell is disconnected and secured with a length of plastic coated wire.

As much as I had wanted to see this wonderful piece of engineering I was interested in meeting the man who maintained it in shape. But friend Lashari who had organised the DC’s permission for me to see the clock had forgotten to line up the mechanic. We checked all his possible hang outs in town but the man was nowhere to be found. Since the DC, with whom the man deals directly, was away he had apparently decided to take a furlough as well. I insisted on being taken to his village smack on the border with Bugti country to the northwest, but a detailed roster of the recent night time kidnapping and looting on that road put paid to our plans of driving out. And so as Lashari said, there was an excuse to return to Jacob’s town yet another time.

Note: This article was published in 1995. I have not returned to Jacobabad since, but have heard that in the riots following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the DC’s residence was damaged and this priceless piece of Sindhi heritage destroyed. I do not know the truth of this matter.

Image (Lower) by Muhammad Zaman Narejo
Related: Latest on the Jacob's Clock

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 24 July 2013 at 15:24, Anonymous Saima Ashraf said...

Time and history seem to be interwoven to me sometime. Time, clock, palaces, battlefields, forts, victories, defeats, retreats.......all I can see from the window of my reading. Appreciate those hands that have kept the clock alive and pulsating after such a long time.

At 24 July 2013 at 16:53, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

Whenever something happens anywhere, people (call them patriot) attack on nearest relic. Remember when Ganga ram Power Station in Renala was attacked. Sad. Sad to know about the clock that is no more.

At 24 July 2013 at 17:23, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

But now word is that in the madness following the assassination of BB, this priceless heritage piece has been destroyed.

At 25 July 2013 at 10:26, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Madness, dear Nayyar, madness is what they call it.

At 7 August 2014 at 18:38, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Today I visited the 5th.corp. commanders Offices ( Napier Barracks) of (Drigh Road), Shahrah-e- Faisal. A "replica" of the original John Jacob's clock has been put on display in a specially constructed stone edifice. I was so inspired to read about John Jacob which was displayed on the walls of this stone structure. John Jacob's life is most inspirational. He had so many great qualities, he was a mathematician, an engineer, an administrator, a leader, a craftsman, an army officer, beyond all of these qualities he was wonderful human being, a great gift from the United Kingdom to the Indian Sub-Continent. May we always remember and cherish his life and try to follow what he did for us, we Pakistani's are greatly indebted to this great man.

At 9 August 2014 at 08:27, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

No wonder then that the proud Baloch whose ancestors knew Jacob even today worship the man. They still light the oil lamp at his grave in Jacobabad.

At 2 January 2016 at 22:32, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The clock is still there in perfect working conditions despite of the attack.

At 3 January 2016 at 13:30, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you for the information, Anonymous. Good to know the clock works still.

At 16 December 2019 at 23:06, Blogger Unknown said...

Its comforting to know the clock survived and is in working condition.
As an engineer Jacob was a brilliant machinist as well. God bless his soul.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

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Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

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Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

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