Old Fort William: Nursery of Calcutta City, 1700-1757

Fort William of the Kingdom of Bengal of EIC Col. – Engraving by Jan Van Ryne. 1754. Courtesy: British Library

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’[1] .  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.

 

BACKGROUND

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.  [8]

 

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. [5] [6]

East India Company Hall – An aquatint By Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin, (after) John Bluck (aquatint engravers). – Source: Microcosm of London (1809)

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.[4]

Old Fort, Playhouse and Holwell’s Monument. – Aquatint with etching (col.) by Daniell, Thomas. 1786

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.[2]

 

LOCATION

Fort location in Calcutta 1757 map

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. [7]

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.[4]
PLAN

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. “ [4]

 

CONSTRUCTION

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. [2] [4]

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”. [2] 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.

Custom House Wharf – Coloured lithograph by Charles D’Oyly. Probable Date: c1818-21

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.

 

APRAISAL

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.

Old Fort Ghaut – Coloured etching with aquatint by Thomas Daniell. 1787

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.

Fort William with St Anne’s Church by Gerge Lambert. c.1730.

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[7] 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. [4]

CONCLUSION

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.

 

REFERENCE

  1. 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.
  2. Old Fort William in Bengal a selection of official documents dealing with its history. v.1 / By C. R. Wilson. 1906
  3. Original letters from India. 1780-82 / By Eliza Fay
  4. British government in India: The story of the Viceroys and government houses / By Marquess George Nathaniel Curzon of Kedleston [1925]
  5. The Early annals of the English in Bengal / By C. R. Wilson. [1963]
  6. 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-
  7. A New account of the East Indies, 17th-18th century / By Alexander Hamilton
  8. 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

 

 

 

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3 comments on “Old Fort William: Nursery of Calcutta City, 1700-1757

  1. Dr.Nirmalyakumar Majumder says:

    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.

    Like

  2. Wonderful article thank you for sharing.

    Like

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