Ramdulal Dey: The Millionaire Bengal Merchant, 1752-1825

east-indiaman-calcutta-harbor-1974_frans-balthazar-solvyns

Frans Balthazar Solvyns captured this American East Indiaman at anchor in Calcutta harbour in 1794. His painting offers a tantalizing glimpse of America’s forgotten India trade in its prime.  Courtesy: Peabody Essex Museum.

 

রামদুলাল দে, ১৭৫২-১৮২৫

Backdrop

Ramdulal Dey, the millionaire Bengal merchant of late 18th and early 19th centuries, was the foremost name in the chronicle of Indo-American maritime trade. Trading in Calcutta was one of the very important mercantile experiences of America during her early phase of modern globalization. They reached Calcutta in 1775, on the ship Hydra, jointly owned by the Americans and the English. It was a critical time for the newly independent Americans. Being cut off from the West Indies and deprived of their traditional market, they were on the look for a new opportunity for trading. In the context of Napoleonic wars, the opportunity came their way to replace Europe’s East India trade. The wars kept all British ships busy in territorial defense. The European colonial powers were in constant conflict around Indian and Atlantic oceans. America, being a neutral nation, held a strategic position to exploit seaborne trading across troubled seas.
American’s trade with British India began to grow extensively from 1790. In an average America sent 30 to 50 ships annually to Calcutta only. As it was estimated in 1806, within some years America had imported goods from Calcutta worth of at least three millions of dollars. ‘Calcutta was the most active Indian port for their commerce. Americans in India never established a commercial house as they did in China. Nor did they use the European agency houses. Instead they made use of the services of the banians, or the Indian brokers. With East India Company background, the banians at Calcutta were already reputed professionals. A small number of banians took advantages of the situation and became specialists in the American trade. Ramdulal Dey, Asutosh Dey and Promathanath Dey, Rajindra Datta, Kalidas Datta, Rajkrishna and Radhakrishana Mitra, Ramchandra Banarjee, Kalisankar and Durgaprasad Ghose were some of the early banians who carried on big business in Calcutta with the Americans. Among them Ramdulal Dey was the first and most famous banian connected with the American trade.

Early Life

Ramdulal Dey was also known as ‘Ramdulal Sarkar’, ‘Sarkar’ being a honorific title used in  his family. Ramdulal also wore a compound surname ‘DeSarkar’ combining his hereditary title and the surname, comparable with the  DeSarkars – common in some parts of eastern India. In intimate circles Ramdulal was better known by his sobriquet ‘Dulal’, ‘Doolal’ or ‘Dolloll’. In later years when he married his grandson off to a girl of higher caste, Ramdulal changed his family surname ‘Dey’ or its variant ‘De” into Brahmin sounding honorific ‘Deb’. (See Huttum /Kaliprasanna Singha)

ramdoolaldesarkar

Ramdulal De

Ramdulal Dey, alias Dulal Sarkar was the eldest son of Balaram Sarkar, a poor villager of Rekjani, a hamlet near Dumdum. His only occupation was to impart Bengali writing skill to the children of the peasants backed by his rudimentary knowledge of Bengali and the gifted skill in calligraphic art he had. During the Mahratta invasion of 1751-52, Balaram with his expectant wife fled from his ancestral home for good. On their way, Ramdulal was born and began his journey of life with empty hands. Balaram, before he died, could give him nothing, not even rudiments of his own vernacular to his child. Ramdulal had already lost his mother. It was his maternal grandfather, Ramsundar Biswas who took the orphan boy to Calcutta where he lived ‘upon the fruits of beggary’, and his wife used to husk rice for the market until she could secure a stable job of a cook in the house of a wealthy merchant at Hatkhola. She brought in her grandson, Dulal, to stay with her. The master of the house, Madanmohan Dutta, Dewan of Export Warehouses, ‘the rival in wealth of Rajah Navokrishna’, did not mind adding Ramdulal to the long list of his dependents. Here Ramdulal managed to receive his first lessons from the pundit engaged for the sons of his master. He had only to buy erasable palm leaves for mastering alphabets, and plantain leaves for copying texts. His will and energy made him soon an excellent penman and a fast accountant. He also picked up by then some broken English.
Madanmohan must have found in Ramdulal his qualities before offering him the job of Bill Sarkar on a salary of Rs 5/- a month. ‘Even out from this contemptible amount he contrived by rigid parsimony to save as much as a hundred rupees’, which he invested in a timber depot at Bagbazar with the purpose of helping his grandpa. Being much impressed with these admirable traits in the character of his young protégé, Madanmohan promoted Ramdulal to  Ship Sarkar  on pay of 10 rupees a month, ‘with lots of buxies, alternated of course by blows from ship captains, mates and crew.’ In all weathers, he was to go out into the mouth of the river at Diamond Harbour to superintendent the loading and unloading and discharge of cargo. After Khejuri   Diamond Harbour was the place of anchorage for foreign vessels. In one of his trips he chanced to see a foundering vessel with full cargo close to the mouth of the Hooghly. Out of habit Ramdulal assess the nature of the wreck, cost of recovery and its worth.
After a short while, Ramdulal was sent to attend an auction at Tulloh and Company for certain items to buy. Sadly, all those items were sold out before Ramdulal stepped in. Right that moment, the auctioneer was lustily crying up a wreck – an item out of their next lot. The wreck was no other than the one Ramdulal had recently witnessed. He was tempted to bid with his master’s money. His bid, perhaps the only bid, was accepted. Ramdulal bought the wreck paying fourteen thousand rupees out of his master’s money. Before he left the place, an English gentleman rushed to him insisting on reselling the ship to him. After a long-drawn haggling the Englishman stumped out handsomely and got the sale transferred in his favour.

diamondharbour_cargoships

Diamond Harbour Cargo Ships      Courtesy: Alamy

Back to his master, Ramdulal narrated the whole sequence before he humbly handed over to him the entire resale amount of nearly a lakh of rupees. His master, one of the progenitors of the Nimtala Duttas, had a princely soul. He blessed the boy – so unlike the world, so Roman in his honesty, and said, “Ramdoolal, the money is yours … you sowed the seed and you shall reap the harvest.” It was a treasure to a sarkar of 10 rupees a month. The windfall gift made up the working capital for his business venture that made him exceedingly rich and one of the richest in Calcutta during the lifetime of Madan Dutta. Ramdulal, however, never missed the occasion of receiving from his master his ten-rupee stipend and his blessings on pay days.

