Chowringhee: Against the Backdrop of Fort William II

Chowringhee Road. 1787. Artist and engraver: Daniell, Thomas

চৌরঙ্গীঃ কোলকাতার দক্ষিন দ্বার

Genesis of Chowringhee

After Plassey, the necessity of keeping the English factory at Calcutta within the Fort was at end.[6] There was no felt need any more for reviving the ravaged Fort that proved its inadequacy in defending the old town and its own bulwark. The Fort was encumbered with houses close by, and had no proper esplanade for guns. Their triumph might not have been spirited enough to free the minds of English commanders from the dread of another war. That was why the East India Company favoured Clive’s decision of erecting a second Fort William expending two millions sterling.[8] The new Fort essentially differs from the old one being exclusively a military establishment and not a fortified factory of English traders as the old Fort was styled. Its construction set off in 1758 on the riverside ground of Govindpur village about a mile away from the old Fort. Before the Battle of Laldighi, the English were cooped up in the neighbourhood of the old Fort.[17] The prospect of an aerial, liveable habitation in the neighbourhood of the New Fort, attracted the European population to gradually move from the already crowded old township around the Tank Square and the old Minta, to settle in commodious Chowringhee.[6]

New Fort in Backdrop

Equipped with huge defense machinery and a formidable military architecture, the new Fort William was ready by 1773, but had no occasion ever since to exchange fires with enemies. Instead its resounding  tope of canon ball routinely announced mid-day hours to regulate working life of the Calcuttans. The presence of the imposing Fort on Maidan silently reminds us of the significant role it had played in transforming the town Calcutta into a city – famously called ‘City of Palace’, the centre of British India. Following inauguration of the Fort, the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William was founded. The Governors of Bengal became the Governor Generals of India. Calcutta was reborn ushering a modern society to stay connected with rest of the world.

Fort William, Govindpore. Chowringhee Gate. Photographer: unidentified. 1880’s Source: eBay,

Beyond the European buildings lying around the Old Fort were four villages of mud and bamboo, all of which were included in the zamindary limits of the first settlement. These villages were the original three with the addition of Chowringhee. Chowringhee in 1717 was a hamlet of isolated hovels, surrounded by water-logged paddy-fields and bamboo-groves, interspersed with a few huts and small plots of grazing and arable lands. The chosen site of the Fort was on the river-bank of village Govindpore, considerably south of the old Mint. As Colonel Mark Wood’s Map of 1784 inscribes.[19] Govindpore began where the Northern boundary of Dhee Calcutta ended at Baboo Ghat, and then went up to the Govindpore Creek, or Tolly’s Nullah and that was the extreme end of the English zamindary. As Rev. Long indicated, it was ‘immediately to the South of Surman’s gardens, marked by a pyramid in Upjohn’s map.’ [17] At West, the area includes King’s Bench Walk  with a row of trees separating it from the riverbank between  Chandpaul Ghaut  and  Colvin’s Ghaut , then called  Cucha-goody Ghaut  At North, Esplanade Row, from Chandpaul Ghaut, hard by the New Court House on the riverside, runs into Dhurumtollah in a straight line past the Council House and the old Government House standing side by side.

Govindpore was a populous flourishing village when its entire population was removed to make room for the new Fort and its infrastructure. The inhabitants were compensated by providing lands in places like Toltollah, Kumartooly, Sobhabazar expending restitution-money. In Govindpore itself great improvements took place. The jungle that cut off the village of Chowringhee from the river, was cleared and. gave way to the wide grassy stretch of ‘Maidan of which Calcutta is so proud’.

