CHANDNEY BAZAAR: A Neglected Element of Change toward Social Awakening of Bengal

Artist: George Francklin Atkinson. c.1850s Source: ‘Curry & Rice’ authored by the Artist.

 

চাঁদনি বাজার

SHOPKEEPER’S CITY, CALCUTTA
Calcutta in the 18st century was a new city with enormous mercantile resources. The respectable of its inhabitants were merchants. Men were getting involved in wealth-getting and wealth-spending activities – an economic life led by the shopkeepers. [Biswas]. Calcutta earned the moniker SHOPKEEPER’S CITY even before modern bazaars came up in 1783.
Half a century later, it was the improved company policies and the growing public interest in bazaar farming, Calcutta was looked upon as a great city for living comfortably with foods and drinks and all that facilitate city life. Emma Roberts wonders in late 1830s that there is “perhaps no place in which everything essential for an establishment can be obtained so easily as at Calcutta, carriages and horses are to be hired at a not unreasonable rate, palanquins by the day or half day, and servants of all descriptions of a very respectable class also by the day, these people are called ticca, and if recommended by individuals of known good character, may be trusted. A whole house may be furnished from the bazaars in the course of a few hours, with articles either of an expensive or an economical description, according to the means of the purchaser, a well filled purse answering all the purposes of Aladdin’s wonderful lamp. Never was there a place in which there are greater bargains, for if sales happen to be frequent, the most costly articles, carriages, horses, &c., are to be had for a mere song.” [Roberts]

Visibly, the life in Calcutta was then being supported by a range of service providers from giant merchant houses to feriwalas on foot. There were big firms who acted as auctioneers or commission agents, like Messrs King, Johnson and Pierce; Mouat and Faria; Stewart and Brown; Tulloh & Co. Most of them were in business for decades selling and commissioning wide range of articles from black bear and rabbit skin tippets to Persian attar or essence of roses to cider and other kinds of intoxicating drinks to guns to soda water to Madeira wine. The Europeans, it seems, also engaged themselves, apart from trading in manufacturing businesses dealing with carpentry, glass work, gun making, washing and mangling, distillery, jewelry, coach-making, etc. and catered essentially to the European population residing in the city. [Basu]

CALCUTTA BAZAARS
In maps, old and modern, the entire city of Calcutta may be seen dotted with bazaars, private and public. These bazaars are permanent markets or street-markets consisting of open shops grew mostly as veritable zamindaries for their owners – mostly Indians and few Europeans. Normally bazaars cater the daily necessities, like fresh vegetables, fishes, meets, groceries and stationary items, and also store ready consumer goods. Besides selling of products, there are other classes of ‘bazaar people’ who sell small services of varied kinds, like money-changers, bookbinders, stationers, cobblers, cabinet-makers, umbrella makers, petty agents, leeches-men, idol-sellers, retailers of saccharine dainties, and general dealers do regular business in these bazaars and thoroughfares.’ These are the folks who frequented these bazaars as traders and artisans to share space with regular product shoppers to sustain their livelihood. [Ghose] To a large extent, these job-vendors and artisans found their place in bazaar settlement in response to the changing pattern of consumer behavior in colonial societies. The character of the bazaar and its sales likewise shift toward new varieties of products. Emma was pleased to discover:
“European vegetables may now be purchased in the native bazaars. Indian gardeners have found their account in cultivating potatoes, peas, cauliflowers, lettuces, &c. ; and in travelling particularly, it is of great importance to be able to procure such useful and agreeable additions to the table.” [Roberts]
As we come to know from James H. Harrington’s Report of 1778 [cited in Basu] ] and Mark Wood’s Plan of Calcutta of 1792, there had been around 20 desi bazaars within Calcutta, namely
Burra Bazaar, Bow Bazaar and Lal Bazaar, Bytakhana Bazaar, Sutanuti Hat and Bazaars, Charles Bazaar or Shyam Bazaar, Ram Bazaar, Sobhaa Bazaar, Dharmatala Bazaar, Arcooly Bazaar, Machua Bazaar, Kasaitala Bazaar, Colootala Bazaar, Jaun Bazaar, Hat Jannagar, Hat Rajernagar, Colimba (Colinga) Bazaar, Simla Bazaar and Simla Road Bazaar— as far as the official public bazaars were concerned. Among the private bazaars Tiretta’s Bazaar, Sherburne’s Bazaar, Kashi Babu’s Bazaar (near Sherburne’s) and Gopee Ghosh’s Bazaar in Entally were included.