Banian of American Merchants

india-calcutta-launching-of-merchant-ship-circa-1798-by-frans-balthazar

Launching of Merchant Ship at Old Fort ghat Calcutta. c.1798. Artist Francis Balthazar. Courtesy: PEM

In no time Ramdulal made a fortune by careful investment and good luck. During growth of consignment trade and agency houses, he was attached to Fairly Fergusson & Company as their banian agent. At the same time he worked independently for other traders, equipped with his outstanding negotiation skills, market intelligence, and his all-round support service, including, establishing local market connections, organizing dadny merchants, market promotion, and financial assistance as well. He was on great demand. His cooperation was also sought by all British agency houses. Ramdulal partnered with the American traders rather than the European companies or English private merchants. Apart maritime trade, Ramdulal had active interest in stocks and shares, and real estates. The genius of Ramdulal, according to his biographer, could transform dross into gold. However, he owed his earthly prosperity mostly to the American merchants whom he served as their local agent, and also invested his own capital with them. American merchants used his credit in their coasting trade in the Bay of Bengal region and shared profit with Ramdulal.

 

From 1790 American trade with British India grew fast. Mostly the merchant houses of Boston, Salem, Beverly, Philadelphia, Providence, Marblehead, Yankee and New York sent their ships regularly to buy Bengal goods. Every house had its own banians stationed in Calcutta.

Salem_shipping_waterfront -colonial_color

Scene along the Salem waterfront c.1770-80 Courtesy: PEM

Annually 30 to 50 ships sailed to Calcutta, carrying cargo of dollars, iron, lead, brandy, Madeira and other wines, fish, spermaceti candles, mackerel, beef, beer, ice, variety of Europeans articles, tar, large and small spars. On their return the ships took varied types of Bengal goods, including tea, sugar, indigo, linseed, saltpeter, gunny bags, and most importantly, textiles. Many advertisements included lists of Indian textiles, such as bafta, gurrah, mamoody, and bandanna as well as names of the towns, like Alliabad, Dacca, Gaurypore, etc. where the cloths were made. ‘Every housewife in Salem knew the difference between gurrahs and mamoodies’. Of all the textiles exported to America, white cotton goods were by far the most common, although printed and dyed cottons, silk goods, especially handkerchiefs, mixed silk, cotton goods, and woollen shawls were also important. [See Bean] As recorded, the total American trade for the ten-year period beginning from 1795/6 exceeded by about one-fourth that carried on under the flags of all overseas partners including European nations. [See: Islam, ‘Yankee Maritime’]

The Americans carried on the bulk of their trade through the Indian brokers. It was not simply because of economic reasons they did it, but for the strategic advantage of having the highly competent and experienced Calcutta banians by their side.

RajenDutt_andOthrs_Claymodel

Calcutta Banians (clay models) Courtesy: Peabody Museum

The early Americans had treated the Indians with informality, humour and respect. Ramdulal Dey was the most prominent among them, and became a household name among the contemporary American business houses. He exhibited the greatest activity and fascination in alluring the trade of the America to the horbours of Bengal. The bulk of American business passed through Ramdulal’s hands. He came to be quoted as an authority in American commercial circles. So great was the confidence which his constituents in the new hemisphere reposed on his ability and his integrity, that for the first time in the history of Indian commerce, the merchants of America dispensed with European Agents in Bengal altogether. [See: Grish]

The extent of Ramdual Dey’s American connection may be guessed from the array of merchants of whom he was the sole agent in Bengal. The list found from the books of the period immediately following his death.

BOSTON
G.R. Minot, G. Warren, J.Young, J.S. Amory, T. Wigglesworth, J.I. Coleridge,
H. Irving, J.J. Bowditch, B.Rich and Son, E. Rhodes, F.W. Everitt, W. Godard,
Mackie and coleridge, H.Lee, O. Godwin, Theuring and Perkins.
NEW YORK
Messrs. Lennox & sons, G.S. Higginson, Messrs. C & D. Skinner, Messrs.
Singleton & Mezick, S. Austin Junior, W.C. Appleton, E.B. Crocker, E.
Davies, J.J. Dixwell, W.A. Brown, A. Baker junior, G. Brown. T.C. Bacon, M.
Curtis, Baring Brothers

PHILADELPHIA
Messrs. Grant & Stone.

SALEM
Pickering Dodge, W. London

NEWBERRY
The Hon’ble E.S. Rant, J.H. Telcombe.

MARVELHEAD.
J. Hooper

One of the American merchants fondly dedicated a vessel to ‘Ram Dolloll’ and named after him. The vessel sailed carrying Ramdulal’s consignment to Calcutta thrice during his lifetime. Among the ships he owned, Kamala, and Vimala were named after his two daughters, and the ship ‘David Clerk’ was named after one his American business partners and a personal friend.

eastindiamarinehall

Salem Harbor. Originally served as a sign over the door of the first East India Marine Hall. Oil. 1803. Courtesy: PEM

American trade brought about ‘a new dimension to the cultural and commercial milieu of the city’. The American way of conducting the business helped in fostering some sort of cultural intercourse between Bengal and America. The Peabody Museum, Salem and the Essex institute in Massachusetts still hold nine portraits of banians in their collections are the potent survivors of such relationships. The portraits were commissioned by the banians for presentation to the Americans and business associates. The practice of commissioning and exchanging portraits is a tantalizing indication of cordial relationships as between equals. ‘In 1801 twenty-two American merchants in gratitude presented a life-sized oil on canvas, the first portrait of George Washington by William Winstanley . . . to their banian Ramdoolal Dey under whose guidance they had all prospered in the Bengal trade.’ [See: Bean]

Rags to Riches

The illustrious shipping magnet may serve as a striking example of ‘vertical mobility’ from poverty to wealth. Like two contemporaries, Akrur Dutta, and Krishnakanta Nandy (1720-95), Ramdulal rose to eminence from humble and obscure origins. Ramdulal Dey, the millionaire of the early 19th century, left estates worth of Rs 33,01,424 of which the Calcutta and suburban properties accounted for Rs 6,17,750, yielding an annual rent of Rs 25,314 (1825-26). By contrast the rural properties, all close to Calcutta, were worth only Rs 58,5000. He also left behind sundry promissory notes of the Hon’ble Company, shares in various insurance companies, sundry bonds mainly from Europeans, sundry bills including China supercargoes bill, notes from Rustomji Turner & Company, Davidson & Company, Palmer & Company, etc; ship David Clerk, shares in Sauger Island Society; and balances due from different companies. When one of the two sons of Ramdulal Dey died in 1854 his estates in Calcutta were worth Rs Rs 3,62,862 and the value of his zamindari properties was more than Rs 2,00,000. The proportion of zamindari properties to urban real estate demonstrated a substantial increase in one generation.

