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)

 

 

Fort-City Calcutta, A Faded Legacy

Calcutta on Hooghly c1750s by unknown artist. From: Journal of a Resident by Maria Graham. 1812

 

দুর্গ-নগর কলকাতা : ১৭০০-১৭৫৬

 

FOREWORD

This article aims to distinguish some of the myths and realities concerning early township of Calcutta grown around the English factory – ‘the Fort William’, as designated afterwards.

Calcutta chronology tells a tale of two cities. The Fort-city of Calcutta was lost in 1756 Battle of Lalbagh. How the New Calcutta resurrects on the ashes of war under the governance of Warren Hastings and his successors with generous support of public contributions has been elaborated in archival records, books and journals, paintings and photographs. In contrast, our knowledge of the fort-city remained next to nothing. Calcutta during the first half of the eighteenth century belongs to the ‘dark age of British India’. Little was apparent about happenings of that time. There was no newspaper to print local news, no Government Gazette for public notifications, no historical maps to indicate growth. There were few fascinating travel accounts to speak of Calcutta and its people, besides some faithfully depicted original paintings representing Calcutta in pre-camera days.

Between the fag end of the 18th century and early 19th century plentiful authentic resources were made available to scholars. Henry Yule researched the Diary of Robert Bruce, enlightening us of the early English settlers until 1707. Henry Barry Hyde’s compilations of the India Office records of the 17th and 18th centuries proved to be an indispensable resource of learning Calcutta’s past. We learnt from James Long the socio-political conditions of Calcutta 1748 onwards. Later, the works of Lord Curzon, and Professor Charles Robert Wilson, bridged up the remaining gap of four decades (1707 to 1748) – the focal point of our current discussion.

BACKDROP

Emperor Shah Alam hands a ‘Sanad’ granting Trading Right to Robert Clive. Artist: Benjamin West

The English merchants had a tough time in their first forty years for securing commercial opportunities in India. After 1640s, English industrialism compromised that plain and simple target with militarism. They wasted next two decades, from 1661 to 1685, in war, either with native powers, or with interloping adversaries, besides intra-group rivalry. The phase ended up in a state of flux. The English traders wondered from one trade station to other following wavering Company directives. A nishan was received from Prince Azim-ush-shan for a settlement of the Company’s rights at Sutanuti. Charnock left Hughli for Sutanuti on the 23rd December , and on the basis of nishan, rented the three adjoining towns, on 29 Dec. 1686. The name, ‘Calcutta’ was first mentioned on June 22 1688 in a letter of Charles Eyre and Roger Braddyll from Dacca to Agent Job Charnock. The Court of Directors had sanctioned the construction of a factory, as far back as February 1689, that took few years to implement. Interestingly, over a year before Charnock paid his second visit in November 1687, the English settlers had built a factory in Sutanuti, without waiting for formal approval. We learnt from Hyde –“Heath on the 8th of November embarked Charnock and all his Council and subordinates on board his vessels, and so abandoned the Sutanuti factory buildings [my emphasis] to be pillaged by the natives.” [See Hyde] Therefore it seems historically wrong to accept the old Fort William as the first English factory of Sutanuti / Calcutta.