Pallanquin on jungle road. Illustration in book ’India’ by Richard Mayde 1876

The jungle, presumably, had been once a part of the Great Soonderband (সুন্দর বন).  Many traces of trees were found at a considerable depth below the surface of the ground. These remains are thought to be those of the soondrie forest that covered the site of Calcutta when newly emerged from the waters of the Gangetic Delta. [6] Early 1789, Government resolved on filling up the excavations in the Esplanade and levelling its ground. The plan was prepared for the benefit of Calcutta in general, and of the houses fronting the Esplanade in particular. The plan extended to drain the marsh land, in expectation that the digging a few tanks will furnish sufficient earth and thus save the project cost and time. A new tank was made at the corner of Chowringhee and Esplanade, which existed till the dawn of the twentieth century. [20]

Road to Chowringhee

The road dividing the Maidan and Chowringhee was named, Road to Chowringhy [sic] by Colonel Mark Wood in his 1784 Plan of Calcutta, which in fact was a midsection of the oldest and longest thoroughfare of Calcutta, known as Pilgrim Way  starting from Chitpore, Chitreswari temple at extreme North and ending at Kalighat temple in South. As late as in 1843, the proclamation included in the  Special Reports of the Indian Law Commissioners has no mention of ‘Chowringhee locality’, but of a ‘Chowringhi[sic] High Road’.

The Road to Chowringhy[sic] was initially a short stretch between Dhurumtollah and Park Street that subsequently developed into an 80 feet broad and nearly two miles long roadway commencing from the  Creek  where it crossed Cossitollah (later Bentinck Street) between Waterloo Street and British India Street, and ended at Theatre Road where from Rossapagla Road took the queue. Before the modern Chowringhee came into being, Cossitollah, was thronged with a large proportion of European shops and often called ‘the Indian Elysium of plebeians’. [6]. The eastern side of the Chowringhee Road is lined by handsome houses, facing the fine grassy Maidan which lies between them and the river. Houses are generally ornamented with spacious verandahs to the south, that being the quarter from which the cool evening breeze blows in the hot weather. [12] The Bishp’s Palace was the most imposing among those.

Changing Landscape

When Josua Conder visited Chowringhee, this city was ‘the quick growth of a century’, and ‘still half jungle’. He wrote, “at Chowringhee, where you now stand in a spacious verandah supported by Grecian pillars, only sixty short years ago, the defenseless villagers could scarcely bar out the prowling tiger.” His presumptions about the future of Chowringhee however were all wrong. Contrary to his beliefs, in sixty more years the city never depopulated but its strength intensified; and all these perishable palaces of timber, brick, and chunam did not disappear but multiplied more time than it should have. [7]

Calcutta. A French map. 1839. credited to Dufour and Benard. [Read ‘Rue’ for ‘Road’]

So far back as 1714 ‘Cherangy’[sic] is named among the township neighbourhood within the Pergunnah of Calcutta either possessed or desired by the Company.[23] Originally, Chowringhee was an ancient village named after one  Jungal Giri Cherangi, a pious worshipper of Kali. Between 1726 and 1737, Cherangi (sic) came to be treated as a part of the English settlement. It was still separated on the West from Govindapur by jungle, where now the grassy level of the Maidan extends. The creek wandering inland past the southern wall of the burying ground divided Chowringhee-Govindapur from the Old Town – the township around the Old Fort. Until then Chowringhee had been a native portion of Dhee Calcutta and Bazar Calcutta.[23] There were “only a few miserable huts thatched with straw : a jungle, abandoned to water-fowl and alligators, covered the site of the present citadel and the course, which is now daily crowded at sunset with the gayest equipages of Calcutta”. [8]

The above 9 lithographs of William Wood’s paintings included in his album, Views of Calcutta.published in 1833. The elegant forms of the buildings of European Calcutta heralded an important stage in the history of architecture of the subcontinent: the evolution of Western styles into forms which would become commonplace in the Indian context. This building depicted shows what became the conventional pattern, a two or three storeyed block, well-proportioned and set in a garden, and with columned verandahs protecting its rooms from the heat. Courtesy British Library