Ramdulal had a noble heart and a humanitarian mindset. His charity was proverbial. He liberally donated for the cause of education and social welfare unquestioningly. He was a benefactor to the greatest educational institution of early colonial Calcutta, the Hindu College. Ramdulal was ready to extend help to suffering humanity anywhere; He had sent donations to the flood and famine victims in Bakhargunge, Madras, and as far as in Ireland. Ramdulal established ‘Atithisala’ an asylum for the destitute in Belgachia. At Beneras, he erected 13 Shiva temples. For sanctification of the temples alone Ramdulal spent around Rs 2,22,000. Besides, public charity, Ramdulal in private helped the poor and needy in many ways. He kept aside Rs 70 a day for the relief of distressed persons. He employed three physicians for visiting the poor patients to administer medicines and provide medical comforts at his expense.

End of Journey

Ramdulal was a pious man. In spite of being fabulously wealthy he lived a simple life. The only regret he had, that his ambition for ‘Gostopati’ or the community leader of the Kayastha samaj remained unfulfilled. Ramdulal and his adversary, Raja Nabakrishna, were engaged in constant wrangling, backed up by their respective bands of supporters, বাবুর দল (Babur Dawl) and রাজার দল (Rajaar Dawl), where bards, jesters, and common citizens took part. The power struggle between the leaders also encouraged local talents to compose street music, street plays, cartoons etc. contributing to urban folk art and literature of lasting entertainment value and historical significance.
Ramdulal breathed his last on April 1, 1825. His two sons, Asutosh, and Pramathanath, famously known as ‘Chhatu Babu‘, and ‘Latu Babu‘, respectively, performed the ‘Sradh’ ceremony of their father with unprecedented grandeur spending nearly five lakhs of Rupees. Asutosh alias Chhatu Babu, himself a musician, was one of the leading connoisseurs and patrons of classical music. His nach ghar was famed for the performance of the celebrated musicians and dancers of the country. The family maintains the cultural tradition till now. Because of their social graces, Asutosh and Pramathanath, noted for their largesse, were called as the ‘Babus of Bengal’. The epithet highlights their refined taste, affluence and extravagance. The two brothers kept up the social and cultural status to a large extent, but not the level of prosperity Ramdulal had passed on to them. The vast wealth of Ramdulal Dey was rapidly dwindled down due to many a reason. With the failure of Union Bank in 1848, the condition of Banians declined in all respect, and Deys were no exception. Their unfortunate commercial speculations and land investments were among the other reasons, besides the extravagance of his successors who frenziedly pursued their fads and hobbies as well as their noble craze for the performing arts. The house of Ramdulal Dey and his sons, delinked with its eventful past, remains a glorious centre of patronage of classical music and stage art in Bengal.

 

SELECT REFERENCE LIST
Bean, Susan S,’Calcutta Banians for the American Trade: Portraits of Early
Nineteenth-Century Bengali Merchants in the Collections of the
Peabody Museum, Salem and Essex Institute’, Bombay 1990.
– ‘The American Market for Indian Textiles, 1785-1820: In the
Twilight of Traditional Cloth Manufacture’, Peabody Museum of
Salem, 1990.
Chakrabarti,Ranjan, ‘The Brown ships in the Indian Ocean: The American
Merchants and the Bengali Banians 1790-1880’, in Business history of
India, Kalpaz, Delhi, 2006.
Chakrabarti, Shubhra, ‘Collaboration and Resistance: Bengal Merchants and the
English East India Company, 1757-1833,’ Studies in History, 1994, vol. 10, No. 1.
Chaudhuri,Sushil, ‘European Companies and Pre-modern South Asian
Commercial System- A study of Bengal in the Eighteenth
Century’, Calcutta Historical Journal, XI: 1-2 (1986-87).
Ghose, Benoy, ‘Some Old Family Founders in 18th Century Calcutta’, Bengal
Past and Present, Vol. 79, No. 147, 1960
+Ghosh, Grish. C., Ramdulal Dey: The Bengali Millionaire, Calcutta, 1868.
Islam, Sirajul, ‘Americans in Calcutta Bazaars in the Early Nineteenth Century:
Images and Interpretations’, Journal of the Asiatic Society of
Bangladesh, Golden Jubilee Volume (1956-2005), 2005.
*Rahman, Murshida Bintey, Banians in the Bengal economy, 18th and 18th century. Dacca
University. 2013
Roy, Tirthankar. What is modern and Indian about the business history [ Book review]
LSEPS, 2015
Verny, Michael A, ‘An Eye for Prices, an Eye for Souls: Americans in the Indian Subcontinent, 1784-1838.’ Journal of the Early Republic 33: 3 (2013)
* Used extensively in this write up.
+ Courtesy : Dr Alok Ray for providing access and help

 

 

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Rajendra Dutt 1818-1889

Clay models, Peabody Museum, Salem: Seated on (from left) Rajendra Dutt, Doorgaprasad Ghose, and Raj Kissen Mitter

রাজেন্দ্র দত্ত ১৮১৮-১৮৮৯

Banias of the 19th century belonged to the top class urban society of Bengal. Rajendra Dutta, the great grandson of Akrur Dutta was born in a traditional Bania family and brought up in an environment of Cultural Revolution constantly adjusting himself with his changing society. Rajendra dedicated his life for the good of his people. The good he did for them was prodigious, but lasted for only a while, then lost in nothingness. Little we know about Rajendra to understand why he preferred pursuing his mission single-handed rather than to building institutions for quicker attainments of his purpose. He went door to door with his medicine bag to treat patients, but did not build a good hospital of standing. Whatever he did did privately, keeping no records for his future biographers to track down.