This is a part of the original panoramic view of the Dhurrumtollah crossing captured from terrace of a house on Esplanade Row by an unknown photographer supposedly at a very early date of Calcutta photography disclosing some details of immense historical significance. Source: suvrodahal.blogspot.com

The three bazaars – Burra Bazaar, Bow Bazaar, and Bytakhana Bazaar were the biggest and busiest bazaars of Calcutta that generally dealt in daily necessities like vegetables, fruits, and of course fishes, besides some other necessities. Hat Jaunnagar, Hat Rajnagar(?) and Kashi Babu’s Bazaar had become special markets dealing in rice, betel leaf and nuts, spices, and paddy straw. Burra Bazaar , the central whole sale market of Calcutta, consists of huge warehouses and plenty of retail shops offering largest variety including, “sundry materials like cutlery, glass ware, glass, earthen ware, fans, blankets, fine mats (shitalpati), coarse mats (chattai), common mats, board mats, wickerwork, coarse cloths, silk ribbon, cotton thread, rope, cotton, leather shoes and slippers, bracelets of all kinds, necklace of wood or beads, goods tirade of brass, small iron boxes or shinduk, iron works, medicinal tools, coconut hookahs, balls for hookah, straw, paddy straw, bamboo, bird cages, umbrellas, stone cases, deshlais or match sticks, etc. were also up for sale”. [cited in Basu]
The diversity of goods on sale bears witness to the grandness of the select few bazaars, which were designed to meet the changing pattern of demands of ‘cosmopolitan population of the city’ in particular. It appears, only in Bytakhana Bazaar, Burra Bazaar and in Sherburne’s private bazaar animals like fowls, geese, duck, horses, pigeons were sold. These apart, goats were available in Burra Bazaar, and ‘homed’ cattle in Bytakhana Bazaar only. All the bazaars of Calcutta had separate places allotted for the sale of fish. Burra Bazaar, Bytakhana Bazaar, Machua Bazaar and Sherburne’s Bazaar had cowrie exchange facilities against gonads. The private bazaars in general seem to specialize in certain articles some of which catered more to the European demands. For example, in those days fireworks were sold primarily in Tiretta’s Bazaar. Among the private bazaars Sherburne’s Bazaar dealt with the greatest number of articles.

EUROPEAN BAZAARS
The owners of three new European bazaars, Edward Tiretta, Joseph Sherburne, and Charles Short came forward to propose setting of modern bazaars in tune with the changing outlook of the Company administration against the backdrop of a ‘civilizing mission’ for improvement of city life. Their proposals also contained distinctive perceptions about a bazaar and references to ‘improve’ upon the existing ill-organized and unhygienic set-ups. To bring about in Calcutta bazaar relatively modern notions in terms of western sensibilities, Edward Tiretta, Joseph Sherburne and Charles Short petitioned individually in May 1782, October 1782 and July 1783, respectively, to the Governor General and Council for permission to build such market places in accordance with the Bye Law of 1781. They pledged to set up bazaars with pucca buildings, tiled shops and stalls instead of the straw huts of the desi bazaars. Mechua Bazaar, although owned and managed since 1775 by a European marketer, Francis D’Mello, was in no way better than the bazaars run by desi masters. In fact, it was since 1882 the shapes of the Calcutta bazaars get changed outwardly and internally for the first time. The new two bazaars, Tiretta Bazaar, and Sherburne’s Bazaar, were set on larger plots, occupying 8-18-4, and 10-1-4 bighas respectively, than Bazaar Sootaluty (3-17-2), and Dhurrumtollah Bazaar (6-10-0). [ Proceedings of the Board of Revenue, Sayer, November, 1794. Cited in Biswas]

SHERBERN’S BAZAAR
Sherburne’s bazaar, like Tiretta’s and Short’s, followed western model in which hygiene was the primary consideration in its planning to safeguard against deteriorating state of the physical ‘health’ of the city. Huge waste of the native bazaars was regarded largely responsible for infecting the air leading to the degeneration of the atmosphere into poisonous miasmas. These considerations went a long way in the planning of the three newly set bazaars. Sherburne’s bazaar was permitted on a fixed annual rent of Rs.300, revised later to Rs500, and entered the 1785 list of authorized private bazaars of the city. He was given in 1785 an official position of Scavanger [(Hobson-Jobson) ] of the Town of Calcutta, and at rooms, nos. 1 and 3, in his bazaar Sherburne used to discharge his duties of inspection of the goods on sale in Calcutta markets, as well as collection of the taxes. [Calcutta Gazette] The Bazaar was situated in a piece of land, locally known as Ismail Sarang’s Garden, where Chandney Market stands now on the fringe of Dhurrumtollah Street. As we understand, Joseph Sherburne petitioned the Governor General in October 1782, for permission to establish a public bazaar on this very plot he purchased, seemingly from Gokulchandra Mitra. Mitra, who had made a fortune in salt trade and, as it was said, won the Chandney Chawk area in the first Lottery. Behind Sherburne’s Bazaar, Julius Soubise opened his Repository of horses on a large piece of land leading from the Cossitollah down Emambarry Lane. It looks like, the old Chandney Chawk has been more a part of Cossitollah than Dhurrumtollah contrary to popular belief.


