FINDING DHURRUMTOLLAH

Calcutta. a steel engraving. 1839. Source: Meyer’s Universalism 1850.

ধর্মতলা সন্ধানে


DHURRUMTOLLAH STREET Away From Durrumtollah

Dhurrumtollah Street, nicknamed ‘Dhurrumtollah ka Rasta’, is an approach road to Dhurrumtollah – a vaguely indicated locality north of village Chowringhee that anonymously spreads over the marshy terrain known as Colinga at one time. None of the old maps of Calcutta specifies the place of Dhurrumtollah, though the Dhurrumtollah Street invariably shows up in its place since Mark Wood’s map of 1784-85.
The Dhurrumtollah Street came up in around 1762, so did Jaun Bazar Road (later ‘Street’), both running eastward leaving Dingabhanga in between [Mark Wood, 1784]. Originally it was a causeway raised by deepening the ditch on either side of a land then owned by Jafer, a zamadar in the employ of Warren Hastings.”[Cotton]

COLINGA

Topography
It was the time when the English territory south of Town Calcutta was partly jungle, an extension of Sunderban, where Hastings said to have had the pleasure of tiger hunting.
Before coming of the English, Calcutta topography had been much simpler as Barrel’s 16th Century Bengal map reveals. The vast surrounding area, where the English later founded their first zamindari, looked like populated by only three distant villages – Chitpore, Kolikata, and Kalighat, connected by an unnamed jungle path. The 1680 map ‘Calcutta before the English’ adds few more names pointing to Sutanuti, Govindpore, Chowringhee, and also the Creek, and Jannagar at the eastern end.

Bengal. 1550. River: From Hughli to Sea; according to Joao de Barrel and the Bengali poets. Source: Wilson.Annals.v.1

The landscape in the vicinity of the Creek was then viewed as an extension of village Chowringhee – unworthy of any distinction. It was for the first time, the map Mark Wood prepared in 1784-85 charted the chunk of land separated from Chowringhee as Colinga. Colinga includes two subareas: Talpooker and Jala Colinga within its boundary. The two villages, Colinga, and Jala Colinga, however, were already enlisted in 1717, as ‘Colimba’ and ‘Jola Colimba’, among the 38 villages the English Company was permitted by the Emperor to buy. [Ray]
Talpooker was not in the buying list of villages. In Upjohn’s Mark Wood’s maps Talpooker was prominently placed and it still exists as Taltola, an old quarter of metropolis, bearing one of the most common rural-names in Bengal, featuring habitations centered on ponds bordered with palm trees.
Jala Colinga is better known by its sobriquet ‘Dinga-bhanga’, which originated after the great 1737 cyclone that wrecked a dinga, i.e. large boat, on swampy shoreline of the Creek – the vanished man-made canal for carrying cargo boats from Chandpal Ghat toward Beliaghata at the east end. [Blochmann]

Calcutta before the English 1680

The Creek was also referred to in Company documents as Calcutta khal. The vast territory extending from Calcutta Khal to the Tolly’s Nullah, covering the whole of the maidan spread a jungle tract of heavy undergrowth and giant trees. “This jungle was intersected by numerous creeks and watercourses, where the muddy yellow waters of the Hughly swept in with the rising tide, or ebbed with the drainage of the surrounding rain-drenched country”. The old bed of the Creek remained, long after the closing of its connection with the river had deprived it of its stream, and turned it into a ditch. [Blechynden]
We normally accept unquestioningly whatever presented in a historical map, while the opposite may not be true in all cases. Whatever not presented, cannot be read as non-existent for sure since the possibility of their being existed namelessly can never be overruled without verifying the circumstantial evidences. Colinga is one of such cases. With all its parts: Talpooker and Jala Colinga appear separately in the list of 19 mauzas, and Dhee Calcutta, composed during 1767-1857.

 

Colinga and the newly enlisted villages were not expected to come up suddenly out of nothing. Normally, it takes ages for a geographic entity to acquire a name of its own, unlike the modern way of deciding street names on board meetings, as did the English Company in 1792. For a prolong period, when it remained essentially a part of village Chowringhee, Colinga had been a thinly populated uncultivated landscape occupying north-east segments with Dingabhanga and Talpooker on the peripheries.

