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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Barrackpore : Story of a Little Calcutta

Governor General’s House & Park at Barrackpore. Water colour by Edward Hawk Locker. 1808. Courtesy: British Library

ব্যারাকপুর – কলকাতার অদূরে ‘ছোট কলকাতা’

Barrackpore, some 16 miles away from Calcutta, turned into a little Calcutta or Chhota Calcutta. This happened because of the mastermind of Marquis Wellesley, who moved to Barrackpore in 1801 and occupied the Commander-in-Chief’s residence – one of the two bungalows bought by the Government with 70 acres of land when the cantonment was founded in 1775. This is where Wellesley lived for about 3 years devoting his mind in enlarging and improving the surrounding park area. He landscaped the gardens in the ‘English Style’, added an aviary, a menagerie and a theatre. The rustic hamlet emerged as a fashionable abode of the Britishers for sojourning.

by Ozias Humphry, pencil, chalk and watercolour, 1783

Marquis Wellesley (1760-1842) by Ozias Humphry, 1783

Barrackpore had a long history that began much before the coming of Job Charnock, who had been in Barrackpore for a while, raised a bungalow, and gathered a little bazaar closed by. Here his beloved wife of native origin had died. The area was previously ruled over by a line of Zamindars based in Nona Chandanpukur, Barrackpore. In ‘Ain-e-Akbari’, Abul Fazal (1596–97)  referred to this place as Barbuckpur, and it was Chanak in `Manasa Vijay` written by Bipradas Pipilai (1495). Chanak and the other nearby towns were developed into chief marketing, trading and populous towns along the side of river Hooghly. The local name Achanak seems to be a localized version of Chanak.

Barrackpore, however, went into the British colonial history more significantly because of the two revolts. The first one was the 1824 insurgency led by Sepoy Binda Tiwary, and the second was the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 led by Mangal Pandey. With the exception of these two horrifying experiences of tumult and fury, Barrackpore have always been a calmly country seat for the white’s leisurely pursuits contrary to the demanding living condition of the up-and-coming city of Calcutta.
In pre-Plassey Calcutta, the servants of East India Company used to live in dark and damp lodgings in the Fort, and warehouses where the gates shut upon them at night. After Plassey, the growth of the garrison and the influx of European officers and troops from Madras worsened the lodging condition. New quarters came up along the Avenue, Pilgrim road, and Bow Bazar and, bypassing the native quarters of Dinga,  and Colinga, spread over the open ground of Chowringhee and Dharmatallah. [See The Social Condition of the British Community in Bengal: 1757-1800 By Suresh Chandra Ghosh. 1970] No wonder that the Europeans, gradually migrated from Tank Square – ‘the Belgravia of that day’ — and took up their abodes in Chowringhee ‘out of town’. [See ‘Calcutta in the olden time — its localities In Calcutta review. Sept.1852.]. Earlier James Atkinson in a verse, published in 1824, described the condition of Calcutta more pungently as ‘an anxious, forced existence’.   [ See City of Palaces, a poem by James Atkinson. 1824]

barrackpore-bridge_fiebig1851

Barrackpore Bridge, hand-coloured photograph by Frederick Fiebig. 1851. Courtesy British Library

The road from Calcutta to Barrackpore was opened to the public on the 26th July, 1805, perhaps the best road constructed so far. Miss Emma Robert,the English lady traveller, wrote after two decades, that the ‘drives and rides about the city are not very numerous, nor very extensive, excepting towards Barrackpore.’ [See Scenes and characteristics of Hindostan; with sketches of Anglo-Indian society; v.1 by Emma Roberts. 1835]

 

In 1830 the Barrackpore Bridge, commonly called, ‘Shyambazar Bridge’, was constructed connecting Barrackpore Road to Calcutta at its northern end. The 100 ft long and 30ft wide Bridge was built by the Canal Superintendent, James Prinsep at the cost of Rs 20,529. It was a beautiful bridge, as revealed in the hand-coloured photograph of the bridge and the road with running horses and carriages, taken by Frederick Fiebig in 1851.
J H Stocqueler while journeying through Brarackpur road looked out from his palanquin [ see Hand-book of India, guide to the stranger and the traveler, ..ed. by Joachim Hayward Stocqueler. 1844], to the pleasing view of an extensive avenue of trees skirted by villages, gardens, and rice-fields. Cox’s Bunglow, the site of a building then used as a stables for relays of horses, was on the right-hand side of the road, and there the first change of relay proceeds onward through Barrackpore Cantonment.

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Entrance to Barrackpore. Lithograph ( coloured ).Charles D’Oyly. 1848. Courtesy: British Library

Though a large station, Barrackpore presents an air of quiet and retirement like a country village; which joined to its military neatness and propriety, make it one of the sweetest places in India. The bungalows in four lines stand each separated firom the others, every one surrounded by its own corn-ground, flower-garden, and neat trimmed hedge; while the whole cantonment is at right angles intersected by well kept roads, smooth as bowling-greens, and has the river in front and the parade ground in the rear. Government-house, and it’s beautiful grounds, are merely separated from the cantonments by a piece of water from the river, over which there is a bridge; and the park, as a drive, is at all times open to the European inhabitants. [See Life in India: Or, The English at Calcutta; v.2 by Monkland. 1828]

maria_callcott_by_thomaslawrence

Maria Graham (b1785-d1842) (in later life, Maria, Lady Callcott) An Englsh travel writer. Portrait by Thamas Lawrence. 1819

How Barrackpore was in the first half of 19th century can be figured out more from the true-to-life excellent paintings and photographs than the textual documents handed down to us – mostly official transactions and records, and also letters and diaries of the travellers and residents, which provide human-side view, factual information apart. Unfortunately, not many travel-writers visited Barrackpore. The English lady, Maria Graham(later Lady Callcott) was an exception. In her book, Journal of a Residence in India, she left her lively and credible impressions of everything she saw there. Her account of Barrackpore commenced from Nov 20, 1810.