Dutta Family of Wellington

Rajender Dutt, c1850. Opaque watercolor on ivory By unknown Indian artist. Courtesy: Peabody Museum, Salem

Akrur Dutta, the illustrious great grandfather of Rajendra, was the founder of one of the most respectable Calcutta families, the family of ‘Dutts’ of Wellington Square. The ‘Dutts’, however, did never mind being called ‘Duttas’ interchangeably. Akrur was born in 1720 in Sonatikri village in Hooghly. At the age of 20 he came to Calcutta, and start a career of ‘dadni’, a contract merchant. Soon he shifted to sloop business with the support of Pritiram Marh, the father-in-law of Rani Rashmoni. Akrur turned out to be the best sloop contractor in Bengal by 1780.

After Akrur, his eldest son, Rammahan took up the rein from 1809 to speed their business competing with the British interests. He ran his sloop business profitably for a decade and then wisely decided to move out to shipping business. Rammahan Dutta became an upright flourishing ship merchant of Calcutta. The Duttas stand apart from most of their contemporaries in that they continued to thrive long after the English Company had stopped to patronize them. Ultimately he also decided to retire from business because of being continuously harassed by the British antagonism.

Rajendra, born in Calcutta in 1818, inherited the business acumen of his great grandfather, the legendary solook merchant Akrur Dutta, and of his ship merchant grandfather, Rammahan. His father Parbaticharan Dutta died prematurely leaving Rajendra to the care of their uncle Durgacharan Dutta, the eldest son of Rammahan. Rajendra and his uncle Kalidas, the two highly resourceful young men, firmly established themselves as outstanding banias of the American ships during 1850s. See Shubra Chakrabarti

The relations amongst the ‘Dutt’ family members can be readily ascertained by glancing through the family-tree headed by Okrur Dutt, (anglicized form of Akrur Dutta’):

familyTree_AkrurDutt

The family has lived together with their property in common and with no division for generations, the eldest member guiding the direction of all affairs. In 1849, there were ‘two hundred of them living together …. Most of them are free from any prejudices of caste, and, scorning the native superstition’. See: Norton’s letter

Upbringing

Parbaticharan Dutta died prematurely when his son Rajendra was a mere child. He grew under the care of Durgacharan, the eldest among his uncles. The first thing Durgacharan did was to get Rajendra admitted to the Dhuramtala Academy of David Drummond, a celebrated teacher of logical mind. Rajendra then joined Hindu College, where Vivian Derozio was one of his teachers. There he grew up among few nonconformist friends, branded ‘Young Bengal’. Completing his studies at Hindu College, Rajendra pursued study of medicine in Calcutta Medical College as an external student.
He studied medicine for equipping himself to provide his people with medical service and support gratis. Even when he was in business, Rajendra zealously maintained the desire for mitigating sufferings of his people irrespective of their class and creed. ‘Rajababu’ or ‘Rajen Dutta’ became a household name synonymous with ‘friend in need’.

Maritime Merchant

Indiaman owned by Dudley Leavitt Pickman and partners_orgnl

Friendship of Salem owned by Dudley Leavitt Pickman and partners

After the collapse of agency houses, the Calcutta banias were in the decline. A few powerful merchants like Dwarkanath Tagore, Motilal Sheal, Rustamji took up partnership business with the British. But when the Union Bank and the Car-Tagore Company collapsed at short intervals in January 1848, the banias thought it unwise for them to stick to trading business any more, and ventured into real estate.

RajenDutt_Partner_Dudley_Leavitt_PickmanRev

Dudley Leavitt Pickman Partner of Rajendra Dutt

Duttas, however, were among the few exceptions who sought commercial prosperity by alternative means. Soon they plunged into trading with American enterprises, and that helped them sustain in business for few more years. It seems likely that young Duttas received inspiration from the great achievement of Radhanath Mullick of Pataldanga, an upright ship merchant who had set up the first Indian dry dock in Calcutta after breaking away from partnership with the English. Moreover, Duttas might be tipped off by Pramathanath, the successor of Ramdulal Day, who happened to be a relative to Rajendra’s wife.
In 1842, William Bullard, came to Calcutta for trading as a partner of Bullard and Lee and continued his business for about ten years. Before Bullard and Lee wound up, Bullard and his agent ‘Rajender’ became personal friends. Rajendra also had occasions to treat Bullard with homeopathy. In 1852, another American firm, Stone, Silsbee and Pickman of Salem entered business with Duttas.  Rajendra and his uncle Kalidas proved to be highly creditable businessmen who in no time “became the banias of a number of American shipping firms such as George Auckland and Co., Atkinson Tilton and Co., Richard Lewis, Norman Brothers and B.R. Wheelnight and Co. At the same time, Duttas themselves founded a shipping company in collaboration with one Linzy (variant ‘Lintzy’), an American entrepreneur, and called it Dutts-Linzy and Company. They also invested in other concerns such as the Ganges Pilot and Co., Hooghly Tug and Co., Serampore Spinning and Weaving Co., and Rishra Yarn Co.” See: MB Rahman

The Duttas, both Kalidas and Rajendra, were entrusted with the responsibility of purchasing goods to be sent to America. Instead of silk and cotton piece goods, indigo, linseed, saltpetre, hide and jute were now in demand in America, the prices of which fluctuated a great deal according to the seasons and the availability of these goods in local markets, allowing high business gain. By August 1857 the joint venture of Kalidas and Rajendra came to an end. There was nothing to suggest a family dispute, or any other possible reasons. Rajendra now entered into business with the American shipper Linzy on a commission basis, which allowed greater profits and greater control on the visiting ships than acting as their bania. See Shubra Chakrabarti

As it appears from available sources, Rajendra carried on his business till early 70s.
The most important factors behind the survival of the Duttas were their ability to diversify and to move into related areas of commerce; and also their aptitude to evolve a sociable personal relationship among business partners that helped mutual success and continuity. Charles Eliot Norton, representative of Boston House, may provide best instances in support of this view.