Colonel Mark Wood in 1784 marked Chowringhee on the South of Park Street away from the original locale of the village Cherangi. A decade later, Upjohn put back the district of Chowringhee as Dhee Birje, on the North of Park Street. The boundaries were shown with Circular Road on the East, Park Street on the South, Colingah on the North and a part of Chowringhee Road on the West. [17] After half a century, Dufour and Benard in 1839 put Chowringhee on both the sides of Park Street spreading over Dhurumtollah to Theatre Road. [3] Bit by bit its boundaries extended from the village at North of Park Street, then called the Burying Ground Road, to cover the whole South-East part of Calcutta. In 1802 Lord Valentia writes : “Chowringhee, an entire village, runs for a considerable length at right angles with it (the Esplanade) and altogether forms the finest view I ever beheld in any city.” In 1810, Miss Graham found Calcutta ‘like London a small town of itself ‘, but its suburbs swell it to a prodigious city. [14] Chowringhee in 1824, is no more a mere scattered suburb, but almost as closely built as, and a very little less extensive than Calcutta. [23] , “separated from Calcutta by an ancient John bazaar [Jaun Bazaar]”.[16] Chowringhee, to Rev W K Firminger, was the  West End  of Calcutta, socially but not geographically,  a district bounded by Park Street on the North, Lower Circular Road on the East and South, and the Maidan on the West. [13]

The modern view ignores the historicity of Chowringhee. The row of buildings on Esplanade Row at the edge of Maidan becomes its Northern skirt. Its territory is nowadays more or less compatible with old Govindpore – a place no more exists.

Chowringhee Road View from No 11 Esplanade Row , across Dhurrumtollah Tank. Col. Lithograph. Artist: Sir Charles D’Oyly

Growing Chowringhee

A year before the construction of Govindpore Fort stared, there had been only a couple of European houses in Chowringhee. One at the corner of Dhurumtollah with entrance from that street, the other was at a little distance from it, with an entrance facing the Maidan. Most likely the first house was the General Stibbert’s House in the west end of the Dhurumtollah and in the vicinity of the Esplanade, where Mr. Farrell’ New Calcutta Academy moved in from Cossitolla Street as gazetted on 31st May 1804, much before the foundation of St Paul’s School, which was sometimes referred to as one of the two first houses in Chowringhee. The second one was indisputably the manor of Lord Vansittart at number 7 Middleton Row. It was better known as Sir Elijah Impey’s house where Impey happily stayed surrounded by an expansive deer park. In those days Maidan was ‘strangely treeless’, and Impey’s manor happened to be the foremost erection stood across it’s stretch. The site is now occupied by the Loreto Convent.

The number of houses continued to grow in isolation till 1770s. Between Jaun Bazar Road (or Corporation Street as called later), and Park Street, forty European residences, mostly with large compounds, are depicted in Upjohn’s Map. An equal number may be counted in Dhee Birjee – the quarter immediately south of Park Street. Even so late as 1824, Chowringhee was regarded as a suburb. Miss Eden calls it the Regent’s Park of Calcutta. Miss Emma Roberts spoke about suburb Chowringhee of 1831-33 – the favourite residence of the European community. From the roofs of their houses, they viewed “a strange, rich, and varied scene discloses itself: the river covered with innumerable vessels,— Fort William, and Government House, standing majestically at opposite angles of the plain,— the city of Calcutta, with its innumerable towers, spires, and pinnacles in the distance,— and nearer at hand, swamps and patches of unreclaimed jungle, showing how very lately the ground in the immediate neighbourhood of the capital of Bengal was an uncultivated waste, left to the wild beasts of the forest.” [25]

“In this part of the town,” notes Mr. Beverley in his census report for 1876, “ the streets are laid out with perfect regularity, very different from the rest of the town” – the town rising about the old Fort. [9] The report was contrary to what Miss Emma viewed over half a century ago and said, “No particular plan appears to have been followed in their erection, and the whole, excepting the range facing the great plain, Park-street, Free-School street, and one or two others, present a sort of confused labyrinth,”. and then she added ,”however, it is very far from displeasing to the eye; the number of trees, grass- plants, and flowering shrubs, occasioning a most agreeable diversity of objects.” [25] The difference between the observations of Miss Emma of Beverley evidenced the good works done in between by the Lottery Committee. “To them Calcutta is indebted for a long catalogue of improvements: and they may justly claim to be held in grateful remembrance as her second founders. Roads and paths were run across the Maidan and the familiar balustrades set up. Numerous tanks were excavated The New Market, which was built between 1871 and 1874, is another monument to the energy of the Justices which the ordinary citizen of Calcutta probably feels better able to appreciate. The grand success of the Lottery Committee encouraged the government to undertake further developmental programs under the management of the Fever Committee [9]

