পুরনো কেল্লা ফোর্ট উইলিয়মঃ দুর্গেশনন্দিনী নগর কোলকাতা
The Old Fort William of Calcutta was a fort of different kind. It was a fort without having initially a defined territory of its own to protect against possible intrusion, but to protect its commercial resources housed within. The city of Calcutta evolved round the Fort and called a fort-city, and often compared with other fort-cities in India and abroad. The fort-cities are occasionally called ‘walled-cities’ since those are encircled by one or more shielding walls, while Calcutta had none. Calcutta may yet be called a fort-city in a special sense. The Calcutta metropolis, once the foothold of the British Raj, had been originally a small township grown around the English ‘factory’, designated ‘Fort William’. ‘Modern Calcutta is its child and heir’ . Interestingly, the oxforddictionaries.com provides a second meaning of the word, ‘fort’, which is ‘trade station’. It suits well to understand what the old Fort William was, and why it may not be meaningfully called a ‘Fort of the Kingdom of Bengal’ as the above featured painting was captioned.
The Fort William came into existence because of the prosperity of English trade in Bengal during mid 17th century. East India Company desperately needed fortification to safeguard their commercial interest, more than anything else. The English in Bengal did well after obtaining the firman of Badshah Shah Jehan in 1640, that allowed the English Company trading in Bengal without payment of duty. Backed by the firman, the English made large profits in Bengal. They built factories in other places besides Hugli, and sent home cargoes of silks, cottons, and other commodities, including the one they built amongst the saltpetre grounds near Patna. Their progress, however, halted for a long while when Nabob Shaistah Khan decried the Badshahi firman and insisted on payment of duties by torturous means. Not even Job Charnock, the most noted of the English Governors of Hugli, was spared from the brutal treatment of Shaista Khan. Charnock refused to submit to the pressure and by shutting down their Bengal chapter went to Madras with his resources. Shortly after, Ibrahim Khan, the next Nabob of Bengal, welcomed the English to come back for trading in Bengal on agreeable terms. Charnock returned, but not to Hugli again. He thought decidedly that the English settlement should be in Sutanuti/ Calcutta, not really ‘for the sake of a large shady tree’, as Hamilton said jokingly, but because of its being the best strategic location for the base of the English traders to operate. With the approval of the Company Board1, Charnock with his companions settled ultimately in Sutanuti on 24th August 1690. No fortification, however, was brought about in his lifetime, and he happily ended his life in a thatched-roofed mud-house on 10 January 1693. 
The settlers in Bengal had a rough time from the beginning under the reign of Nabob Shaista Khan, a notorious Mughal Governor. A short-lived upsurge, in 1697, lead by Rajah Shobha Singh created an atmosphere of fear and anxiety in the region. All districts to the east of the river from Midnapore to Rajmahal lay isolated and unprotected against aggression of defiant Shobha Singh. The French, Dutch and English Chiefs solicited permission to throw up fortifications. The Nabob was pleased to grant them a tacit permission, in his own interest. All the foreign settlers seized the occasion to reinforce the structures they had already erected clandestinely. This was how the Fort Gustavus at Chinsurah, the Fort William in Calcutta, and the French fort at Chandernagore came into existence. Shobha Singh was defeated in December same year. The Company, with the intention to carry on all their trade at Calcutta, withdrew Patna, Rajmahal and Balasore factories. The idea of establishing a fortified post to protect English trade from the oppressive exactions of the Nabob of Bengal and his myrmidons, was possibly suggested first by William Hedges, the Commissary General of the English East India Company sometime in 1682-83.  
The very first attempt to accomplish the Company’s desire happened to be the fortified Government House of Sir Goldsborough – that comprised the most critical part of a factory, that is ‘Governor’s House’, but not a factory by itself. There were, in fact, too many houses in Calcutta from where governors and governor-generals preferred to govern. Charnock’s seat was a mud house near the riverbank. When he died his estate was in chaos. Sir John Goldsborough, arrived Calcutta to set things in order. He led the way to build English factory in Calcutta. He purchased a brick-and-mud house for the Company, renovated its structure, erected wall all around and thus make it a suitably fortified Governor’s House, ready to get converted into a fort as soon as permission obtained. Charles Eyre, newly appointed agent in place of Ellis, moved into this first Government House of Calcutta. Its site is said to have been the strip of land north of the present Custom House, where the ‘ Long Row’ stood in the old Fort William. This fortified government building, which never was upgraded to a formally recognized fort, survived only for about a decade without having been associated ever with any historical events to remind of its presence, except the infamous storm of 1706 that pulled it down. On the wall of Customs House a marble plaque indicating its site was affixed for public awareness during Curzon’s government.