RIVER-SIDE

It was a delightful day she arrived by boat. The weather was so cool that ‘one really enjoys a river view walk’. Close to Calcutta, it is the busiest scene one can imagine; crowded with ships and boats of every form,—here a fine English East lndiaman, there a grab or a dow from Arabia, or a proa from the eastern islands. On one side the picturesque boats of the natives, with their floating huts; on the other the bolios and pleasure boats of the English, with their sides of green and gold, and silken streamers. Up the river, the scene became more quiet, but not less beautiful.

barrackpore-ghaut_fiebig_1851

Barrackpore Ghaut, A hand-coloured photograph by Frederick Fiebig. 1851. Courtesy British Library

The trees grow into the water, and half hide the pagodas and villages with which the banks of the river are covered on both sides. It was late when we arrived here, and some of the pagodas were already illuminated for a festival; fireworks, of which the natives are very fond, were playing on the shore, and here and there the red flame of the funeral fires under the dark trees threw a melancholy glare on the water. From the opposite river bank, The missionaries Serampore had enjoyed the same view of Barrackpore riverside. Carey’s biographer, George Smith reproduced William Carey’s memory of ‘The garden slopes down to the noble river, and commands the beautiful country seat of Barrackpore, which Lord Wellesley had just built’. [See Life of William Carey,  by Gerge Smith. 1909]

THE PARK

conservatory-barrackpore-park-_fiebie1851

Barrackpore Ghaut, A hand-coloured photograph by Frederick Fiebig. 1851. Courtesy British Library

Many of the Barrackpore goers maintained that it was not the Barrackpore House itself ‘but its accessories were the best features it can boast of’ – an aviary and a menagerie, a garden and a pleasant promenade, where the society of the station assemble, while one of the regimental bands plays upon the green sward, constitute the chief agremens of the place’. [See Hand-book of India, a Guide, ed by Stocqueller. 1844]

When Mrs Graham came to the Park of Barrackpore, the tamarind, acacia, and peepil trees, through whose branches the moon threw her flickering beams on the river, seemed to hang over our heads, and formed a strong contrast to the white buildings of Serampore, which shone on the opposite shore. We landed at the palace begun by the Marquis Wellesley, but discontinued by the frugality of the Indian Company; its unfinished arches shewed by the moon-light like an ancient ruin, and completed the beauty of the scenery. The area of the whole Park is nearly 350 acres and the cost was £9,577. Lord Wellesley started acquiring the land and making the Park.  In the North-East corner he established the menagerie that continued to exist till the Zoological Gardens at Calcutta opened in 1876.

 

MENAGERIE

Menagerie at Barrackpore

Menagerie at Barrackpore, Lithograph ( coloured ). Charles D’Oyly. 1848. Courtesy: British Library

“A little nulla, or rivulet supplies several fine tanks in the park, which embellish the scenery, and furnish food for a number of curious aquatic birds kept in the menagerie. The pelican, whose large pouch contains such an abundant supply of food, the produce of her fishing, for her young; the syrus, or sarasa, a species
of stork, whose body is of a delicate grey colour, and whose head, which he carries above five feet from the ground, is of a brilliant scarlet, shading off to the pure white of his long taper neck; and the flamingo, whose bill and wings are of the brightest rose-colour, while the rest of his plumage is white as snow,—are the most beautiful of those who seek their food in the water. Among their fellow-prisoners are the ostrich, whose black and white plumes attract the avarice of the hunter; the cassowary, whose stiff hard feathers appear like black hair; and the Java pigeon, of the size of a young turkey, shaped and coloured like a pigeon, with a fan-like crest, which glitters in the sun like the rainbow. [Graham]

the North-East corner of the Park known as Chiriakhana. The Governor General’s elephants used to be kept at Barrackpore. The place across the Grand Trunk Road to the North North-East of the Park was known for a long while as Hatikhana, although the last of the elephants was sold in Lord Elgin’s time. It was here in the Park that the poet-bishop first mounted an elephant — “the motion of which,” he confesses, “I thought far from disagreeable, though very different from that of a horse.” [See Thacker’s Guide to Calcutta ed. by Walter Kelly Firminger. 1906]

On Nov. 25, she wrote ‘The north winds are now so cold, that I find it necessary to wrap up in a shawl and fur tippet when 1 take my morning’s ride upon one of the governor-general’s elephants, from whose back I yesterday saw the Barrackpore hounds throw off in chase of a jackal’. “The quadrupeds in the menagerie are only two royal tigers, and two bears, one a very large animal, precisely like the bears of Europe; the other was brought here from Chittagong, where it is called the wild dog. His head is shaped like that of a dog, but bare and red about the muzzle; his paws are like those of the common bear, but his coat is short and smooth; he refuses to eat any kind of vegetable food, which the large bear prefers to flesh, and is altogether the most ferocious creature I ever saw. ”

GAITIES

On December 5, 1810, Graham was in great expectation of the festivity in Barrackpore. In three weeks, she mused, all the gay world will be asembled at Barrackpore, on account of the races, which are run close to the park-gate. This year there will be little sport, as the horses are indifferent, but I am told the scene will be very gay, “ with store of ladies, whose bright eyes rain influence”. Barrackpore had a tradition of public merriments to celebrate important events. Three years ago. On the 12th September 1807, Barrackpore celebrated  the anniversary of the battle of Delhi. A splendid entertainment was given in ‘the new Theatre at Barrackpore’ at which were present the Right Hon’ble Lord Minto, the Governor General, General St. Leger and Staff, the whole of the officers and ladies at the station, and a numerous party of visitors from Calcutta.  [See Life of William Carey, by Gerge Smith. 1909]

Lord Wellesley was not in favour of horse race. He stopped horse racing and all sorts of gambling as soon he arrived India; yet at the end of November 1809, there were three days’ races at a small distance from Calcutta. After a lull the Calcutta Races again commenced under the patronage of Lord Moira. Stocqueler tells us “there at Barrackpore a race-ground existed, but races have not taken place any more. The sports of the place are confined to an occasional steeple-chase, a run with the Calcutta hounds, and a few balls and public dinners.” [See Hand-book of India, a Guide, by Joachim Hayward Stocqueler. 1844]

cheetah-chasing-a-deer-with-huntsmen_doyly1802

A Cheeta Hun in Wellesley’s Park. Lithograph ( coloured ). Charles D’Oyly.1802. Courtesy: British Library

In the Park there was also an excellent golf links much resorted to by Calcutta folk. Closer to the house there was a vast banyan tree beneath whose shade many a viceregal tiffin-party had assembled.   Mrs Graham had some fascination for Indian custom s and traditions. On the first day she mentioned in her journal whatever she had seen on the river bank – the illuminated Hindu pagoda, festivity, fireworks, and the melancholy glare of the flame of funeral – all important elements of Hindu life in a flash.