Chowringhee Redefined

An illustration is from a picture drawn by Captain F. J. Bellew, illustrating his book entitled, A Griffen, on Landing at Calcutta, 1818

Chauringi [sic]) is a place of quite modern erection, originated from the rage for country houses.”, At the beginning of 19th century the people of Calcutta, as of Bombay and Madras, loved to live in garden-houses midst trees and flowers. They preferred living away from the hot, unhealthy and already crowded Town of Calcutta, to a place ‘where they could enjoy some privacy’.[17] They admired the landscape of Chowringhee. Chowringhee premises themselves were often very extensive, the principal apartments looking out upon pretty gardens, decorated with that profusion of flowers which renders every part of Calcutta so blooming. [25] The surroundings were mostly open fields among which were scattered villages, with here and there a garden house, standing in wide grounds where roamed plenty of deer, water birds, particularly the adjutant birds, or the Indian stork with a pinkish-brown neck and bill, and a military gait seen walking around. Camels and mules were not uncommon sight on Chowringhee Road. Jackals roamed at night mischievously to undermine foundations of old houses, as they did so to the Free School’s old house that fell in 1854. In spite of such small inconveniences the ‘lordly Chowringhee stood ‘equal to the finest thoroughfare anywhere; and the blessed Maidan – that enormous lung responsible for all the health and happiness of the people of Calcutta’. [20]

The name ‘Chowringhee’ denotes a new found ‘comfort zone’ in the South of Town Calcutta for the Europeans who loved a trendy hassle-free life to lead in airy environs. Whenever their comfort-zone shifted its focus the habitat moved along revising its boundaries but keeping the name unchanged. The historical maps may well justify redefining ‘Chowringhee’ in terms of habitation socially and not geographically in terms of territorial location. Chowringhee like two other old localities, John Bazaar and Taltallah, ‘came adrift from their moorings and carried away by the surging tide of population beyond Dhurumtollah toward Bhowanipore.[18] Somewhat like a Gypsy camp, the community moved on southward leaving some cohabitants behind in lesser locations.

Chowringhee Stratified

Plan of Calcutta. 1784 & 1785. Credited to Colonel Mark Wood

Chowringhee, we may notice, is a cluster of residential blocks of distinctive characters, categorized by racial, religious, economic differences. Blanchard in his memoir mentions: “A house in the “City of Palaces” is very apt to look like a palace. But the comparison applies only to that portion of the town where dwell the Europeans of the higher ranks, the Civil and Military officers, and principal merchants of the place. These congregate for the most part in the Chowringhee road and the streets running there from, which make up the only neighbourhood where it is conventionally possible for a gentleman to reside.” [5] This description of Blanchart found inapplicable to the whole of Chowringhee, but to some exclusive neighbourhood like. Hastings Place, at the southern end of Chowringhee. The group of streets which commemorate the various titles of Lord Hastings and his wife, who was Countess of Loudoun in her own right, are also the work of the Lottery Committee, and were designed to afford access to the Panchkotee (92 Elliot Rd ?), or five mansions, which will be found surrounding Rawdon Street, Moira Street, Hungerford Street and Loudoun Street (as it should be properly spelt). [9] We are informed by different authors that while barristers had their houses in the neighbourhood of Supreme Court, the officials, medical men, and merchants, have their residences in Garden Reach, and the numerous streets contained in the district rejoicing in the general name of Chowringee [sic]. [16] All these points out to the practice of social ranking among the European residents in Chowringhee. Chowringhee was built by Europeans for residing there in European way life, surpassing the standard of living prevailed in their homeland. Montgomery Massey penned an intimate and lively picture of Chowringhee of relatively recent time covering half a century from 1870s. [20]