Living Style & Social Grace
As Reflected in Letters of His Friend Chales Norton

Charles Eliot Norton, by Samuel Worcester Rowse

Charles Eliot Norton, by Samuel Worcester Rowse

Rajendra Dutta, like most of his family members, was of sociable nature. He had many friends. Some of his good friends were picked from his American business partners. Quite a few of them turned later into acclaimed academics. (See Sirajul)  They continued correspondence with Rajendra discussing different matters of their interest beyond business, as they did in Calcutta. ‘Norton a supercargo later turned academician’ wrote several letters to his family members and Boston friends, recounting the warmth of the friendship he enjoyed in company of Rajendra, and reflections on Rajendra’s lifestyle, his environment and obligations. (See Bean)  Norton wrote to his aunt, Miss Anna Ticknor, on October 21, ‘89 that he was invited to a native theatrical entertainment’ at Dutta’s house. The house he found, ‘. . ill-situated, large, and inelegant on the outside. Within, the rooms, which are generally very small, are built around an open square court; about the second story runs a verandah with which the upper chambers communicate. All looks uncared for and often dirty, as if there were an absence, as indeed there is, of refined taste and oversight.’
Norton sat on the verandah watching the episode of Nala and Damyanti being played. He was surprised that ‘the only mark of applause among the audience was the occasional throwing of some rupees tied in the corner of a handkerchief at the feet of the actors, and this was only done by the family or the guests in the verandah. It was only by their stillness and attention that the crowd below showed their approbation’. He thought the Hindu, ‘whose highest idea of happiness is inaction, can hardly understand that state of excitement which finds vent in a Western audience in a whirlwind of applause’. Norton misinterpreted the conduct, not being versant with the etiquette of Hindustani music, which never approves an applaud dispelling its lingering appeal. Hindustani music sounded ‘nasal and unmusical’ to Norton. But soon he gained some respect for the system, and came to know that “to a stranger the music is quite uninteresting, but I have no doubt it would become less so the more you heard, particularly if you knew anything of the science, for it is cultivated as a science, of Hindu music.” This he apparently learnt from his friend Rajendra.
Norton wrote to his sister Louisa on October 22, 1849 that the Dutta family was a very remarkable one; and added, “I treated them as gentlemen and as equals, we are now warm friends”. The Duttas, on the other hand, delightfully found their new friend’s interest ‘in the Hindus’, ‘their characteristic customs and habits’. Rajender had prepared a Hindu dress for Norton to wear on a special occasion, as he thought ‘that the natives would be pleased at the conformity to their customs’. His friend Norton found the dress a picturesque and most comfortable one for the climate.
On October 31, 1849, Charles Norton in a letter to his mother gave his scathing re-view on the Hindu rites of sacrificing that he experienced at Dutta’s house on the occasion of Jagadhatri Puja. He was there invited to see the ritual. The old Durgacharan, the head of the Dutta family, on his knees, bending head to the ground, made some silent prayer. When he rose, “a goat was brought forward, and its head being fastened was struck off at one blow by an attendant. Three or four musicians made a loud din with their tom-toms and cymbals; the blood of the goat was poured over the plates of offerings.” Describing the shocking sight he shared his immediate reactions with his mother. – “It is a fact strikingly characteristic of Hindu nature, of its aversion to change, of its want of spirit to break through the shackles that bind it. Rajender did not even pretend to regard the sacrifice with anything but contempt. . . .” (My emphasis) See: Norton

Philanthropy

In words of Shivnath Shastri, Rajendra had all the advantages that wealth and education could give him. See: Shibnath Rajendra dedicated all resources to help his people to live fit and well, with dignity. He studied medicine with this object, and rendered most extraordinary caring service for well-being of the people, irrespective of their class and faith.

Homeopathy
Finishing academic studies, Rajendra opted for medical science to fulfill his cherished ambition to relieve the sufferings of diseased humanity. Rajendra set up at his residence an allopathic dispensary in collaboration with the eminent physician Dr Durgacharan Banerjee. He earned reputation as a allopathic doctor. But he felt not so happy with the results of his allopathic treatment.Rajendra got involved in exploring alternative methods of treatment, and eventually found his answers in homeopathy. In 1864 he opened a charitable homeopathy dispensary, and earned wide reputation as a homeopathic practitioner in Calcutta society. He cured Pundit Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar of his chronic ailment that baffled the leading allopath doctors. He also successfully treated a nasty gangrene developed on a leg of Rajah Radhakanta Deb, and had the rare privilege of attending the God-like personality, Sriramakrishna. The contribution of Rajen Dutta however was not limited to practising homeopathy but mothering the young science in India by promoting its capabilities, and reinforcing the drive for homeopathy by winning over confidence of other practitioners. He pushed up Dr C.F. Tonnere, helped him setting up a Homeopathy Institute. Rajendra also worked with French physician Dr. Thienette de Berigny when he was in Calcutta. It was a memorable day, when at the residence of Pearycharan Sircar, Rajendra had convinced the young Mahendra Lal Sircar, an MD, of the efficacy of Homeopathy by demonstration in presence of Dr Berigny and few students of Calcutta Medical College. See Pearycharan Jibanbritta. Dr Sircar, then a medical star of the Calcutta medical firmament, took to homeopathy under the tutelage of Rajen Dutta. (See: Collection on Carcinosimum/ By Mahender Singh, Jain.2003) During the latter part of his life, taking Dr Berigny with him, Rajendra went round visiting the sick, making no distinction of creed, caste, or rank. Such visits were not just professional, but friendly as well. He would sit by his patients in friendly chat; and arrange for their diet or any other necessities, if needed. As an instance of his caring attention to his patients, we may recall that Rajendra, in one of his visits to ailing Sriramakrishna in April 1886, happened to notice the wretched pair of sandals on his feet and took personal care to get them replaced with a new made-to-order pair. The sandal is now preserved in Belur Math as an object of worship. See Kathamrita
Rajendra Dutta has made a permanent place in history as the father of homeopathy in India. Whatever else he did for the good of his patients remain unexplored.