By that time, in 1698, Prince Azim-ush-shan granted a nishan, or a sanction of the English Company’s rights. The Company thus gained a definite status and became the Collector of the three towns, Sutanuti, Calcutta, and Govindpur. Bengal was from this period considered a Presidency; the Court sent from England orders to increase fortifications, to render this seat of trade at Calcutta well secured, not only against native powers, but against European rivals; and in compliment to His Majesty, the fort was to be named Fort William. In 1700 Calcutta became a separate presidency (administrative unit) accountable to London. Its governors, and its governors-general, were given the added title “of Fort William in Bengal.” [Brit. Ency] Mr Charles Eyre was the first appointed President and Governor of Fort William in Bengal. In 1702 the English had the following factories in Bengal dependent on the Presidency at Fort William; viz. Fort William, Sutanuti, Balasore, Cossimbuzar, Dacca,Hugli, Malda, Rajahmahl, and Patna.
About five leagues farther up, on the west side, the river Hugli was broader but much shallower, and more encumbered with sand banks. Along the river Hugli there are many small villages and farms, intermingled in those large plains, but the first of any note on the river’s side, was Sutanuti, a Market-Town for corn, coarse cloth, butter, and oil, with other productions of the country; above it was the Dutch Bankshall. Calcutta has a large deep river that runs eastward, and five leagues farther up on the other side was Tanna Fort, built to protect the trade of the river. The place was very suitable for ship maneuvering being not above half a mile from shore to shore. The fort remained unused since 1686, when the English scared the Mughal away from their post with their 60-gun battleship. About a league farther up on the other side of the river, was Govindapore (Governapore), and about a league farther up, was the designated location of the Fort William. 
The actual site of the fort was the ground, now occupied by the General Post Office, the New
Government Offices, the Custom House, and the East Indian Railway House. The warehouses built along the south side of the fort skirted Koila Ghat Street. The north side was in Fairlie Place. The east front looked out on Clive Street and Dalhousie Square, which in those days was known as the Lai Bagh, or the Park.
A graphic plan and a neat description of the interior of the Fort is provided by Curzon.
“The Factory building itself was two storeys in height, all the main apartments being upon the upper floor. On entering by the main doorway on the riverside, you turned to the left and ascended by the great staircase to the central hall, from which the principal buildings, lit by very long windows, branched out on either side. On the Eastern face a raised verandah or arcade ran round the three sides of the interior quadrangle. The Governor’s apartments were situated in the South-east wing, but were of no great size, and in the later years, before 1756, were rarely occupied by him, being in all probability used as offices alone. “ 
Sir Charles Eyre proceeded with caution to build the embryo of the Fort but no further, as he had to go back to Europe leaving the work to his successor, John Beard, Junior. Governor Beard raised the walls and bastions in stages. He himself stayed at the site occupying rooms with river view, where the North-west bastion was to be erected afterwards. It was not before 1702, he could build up a reasonably good Factory, or Government House. It was in the Southern part of the extended Fort, South of the ‘Government House No. 1’. The actual position of the Fort, as determined by Curzon, was the space between Fairlie Place and Koila Ghat Street in modem Calcutta. On its Eastern side was Dalhousie Square. The northwest and south-west bastions were put together hastily at the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. The fort was completed in 1716-17 under the three succeeding Governors, Anthony Weltden, John Russell, and Robert Hedges.  
The old Fort William was built sporadically depending on available resources and motivation of those at the wheel. Among other reasons, the work suffered because of the ‘difficulty of finding trustworthy officers’ as men of little characters and abilities like Francis Ellis, or Sir Edward Littleton, were around. Moreover, not everyone took their task with all seriousness and heeded to the policy guidelines of the Court of Directors in respect to making of the Factory. The Company wished that the Business in Bengal to be concentrated at one single Factory, but feared “it would be rash to attempt fortifications on a large scale, lest their appearance might excite jealousy in the Government”. On the other side, the intervention of the short-lived English East India Company, the style of Rotational Government, and occasional differences between the Company Directors at London and Council at Calcutta must have contributed to the staggered progress of Fort William. For instance, the Directors recommended that “the fort should be in the form of a pentagon for military reasons; but the Council in Calcutta thought it safer to adhere to a rectangular shape”.  The shape of the Fort was actually an irregular tetragon, made of bricks and mortar, called ‘Puckah’ a composition of brick-dust, lime, and molasses and cut hemp that turns into a hard material tougher than firm stone or brick.
The Fort took about seven years to complete its central pieces surrounded by curtain walls and bastions. The earliest part of the Fort was the south-east bastion and the adjacent walls, followed by the north-east bastion – both completed in 1701 by Governor Beard Jr. Next year, in 1702, Beard began erecting the Factory, or Government House, in the middle of the Fort, but completed it in 1706 under the Rotational Government. At last, in 1706, the structure was completed, and was henceforward generally known as the Factory or the Governor’s House. The north-west and south-west bastions were put together hastily at the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. As we see, three more years passed by before Governor Weltden could start the western curtain that took another two years for him to complete in 1712. By December 10, 1712 ‘the wharf is finished but not the breast-work on it’. The strong landing-stage and the crane at the end of it, which should work at all times of the tide, were nearly done. Little work was left to be done inside Fort. A broad walk round the walls to be constructed on one of the curtains. The other thing to be reconstructed was the decaying Long Row, or central range of lodgings, running along the east to the west curtain. When all the works over in early 1716, the building of the Fort William was considered complete for all practical purposes.