Social & Religious Reservations

Procession of the Churruckpooja in Chowringee. Coloured lithograph by Charles D’Oyly. 1848

For a long time Indians had no place in Chowringhee, excepting very few. We find in a late 18th century map three Rustomjees on Chowringhee Lane, Jamsedjee Ruttunjee on Lindsay Street. Chowringhee allowed these rich business men of Parsee community to stay with the sahibs rightfully. It took a hundred year for the native gentlemen to share the privilege liberally with the Europeans to settle in Chowringhee. Some of those privileged ones were: Kumar Arun Chundra Singha at house 1(?) Harrington Street, Sir Rajendranath Mookherji’s house on 7 Harrington Street, Sir B. C. Mitter’s 19 Camac Street, Raja Promotho Roy Chowdhury’s 9 Hungerford Street. The presence of native houses in Chowringhee before coming of Europeans may not be improbable. Rev. Long spoke of a ‘large house’ identical to Sir Elijah Impey’s, stood on the very spot, nearly half a century before Impey. That house as referred to in the ‘Plan of Calcutta’ of 1742 ‘cannot have been an English residence’ he continued, ‘and was possibly the property of a native official’. [17]

Chowringhee in its first two centuries had been exclusively a Christian colony. The two early Bengali converts, Rev. K. M. Banerjee, and Gunendra Mohun Tagore had houses in European quarter on Bullygunge Circular Road at premises numbers 1 and 2. We are never sure if Chowringhee would have welcomed these two native Christians as residents, if so they desired. It is interesting to note, however, that there was a Hindu, of European origin, living in posh Wood Street area. Hindu Stuart was more a conservative Hindu than many native Hindus were. The European residents had tolerated Stuart’s conformity to idolatrous customs. It shows that the Europeans had no problems with native faith as such, but to them the native way of living was utterly disgraceful and unhygienic. Besides their own experience, the reactions of the overseas visitors gathered from their memoirs and letters, reinforced European antipathy toward the way of living of the Calcutta people in general, and of the lower-class in particular. One of the serious objections they had against native citizens was ‘lack of sensitivity’ and indifference toward their own surroundings. They called the native town, a black town, as it was a ‘wretched-looking place – dirty, crowded, ill-built, and abounding with beggars and bad smells’ [30]. Beyond Black Towns, even the best neighbourhoods were not completely free of such menace. “The whole appearance of Chowringhee is spoiled by the filthy huts that exist everywhere, almost touching the ‘palaces’.” These eyesores are to be seen even in the ultra-fashionable Park Street and Middleton Street, and on the Maidan in front of Chowringhee. [12] It is a repulsive scene for civilized members of any society. The problems are often thought of economy oriented and related to lower-class of the society, overlooking their cultural significance.

Living Conditions and Style

The Black Towns also includes the upper-class genteel who lived in ‘handsome houses enclosed in court-yards between the mud huts, the small dingy brick tenements, and the mean dilapidated bazaars of the middling and lower classes of natives. These Armenian merchants, Parsees, and Bengallee gentlemen of great wealth and respectability’ did never mind their environment. [25] Interestingly, the lowly tribal folks of Bengal, like the santals, keep their homes and villages clean and beautiful. The underlined social malady is an issue of critical importance for investigating the root cause of stagnation of the vernacular society. The matter is beyond the scope of present discussion. Elsewhere we discussed related issues in historical context. See: Rajendra Dutta 1818-1889

 

Chowringhee Today & Tomorrow

Since 1754 Chowringhee revealed itself variantly in maps, paintings, and texts. It is almost impossible to separate Chowringhee from boundary areas, or to imagine a Chowringhee excluding North of Park Street, a Chowringhee without the old Hogg Market, the Museum, Bible House, The Grand, and Firpo’s, and the like – attractions of old and recent past. For Chowringhee goers, riding an Esplanade-bound tram across the green of Maidan was a special pleasure. Alighted at Esplanade they felt already in Chowringhee, and perceived the two as inseparable. To them and some modern scholars, Chowringhee and Esplanade denote the same place and are generally called by any of the two names irrespectively. The comprehensive view of modern Calcutta embraces the grand view of Maidan and on its opposite, shiny lines of shops, hotels, restaurants, cinema halls and range of magnificent edifices built mostly by the Armenian architects who were responsible more than others for upgrading Calcutta to the City of Palace. Minney in his time wondered “if all these mighty edifices will be abandoned some day by those for whom they were built. Will the Britons say to the Indians, “We built all this for ourselves, and for you; but we can no longer live together?” [20] And so it happened. Calcutta has been losing her Oriental identity for good. The little collective will the society had earned to resist the lure of westernization is being siphoned off in the process of misconceived globalization.