After two decades of close association with the Bazaar, Joseph Sherburne passed away at Monghyr on July 18, 1805. His only son, Pultney J. P. Sherburne, died on 28 June 1831. [ Asiatic Journal ] The map of the City and Environment of Calcutta published next year by Jean-Baptiste Tassin, printed the name of Chandney Bazaar for the first time replacing Sherburne’s Bazaar in the site of Chandney Chawk. [Tassin] Although a ‘Chandnee Choke’ and a ‘Chandnee Choke Lane’ found printed in Wood’s map of 1792, there had been no Chandney Market in Calcutta until the Sherburne’s Market wiped out from Calcutta maps. In all probability Sherburne’s Bazaar shuttered down in 1831.

CHANDNEY BAZAAR
When Chandney Bazaar came into existence by 1832, there was no R C Church, no Tipu Mosque, but only the Dhurrumtollah Bazaar opposite Dhurrumtollah Tank stood on roadside since 1796 with Stibbert’s House behind. The oldest institution remained there was the Native Hospital built in 1793 near Chandney. In Talpooker, Pritaram erected his Jaunbazaar House in 1808. “In 1793-94, all over the town there were no fewer than 1114 pucca houses; in 1821 it increased to 14,230” [Biswas] The new suburbs as southern extension of Town Calcutta grew faster with masonry houses built by Europeans and deshi well-to-dos as nucleus of new urban experience of ‘airy habitation’ .

Chandney Market stands on no. 167, Dhurrumtollah Street, at the crossing of Chandney Chawk Street, or Chandney Chawk Bazaar ka Rastah, on the north side of Dhurrumtollah, where Sherburne’s earlier stood. Chandney Bazaar did not replace Sherburne’s Market but came up with a unique identity of its own, completely dissimilar kind of a bazaar, to sell commodities of special kind to altogether different sections of consumers than what Sherburne’s or other bazaars usually target, that is, the common people whose requirements are chiefly food and other daily necessities such as household items, weareables, fashion items – all for ready consumption. In contrast, Chandney Bazaar has never been a place to retail fresh food unlike others. It was not a market for ready-made garments but held shops of cloth lengths and cut-pieces, and tailoring shops for making dresses cheaply and quickly. Chandney was known as a native shopping complex for retailing popular as well newest materials, accessories and tools needed primarily for consumption of journeymen, including artisan, craftsmen, petty tradesmen, mostly pieceworkers like tailors, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, smiths and small manufacturers.

Stuart Hogg’s Market. Photographer: Bourne and Stephens. 1860s

Cotton described the Bazaar as ‘a labyrinth of ill-kept passages, lined with shops, in which may be found a wonderful collection of sundries, from a door nail to a silk dress. The list can be lengthening endlessly by adding items like ‘brass and iron hand-ware, clothes, umbrellas; shoes, stationery, and various other articles of domestic use.’ Cotton, however, unwittingly left a piece of empty advice for shopaholics that “very similar shops and stalls may now be found, but under conditions infinitely more advantageous and comfortable, in the Municipal Market in Lindsay Street, off Chowringhee”. [Cotton] In reality, the two markets have been entirely dissimilar. So much so, no comparison can be possible between the two without distorting facts that still alive. Yet his advice as to the ‘getting favourite picks at pocket-friendly price’ at Chandney by ‘bargaining at your heart’s content’, and that ‘one must essentially be guarded with sharp shopping skill’ may prove helpful for a shopaholic even today.

Chandney Bazaar has never been a market for gentlefolk – sahibs or babus; rarely shoppers go there with families. Most shops were kind of mini warehouse, with no display-windows, no fashion shows. On the whole, the market looked drab, shabby, and uninviting – a mockery of the model market of Sherburne. Chandney, however, was not a ‘second-hand’ market, nor a chore bazaar – a ‘receptacle for all stolen goods’ as Cotton perceived. Chandney Bazaar was essentially, and still it is, a hardware market and not a market of second-hand goods, like some other auction houses and antique bazaars of Calcutta where stolen fancy goods of every description were being sold in the open.

CHANDNEY AMBIENCE
The ambience of Chandney Bazaar has always been disgustingly chaotic – a contradiction of the model picture of the bazaars the city administrators drew in 1783 that Tiretta, Shorts, and Sherburne followed. Outside the Bazaar, the doldrums of Chandney crowd and its unruly traffic overflowed into Dhurrumtollah crossing creating a logjam on the highway.

