The First English Settlers: Sutanuti Sahibs, 1690 – 1706

View of Calcutta from Hooghly River by William Hodges. c1789

View of Calcutta from Hooghly River by William Hodges. c1789

সুতানুটির সাহেব; ইংরেজ পত্তনির প্রথম ষোল বছর, ১৬৯০- ১৭০৬

Charnock was the main instrument that worked behind the foundation of the British Empire in the East. He felt that Sutanuti was a strategic position and had many advantages for the English that the other places lacked. Provisions were plentiful at its bazaars and hats, Communication by land routs with interior was easier, yet the village was an island that could be cheaply defended. It was a secure position for a naval power. A suitable landing Ghat was already there. Just below the place, the river Hooghly had become deep enough for large ship to ride in. There existed a pucca building which might be used for factors, in case of need. The place, being marshy and unhealthy, had no much value in the eyes of the Moghul. Articles of export could also be had, as a trading community, such as the Setts and Byasacks, had already actively engaged in business there.

bazar india

Cloth merchant measuring cloth. Artist Unknown. 1820

Before acquisition of Calcutta the Savarnas were traditionally the proprietors of Calcutta and its adjacent areas. The Byasaks and Setts came there to settle as the earliest dwellers. After the name of their idol Chitreswari, they called their locality on the north of Calcutta as ‘Chitpur’. After their family deity Govida, the Bysaks named their village Govindapur. Among the Hindu residents of the time in Calcutta and its neighbouring village we find mentions in the traditions of Monohar Ghose, an ancestor of Dewan Shrihari Ghose, at Chitpur; of a predecessor of Govinda Mitter, who acted as a Black Zamindar under Holwell at Sutanuti; of Govina Saran Dutt and Panchanan Tagore, ancestors of Dutts and the Tagores of Hatkhola and Pathuriaghata, respectively settled at Chttanuttee and Govindapur”

Black (Gentoo) Pagoda, Chitpore-Daniel

Gentoo Pagoda and House – Thomas Daniel. c 1787

Due to the diversion of the trade of Satgaon, cities and villages rapidly grew up along its banks. The situation helped the villages Sutanuti, Govindapur and Kolikata to grow into prominence together with some newly come up villages, namely Chitrapur (Chitpur) on their north, and Bhowanipur and Kalighat on their South. Govindapur and Kalighat were separated by a creek marking the northern edge of the old Adi-Ganga that connected the Hooghly and the Balurghata and the Salt-water Lakes. Shortly after, a place for the sale of cloth was set up further north that became famous as Sutnati Hat, the Cotton Bale Market, In the 17th century, Betor gradually washed out and its foreign trading were shifted to Sutanuti where new connections with European traders, particularly the English, are being fostered.
“On 24th August 1690 for the third and last time Charnock found himself at Chuttanutte (sic), where ‘the restored merchants were received with respact.’ This was the foundation day of the City of Palaces.” – Hyde Parochial annals of Bangal. Charnock’s Sutanuti was considered the best choice for business prospect, but worst for the settlers. Three miles to the north-eastward was a salt-water lake that overflows in September -October, then prodigious numbers of fish resort thither, but in November –December, when the floods are dissipated, those fishes left dry, and with their putrefaction affect the air with stinking vapors, and cause a yearly mortality.

View of Circular Road, Calcutta- Prinsep, Edward Augustus 1848

Circular Road Calcutta, by Edward Prinsep. 1848

Procession of the Goddess Kali - Calcutta October 1841

Procession of the Goddess, L.H. de Rudder 1848

Charnock died in 1693 leaving the new settlement in chaos. During last days Charnock lived like a spent-force landlord, allowing everyone the liberty to enclose lands, dig tanks, and build houses where and how they pleased. The settlement remained unfortified and vulnerable even ten years after his death. In 1696 during insurgence of Subah Singh, the English obtained the much delayed permission to defend themselves.

North view of the Water Gate and Royal Barracks at Fort William in Calcutta by William Baillie . 1794

A bastion and a walled enclosure were completed by January 1697. The Company has by the year 1699 sufficiently secured their position in Bengal and elevated to the rank of independent Presidency. Supposedly, by this time the supply of the ten guns ordered for did arrive from Madras. Next year their rising fort was granted the name ‘Fort William’ a tribute to the reigning King. The construction of the Fort took some 16 years more to complete. It was, as the Court of Directors observed in 1713 , of very little real use as fortification. See CR Wilson/ Old Fort William

The first English settlement at Sutanuti ‘seems to have consisted of mud and straw hovels’. Its chief defence was the flotilla of boats lying in the river, The renewed settlement established by Charnock in 1690 was of the same nature. Except a small area round the Park and the Factory, there had been no township grown in the settlement during early days of British occupancy. The only noticeable masonry building Charnock acquired was the Catchari of Sutanuti jaigirdars. With the construction of the Fort at its site and reclamation of the great tank, the Portuguese and Armenian together with few Dutch and Danes flocked around the Fort.