The cultural difference between the European and Asiatic societies did not deject her spirit of inquiry and appreciation of the estranged tradition of India. She writes:   “The other day, in going through a small bazar near one of the park gates, 1 saw five ruinous temples to Maha Deo, and one in rather a better state to Kali. As 1 had never been in a pagoda dedicated to her by that name, I procured admittance for a rupee. Her figure is of brass, riding on a strange form that passes here for a lion, with a lotus in the place of a saddle. Her countenance is terrific; her four hands are armed with destructive weapons, and before her is a round stone sprinkled with red dust. The sacrificial utensils are mostly of brass; but I observed a ladle, two lamps, and a bell of silver; the handle of the bell was a figure of the goddess herself. The open temple in the square area of the pagoda has been very pleasant, but is now falling into ruin, as are the priests houses and every thing around.”

hindoo-pagodas-hunt1824

Hindoo Pagodas below Barrackpore on the Ganges. Geoge Hunt. 1824. Courtesy: British Library

As it shows, Graham was not unfamiliar with the Hindu themes of deities, and also her feelings on seeing the ruinous state of the temple. In a later note, however, she showed her deep concern, silently, about the desperate order of the native society, while recounting the horrid scene of dead bodies uncaringly floating in the river, vividly and dispassionately.

Bodies of the Dead

“The other night, in coming up the river, the first object I saw was a dead body, which had lain long enough in the water to be swollen, and to become buoyant. It floated past our boat, almost white, from being so long in the river, and surrounded by fish; and as we got to the landing-place, I saw two wild dogs tearing another body, from which one of them had just succeeded in separating a thigh-bone, with which he ran growling away. Now, though I am not very anxious as to the manner of disposing of my body, and have very little choice as to whether it is to be eaten by worms or by fishes, I cannot see, without disgust and horror, the dead indecently exposed, and torn and dragged about through streets and villages, by dogs and jackals. Yet such are the daily sights on the banks of the Hoogly. I wish I could say they were the worst; but when a man becomes infirm, or has any dangerous illness, if his relations have the slightest interest in his death, they take him to the banks of the river, set his feet in the water, and, stuffing his ears and mouth with mud, leave him to perish, which he seldom does without a hard struggle; and should the strength of his constitution enable him to survive, he becomes a pariah; he is no longer considered as belonging to his family or children, and can have no interest in his own fortune or goods. About thirty miles from Calcutta, there is a village under the protection of government, entirely peopled by these poor outcasts, the numbers of whom is incredible.

Earlier, Graham expressed her mind loudly and clearly– reacting to the unconditional submission of the Hindoos to the evils of caste system. She felt degraded seeing the half-clothed, half-fed people, covered with loathsome disease, without attempting ever to overstep the boundaries which confine them to it indelibly. “Perhaps there is something of pride in the pity”, she says, “I cannot help feeling for the Lower Hindoos, who seem so resigned to all that I call evils in life”. The story of this hapless lot stands in glaring contrast to the vibrant city life of Barrackpore.

The park-city of Barrackpore was designed and developed by the British and for the British. It was an English garden Lord Wellesley planned and laid there. An English theatre, ballroom,  race-ground, golf-link, a Hotel Charnock  came in place for their entertainment. There was something in the scenery of this place that reminds Maria Graham of the beauty of the banks of the Thames; ‘the same verdure, the same rich foliage, the same majestic body of water’.

The local inhabitants were, however, never allowed to enter park-area except for work. Graham met few of them while moving around, and had glimpses of their repulsive way of life. Graham never tried to pass a judgement, nor any advice either. She questioned about the root of their malady – ‘how they came into the state, and what could amend it’. The spontaneous reply she received was: “It is the custom —   it belongs to their caste to bear this”. At the end of the century, Swamy Vivekanada found the key to her final question what unfortunately remains ignored ever since.

 

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

 

 

Lal Dighi, Lal Bagh, Calcutta, 1690 –

WestSideofTankSquare

West view of Tank Square. by James Baillie Fraser. 1816

লালদিঘী, লালবাগ, কলকাতা, ১৬৯০ –

Lal Bagh
Before Plassey, British commercial interests were concentrated in and around the original Fort William at approximately the site where Job Charnock had established his East India Company trading settlement in 1690. The British generally resided in Fort William and its immediate vicinity, besides some individuals living in European garden houses at various locations within a three mile radius, including in the portions of the city subsequently known as the Black Town. [See Archer] The pivot of the settlement, as Cotton describes, was ‘Lall Bagh’ or the Park. In the centre was ‘Lall Dighi’, or the Great Tank, which had been in existence before Charnock’s arrival. Within the Park there was the enclosure of the Cutcherry house of the local Jaigirdar, Laksmikanta Roy Majumdar Choudhury (1570-1649). It was then the only conspicuous masonry building in the locality, the Portuguese Mass-house apart. Job Charnock had acquired the Cutcherry house for Company’s officials to stay and to store up Company’s records.
The local name of the Park area was supposed to be, ‘Lal Bagh’ or ‘Lall Bagh’, and the name of the Pond, Lal Dighi, or Lall Dighee’. The word ‘lal’ or ‘lall’ in vernacular stands for red colour. Interestingly, every anecdote that attempted to establish the origin of Lal Dighi went by explaining the use of the attribute ‘lal’ with some historical references. None of those, however, explained the origin of such names as Lal Bagh, Lal Bazaar, Lal Girja. There remained other possibilities to explore, like ‘imported names’. Calcutta might have imported a Lal Bagh from Murshidabad while under Muslim power, like the Londons in US were.