Chandney Bazaar Interior 2017. Photographs by Olympia Banerjee:

“Gharis wait outside shops, the horses hunched up in their shafts and harness, limp-legged, asleep. The drivers are asleep on the box and syces (সহিস) slumber behind. Water and rubbish on the pavements. The air is heavy with a fetid smell of hookah and food; paint, oil and cycles. In the shadow of the gold-tipped minarets women swathed in sheets clatter their slipperiered feet along the road. … The patrons of the ‘Chandni’ bazaar, scowling, busy; bargaining, wrangling; smiling, smirking; cycle shops, camera shops, pigeon stalls for cigarettes and sherbet. Pavement vendors with their wares in their baskets, pavement barbers assisting the needy with their toilet; street hawkers who pause on the roadway at the; hailing of a customer quarrelsome ghari men lashing their whips at one another.” [Minney ]
Yes, this picture penned by R.J. Minney represents a true to life profile of Chandney – a pet object for a satirist it seems. The pathetic scenario of Chandney inspired even Sukumar Ray to chose the spot to make the road accident happen to one of his comic characters, namely, the over-smart uncle of Ramesh, as we may read in his immortal book, আবোলতাবোল (Aboltabol):

রমেশের মেজমামা সেও ছিল সেয়না,
যত বলি ভালো কথা কানে কিছু নেয় না ;
শেষকালে একদিন চান্নির বাজারে
পড়ে গেল গাড়ি চাপা রাস্তার মাঝারে ।
[সুকুমার রায় ।“সাবধান”,আবোলতাবোল । ১৯২৩]

 

CHANDNEY BAZAAR, AN AGENT OF CHANGE
Behind the bland homely face of Chandney Bazaar, we may still discover signs of its lost charms that helped Calcutta society to keep pace with the industrial productivity 1832 onward. During the industrial era, the ‘new products’, that is, the newly designed products manufactured by the industrial giants as well as petty workshops, were being increasingly likened by all. There have been also some ‘new products’ designed and developed by the European settlers to help them living comfortably and in style in oriental environment. Society accepts some and rejects others for more than one reason. Market availability, replacement and maintenance are evidently among the main factors for decision-making. Chandney Bazaar stood by the consumers with steady stocks of current and the latest utility products for them to buy replace or repair. Though there were few relatively decent shops, like Nandy’s that used to sell fancy household items, or Kar & Kar the tailoring and garment seller, Chandney has been largely a receptacle of machine-tools, machine parts, and raw materials for the consumptions of small manufacturers, tradesmen, and mechanics. This group of working hands plausibly provided Chandney Bazaar with a unique opportunity to motivate utilization of new products to homemakers more effectively, and to reach families at their homes who hardly ever visit the stinky marketplace – not meant for gentlefolk. That might have been a good reason to postulate that Rev Evan Cotton never had occasion to step inside Chandney Bazaar in person to verify his ideas before attempting to compare it unfairly with Hogg’s Market.
It is unfortunate; Chandney Bazaar does not have enough archival records available for us to distinguish between gossips and facts, so that the worth of its contributions to Calcutta society, in accommodating new products, ideas, new habits, could have been determined with some degree of certainty. Had Chandney Bazaar existed when Captain Thomas Williamson lived in Calcutta (1778-1798), he would have depicted Chandney analytically and objectively in the manner he elaborated on China Bazaar in his prudent Vade Mecum published in 1810. [Williamson] In absence of dependable sources we are being overwhelmed with skewed information disseminated through prints and e-media. Google may take you at once to a number of blogs publicizing Chandney Bazaar of Calcutta in chorus as an exclusive market of electronic goods; while in reality not a single stall of electronics to be found inside, but outside Chandney Bazaar hundreds wait to greet you on the street. I fear the ever increasing nonsense in today’s manufactured information will pose greater challenge to future researchers to investigate issues with scanty documentary evidence, depending largely on literary references and oral traditions, as is the case of Chandney Bazaar of Calcutta.

 

REFERENCE

Asiatic journal and monthly register for British India and its dependencies. (Jan. 1830-Apr. 1845). London : Printed for Black, Parbury, & Allen. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=chi.095922792&view=1up&seq=4

Basu, Shrimoyee. 2015. “Bazaars In The Changing Urban Space of Early Colonial Calcutta.” University of Calcutta. http://hdl.handle.net/10603/163761.

Cotton, Evan. 1907. Calcutta, Old and New: A Historical and Descriptive Handbook to the City. Calcutta: Newman. https://archive.org/details/calcuttaoldandn00cottgoog.

Ghose, Benoy. 1960. “The Colonial Beginnings of Calcutta Urbanisation without Industrialisation.” The Economic Weekly, no. August 13: 1255–60. http://www.epw.in/system/files/pdf/1960_12/33/the_colonial_beginnings_of_calcuttaurbanisation_without_industrialisation.pdf?0=ip_login_no_cache%3Dfc8386086015fc6e2268f71b76bece16.

Minney, Rubeigh James. 1922. Round about Calcutta. Calcutta: OUP. https://archive.org/details/roundaboutcalcut00minnrich.

Ray, Sukumar. n.d. “Sukumar Sahitya Somogro; vo.1.” Calcutta: Ananda. https://archive.org/details/SukumarSahityaSomogro3/page/n17.