 

Etemology
The name Colinga, assigned in Upjohn’s and Mark Wood’s maps, is a derived form of a rare Bengali word কলিম্বা (Colimba), has multiple meanings. It poses a serious challenge for us to distinguish between the etymological and the popular sense of the word in current context. Vernacular lexicon shows 25 different sets of meanings, of which the followings are found plausible attributes contributing to the naming of the village Colimba (কলিম্বা), or Colinga:
(1) Trees: পাকুড় (Ficus religiosa, sacred fig) / শিরিষ (Lebbek Tree)/ কামরাঙ্গা (carambola) / তরমূজ (water melon) (2) Terrain: marshland (হাজা। “হাজালে কলিঙ্গ দেশ”) (3) People: Kol tribe, worshiper of Bonga (বঙ্গা) [Jnanendramohan]
On the basis of such semantic interpretations we may imagine how Colinga might have been before the increasing homesteads changed its ecology. Colinga and its surrounds, by lexical interpretation, apparently looked like a jungle of Sirish শিরিষ and Pakurh পাকুড় trees and a marshland (at Jala Colinga) with abundance of kamranga কামরাঙ্গা vegetation; lived by Kol কোল and such tribal folks.

The Banks of the Hooghly River, Calcutta, Source: The Graphic, v.24, no 646, Ap.15, 1882

Ecology
The soil of Calcutta, marshy and damp, has always been displeasing, particularly in the rainy season, and more so because of proximity of the river and a widespread lake – about 3 to 4 miles long and in no part above 18 inches deep, frequented by innumerable flocks of wild geese, duck, teals, etc. The site of Colinga was the nearest to that lake [Chattopadhyaya]

Colinga happened to be the last of the “typical swamp-type of vegetation including mangroves throve in and around Calcutta” for about 3000 years, as experts find. Perhaps, with the rise of land as a result of continued river silting and increased population the forest has since migrated southwards giving rise to the swampy forest of the present day Sunderbans. [Biswas]

Biodiversity

Since prehistoric eras the birds and animals travel Gangetic Bengal, migrate and settle colonies enriching natural resources contributing to improve quality of the soil and its landscape. As we all know, birds transport seeds and twigs from far and near across lands and oceans to germinate new variety of plant life, and they do it selectively by the atmospheric condition of a terrain. The birds living in and around Calcutta, and those visiting seasonally during last two centuries, have been systematically recorded by birdwatchers. Frank Finn is one of them. His Birds of Calcutta is more relevant to our theme than elaborated work, Pet Birds of Bengal [Law]. We find 24 species of birds, all familiar to us but some like Paddy-bird – once so prevalent in the City of Palace, gone out of sight for good. Those are:

House Crow পাতি কাক, Oriental Magpie Robin দোয়েল, Seven Sisters ছাতারে, Bulbul বুলবুল, King-Crow দাঁড় কাক, Common Tailorbird টুনটুনি, Oriole, বেনে বউ common? Mynah ভাত শালিক, Dhtalধুলাল, Sparrow চড়াই, Honey-Sucker মৌটুসি, Woodpecker কাঠঠোকরা, Coppersmith Barbet বসন্তবাউরি, Blue-Jay নীলকণ্ঠ, Kingfisher মাছরাঙ্গা, Swift বাতাসি, Koel কোয়েল, Parrot তোতা Owl প্যাঁচা, Vulture শকুন, Kite চিল, Dove ঘুঘু, Gull গাং চিল, Paddy-Bird ধান পাখি।

A cursory glance through the list may suggest that not all the species were fit for habitation in early Colinga environ. Flocks arrive at in stages with different compositions, adaptable for the ecological diversity, to contribute in transforming Colinga landscape from a marshland to cultivable woodland, orchard and paddy-field. There were no woodpeckers, honey-suckers at the beginning but gulls, kingfishers, snipes and the like. [Finn]

Route dans le Bangale. c1791-1823. Artist: François Balthasar Solvyns.

The landscape of Colinga before mid-18th century, so far we see, was much dissimilar to woody Govindpore, Birji and Chowinhee villages. Colinga remained a vast inhabitable wetland for centuries, infested with insects and aquatic creatures including water-birds. Initially, a number of coarse weeds began to invade the territory and a variety of thorny shrubs and other plants, not attractive to grazing animals advanced slowly, their seedlings sheltered by the weeds until large enough to escape the trampling. Eventually a thicket of small trees and shrubs appeared, of which, the commonest constituents should have been the thorny beri কুল, benchi বৈঁচি,and their near relative dumar ডুমুর,- a quick-growing, shrubby plant with coarse hairy leaves, also arrived early on the scene.