GOVERNMENT HOUSE AND COUNCIL HOUSE, CALCUTTA, 1794.

Government House and Council House, Calcutta. Source: M Grandpre’s book. 1794

At the very beginning, the Company men used to call the plot ‘the Green before the Fort’. It was because the greater part of the river-side edge of the Park, covering twenty-five acres of ground, was given over to the Fort, which lay between the points now demarcated by Fairlie Place and Koila Ghat. The stretch was commonly called ‘the Park’ and thereafter ‘Tank Square’ until the name ‘Dalhousie Square’ formally assigned. [See Archer]

View of the east side of Tank Square Calcutta,1894-baillie

East side of Tank Square Calcutta, Aquatint with etching. Artist/ Engraver: William Baillie. 1794

Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1702 that the Governor ” has a handsome house in the Fort;the Company has also a pretty good garden, that furnishes the Governor herbage and fruits at table, and some fish ponds to serve his kitchen with good carp (পোনা), callops (শিঙ্গি, মাগুর) and mullet (বাটা). William Carrey suggested that the Tank inside the Park was one of these fish ponds, and the garden might have been the Tank Square, which was within easy reach and much nearer than the Company Garden at Middleton Street.

‘The Green before the Fort’ was the place of recreation and shooting wild game for the Company’s factors, and in the middle of last century it was the scene of many a moonlight gambol of young people, and elderly ones, who, rigged out in stockings of different colours, yellow coat, green waistcoat, &c., &c., amused themselves on the banks of the ” fish-pond in the park.” inhaling the evening breezes, and thinking of the friends of whom they had heard nine months before ! [See Blechynden]  Mr. William Blacquiere, a Magistrate of the Town, died in 1852 at the age of 90, used to talk of having danced a minuet with Lady Jones, as a young man and of shooting wild fowl in the Tank Square. [ See Benoy Krishna Deb]

019PHO0000897S1U00059000[SVC1]

Old Tank in Calcutta; Etching, with line-engraving by Thomas Daniell. 1786

The wilderness described in early accounts of the old Fort area faded away even before the Battle of Lall Dighee took place in 1756. The battle was fought at the eastern side of the Tank Square. The enemy in multitudes took possession of each of the houses of that Square. They brought some heavy pieces of cannon through the lane twixt Minchin’s and Putham’s houses and planted them at the corner of the Tank, where two guns were already mounted on the Park by the Company’s defense force. [See Samuel Hill]

Tank Square Calcutta taken from the Scotch Church, 1847

Tank Square Calcutta taken from the Scotch Church/ Richard Fiebig. Lithograph.1847

The Battle, however, instigated a process of wide-ranging urbanization, although it had to wait over two decades to launch the projects under the leadership of Warren Hastings. Hastings did it. In 1789, when Captain de Grandpré visited Calcutta, the city impressed him greatly. Tank Square was still the centre of fashion. “As we enter the town,” he writes, “a very extensive square opens before us, with a large piece of water in the middle for the public use. The pond has a grass plot round it, and the whole is enclosed by a wall breast-high, with a railing on the top. The sides of this enclosure are each nearly five hundred yards in length. The square itself is composed of magnificent houses, which render Calcutta not only the handsomest town in Asia, but one of the finest in the world. One side of the square consists of a range of buildings occupied by persons in civil employments under the Company, such as writers in the public offices. Part of the side towards the river is taken up by the old fort, which was the first citadel built by the English after their establishment in Bengal. At sunset Calcutta became alive again: society went out for its airing; those who could not afford vehicles walked amongst the trees and shrubs round the great tank in Lall Diggee, or on the ramparts of the old Fort. [See Busteed]

LAL DIGHI, THE GREAT TANK

The Great Tank within the Park has its own story much of which remains missing. The Tank lay uncared for on the east of the fort for about 20 years since Charnock had acquired the tank as a part of the Cutcherry from the Jaigirdar family. Twenty years’ neglect had converted the waterbody into a dirty pond full of rank weeds and noxious matter, and it was now a standing menace to the health of the factors. [See AK Ray]  The tank was formerly more extensive, but was cleansed and embanked completely in Warren Hastings’ time. It has always been esteemed the sweetest water in Calcutta, and until the introduction of municipal water supply, was the chief source of supply of drinking water to the garrison at Fort and the European community at large. [See Cotton]

Tank Square and water carriers, Calcutta,1651-Fiebig-2

Tank Square and water carriers, Calcutta. Hand-colored photographic print by Frederick Fiebig. 1851

The Great Tank is fed by percolation from the river. When, in 1783-4, the tank was being deepened, a regular row of trees was found at a depth of forty feet from the surface. They were pretty fresh, and their colour revealed that the trees belonged to the evergreen soondrie family. There were similar records respecting some other tanks dug in the region of Chowringhee and the Esplanade in 1790s. All these records collectively suggested that once upon a time the city of Calcutta remained covered by the great soondrie forest, [See Blechynden]

In its early years, Calcutta had its water supply from open tanks, wells and river Hooghli. The staunch Hindus used nothing but Ganga waters. Baishnabcharan Seth of Burra Bazaar made a fortune by supplying the holy water to far off places. The river water was fit for drinking only from October to March. Some people collected rainwater, and used it when the river water became turbid during the rainy season. The privately owned tanks were foul smelling and unsanitary. The quality of the river-fed Tank at Tank Square remained good all the seasons. The great Tank was enlarged and deepened in 1709 to ensure a good supply of sweet water to the Fort and to European quarters in the neighbourhood. See Filtered water in Calcutta, Sodhganga As it appears from the contemporary reviews, the water of Lal Dighi was the sweetest and the best drinking water in the city. [See Sodhganga]

Dalhousie Square, photograph taken by A. De Hone in 1870s. New GPO appears at the west end.