 

NOTES
The name of the rural Cherangi (চেরাঙ্গী) changed during its transformation into urbane Chowringhee (চৌরঙ্গী). The original vernacular name [26] acquired variant renditions with some twists to suit English tongues, and spelt out fancifully by writers of last three centuries. Among the good alternatives, ‘Chowringhee’ is found most popular in the works consulted. That is the only reason why I used ‘Chowringhee’ and some other place names in certain anglicized forms as standard.

REFERENCES
1. Anonymous. 1859. The East India Sketch-Book; Comprising an Account of the Present State of Society in Calcutta, Bombay, Etc. London: Bentley.
2. Bellew. 1880. Memoirs of a Griffin; Or, a Cadet’s First Year in India, by Captain Bellew. London: Allen. Retrieved (https://books.googleusercontent.com/books/content?req=AKW5QaeFDZ31SuKS9kDHiV6UQ99iWso9Gpe7upyHKD7uJymaDFKZOeWiERI3n2I2aX4TozdjSzDJP8KSMGKwxIp2QyYMijIkC9LDrZ5rrD8ee7utuIuTAt4mkqAM9uu-jq3vjAx2M3xYMFMxXW8OHNamEuOXWPDkU0yA-yq9EUwZPN8_ifFCoA2tHKD61OGFj9SPebPjy).
3. Benard, Dufour and. 1839. “Calcutta 1839: A French Map 1839_DufordandBernard.” Retrieved (http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00maplinks/colonial/calcuttamaps/rouard1839/rouard1839.html).
4. Bengal Almanac. 1851. BENGAL ALMANAC , With A Companion a N D Appendix. 1851st ed. Calcutta: Samuel Smith. Retrieved (https://books.google.co.in/books/about/The_Bengal_Almanac_for_1851.html?id=4UNBAAAAYAAJ&redir_esc=y).
5. Blanchard, Sidney Laman. 1867. Yesterday and Today in India. London: Allen. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/yesterdaytodayin00blan#page/n3/mode/2up).
6. Blechynden, Kathleen. 1905. Calcutta Past and Present. London: Thacker. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/calcuttapastand02blecgoog).
7. Candor, Josua. 1828. Modern Traveller: Popular Description, Geographical, Historical, and Topographical ; Vol.3 India. London: Duncan. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/moderntraveller05condgoog).
8. Carey, William. n.d. Good Old Days of Honorable John Company; vol.1.
9. Cotton, Evan. 1907. Calcutta Old and New: A Historical and Descriptive Handbook of the City. Calcutta: Newman. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/calcuttaoldandn00cottgoog).
10. Curzon,George Nathaniel, Marquis of Kedlesta. 1925. “British Government in India; vol.1.” Retrieved (https://books.google.co.in/books?id=t_qdnQAACAAJ&dq=british+government+of+India+curzon&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjtgteC2MnXAhVEqI8KHe-DBeoQ6wEILTAB).
11. Deb, Binaya Krishna. 1905. The Early History and Growth of Calcutta. Calcutta: RC Ghose. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/earlyhistoryand00debgoog).
12. Dewar, Douglas. 1922. Bygone Days in India; with 18 Illustrations. London: John Lane. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/bygonedaysinindi00dewauoft#page/n15/mode/2up).
13. Firminger, W. K. 1906. Thacker’s Guide to Calcutta. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/thackersguidetoc00firm#page/n7/mode/2up/search/’socially+but+not+geographically).
14. Graham, Maria. 1813. Journal of a Resdence in India. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Costable. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/journalaresiden00callgoog#p age/n6/mode/2up).