Hindu Metropolitan College
In 1854, the middle-class sentiment of the Calcutta gentlemen had a shock when Hira Bulbul, a well-known Baiji, wished to get her meritorious son admitted to Hindu College – the elite institution of Western education. Hira Bulbul presumably had some patrons to back her up, and Rajendra, a genuine admirer of her music (See Norton), and a champion of human dignity, could have been the likely sponsor of her move. But, other than his liberal character and his humanitarian principles, which his friend Charles Norton analytically described, nothing whatsoever was found to hold up any possibility of his supporting Hira’s cause. On the contrary, there remains a popular belief that it was Rajendra who really lead the protest movement against Hindu College and broke away with a good number of mainstream Hindu elites to establish the Hindu Metropolitan College. The only reason that might explain his disagreement with Hindu College was perhaps the serious lack of spiritual input for educating their boys.  Today, reviewing the situation with a wider perspective, the episode of Hira Bulbul appeared to be merely an accidental cause for founding the Hindu Metropolitan college in 1853, which was , actually, ‘opened by a knot of orthodox Hindus, as a sort of protest against the laxity displayed in the matter of religious teaching in the older institution.’ (My emphasis) See Life of Indian journalist

The Hindu Metropolitan College, the first national college in Calcutta, opened in the palatial house of Gopal Mullick at Sanduriapatty, with Radhakanta Deb as the President and Debendranath Tagore as the Secretary. Celebrities like Motilal Sheal, Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay, and Rajendra Dutta were among its patrons. The college was fortunate to have Captain David Richardson as its Principal. Rajendra had a major role in setting up the College, and managing its affairs. He also had to shoulder its financial burden as well. Soon it earned reputation as an excellent institution of learning. Several men of eminence had their education here. Keshub Chandra Sen, Sambhu Chandra Mookherjee, Kristodas Pal were among the students of upper class. The college ran for a few years only. The reason of its discontinuation was thought by many as a natural outcome of the shift in the Government policy for admission to Hindu College. The new policy permitted no students other than sons of the Hindu community to get admission to the School section of the Hindu College. The policy of admission to College section however remained unchanged, allowing students of all castes and creeds. As we see today, this policy shift did not affect the senior section, where the final products of the College were groomed, and on whom the reputation of the College largely depended. Since there was no change in College level admission policy, we cannot reasonably guess why then the new policy be considered as the reason for declining importance of the Hindu Metropolitan College and its diminishing relevance to contemporary society. It looks like that the restriction imposed for school-level admission was no more than a compromise that suited both the sides at least for the time being.

Savitri Library

Savitri, a free circulating library was founded in 1879 in the Dutta house at Akrur Dutta Lane. It started with the donated books from the private library of Duttas enriched with contributions of scholarly family members, particularly Rajendra, an acknowledged book lover and book collector. He grew a fine collection out of the books gifted to him, ordered by him, and also received on exchange. (See Bean). His interest had no boundary. Harvard University gratefully acknowledged his gift of precious volumes of oriental literature. One may be pleasantly surprised to find him sending for a copy of Mrs Kirkland’s ‘The book of home beauty’ as early as in 1853.

Rajendra was in his fifties when Savitri started. His two cousins, Gobindalal and Kanailal Dutta, were in the forefront of all activities of the library and its literary and the cultural events conducted under the library banner. Illustrious literary personalities, like Bankimchandra, Chandranath Basu, visited Duttas’ courtyard to preside over the Library foundation day celebrations. Here at a public meeting called by the Swa-Dharma Samity, Rabindranath made his historical announcement on September 17, 1905 of the nationwide observation of Rakhibandhan Day in protest of the Government move for Bengal Partition. See:Basantipur Times

Savitri continued for many more years after Rajendra passed away. When the li-brary was finally closed its collections were donated to Sahitya Parishad.

Women Emancipation
Among other issues, women’s emancipation- ‘women’s rights, the plights of Hindu widows, and the need for women’s education’ –  was one of his chief concerns. The introduction of the sewing machine to Calcutta society in 1853 had been a significant news item in context of social change. The machine got imported for the first time from America by Rajendra Dutta (see: Benoy Ghose). The same year he brought Mrs. Kirkland’s ‘The book of home beauty’. His involvement in the move-ment against polygamy might be deeper than just putting signature on the joint petition, বহুবিবাহ প্রথা নিবারণার্থ আবেদনপত্র, signed by over two thousand citizens. He must not have ever forgotten his suffering of being a father to see his only daughter a child widow. It was expected that he had made some organized effort for the cause of women.
Above everything, Rajendra considered the improvement of the basic character of his people by restoring spirit of goodwill, desire for learning, patriotism, which have been eroded partly as a result of the abuse of foreign dominations, especially under the British rules. Some scholars, who intimately studied the Bengali society of the mid-19th century,  ‘distinguished a lower and higher type of Indian’. The demarcation hinged, not on wealth or even on education as such, but on whether privileged Hindus used their education and intelligence to raise the character of their people. ‘Of those who did, like Rajinder Dutt (sic), there seemed hardly a saving remnant’ See: Turner

A Tragic Hero of Bengal Renaissance

rajedraDutta

Rajendra Dutt. Clay model. Courtesy: Peabody Museum, Salem

Rajendra Dutta, an acknowledged protagonist of social upliftment had fought lifelong for the cause of the common people by democratic means. He continued unendingly with his struggle against social evils, like illiteracy, physical and mental sickness, cultural apathy. His Indianness, his unshaken loyalty to cultural tradition made Rajendra different from his Derozian classmates at Hindu School. He took the gradual path of social change as opposed to the revolutionary path of his Young Bengal friends. We may not however forget that Rajendra Dutta was after all a product of David Drummond, the brilliant teacher who fired his pupils’ mind with the culture of independent thinking. Drummond also had produced Henry Derozio, the fiery patriot who instilled the spirit of liberty, equality and freedom in the minds of his students at Hindu College.
Rajendra did never admit the ‘professed’ Derozians’ arrogant disregard for authority and tradition, as to him those were much too deep-rooted social system to throw out overnight without destroying the society itself. This conviction determined his way of negotiation with the realities of social discriminations and abuses and deprivations of their legitimate right of living useful life in good health with dignity.
It was his dogged fidelity to the tradition and authority that costed his mental peace and happiness in personal life, and even forced him to sacrifice his personal preferences of religious affinity. He had been a defenseless spectator of the bloody rite of animal sacrifice performed in his own house; and a condemned father who had to bless his only daughter marrying under-aged only to get back as a cursed widow-child.

