The First English Settlers: Sutanuti Sahibs, 1690 – 1706

View of Calcutta from Hooghly River by William Hodges. c1789

View of Calcutta from Hooghly River by William Hodges. c1789

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

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

bazar india

Cloth merchant measuring cloth. Artist Unknown. 1820

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

Black (Gentoo) Pagoda, Chitpore-Daniel

Gentoo Pagoda and House – Thomas Daniel. c 1787

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

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

Circular Road Calcutta, by Edward Prinsep. 1848

Procession of the Goddess Kali - Calcutta October 1841

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

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

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

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

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

Chitpore Road Calcutta, by Simpson William. 1867

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

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

EsplanadeRow-River-CouncilHouse-x

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

 

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

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

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

Job_Charnock_founding_Calcutta,_1690-2

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

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

 

SOURCEBOOKS

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

 

Advertisements

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.