Chitpore Road Calcutta, by Simpson William. 1867

The huge area of its neighboring marketplace, Burrah Bazaar, had every available space within its boundaries taken up by houses and shops of the native traders. The Bazaar was accessible by a road east of the Fort and west of the Park that ran northwards, and one of its branches passed through Algodam (potato godown). There was also the old zamindari avenue leading eastwards that crossed the junction of Broad Street and Chitpur Road – Calcutta’s earliest thoroughfare. Along these waysides, the affluent Company merchants and opulent native traders happily started settling in garden houses. Omichand, the Sikh millionaire had his mansion on the north of the Tank Square. Rasbehari Sett and Ramkissen Sett had theirs on the west of the Burying Ground. Near Middle Street the Company had its own vegetable garden and fish ponds. The Company’s factors and writers still resided in ‘convenient lodgings inside Fort.

In 1706, only 2248 bighas of land occupied with dwellings in Town Calcutta, and 364 bighas were shortly to utilized for houses, although the Burrahbazar to its immediate north was already most populous, having 400 bighas built over out of its entire area of 488 bighas. The land actually held by the English at Calcutta at this time was about three miles in length and about a mile in breath, its inland boundary being the Chitpore road, which afforded access to the famous Kalighat temple.  This immemorial pilgrim path disguised today under such various names as Chitpore Road, Cossaitollah Gully (or Bentink Street) and Chowringhee Road.

EsplanadeRow-River-CouncilHouse-x

Esplanade Row from the river to the Council House, Etching by William Baillie. 1794

 

In spite of the increasing effort being made for suburbanization the settlement stll reeking with malaria. Mortality was extraordinarily high. Out of the twelve hundred Englishmen no less than 460 died within five months as Hamilton reported in 1710. Till August 1705 there was only one doctor to attend and until the autumn of 1707 there was no hospital in town Calcutta. It was ‘a pretty good hospital in Calcutta’ where many go in to undergo the grievance of physic, but few come out to give accounts of its operation. Braving such a challenging situations the Englishmen built their home away from home and did their best to live in their own style.

As Calcutta became settled with its fort, quarters, parks, roads, bazaar and other amenities, Sutanuti became abandoned by the English as a place of abode. They left behind their favourite Perrin’s pleasure garden, ‘where once it was the height of gentility for the Company’s covenanted servants to take their wives for an evening stroll or moonlight féte. Bellamy lived to see a gunpowder factory in the grounds. As he rode out to Perrin’s besides his wife’s palanquin, along what is now Clive Street, he would have marked how between the new stockaded Christian town and citadel and the old defenseless village of the cotton market lay the gardens, orchards, and houses of the thriving native middlemen to whom English methods of trade then, and revenue administration later, gave so ample scope of fortune-making.’

The English Company boys, who landed at Sutanuti accompanying Charnock, were evidently differently motivated people than the factors and writers arrived decade after. The first generation settlers were a band of adventurist traders, with little or no education and no high ambition in life. Who knows, they might have preferred to continue in Sutanuti rather than to live in town Calcutta alienated from the rest.

Job_Charnock_founding_Calcutta,_1690-2

Job Charnock Founding Calcutta. Illustrator unknown. Source: Hutchinson’s story of the nations

In that wee hours, none of them, neither their Company nor the Royal authority, had an inkling of the future role of the English in India. It was, however, not unlikely that the idea of a permanent English settlement first came to Charnock’s mind when Sutanuti was the ‘halfway house of the European merchants’. He had a speculative flair. As the time-honoured legend goes, he used to sit and smoke a meditative hookah under the shade of the famous peepul tree where Bow Bazaar Street meets Lower Circular Road. The tree is no more there. It was uprooted unceremoniously during Marquees Hastings’ regime, in 1820, leaving behind a memory of the tree hidden in the new street name, Baithakkhana Road. Charnock nevertheless, could not have taken his ideas further because of his growing indifference and lack of initiative, as discussed before. History took its own course. Calcutta suburbanization eventually made Calcutta the second-best city of the British Empire. The first English settlers, the Sutanuti sahibs, were lost by this time in oblivion.

 

SOURCEBOOKS

The book ‘Calcutta, town and suburb’ has been extensively used besides few other sources.

 

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