Rajendra had also given up his right of embracing a faith of his choice. As it appears in some letters and journals of his contemporaries, Rajendra had every opportunity to come close to espousing progressive Christian or Brahmo ideologies. In 1854 Rajendra met Reverend Charles Brooks, a Unitarian pastor. Brooks was curious to know why Rajendra had not embraced Unitarianism in spite of so much keenness. Rajendra made it clear that it was because his mother would expect her last right be done by him. Next year, Rev. Charles Dall, the American Unitarian missionary stationed in Calcutta, considered Rajendra as one of the two ‘pioneers in the Unitarian cause’, the other one being Rajnarayan Basu. Rajendra was also closely connected with the Brahmo movement. The harsh comments of the veteran Brahmo, Rakhadas Haldar, that the new Brahmos were no better than Hindus, could not dampen his spirit. The promise of Brahmoism encouraged Rajendra to support Debendranath in Tattvabodhini Sabha. See: Lavan  ‘Dutta expressed his views on religion, in which he assails both Hindu and Christian orthodoxy’ (See Bean )  No matter where he belonged, what he believed, Rajendra pursued religiously his humanitarian labour of love through his life. In his prime time, during mid-19th century, the state of public morals was far from heartening. “The idea of truth seems extinct in the nation, and the higher qualities of the character are developed in very rare and uncertain instances.” Charles Norton, who later in life was regarded ‘the most cultivated man in the US’, wrote “I have seen but one native, whether Hindu, Mussulman, Parsee, or professed Christian, that I respect, — that one is my Calcutta friend, Rajender Dutt.” See Norton
To Norton, Rajendra was a tragic hero as he failed to bring about any lasting effect on the mind-set of his people, and his mission for improving the quality of life of his people and of the society remained a short-lived phase in history. His was a tragedy, because he knew experientially of incorrigible elements of national character, nonetheless never stopped midway, like a Sisyphus.

This is an input for inspiring research

Armenian Ghat, Calcutta, 1734

BathingGha-t-fromFrederickPelitiWebsite

আর্মানি ঘাট, কলকাতা, ১৭৩৪

Armenian Ghat was built in 1734 by Manvel Hazaar Maliyan, a celebrated Calcutta trader of Armenian origin. This elegant ferry ghat was just one of the many contributions made by the benevolent Armenian toward developing Calcutta’s infrastructure and sociocultural rapport. Hazaar Maliyan, better known in Calcutta society as Huzoorimal – an westernized version of the conventional form of his Armenian name. Armenians were involved in spice to jewelry trade, and this river pier was built specifically to tackle the docking of the merchants of the town.

The Armenian Ghat, locally called Armani ghat, stood on the Hooghly river bank with its gracefully designed cast iron structure. The Ghat was situated on river edge besides the Mallick Bazaar flower market adjacent to the old Howrah Bridge. As in other ghats on the holy river, people used to come here also to take bath, and devotees to worship.

EIR[booingCounter-Armanighat

A cropped image from a panoramic photograph of river ghats, by Bourne and Shepherd, c.1880’s. See

It also facilitated running of some well-liked public transport services conducted by the EIR company. From 15th August 1854, the company(EIR) ran a regular service, morning an evening, between Howrah and Hugli with stops at Bali, Serampore and Chandernagar. The fare ranged from Rs.3 by first class to 7 annas by third class. The main booking office was at Armenian Ghat, and the fare covered the ferry to the station on the opposite bank. Besids the passanger ferry services, The Cachar Sunderbund dispatch steamers are berthed at Armenian Ghat, while the Assam Sunderbund vessels work from Jagarnath Ghat.

During 1854 – 1874, the Eastern Railways had their Calcutta Station, and Ticket Reservation Room in Armenian Ghat. From this counter the passengers had to buy train tickets and then cross the Ganges on Railway owned steamers/ launches to board their train from platform at Howrah.  This arrangement continued until the construction of Howrah Pantoon Bridge was complete in 1874.

Cropped view of ‘Old Court House Street, Calcutta’, by Bourne and Shepherd, c.1880’s. See full view

Armenian Ghat turned into a demanding spot for the Calcutta commuters, and it helped them when the Tramway Company introduced in February 1873 their trial service to run a 2.4-mile (3.9 km) horse-drawn tramway service between Sealdah and Armenian Ghat Street on trial. After a short break the Company, registered as Calcutta Tramway Co. Ltd, laid anew Metre-gauge horse-drawn tram tracks from Sealdah to Armenian Ghat via Bowbazar Street, Dalhousie Square and Strand Road. The service discontinued in 1902.

The Armenian Ghat, one of the prime heritage sites of the city is now lost to oblivion and the eyeful marina is replaced by an unimaginable open-air gym.

The Photograph of the Armenian Ghat featured at the top was taken by Chevalier Federico Peliti, the famous Italian hotelier and restaurateur of Calcutta who happened to be an excellent amateur photographer. Date unknown.

Cowrie Currency and Calcutta’s Money Market

(c) British Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation কলকাতার পোদ্দারি কারবার , টাকা-কড়ির বিনিময়

By 1756 Calcutta had reached such a stage of industrial progress, that its trade is stated to have exceeded one million sterling yearly, and that some fifty vessels or more annually visited its port. To conduct business with Indian producers it became vital for the Company to have interpreters, brokers and other native agencies. The brokers, like the Setts and Basaks, were weavers by caste. The Setts controlled the broker’s office in Calcutta until the end of the dandi system in 1753. By the beginning of the 19th century they had become Shroffs. The shroffs were essentially money-exchangers whose main business was to test the purity of coins and exchange coins. They also exchanged bullion for currencies, and vice-versa. In wider sense, the shroffs, or saraffs, were moneylenders and bankers, who accepted deposits and transferred funds from one place to another by means of hundis, that included bills of exchange and promissory notes.