As mentioned before, the major improvement of the Tank and the Park was made during the tenure of Warren Hastings. Since then many a change in the Tank Square and its ambiance have taken place by degrees under different Bengal Governors and Governor Generals. Lord Curzon, however, took a special initiative for its beautification. The end of 19th century witnessed a picturesque scenario of the Dalhousie Square surrounded by the grand old constructions and the new GPO.

 

 

Writers’ Buildings, Tank Square, Calcutta, 1780

Writers'-Buildings1885

রাইটার্স বিল্ডিং, ট্যাঙ্ক স্কোয়ার, কলকাতা, ১৭৮০
The most imposing colonial public building in the city of Calcutta, the Writers’ Buildings, has a telling history of over three century long of its makeover. The initial plan was designed by Thomas Lyon, a self-styled builder, in 1777 for a brick-made edifice on the northern side of the Tank Square, facing the Avenue to the Eastward, also called the Great Bunglow Road’ [See Wilson]. It was then one of the most fashionable of streets in the settlement – ‘the Chowringhee of the day’ [See Minney].

WritersBuildings_Danniel_1786

Writers’ Buildings, 1786 Daniell, Thomas (1749-1840). Aquatint with etching.

Before the present building came up, the ‘writers’, or the freshly recruited civilians, of the East India Company had their shelters in mud shanties within the old Fort William campus until the disastrous storm of June 25, 1695 razed the hutment to the ground. Subsequently, a block of buildings, known as the Long Row, consisting damp unhealthy lodgings of the young gentlemen in the Company’s service, was erected within old fort. These were the Writers’ Buildings of the first half of the eighteenth century that stood where the G.P.O / Fairly Place located now, and grounded by Siraj-ud-Daula’s guns during the Battle of Lal Dighi in 1756. [See Wilson]

Lord Wellesley, when Governor-General, required all the young civilians or writers freshly arrived to undergo a one year study of oriental languages at the College of Fort William under moonshees and pundits. Wellesley found the buildings Burwell had constructed in 1780 good enough to ensure the comfort of the young civilians at Calcutta. The Fort William College was located in its establishment in 1800 in these houses, which were occupied later by ‘The Exchange’ and the ‘Hurkuru office’. The two buildings were connected by a gallery that ran across the street. [See Carey].

-daniell

Writers’ Buildings, 1798 Daniell, Thomas (1749-1840) Aquatint, coloured

This new Writers’ Buildings also had gone through several extensions over the years. It was initially two-storied. When one more floor added, the building became the first three-storied building in Calcutta. It was a need-based, utilitarian structure with fifty-seven sets of identical windows, a flat roof, and a central projection of ionic columns. The 150 meter long Writers’ Building covers the entire northern stretch of the water body of Tank Square, or Dalhousie Square as called later. It was the site of the demolished St Anne’s Church and the adjoining plot were granted to Thomas Lyon for construction of the Writers’ Buildings. Lyon was acting on behalf of the landowner, Richard Barwell, a member of the Council, and a friend of Warren Hastings. Barwell’s children handed the building over to a trustee board, which in turn was again leased to the East India Company.

writers'Buildings_Frase1826

Writers’ Buildings, 1826 Fraser, James Baillie (1783 – 1856) Medium: Aquatint, coloured

The building, being originally constructed as ‘a monument of commercial prosperity’, used to be occupied by shops and all sorts of people, merchants, private residents, etc. etc. Some of the rooms on the ground floor were let out as godowns. The Britons started to utilize Writers’ Building for private affairs and for merry-making and enjoyment. Hence the Company started out to enforce several limitations upon them, which as a consequent outcome, made the house vacant. Writers’ Buildings apart there were other houses in the vicinity leased out to the Company by Lyon.

The Writers’ Buildings, before Government took it over, was ‘a plain white stuccoed building utterly devoid of any pretensions to architectural beauty’ Massey continued, “I lived there myself for some months on my first arrival in Calcutta, and very pleasant and airy quarters I found them. I recollect in the early morning quite a number of small green paroquets used to fly all about the place, and their incessant chatter and calls to each other made it very bright and cheery.”

When the Bengal Government acquired the property they erected an entirely new facade of a totally different design from the original, built the present long range of verandahs and Council chamber which they completed in 1881-1882. [See Massey]

writers1851

Writer’ Buildings, 1851. Fiebig, Frederick Photographic print

Carey told the same story in his memoir. The Writers’ Buildings, which had up to the year 1821 been remarkable by its nakedness of their appearance, were now ornamented with three pediments in front, supported on colonnades, which formed handsome veranda s, The centre one adorned the front of four suits of apartments appropriated to the use of the college. The lower floor contained the lecture rooms. And the second was fitted up for the reception of the college library, which occupied four rooms, each 30 by 20 feet. On the upper floor there was a large Hall, 68 feet by 30 feet intended for the examination room. Each of the pediments at the extremities of the building fronted two suits of apartments for the accommodation of the secretary and one of the professors. The intermediate buildings, eleven in number, were for the accommodation of twenty-two students.

writersBuildings1978

Writers’ Buildings, 1878 Photographer: Unknown Photographic print

The Bengal Chronicle of 4th November, 1826 states, that the College of Fort William was to be done away with, and that the Writers Buildings were to be converted into public offices. The College was abolished in 1828, and a saving of Rs. 1,70,000 per annum was thus effected. The young civilians were henceforth sent at once to their appointed stations, where moonshees were provided for instructing them in the native languages. [See Carey]

In 1836, Lord William Bentinck banned the haphazard use of the building for classified issues. It took, however, about half a century more to define the character of the Writers’ Buildings in terms of power and politics. Within the period of 1877 to 1882, Lt. Governor Ashley Eden installed the keystone of the Government Department at this place.