15. Hamilton, Alexander. 1727. A New Account of the East Indies; Being the Observations and Remarks of Capt. Alexander Hamilton from 1688-1723. Vol.1. Edinburgh: John Mosman [print]. Retrieved (https://books.googleusercontent.com/books/content?req=AKW5QacjxhiAm8rzif8UIk9TDXspCahRSpGTJAm4B4cNBUSur1ofIcI-zAg5Za6SGU0KEoBJJ0rawcvPDm3vIiVfY_AZMXqlsbCB7DFd_Q2mmMeTe-lppWWArhBGhJyND193wpzwke4Pr80-cyeInTGT6QK0EtQ5684QSuXLM8N5EGEHC5kHd6fucZw-MT5827LyRLvNA).
16. James, Edward. 1830. Brief Memoirs of John Thomas James, D.D: Lord Bishop of Calcutta. London: Hatchhard. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/briefmemoirsofla00jamerich#page/n5/mode/2up/search/ancient).
17. Johnson, George W. 1843. The Stranger in India; Or, Three Years in Calcutta. Vol. 1(2). London: Henry Colburn. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/strangerinindia00johngoog#page/n46/mode/2up).
18. Long, Rev.James. 1852. Calcutta in the Olden Time – Its Localities. Art.2 – Map of Calcutta. Retrieved (https://books.google.co.in/books?id=cQc2AAAAMAAJ&pg=PA275&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false).
19. Mark Wood. 1792. “Plan of Calcutta: 1874-1875.” Retrieved (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/82/Kolkata_Old_Map.jpg).
20. Massey, Montague. 1918. Recollections of Calcutta for Over Halh a Century. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink. Retrieved (https://www.google.co.in/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjRr_WylsPXAhUDV7wKHTWJAXcQFggxMAI&url=https%3A%2F%2Farchive.org%2Fdetails%2Frecollectionsofc00massiala&usg=AOvVaw3uvydXqyjqB3xbkOOZe4jp).
21. Minney, R. J. 1922. Round about Calcutta. London: Oxford U P. Retrieved (https://archive.org/stream/roundaboutcalcut00minnrich#page/n5/mode/2up).
22. Monkland. 1828. Life in India, or the English at Calcutta; vol.2.
23. Montefiore, Arthur. 1894. Reginald Heber: Bishop of Calcutta, Scholar and Evangelist. New York: Revell. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/reginaldheberbis00bric).
24. Ray, A. K. 1902. Calcutta: Town and Suburbs; Pt.1 A Short History of Calcutta. Calcutta: Bengal Secretariat. Retrieved (https://books.google.co.in/books?id=-Lo5AQAAMAAJ&q=calcutta+town+and+suburbs+ak+Ray&dq=calcutta+town+and+suburbs+ak+Ray&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjDnrz11MnXAhUCN48KHdgEDQUQ6AEIJzAA).
25. Roberts, Emma. 1843. “Memoirs of Emma Roberts. In Memoirs of Literary Ladies of England; Ed. by Mrs Elwood; vol.2.” in Oxford University, vol. 2. London: Colburn. Retrieved (https://books.google.co.in/books?id=ROsQAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA333&lpg=PA333&dq=memoirs+of+emma+robert&source=bl&ots=c_ubDSyGKS&sig=PW6CgPPZ3uZuZq0Ev71kl_Ll7vU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiI5PPQ0cjXAhXHto8KHTQ7DFQ4ChDoAQgmMAA#v=onepage&q=memoirs of emma robert&f=false).
26. Thacker, Spink. 1776. “Alphabetical List of the Streets in Calcutta, Howrah, and the Suburbs.” Calcutta: Thacker, Spink.
27. Wilson, Charles R. 1895. The Early Annals of the English in Bengal; Summarised, Extracted, and Edited with Introductions and Illustrative Addenda; Vol.1. London, Calcutta: Thacker. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/earlyannalsofeng01wilsuoft).

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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