Merchants-of-calcutta--1887

Marwaris

The banking house of Jagat Seths played the most significant role in Bengal’s monetary economy in pre-colonial to early-colonial period. Jagat Seth, besides the enormous assets accumulated in his house, had enough control over the mint at Murshidabad to make use of its resources for meeting the demands of the credit-hungry European Companies.Their control over the urban money market in Bengal was so profound that no money merchant or bullion dealer dared offer a higher price than Seths did. The grand success of the house of Jagat Seths was largely because of the business climate sustained in that time in which money-changing and banking activities flourished vigorously, and naturally produced numerous sarrafs and bankers of lesser fame. Sarrafs dealing in rupee coin generally operated at urban commercial centres, where various types of rupee coins came for circulation and were exchanged with one another.

Money-changer 1920

In Bengal, however, low-value exchanges were dominated by the cowrie currency, and there was hardly any copper coin in circulation in the 17th-18th centuries. Copper Mint began operation in Calcutta in April 1865, and it provided all copper and bronze coins for India from 1889 until 1923. It is understood that there were many wealthy sarrafs qua sarrafs operated in urban Bengal who dealt in rupees and sometimes in gold coins. But there were a section of sarrafs operated in the rural markets – in haats and bazaars. They were called potdars – a term referred to in Chandimangal, the Bengali poetic work written in the second half of the 16th century. Potdars, as the book defined, were professionals engaged in exchanging gold, silver coin, and cowrie. More substantial cowrie dealing sarrafs got their stocks from domestic merchants who used to sell goods to cowrie-importing traders. Agents of big merchants and European companies needed cowries for procurement of goods, and they managed to receive these shells from the saraffs. There are another class of cowrie-dealing sarrafs, who operated at the lower-end of money-changing business and dealt with small rural vendors. In the early part of the day, the vendors took cowrie from them in exchange, and in the afternoon, bring back their cowrie and go away with the rupees. In the International sphere, a commodity currency that could not be clipped or fabricated, serverd at least partly, as a medium of exchange. In West Africa there was widespread circulation of cowrie. In some important European cities, like London, Lisben, Humbourgh, Amsterdam developed strong cowrie markets in the 17th and 18th centuries, and their chief supplier was Dutch East India Company. Overtime, the Dutch wrested control of the European cowrie trade from the Portuguese. Before the Mughals, cowries were exchanged with silver coins of the Afgan era. Mughals were not in mood to disturb the tradition of cowrie usage.

Money-changer-Hindu-1859

Hindu money-changer. 1859

We came to know from Chandimangal, a late 16th century work, the units of counting cowries, were One ganda = 4 pieces One pan = 80 pieces One kahan = 1,280 pieces The rates varied under changing conditions of demand and supply. When a particular currency became scarce, its price in terms of other currencies went up. As reported by C.R. Wilson, the quoted price of a silver rupee in cowrie at the Fort William was 2560 in 1703. Again by a proclamation dated 10th October, 1804, the collectors were asked to accept revenue in sicca rupees, failing that , in cowries, the rate of exchange being 4 kahans and 12 pans or 5240 pieces for one Calcutta sicca rupees. ‘The widespread circulation of cowrie represented a dualistic monetary structure in Bengal. … The decline of cowrie took place in a phase of vigorous empire-building launched by the colonizing state’. See for more

The picture featured above: John Mowbray, Calcutta merchant, seated at a desk piled with account books, attended by a banian or money agent and messenger. Oil on canvas by Thomas Hickey. Originally published/produced in c.1790.

Old Customs House, Tank Square, Calcutta, c1758


হলওয়েল সাহেবের বাড়ি, কলকাতা কাস্টমসের আদি কার্যালয়। ট্যাঙ্ক স্কোয়ার, কলকাতা,  c১৭৫৮
Sir Richard Bacher, after being appointed on 3rd March, 1758, as the Sea and Land Customs Master, felt the need for an office in some convenient place. It was the site where Mr.John Zephaniah Holwell’s house adjacent to the old ditch stood that Sir Bacher identified for his purpose. Mr. Holwell sold his property to the Company for Rs.9,500/-, for using as Custom House. Thus, the Custom House initially functioned from Holwell’s house in Calcutta. The godowns and warehouses adjacent were also being used for storage of goods brought through riverine route. Holwell’s house being an old construction was found as not suitable for the functioning of the Custom House. Owing to incessant rains in the monsoon, the old construction gave way to seepage and leakage at many points. The building was, therefore, sold off for Rs.8,051/- only in 1760. The Custom House thereafter temporarily functioned from a dwelling house till it was decided on the 8th September, 1766, that the apartments occupied by the Fort Major in the old Fort would stand appropriated for use of the Custom House Master.Custom House Wharf
Evacuation of all militaries from the Fort area was completed in the beginning of 1767 with a view to converting the Fort premises into a Custom House. A number of warehouses and other buildings were erected inside the old Fort. From 1770, the old Fort steadily dipped into the Hooghly river. The Custom House at the extreme southern side of the old Fort disappeared in due course into the river. The southern side of the old Fort with a long narrow furrow on the ground was connected with a canal by which the boats could enter into the Custom House and the ships could be repaired without having the need for going all the way to Bombay.
The painting describing Custom House Wharf by Artist/Maker, D’Oyly. Courtesy: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. See

 

Alfred East Indiaman: Sailing vessel of East India Company, 1845

ইস্ট ইন্ডিয়া কমপানির জাহাজ ‘আলফ্রেড ইস্ট ইন্ডিয়াম্যান’
This is an image of the sailing vessel, East Indiaman Alfred, which was built in 1845 by M/s Green at Blackwell. It was one of the many ships that served Honourable East India Company (HEIC). Ships of the East India Company were called East Indiamen or simply “Indiamen”.

As the Company’s empire grew more and more people were required overseas. By the latter part of the eighteenth century the Company’s ships carried nearly 1,000 passengers a year, often in damp, over crowded conditions. The ships themselves were essentially merchant ships, designed and built to carry cargoes; passengers were squeezed in wherever a space could be found.” – Memoirs of William Hickey See more

Painted by Thomas Goldsworth Dutton In c1848.
Copyright © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London