The Bengal Secretariat led a nomadic existence for years together. Evan traces the movement of the Secretariat from 1854 when it was set up 1, Council House Street. Two years later it had been transferred to Somerset Buildings, at the cornerer of Hastings Street and Strand Road. During the seventies it occupied two houses, one in Chowringhee on the site of the present School of Art, and the other in Sudder Street. It was not until 1880 that a permanent home was found in Writers’ Buildings. [See Cotton]

Writers_Buildings-unknown
View of Writers’ Buildings on busy road captured by photographer Theodore Julius Hoffmann (c.1855-1921) in late 19th century and surely not after 1892 when horse-driven tram car service discontinued.

Howrah Railway Junction Station, Howrah, 1854 –

হাওড়া রেল ইস্টিসন, হাওড়া, ১৮৫৪
Howrah railway station is the oldest and the largest railway complex in India. The station owned by the East Indian Railway (EIR) formed in January 1847 by merging the East India Railway Company and the Great Western Bengal Railway Company (GWBRC) into one. See GWBRC and Dwarkanath Tagore

Railway--EIR-HQ-14TheatreRdCalcutta-before1879

EIR HQ, prior to 1879 14, Theater Road, Calcutta.

On 17th August,1849, the Court of Directors of East India Company signed an agreement with EIR for construction of a short experimental line from Calcutta to Burdwan, originally proposed by the Company in 1845. The East Indian Railway Company’s Managing Director Macdonald Stephenson, George Turnbull, the company’s Chief Engineer, and the engineer Slater made on 7 May 1850 an initial survey from Howrah (across the River Hooghly from Calcutta) to Burdwan on the route to the Raniganj coalfields. Accordingly, the first train of EI Railway started its historic ‘zero mile’ journey in August 1854 from the very place where the Howrah Station stands now.

“The train flagged off full to its capacity from Howrah to Hooghly a distance of 24 miles. 3000 applications were received for the first ride, but only a few could be accommodated. The train having three first Class, two second class and three “trucks” for the third class passengers, a brake-van for the Guard all constructed in Calcutta,  left Howrah at 8:30 A.M. and reached Hooghly after 91 minutes. During the first 16 weeks, the company carried 109,634 passengers: 83,118 third class, 21,005 second class and 5511 first class. See Grace’s Guide  ”That day onward, the EIR ran a regular service, morning and 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 above photograph of first locomotive, christened “Multum in Parvo” (Latin, “much in little”), shown on the right and manufactured in England, which was used by the East Indian Railway Company in 1854 on its first line from Howrah to Hooghly, a distance of 24 miles. The locomotive on the left is the latest model of 1897, the year this picture was taken in the Jamalpur Railway Workshop, Eastern India. (Image source: Elgin Collection. British Library)

Initial plans for the first Howrah station were submitted by George Turnbull the Chief Engineer of the East Indian Railway Company on 17 June 1851. The government authorities, however, were not too keen to acquire as much land as the Railway Company required, taking into account the enormous anticipated growth rate of the proposed rail station. In May 1852 Turnbull resubmitted his station plans complete with details – a major work of him and his team of engineers. In October four tenders were received varying from 190,000 to 274,526 INR against an estimate of Rs 250,000.

HowrahOrhanage-locationOfPresentHowrahStation

Before EIR took possession of the land, Portuguese Missionaries of Dominican Sect had an orphanage there and a small church by its side. The orphanage was shifted to Calcutta when the Company moved in and made a make-shift arrangement installing few tin sheds to facilitate maintenance work, and train formation yard before train running. The rest of the empty space on northern side was utilized in storage of materials. Subsequently this became the stores depot of East Indian Railway. See Vibrant Edifice

eir-TicketCounter-Armanighat

EIR Ticket Counter. Armenian Ghat

There was no landing ghat on the Howrah side. Railway passengers had to go to Armenian ghat on the eastern riverbank to buy tickets from its booking counter. They “had to jostle their way through the ‘exciting’ crowd to the ‘Booking Window’ that issued tickets to all classes of passengers”.The train tickets included the fare of crossing the river to arrive at the provisional rail platform consisting of a tin shed. The scenario prevailed till the Howrah pontoon bridge was ready to replace the ferry service to Howrah station in 1886. See : The saga of Howrah Station. See Vibrant Edifice

As we understand from IRFCA source, there was no official image available with them to suggest what was ’the shape of the station shed before it was demolished to give place to the new station building’. The only visual document on their hand was a ‘Photograph’ of Howrah station printed in ‘The Steam Engine and the East Indian Railway‘ – the first ever historical work on E.I.R. by Kalidas Moitra, published in 1855.

The indistinct print, however, leaves open a possibility of its being a hand-drawn illustration, instead of a photograph, of the model of the first Howrah Station. This view can be well supported by a recently unearthed photograph entitled ‘Railway station near Calcutta’ captured in 1895 by American photographer, William Henry Jackson (1843-1942), for the World Transportation Commission. The photograph is featured here at the top.

There has been another vintage photograph that provides a clear view of the old station building. Unfortunately no date and relative details of the photograph are available for further investigation. Courtesy: National Rail Museum Archive:

So far we know that the old Howrah Station building was a spacious columnar structure, which was demolished later during the construction of the new station building. Initially it was a modest structure of red brick with corrugated Iron sheet roof and one platform. Another platform was added in 1865 for arrival departure of trains separately. The third platform was provided in 1895. These were not very long as sometimes as many as 5 coaches extended beyond platform. The coaches were only four wheelers. 8 wheeler coaches were introduced only in 1903. From this description provided in EIR source it appears that the first station building had been constructed not at one go but gradually by phases, and that is why specific dates of foundation, inauguration, or demolition of the old and new buildings have been found so rarely and often overlapping in historical records. See Vibrant Edifice

Due to a great increase of traffic, a new station building was proposed in 1901. The new station was designed by the British architect Halsey Ricardo. Construction begins in 1905 on a new, larger Howrah Terminus station with six platforms and provision for four more, to replace the older Howrah station in use from 1854, and inaugurated in 1906. See: Chronology of railways in India

HowrahStation-inItsFirstYr

The following lines picked up from a recent review of Calcutta’s past may neatly recap the story told here.