Roberts, Emma. 1845. East India Voyager, or the Outward Bound. London: J. Madden. https://books.google.co.in/books/about/The_East_India_Voyager.html?id=rOFAAQAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y.

Setton-Karr, W. S. 1864. Selections from Calcutta Gazettes. Calcutta: Military Orphan Press. https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.195937/2015.195937.Selections-From-Calcutta-Gazettes-1864#page/n5/mode/2up.

Tassin, Jean-Baptiste. (1832). Map of the City and Environs of Calcutta;  Constructed chiefly from Major Schalch’s Map and from Captain Prinsep’s Surveys of the Suburbs. Retrieved from https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b530996458

Williamson, Thomas. 1810. East India Vade Mecum; or, Complete Guide to Gentlemen Intended for the Civil, Military,or Naval Service of the Hon. East India Company; Vol. 2 (2). London: Black, Parry. https://www.scribd.com/document/305022589/The-East-India-Vade-Mecum-Volume-2-of-2-by-Thomas-Williamson.

Wood, Mark. (1792). Plan of Calcutta. Calcutta: William Baillie. Retrieved from https://www.bdeboi.com/2016/02/blog-post_27.html

Yule, Henry ; and Coke Burnell. 1886. Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Anglo-Indian Colloquial Words and Phrases and f Kindred Terms. London: Murray. https://archive.org/details/hobsonjobsonagl02croogoog/page/n8.

 

 

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Ramdulal Dey: The Millionaire Bengal Merchant, 1752-1825

east-indiaman-calcutta-harbor-1974_frans-balthazar-solvyns

Frans Balthazar Solvyns captured this American East Indiaman at anchor in Calcutta harbour in 1794. His painting offers a tantalizing glimpse of America’s forgotten India trade in its prime.  Courtesy: Peabody Essex Museum.

 

রামদুলাল দে, ১৭৫২-১৮২৫

Backdrop

Ramdulal Dey, the millionaire Bengal merchant of late 18th and early 19th centuries, was the foremost name in the chronicle of Indo-American maritime trade. Trading in Calcutta was one of the very important mercantile experiences of America during her early phase of modern globalization. They reached Calcutta in 1775, on the ship Hydra, jointly owned by the Americans and the English. It was a critical time for the newly independent Americans. Being cut off from the West Indies and deprived of their traditional market, they were on the look for a new opportunity for trading. In the context of Napoleonic wars, the opportunity came their way to replace Europe’s East India trade. The wars kept all British ships busy in territorial defense. The European colonial powers were in constant conflict around Indian and Atlantic oceans. America, being a neutral nation, held a strategic position to exploit seaborne trading across troubled seas.
American’s trade with British India began to grow extensively from 1790. In an average America sent 30 to 50 ships annually to Calcutta only. As it was estimated in 1806, within some years America had imported goods from Calcutta worth of at least three millions of dollars. ‘Calcutta was the most active Indian port for their commerce. Americans in India never established a commercial house as they did in China. Nor did they use the European agency houses. Instead they made use of the services of the banians, or the Indian brokers. With East India Company background, the banians at Calcutta were already reputed professionals. A small number of banians took advantages of the situation and became specialists in the American trade. Ramdulal Dey, Asutosh Dey and Promathanath Dey, Rajindra Datta, Kalidas Datta, Rajkrishna and Radhakrishana Mitra, Ramchandra Banarjee, Kalisankar and Durgaprasad Ghose were some of the early banians who carried on big business in Calcutta with the Americans. Among them Ramdulal Dey was the first and most famous banian connected with the American trade.

Early Life

Ramdulal Dey was also known as ‘Ramdulal Sarkar’, ‘Sarkar’ being a honorific title used in  his family. Ramdulal also wore a compound surname ‘DeSarkar’ combining his hereditary title and the surname, comparable with the  DeSarkars – common in some parts of eastern India. In intimate circles Ramdulal was better known by his sobriquet ‘Dulal’, ‘Doolal’ or ‘Dolloll’. In later years when he married his grandson off to a girl of higher caste, Ramdulal changed his family surname ‘Dey’ or its variant ‘De” into Brahmin sounding honorific ‘Deb’. (See Huttum /Kaliprasanna Singha)

