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
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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).
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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).
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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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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