“Calcutta’s growth as a major railway junction continued. The East India Railway ran from Howrah all the way to the outskirts of Delhi in the North. The Bengal Nagpur Railway ran from Howrah to Nagpur in Central India, from where the Great Indian Peninsula Railway continued to Bombay. The East Bengal Railway’s line ran from Sealdah, then in the outskirts of Calcutta to the tea gardens of Assam and Northern Bengal. The Grand Trunk Road was built to replace the road built by Sultan Sher Shah Suri of Delhi in the sixteenth century, and now ran from Howrah to Peshawar in the Hindukush mountains. As it had been true for Rome in an earlier age, all roads now led to Calcutta”. See Rule Britannia

Great Western of Bengal Railway Company, Calcutta, 1845-1847

Railway-BurdwanStn1855
বৃহৎ পশ্চিমাঞ্চলিক বঙ্গ রেল কম্পানি, কলকাতা, ১৮৪৫-৪৭

The story began with Dwarkanath Tagore’s first exposure to railway in Naples on his way to England in January 1842. He wrote home, ‘Think what my sensation when it passed near my carriage’. Soon after he had several occasions to enjoy ‘the greatest wonders of England’ – the train ride. He could well imagine the enormous commercial potential of railway transport in a resource-rich country like Bengal for movement of goods, and passengers as well. Dwarkanath came back loaded with freshly gained experiences and ideas for exploring new industrial ventures. The railway was surely one of those. Dwarkanath landed in December 1842. He had a plan to go back to England next October, but was destined to postpone it until March 1845. See: Partner in Empire

Dwarkanath-Frederick RSay-x

Dwarkanath Tagore by F.R. Say. 1842

Dwarkanath revisited England in March 1845 with intention to secure permission of the Court of Directors of the East India Company to start construction of railroad from Calcutta to the coalfields above Burdwan. On April 14 he arranged to register a company, named ‘Calcutta and Ganges Grand Junction Railway Company’, with the objectives of making and maintaining a line from Calcutta to Rajmahal. Afterwards, on the suggestions of several parties familiar with the location in India, it was considered advisable to extend the line to some point on the Ganges further up towards the north-west, and decided on extending the line to Patna. Incorporating this addition to the former project Dwarkanath registered his company on the 23d of April, 1845 with a new name ‘Great Western of Bengal Railway Company.’ Dwarkanath “consented to act as trustee to the company in India, and his firm,Carr Tagore and Co., created in 1834, was appointed as the agents of the new company in Calcutta.

Dwarkanath tried his best to make a deal with the East India Railway Company, lately incorporated in England under the leadership of Rowland McDonald Stephenson, but never succeeded. Interestingly, ‘Tagore was the man Stephenson came into contact with’ on his arrival in Calcutta in 1843. They had common interests and ‘both dreamed big.’ Stephenson in 1844 wrote a smart persuasive article on the prospect of railways in The Englishman, a paper that Tagore owned that time.

by Camille Silvy, albumen print, 6 March 1861

Rowland Stephenson by Camille Silvy, 1861

“He spoke in terms of trade as well as social uplift, and often quoted views of native merchants such as Tagore, Mutty Lal Seal and others who welcomed railways.” He simultaneously published reports of other railway companies that brought the subject alive and familiarized it to the local and British readers.” See: Two men and a railway line

Dwarkanath’s primary motive was to secure permission to initiate construction of the line by proposing to raise one-third of the capital required for a railway from Calcutta northwest to the coalfields above Burdwan. He faced there greatest opposition from Stephenson, the Chief of the East Indian Railway Company. Stephenson wanted the line to begin from a point 20 miles above Calcutta, where the line would cross the river Hughli. This line would go straight onto Benares, and subsequent later lines would develop towards Delhi and Agra. The Court of Directors of East India Company preferred to guard the interest of the British company, and had reservations ‘to permit a company under native management – to construct such an important railway line’. The Court sanctioned the circuitous route along the Ganga as Stephenson proposed.

Within few months, Dwarkanath Tagore died ‘at the peak of his fortune’ luckless, on the evening of Saturday August 1, 1846. With him died the prospect of his railway enterprise. The Great Western of Bengal Railway Company met for the last time on March 20, 1847 and approved dissolution of the company.

Subsequently on the 15th of April 1847, a proposal was initiated for amalgamation between ‘East Indian Railway Company’ and Dwarkanth’s ‘Great Western of Bengal Railway Company’. Toward the end of that year the two companies merged into a new company under the banner of ‘East Indian Railway’ (EIR) with Rowland Stephenson as its founder MD.

Small locomotive used to draw cane cars 2 ft. gauge, India

Small locomotive 2 ft. gauge

Two years after Dwarkanath died, the Court of Directors of East India Company on recommendation of Lord Dalhousie the then Governor General of India, finally signed an agreement on 17th August,1849 with EIR for construction of a short experimental line from Calcutta to Burdwan. See: History of Indian Railway

This sanction may be reckoned as a belated tribute to the departed soul who breathed his last with dream unfulfilled.

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 Calcutta Mints, Calcutta, 1757 –

calcutta minxt
পুর্বাতন কলকাতা ট্যাঁকশাল, কলকাতা, ১৭৫৭ –

Before 1757 the East India Company had no right to its own mint. Therefore to obtain current coin it had to send its silver and gold to the Murshidabad Mint and pay the standard duties and charges. This was not a favourable arrangement for the Company as these often caused delays in obtaining needed coin, and more importantly, the situation allowed the Seths at Murshibad to take business advantages over the Company’s deal with Murshidabad mint. Robert Clive after recapturing Calcutta and overpowering Nawab of Bengal made the stipulations in the subsequent treaty between the East India Company and the Nawab that the Company to have its own mint where gold and silver coins struck on the standard of the Murshidabad mint could be made.