ramdoolaldesarkar

Ramdulal De

Ramdulal Dey, alias Dulal Sarkar was the eldest son of Balaram Sarkar, a poor villager of Rekjani, a hamlet near Dumdum. His only occupation was to impart Bengali writing skill to the children of the peasants backed by his rudimentary knowledge of Bengali and the gifted skill in calligraphic art he had. During the Mahratta invasion of 1751-52, Balaram with his expectant wife fled from his ancestral home for good. On their way, Ramdulal was born and began his journey of life with empty hands. Balaram, before he died, could give him nothing, not even rudiments of his own vernacular to his child. Ramdulal had already lost his mother. It was his maternal grandfather, Ramsundar Biswas who took the orphan boy to Calcutta where he lived ‘upon the fruits of beggary’, and his wife used to husk rice for the market until she could secure a stable job of a cook in the house of a wealthy merchant at Hatkhola. She brought in her grandson, Dulal, to stay with her. The master of the house, Madanmohan Dutta, Dewan of Export Warehouses, ‘the rival in wealth of Rajah Navokrishna’, did not mind adding Ramdulal to the long list of his dependents. Here Ramdulal managed to receive his first lessons from the pundit engaged for the sons of his master. He had only to buy erasable palm leaves for mastering alphabets, and plantain leaves for copying texts. His will and energy made him soon an excellent penman and a fast accountant. He also picked up by then some broken English.
Madanmohan must have found in Ramdulal his qualities before offering him the job of Bill Sarkar on a salary of Rs 5/- a month. ‘Even out from this contemptible amount he contrived by rigid parsimony to save as much as a hundred rupees’, which he invested in a timber depot at Bagbazar with the purpose of helping his grandpa. Being much impressed with these admirable traits in the character of his young protégé, Madanmohan promoted Ramdulal to  Ship Sarkar  on pay of 10 rupees a month, ‘with lots of buxies, alternated of course by blows from ship captains, mates and crew.’ In all weathers, he was to go out into the mouth of the river at Diamond Harbour to superintendent the loading and unloading and discharge of cargo. After Khejuri   Diamond Harbour was the place of anchorage for foreign vessels. In one of his trips he chanced to see a foundering vessel with full cargo close to the mouth of the Hooghly. Out of habit Ramdulal assess the nature of the wreck, cost of recovery and its worth.
After a short while, Ramdulal was sent to attend an auction at Tulloh and Company for certain items to buy. Sadly, all those items were sold out before Ramdulal stepped in. Right that moment, the auctioneer was lustily crying up a wreck – an item out of their next lot. The wreck was no other than the one Ramdulal had recently witnessed. He was tempted to bid with his master’s money. His bid, perhaps the only bid, was accepted. Ramdulal bought the wreck paying fourteen thousand rupees out of his master’s money. Before he left the place, an English gentleman rushed to him insisting on reselling the ship to him. After a long-drawn haggling the Englishman stumped out handsomely and got the sale transferred in his favour.

diamondharbour_cargoships

Diamond Harbour Cargo Ships      Courtesy: Alamy

Back to his master, Ramdulal narrated the whole sequence before he humbly handed over to him the entire resale amount of nearly a lakh of rupees. His master, one of the progenitors of the Nimtala Duttas, had a princely soul. He blessed the boy – so unlike the world, so Roman in his honesty, and said, “Ramdoolal, the money is yours … you sowed the seed and you shall reap the harvest.” It was a treasure to a sarkar of 10 rupees a month. The windfall gift made up the working capital for his business venture that made him exceedingly rich and one of the richest in Calcutta during the lifetime of Madan Dutta. Ramdulal, however, never missed the occasion of receiving from his master his ten-rupee stipend and his blessings on pay days.

Banian of American Merchants

india-calcutta-launching-of-merchant-ship-circa-1798-by-frans-balthazar

Launching of Merchant Ship at Old Fort ghat Calcutta. c.1798. Artist Francis Balthazar. Courtesy: PEM

In no time Ramdulal made a fortune by careful investment and good luck. During growth of consignment trade and agency houses, he was attached to Fairly Fergusson & Company as their banian agent. At the same time he worked independently for other traders, equipped with his outstanding negotiation skills, market intelligence, and his all-round support service, including, establishing local market connections, organizing dadny merchants, market promotion, and financial assistance as well. He was on great demand. His cooperation was also sought by all British agency houses. Ramdulal partnered with the American traders rather than the European companies or English private merchants. Apart maritime trade, Ramdulal had active interest in stocks and shares, and real estates. The genius of Ramdulal, according to his biographer, could transform dross into gold. However, he owed his earthly prosperity mostly to the American merchants whom he served as their local agent, and also invested his own capital with them. American merchants used his credit in their coasting trade in the Bay of Bengal region and shared profit with Ramdulal.

 

From 1790 American trade with British India grew fast. Mostly the merchant houses of Boston, Salem, Beverly, Philadelphia, Providence, Marblehead, Yankee and New York sent their ships regularly to buy Bengal goods. Every house had its own banians stationed in Calcutta.