The subsequent additions to the fort were made for improving in-house logistics to serve the commercial interest of English traders, and not for strengthening their defense mechanisms. The warehouse was widened, but no efforts were made ever to dig a ditch around to keep enemies at bay.
The artillery was left utterly neglected. There were only 200 firelocks fit for service. In 1753 the Court sent out fifty-five pieces of cannon, eighteen and twenty-four pounders, which were never mounted, and were lying uselessly near the walls of the fort when the siege began. The bastions of the fort were small, the curtains only three feet thick, and served as the out ward wall of a range of chambers, which with their terraces, were on all sides visible from outside within hundred yards; and there was neither ditch nor even a palisade to interrupt the approach of an enemy. None of the cannon mounted were above 9 pounders, most were honeycombed, their carriages decayed and the ammunition did not exceed 600 charges.
The most unwelcome thing among all wrongs is that the Fort disowned the responsibility of safeguarding the buildings, including the Church, that lay outside the Fort arena totally unguarded. It was not unjustifiable for the Court of Directors to criticize the Fort in 1713 for making ‘a very pompous show to the waterside by high turrets of lofty buildings, but having no real strength or power of defence.’ The history proved the truth of it pretty soon. But even the staunch critics had to admire its august architectural beauty, particularly of the main façade at the west on river side. Captain Alexander Hamilton, the 18th-century Sinbad, made some caustic comments while in Calcutta around 1709, but was of all praise for the Fort William. He said, “The Governor’s House in the Fort is the best and most regular piece of architecture that I ever saw in India”  Hamilton’s admiration was reflected on some brilliant canvases of contemporary European masters. [See Curzon] We may also judge its veracity from the architectural plan of the Fort and the ruins of the foundations, unearthed in 1891 at Curzon’s initiative. 
The old fort was erected by the East India Company in 1706 to keep their traders and goods safe. It stood for half a century as the hub of civil as well as military administration until Siraj gunned down the stronghold during the Battle of Lal Bagh. The Fort vanished in thin air leaving nothing behind to remind its imposing presence. The birth story of the city remains hidden under deceptive appearance of its new buildings, roads and parks all those reconstructed after the Company’s recapturing the city in 1757. Since then Calcutta underwent changes time and again to keep it relevant to the concurrent societies. Today, we are at a loss to visualize how Calcutta looked in those pre-Plassey days, where the Fort situated, where were the government houses, the Court House, the Council House, the Rope Way, the Avenue, etc., etc. There are many more questions but few sure answers; it would have been fewer had we not the benefit of the research findings of Lord Curzon, who meticulously investigated the whereabouts of city resources in and around the fort prior to 1756.
- Historical and ecclesiastical sketches of Bengal, from the earliest settlement, until the virtual conquest of that country by the English, written in 1711-1714/ Anon. 1816.
- Old Fort William in Bengal a selection of official documents dealing with its history. v.1 / By C. R. Wilson. 1906
- Original letters from India. 1780-82 / By Eliza Fay
- British government in India: The story of the Viceroys and government houses / By Marquess George Nathaniel Curzon of Kedleston 
- The Early annals of the English in Bengal / By C. R. Wilson. 
- The Good old days of Honorable John Company : being curious reminiscences illustrating manners and customs of the British in India during the rule of the East India Company from 1600 to 1883 / W. H. Carey. 1980-
- A New account of the East Indies, 17th-18th century / By Alexander Hamilton
- Early records of British India: a history of the English settlements in India, as told in the government records, the works of old travellers and other contemporary documents, from the earliest period down to the rise of British power in India / By Wheeler, James Talboys,. 1879
9 thoughts on “Old Fort William: Nursery of Calcutta City, 1700-1757”
An engrossing article. Many thanks.
Thank you for your inspiring words. I always look forward to receiving your comments that keep me going. Warm wishes
Sir can I have the name of the source where you got that bit of info that in 1688 the name Calcutta first written in a letter of company..
Superb article. Thanks very much
Thanks Anirban. Wishes
Sir- very well researched. Last two articles- on Barrackpore and now Fort William have engrossed me. Browsing repeatedly. Checking lots of cross links to get more clearer pictures. Be it -Surat Kothi, Fort St.George in Madras, Fort St. David in Cuddalore, Fort William or Fort George in Bombay — British citadels have there very common characteristics — when you compare them with Fort St.Louis of Pondicherry, Fort Dansborg – Danish fort at Tranquqbar or Fort Agouada at Panjim.Yes we cannot deny in the name of national pride — the importance of Fort William in the birth of Calcutta and its spiralling developement around it — in the pattern of — chance directed and chance erected ,that is the city of calcutta — borrowing with apology the ill famous chant of Kippling. My knowledge on Job Chanock was very perfunctory. It is much clearer now due to your article and resultant link search. My sincere thanks with regards to you– nirmalyakumar majumder- Pondicherry.
Wonderful article thank you for sharing.
Glad to know you like it, Ashish. Thanks