Finally appear the large trees – the lofty palms তাল raise their crowns of fan-shaped leaves, mangoes আম, tamarind তেঁতুল and the lighter green of a neem নীম amidst them can probably be seen, and in the cold season – the naked branches of a simul শিমুল, or the spreading crown of a siris শিরিষ covered with yellowish pods stands out conspicuously from the green around them. There were some 69 trees only that Benthall considered naturalized in the neighbourhood of Calcutta, 41 were thought to be truly indigenous, 20 are natives of other parts of India, 6 originated in America, and 1 each in Africa and Malaya. On the other hand several plants, which seem to have been fairly common even in 19th century Calcutta have become scarce or lost forever, like Croton Tiglium Linn জায়ফল. [Benthall]

Benthall writes in early 20th century, “Not much more than a hundred years ago the wild rhinoceros roared near Alipore, and panthers were often hunted in what is now part of the city of Calcutta. In those days jungle must have stretched from the Sunderban to the edge of the city … Around Calcutta the country consists of treeless swamp and lake, and broad expanses of paddy-fields, interspersed with roads and paths and villages.” In such country, Benthall maintains, waste land suitable for the growth of trees and shrubs is scarce, but here and there patches may be found which for some reason or other are neither cultivated nor planted with useful trees. [Benthall]

Banyan Tree. Artist: Unidentified. Source: Journal of Residence In India By Maria Graham. 1813

Colinga was certainly one such place of marshy land that remained till recent time uncultivated, in an atmosphere totally different from the then Kalighat, Govindpore, Calcutta areas. It was then wild marshy woodland lived by tribal in hutments making minimal anthropogenic hazards barring the manmade canal created for navigation by the early village dwellers. The scenario discourages us to believe of a presence of grand shrine revered by people of all faiths as a holly place. If at all any such generally acceptable shrine erected as a place of dharma (ধর্ম), it must have been created long after, but not later than, 1764 when ‘Dhurrumtollah ka Rasta’ was rolled over a muddy beaten track that supposed to lead to the holy place.

Modern Scenario
The reconstructed view of the expansive area of Colinga, earlier a part of the forested Chowringhee for about three centuries, may prove to be a rude contrast of what we see in the colonial paintings and photographs documented by the contemporary artists and lens men. Upjohn’s 1793 map gives an idea of the expansion by marking the site of Colinga Bazar Street, and of the Colinga Tank. Colinga Bazar Street stood at the south of Jaunbazar Street, and Colinga Tank, later Monohur Doss Tank, was shown on Maidan opposite the house of Messers Stone and Hoffmann. In Bailie’s map of 1792 Chowringhee contains 45 houses and plenty of paddy-fields. Europeans have moved eastwards and southwards to Bow Bazar Street and Circular Road, while Taltola, Colinga, and Fenwick Bazar are inhabited by native Indians. [Ray] During the end of the 18th century, Europeans came to stay here. The Bengal Gazette editor, James Augustus Hickey, Justice Le Maitre resided in this neighborhood. Since mid-19th century the Colinga Street became an infamous locality of European and Eurasian harlots.
In a Calcutta Municipal Corporation meeting of 17 July 1912, the previous name ‘Collingabazar Street’ was changed into ‘Collin Street’. By dropping the last two letters from its name,‘Collinga’, a variant of ‘Colinga’, turned into ‘Collin’, which the commissioners found necessary to make the Street sound more respectable and attractive to the prospective buyers of lands and houses. Following the decision, not the street alone but everything else known by its name got changed. Colinga was erased from Calcutta map and collective mind of the people, leaving Dhurrumtollah homeless, faceless unidentified geographic entity.

View of Circular Road, Calcutta. Artist: Edward Augustus Prinsep. 1848

There is perhaps another way of finding Dhurrumtollah by applying our mind more toward human elements than to the physical elements of issues. So far we attempted to understand the natural condition of the venue, now let us question how the human folks lived there when Colinga became habitable. We knew that on the plains of Bengal, two trees, peepul(অশ্বথ) and banyan(বট) tend to dominate all others, and Colinga might not be an exception. We may question now why the two are called sacred fig-trees, and try to examine how far Bentham was correct when he said, “Both these trees are venerated by the Hindus and are often planted for religious reasons near houses and temples and in villages. Beneath their branches may be seen little shrines marked by the presence of rounded stones, and sometimes small temples are erected in their shade” (my emphasis). [Benthal]