Salem_shipping_waterfront -colonial_color

Scene along the Salem waterfront c.1770-80 Courtesy: PEM

Annually 30 to 50 ships sailed to Calcutta, carrying cargo of dollars, iron, lead, brandy, Madeira and other wines, fish, spermaceti candles, mackerel, beef, beer, ice, variety of Europeans articles, tar, large and small spars. On their return the ships took varied types of Bengal goods, including tea, sugar, indigo, linseed, saltpeter, gunny bags, and most importantly, textiles. Many advertisements included lists of Indian textiles, such as bafta, gurrah, mamoody, and bandanna as well as names of the towns, like Alliabad, Dacca, Gaurypore, etc. where the cloths were made. ‘Every housewife in Salem knew the difference between gurrahs and mamoodies’. Of all the textiles exported to America, white cotton goods were by far the most common, although printed and dyed cottons, silk goods, especially handkerchiefs, mixed silk, cotton goods, and woollen shawls were also important. [See Bean] As recorded, the total American trade for the ten-year period beginning from 1795/6 exceeded by about one-fourth that carried on under the flags of all overseas partners including European nations. [See: Islam, ‘Yankee Maritime’]

The Americans carried on the bulk of their trade through the Indian brokers. It was not simply because of economic reasons they did it, but for the strategic advantage of having the highly competent and experienced Calcutta banians by their side.

RajenDutt_andOthrs_Claymodel

Calcutta Banians (clay models) Courtesy: Peabody Museum

The early Americans had treated the Indians with informality, humour and respect. Ramdulal Dey was the most prominent among them, and became a household name among the contemporary American business houses. He exhibited the greatest activity and fascination in alluring the trade of the America to the horbours of Bengal. The bulk of American business passed through Ramdulal’s hands. He came to be quoted as an authority in American commercial circles. So great was the confidence which his constituents in the new hemisphere reposed on his ability and his integrity, that for the first time in the history of Indian commerce, the merchants of America dispensed with European Agents in Bengal altogether. [See: Grish]

The extent of Ramdual Dey’s American connection may be guessed from the array of merchants of whom he was the sole agent in Bengal. The list found from the books of the period immediately following his death.

BOSTON
G.R. Minot, G. Warren, J.Young, J.S. Amory, T. Wigglesworth, J.I. Coleridge,
H. Irving, J.J. Bowditch, B.Rich and Son, E. Rhodes, F.W. Everitt, W. Godard,
Mackie and coleridge, H.Lee, O. Godwin, Theuring and Perkins.
NEW YORK
Messrs. Lennox & sons, G.S. Higginson, Messrs. C & D. Skinner, Messrs.
Singleton & Mezick, S. Austin Junior, W.C. Appleton, E.B. Crocker, E.
Davies, J.J. Dixwell, W.A. Brown, A. Baker junior, G. Brown. T.C. Bacon, M.
Curtis, Baring Brothers

PHILADELPHIA
Messrs. Grant & Stone.

SALEM
Pickering Dodge, W. London

NEWBERRY
The Hon’ble E.S. Rant, J.H. Telcombe.

MARVELHEAD.
J. Hooper

One of the American merchants fondly dedicated a vessel to ‘Ram Dolloll’ and named after him. The vessel sailed carrying Ramdulal’s consignment to Calcutta thrice during his lifetime. Among the ships he owned, Kamala, and Vimala were named after his two daughters, and the ship ‘David Clerk’ was named after one his American business partners and a personal friend.

eastindiamarinehall

Salem Harbor. Originally served as a sign over the door of the first East India Marine Hall. Oil. 1803. Courtesy: PEM

American trade brought about ‘a new dimension to the cultural and commercial milieu of the city’. The American way of conducting the business helped in fostering some sort of cultural intercourse between Bengal and America. The Peabody Museum, Salem and the Essex institute in Massachusetts still hold nine portraits of banians in their collections are the potent survivors of such relationships. The portraits were commissioned by the banians for presentation to the Americans and business associates. The practice of commissioning and exchanging portraits is a tantalizing indication of cordial relationships as between equals. ‘In 1801 twenty-two American merchants in gratitude presented a life-sized oil on canvas, the first portrait of George Washington by William Winstanley . . . to their banian Ramdoolal Dey under whose guidance they had all prospered in the Bengal trade.’ [See: Bean]

Rags to Riches

The illustrious shipping magnet may serve as a striking example of ‘vertical mobility’ from poverty to wealth. Like two contemporaries, Akrur Dutta, and Krishnakanta Nandy (1720-95), Ramdulal rose to eminence from humble and obscure origins. Ramdulal Dey, the millionaire of the early 19th century, left estates worth of Rs 33,01,424 of which the Calcutta and suburban properties accounted for Rs 6,17,750, yielding an annual rent of Rs 25,314 (1825-26). By contrast the rural properties, all close to Calcutta, were worth only Rs 58,5000. He also left behind sundry promissory notes of the Hon’ble Company, shares in various insurance companies, sundry bonds mainly from Europeans, sundry bills including China supercargoes bill, notes from Rustomji Turner & Company, Davidson & Company, Palmer & Company, etc; ship David Clerk, shares in Sauger Island Society; and balances due from different companies. When one of the two sons of Ramdulal Dey died in 1854 his estates in Calcutta were worth Rs Rs 3,62,862 and the value of his zamindari properties was more than Rs 2,00,000. The proportion of zamindari properties to urban real estate demonstrated a substantial increase in one generation.