The First Mint
Holwel's Monument - Calcutta (Kolkata) c1910The first East India Company’s mint was located in a building next to the Black Hole in the old fort – where the General Post Office stands today. The above photograph of Holwell Monument shows a rare view of an unidentified building standing near about the indicated spot at the opposite side of the then Writers’ Buildings. (No details of the photograph. Source: Recoolections of Calcutta … by Montegue Massey, 1919) The Calcutta mint made changes to the mint’s name struck on its coins. Its first issues, from April 1757, bore the mint name A’linagar Kalkatta; then from July simply Kalkutta. However, once the East India Company were appointed Diwan of Bengal in 1765 their mint at Calcutta began to use the name of the capital, Murshidabad, making its coins identical in every way to those from Murshidabad itself. Confusion in identifying the mint for a particular coin remains until 1777 when the mint at Murshidabad was closed and for a time the Calcutta mint was the only mint in operation.

The Second Mint
The second Calcutta Mint was established with the modern machinery brought in 1790 from England. The second Mint was located at the Bankshall, opposite to the western entrance of St John’s Church. It was on the site of Gillet Ship building Establishment, one of the docks from which several good ships were launched. The Governor General arranged for two Bengal Army engineers, Lieutenants Golding and Humphries, to superintend the construction of the machinery for the Calcutta mint and other mints to be established. New minting machinery, still based on the hand operated screw principle, was developed locally. Some years later, when the Calcutta Mint was removed from the Gillet’s dockyard, in 1829, to the New Mint, which had been built on the Strand, the Old Mint passed into the hands of Messrs. Moran & Co., indigo brokers. Long years afterwards, when this firm relocated to Mango Lane, they carried with them the well-known designation of The Old Mint Mart, to become a puzzle to later students of local topography. See Blechynden

The Third Mint
In March 1824 the third Calcutta Mint, better known today as Old Silver Mint, was founded, ready with over 300 tons of equipment freshly arrived from England in October 1823. The mint was to be built on a piece of water-logged land owned by the East India Company near a quay on the Hooghly. The new silver rupee that was being struck at the new mint in 1830 to go into circulation in January 1831.. The imposing frontage of the building of the third Mint was based on a design oMint, Burduan Raja's Bazar -Prinsep-2f Parthenon, the Greek Temple, stood on the Strand Road just beyond the highest spot of ground in Calcutta, the point where Cotton Street meets Clive Street. It is revealed from the William Prinsep’s scribbles on the pen & pencil image he drawn in c.1832, that the mint location was actually Burdwan Raja’s Bazar as the place was then called. The mint was opened for production from 1 August 1829.
In 1860 a new set of mint buildings was begun in the north of the Calcutta Mint grounds. It was known as the Copper Mint and began operation in April 1865. However demand for copper coin was not sufficient at that time to require a separate minting facility so it was moth-balled from 1866 until 1878. From 1889 until 1923 the Calcutta Copper Mint provided all copper and bronze coins for India. The coinage production capacity then was varying between 3,00,000 to 6,00,000 pieces per day. The silver and copper mints both used to function and produce coins of bronze, silver and gold.
CalcuttaMintWorkers The oil on panel painting by Arthur William Devis dated c.1792 describes assayer at work in the Calcutta Mint. Courtesy: The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. Between 1916 and 1918 on account of World War I, the Calcutta mint was employed producing bronze penny and ½ penny coins for Australia; prior to that these denominations had been struck in Britain. At the end of the war the master tools from Calcutta were sent to the Melbourne Branch of the Royal Mint where they were used to produce the first bronze coin struck in Australia in 1919. Apart from minting of coins another important function of the Kolkata Mint was the manufacturing of medals and decorations during the British regime. The production of medals continues to this day.

After the Government of India Mint at Alipore was opened on 19 March 1952, the building of the Old Silver Mint fell into disrepair and neglect. There are currently plans to restore the building and open it as a museum.

Find more historical data and illustrations of Murshidabad and Calcutta coinage here.

The view of the Calcutta Silver Mint featured at the top was painted in watercolour by Thomas Prinsep in 1829. Courtesy: Caroline Simpson Collection

Calcutta Rowing Club, Strand Road, Calcutta, 1858

StrandRoad BoatHouse
কলকাতা রোইং ক্লাব, ১৮৫৮
The Calcutta Rowing Club, probably the oldest club in the East, was founded by a small number of enthusiastic oarsmen in 1858. The first boat house with a thatched roof was on the bank of the Hooghly near Chandpal Ghat. This boat house was built in 1860 and lasted until 1864 when a disastrous cyclone swept it away-boats and all. during which the boat house and the boats, together with the minute books, and records disappeared. The only things preserved, were the Accounts of 1858-59 signed by John Cowle, as the Honorary Secretary and Treasurer, and he goes down in history as the first officer on record.The successor to this boat-house was built near Fort Point in 1865,. Upto this time, all the boats had fixed seats, but, about 1872, one of the members of the Club brought back with him from England a sculling boat fitted with a sliding seat. The owner, one Charles Newman, had for some time been propounding his theories regarding this type of seat and he might lay some claim to having been its inventor.CalcuttaRowinClub
In 1888, the Club had to abandon its boat-house at Fort Point as the land moved to the new boat-house on Strand Road itself opposite to Eden Gardens.CalcuttaRowing-Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News Ap21,1877 Rowing took place there during succeeding years, but, became progressively more difficult owing to the increase in the number of steam ferry boats and tugs. Many instances during this period are on record of boats being swamped and their crews having to struggle for their lives, against the strong under-currents of the river and regular rowing on the Hooghly was finally abandoned. Various alternative sites were tried, including Tolly’s Nullah and even the long tank in Eden Gardens which has long since been filled-in. In 1897, however, the Port Commissioners came to the rescue and offered a course on the Dock Basin at Kidderpore which is now occupied by the Coal Dock.

A site was allotted and a boat house built and the Club then had a almost straight ¾ mile course that could take three crews racing abreast. This led to, amongst other things, a visit to Poona in 1899, when the defeat of 1877 was avenged. 1902 was the beginning of an event then called ‘Class Fours’ from which our present Merchants’ Cup has grown. Also in 1902, a Four was sent to Madras and its members succeeded in winning the Fours, Pairs and Sculls. See

The pen & ink drawing,” Rowing in India -The Calcutta Four” was published in Illustrated Sports and Dramatic News, April 21, 1877.