Endnote
The scenario reminds us of the beaten jungle path of pre-colonial days leading to a widely acknowledged dhurrumtollah, or ‘divine place’, where worshipers arrive from distant villages taking the eastward route that the present Dhurrumtollah Street follows. This street may not lead to a locality ‘Dhurrumtollah’ as the Chowringhee Road and Jaunbazar Street did – one to locality Chowringhee, the other to Jannagar. Instead, it can be in all probability a sacred location and not a locality. Before exploring new directions, it is important to settle a few questions bothering our focus. Should this dhurrumtollah necessarily be an outstanding devotional edifice like temple, mosque or a church? If yes, its location must have been somewhere off the street and not on the street or its sides. Secondly, how far realistically we can think of such an architecture erected before 1764 – the year Dhurrumtollah Street constructed?
I would like to take up these questions in my next post: THE HOLLY STREET DHURRUMTOLLAH

REFERENCE

Books

  1. Bagchi, P.C. 1938. The Second City of the Empire. Calcutta: Indian Science Congress Assoc.
  2. Benthall, A. P. 1933. Tree’s of Calcutta and Its Neighbourhood. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/TheTreesOfCalcutta).
  3. Biswas, Oneil. 1992. Calmtta and Calcuttans From Dihi to Megalopolis. Calcutta: Firma KL. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.149376).
  4. Blochmann,H. 1978 ‘Calcutta during the Last Century’ in Alok Ray edt. ‘Calcutta Keepsake’, Calcutta: Rddhi-lndia. (https://www.amazon.com/marsh-township-east-Calcutta-Department/dp/8170740738)
  5. Cotton, Evan. 1907. Calcutta, Old and New: A Historical and Descriptive Handbook to the City. Calcutta: Newman. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/calcuttaoldandn00cottgoog).
  6. Chattopadhyaya, Haraprasad. 1990. From marsh to township east of Calcutta: A tale of Salt Water Lake and Salt Lake Township. (Department of History, University of Calcutta, monograph) (https://www.amazon.com/marsh-township-east-Calcutta-Department/dp/8170740738)
  7. Frank Finn. 1904. Birds of Calcutta. 2nd ed. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/birdsofcalcutta00finnrich).
  8. Kathleen Blechynden. 1905. Calcutta: Past and Present. London: Thacker. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/calcuttapastand02blecgoog).
  9. Law, Satya Churn. 1923. Pet Birds of Bengal; v.1. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/petbirdsofbengal00laws).
  10. 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).
  11. 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).
  12. জ্ঞানেন্দ্রমোহন দাস. n.d. বাংলাভাষার অভিধান. Retrieved (https://archive.org/details/bub_man_c3ef006702a4d6c876970cc35b669346).

Maps and Plans

  1. Bengal. 1550. River: From Hughli to Sea in the 16th century;  according to Joao de Barrel and the Bengali poets. [Reprinted See:  Wilson.  page 129]
  2. Calcutta. 1680.  Calcutta before the English [map] [Reprinted See:  Wilson. page 126]
  3. Calcutta. 1792 & 1793.  Map of  Calcutta and its environs;  by A Upjohn (http://www.museumsofindia.gov.in/repository/record/vmh_kol-R565-C1737-2914)
  4. Calcutta. 1792-93 Map of  Calcutta and its environs From the accurate survey taken in the year 1792 & 1793 by A Upjohnhttp://www.museumsofindia.gov.in/repository/record/vmh_kol-R565-C1737-2914
    Calcutta. 1793. Plan of Calcutta; reduced by permission of the Commissioners of Police from the original one executed for them by Lietn Colonel Mark Wood of 1784-1785. Published in October 1792 by William Baillie. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/82/Kolkata_Old_Map.jpg
  5. Calcutta. 1847-49. Map of Calcutta from actual survey. Contributors: Simms, Thillier, and Smyth. London: Chapman, 1858 (https://www.loc.gov/resource/g7654c.ct001429/?r=0.604,0.19,0.07,0.03,0)

 

 

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

 

 

 

The First English Settlers: Sutanuti Sahibs, 1690 – 1706

View of Calcutta from Hooghly River by William Hodges. c1789

View of Calcutta from Hooghly River by William Hodges. c1789

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

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

bazar india

Cloth merchant measuring cloth. Artist Unknown. 1820

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

Black (Gentoo) Pagoda, Chitpore-Daniel

Gentoo Pagoda and House – Thomas Daniel. c 1787

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

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

Circular Road Calcutta, by Edward Prinsep. 1848

Procession of the Goddess Kali - Calcutta October 1841

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

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

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

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

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

Chitpore Road Calcutta, by Simpson William. 1867

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

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

EsplanadeRow-River-CouncilHouse-x

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

 

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

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

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

Job_Charnock_founding_Calcutta,_1690-2

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

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

 

SOURCEBOOKS

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