Ramdulal had a noble heart and a humanitarian mindset. His charity was proverbial. He liberally donated for the cause of education and social welfare unquestioningly. He was a benefactor to the greatest educational institution of early colonial Calcutta, the Hindu College. Ramdulal was ready to extend help to suffering humanity anywhere; He had sent donations to the flood and famine victims in Bakhargunge, Madras, and as far as in Ireland. Ramdulal established ‘Atithisala’ an asylum for the destitute in Belgachia. At Beneras, he erected 13 Shiva temples. For sanctification of the temples alone Ramdulal spent around Rs 2,22,000. Besides, public charity, Ramdulal in private helped the poor and needy in many ways. He kept aside Rs 70 a day for the relief of distressed persons. He employed three physicians for visiting the poor patients to administer medicines and provide medical comforts at his expense.

End of Journey

Ramdulal was a pious man. In spite of being fabulously wealthy he lived a simple life. The only regret he had, that his ambition for ‘Gostopati’ or the community leader of the Kayastha samaj remained unfulfilled. Ramdulal and his adversary, Raja Nabakrishna, were engaged in constant wrangling, backed up by their respective bands of supporters, বাবুর দল (Babur Dawl) and রাজার দল (Rajaar Dawl), where bards, jesters, and common citizens took part. The power struggle between the leaders also encouraged local talents to compose street music, street plays, cartoons etc. contributing to urban folk art and literature of lasting entertainment value and historical significance.
Ramdulal breathed his last on April 1, 1825. His two sons, Asutosh, and Pramathanath, famously known as ‘Chhatu Babu‘, and ‘Latu Babu‘, respectively, performed the ‘Sradh’ ceremony of their father with unprecedented grandeur spending nearly five lakhs of Rupees. Asutosh alias Chhatu Babu, himself a musician, was one of the leading connoisseurs and patrons of classical music. His nach ghar was famed for the performance of the celebrated musicians and dancers of the country. The family maintains the cultural tradition till now. Because of their social graces, Asutosh and Pramathanath, noted for their largesse, were called as the ‘Babus of Bengal’. The epithet highlights their refined taste, affluence and extravagance. The two brothers kept up the social and cultural status to a large extent, but not the level of prosperity Ramdulal had passed on to them. The vast wealth of Ramdulal Dey was rapidly dwindled down due to many a reason. With the failure of Union Bank in 1848, the condition of Banians declined in all respect, and Deys were no exception. Their unfortunate commercial speculations and land investments were among the other reasons, besides the extravagance of his successors who frenziedly pursued their fads and hobbies as well as their noble craze for the performing arts. The house of Ramdulal Dey and his sons, delinked with its eventful past, remains a glorious centre of patronage of classical music and stage art in Bengal.

 

SELECT REFERENCE LIST
Bean, Susan S,’Calcutta Banians for the American Trade: Portraits of Early
Nineteenth-Century Bengali Merchants in the Collections of the
Peabody Museum, Salem and Essex Institute’, Bombay 1990.
– ‘The American Market for Indian Textiles, 1785-1820: In the
Twilight of Traditional Cloth Manufacture’, Peabody Museum of
Salem, 1990.
Chakrabarti,Ranjan, ‘The Brown ships in the Indian Ocean: The American
Merchants and the Bengali Banians 1790-1880’, in Business history of
India, Kalpaz, Delhi, 2006.
Chakrabarti, Shubhra, ‘Collaboration and Resistance: Bengal Merchants and the
English East India Company, 1757-1833,’ Studies in History, 1994, vol. 10, No. 1.
Chaudhuri,Sushil, ‘European Companies and Pre-modern South Asian
Commercial System- A study of Bengal in the Eighteenth
Century’, Calcutta Historical Journal, XI: 1-2 (1986-87).
Ghose, Benoy, ‘Some Old Family Founders in 18th Century Calcutta’, Bengal
Past and Present, Vol. 79, No. 147, 1960
+Ghosh, Grish. C., Ramdulal Dey: The Bengali Millionaire, Calcutta, 1868.
Islam, Sirajul, ‘Americans in Calcutta Bazaars in the Early Nineteenth Century:
Images and Interpretations’, Journal of the Asiatic Society of
Bangladesh, Golden Jubilee Volume (1956-2005), 2005.
*Rahman, Murshida Bintey, Banians in the Bengal economy, 18th and 18th century. Dacca
University. 2013
Roy, Tirthankar. What is modern and Indian about the business history [ Book review]
LSEPS, 2015
Verny, Michael A, ‘An Eye for Prices, an Eye for Souls: Americans in the Indian Subcontinent, 1784-1838.’ Journal of the Early Republic 33: 3 (2013)
* Used extensively in this write up.
+ Courtesy : Dr Alok Ray for providing access and help