THE BEGINNING

REMAINS OF OLD FORT WILLIAM. Source: Old Fort William / CR Wilson

The year 1690 started with a new beginning for settlers. Job Charnock made foundation of the Company’s future in India. The English established trade in Bengal with the consent of the native government. Finally, the English left Hughli – their first foothold in Lower Bengal since 1651, and reached Sutanuti on August 25, 1690 in a stormy day. ‘They live in a wild unsettled condition at Chuttanuttee [sic]. As reported on May 1891, there had been neither fortified houses nor Goedowns [sic], but ‘tents, huts and boats’ for the settlers. It was ‘partly through the good-will of the inhabitants’, the English succeeded in settling at Sutanuti against so many odds. The next nine years had been relatively a dull period. Charnock died. Sir John Goldsborough, the Commissary-General and Chief Governor of the Company’s settlements, arrived at Calcutta on August 12, 1693. He was quick to find that Charnock and his Council had never marked out any site for building the factory, which the Court of Directors had sanctioned as far back as February 1689. Instead he was shocked that people building houses wherever they pleased, even on the most suitable locations for a factory. He ordered for enclosing a piece of land with a mud wall where a factory to be set up on receiving the royal parwana for fortification. The long delayed permission to build a fort was virtually conceded by the Nabob, owing to the insurrection of Rajah Subah Sing in 1696. [ See Ray] The plot might not be an empty ‘piece of land’ but having a structure within. More likely it was the same house which Sir John acquired from certain Mr. Walshes for the Company, ‘intended to bring in the Accomptant [sic] and Secretarie [sic] and the books and papers in their charge within the brick house’. We are yet to know who Mr. Walshes was, and how and when he owned this brick house. So far we gather, the only conspicuous masonry building Charnock acquired was the Cutcherry of Jagirdar. C R Wilson in a footnote conveyed his doubt of its verity. He writes, “It is said that the nucleus of the Calcutta factory was the zamindari kachalirl [sic], or office of the Mazumdars, near the great tank, which they gave up to the English.” This story however rests on tradition. There was nothing to support it in Sir John Goldsborough’s letter, or elsewhere in records, so far we know. He added another note saying: “As for the story that the agent of the Mazumdars, a Portuguese named Antony, was whipped out of the enclosure by Job Charnock, this, I should think, was contradicted by the fact that the enclosure was made by Sir John Goldsborough after Job Charnock’s death. If anyone whipped Portuguese Antony out of the place, it was Sir John Goldsborough.” [ See Wilson 1906] As time went by, the number of masonry buildings increased. [See Ray] No wonder, Walshes’ might be one of those constructed later.

Curzon, conversely, made the story simpler for us to follow: “Goldsborough purchased a house for the Company, which was a poor structure of brick and mud, and ordered it to be surrounded by a wall, i.e. to be converted into a fort, as soon as permission could be obtained. Charles Eyre, whom he had appointed agent in place of the incompetent Ellis, moved into this abode, which may therefore I suppose be regarded as the 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 later Fort.” [See Curzon] Nabob’s parwana for building fortified factory finally arrived in 1696. Goldsborough died mean time, and his dream house remained ignored while constructing the Fort. Yet, as it appears from Curzon’s description, that was the edifice, which should be called ‘nucleus of the Calcutta factory’ and not the zamindari kachalirl [sic]’ [Footnote.Wilson OldFort] which was spotted at the present location of Lalbazar Police Station, outside the boundary of the Old Court House.

THE OLD FORT LOCALE

View of Fort Calcutta. Details not known. Courtesy: Gettyimaages

In 1696, Nabob’s parwana in hand, Charles Eyre and John Beard, Junior, proceeded to build the fortified factory with great circumspection as the Board wished. Gradually the walls and bastions were raised. The position of the erection was the space between Fairlie Place and Koila Ghat Street in modem Calcutta. The ground was subsequently occupied by the Custom House, the Calcutta Collectorate, the Opium Godowns, and the General Post Office. On its Eastern side was Lal Dighi, then known as the Park or Tank Square. The name of the Park was originally ‘The Green before the Fort’, and afforded the residents of the fort a place for recreation and amusement. [See Carey] On the West the River Hugli, which laved the walls of the Fort, was at least 250 yards further inland than its present channel. [ See puronokolkat.com/old fortwilliam for more]

When the construction completed in 1706, it was called the Factory or the Governor’s House. To Captain Alexander Hamilton, who visited Calcutta three years later, the Governor’s House in the Fort was ‘the best and most regular piece of architecture’. [See Hamilton] We also know from Hamilton that the Governor had ‘a handsome house in the Fort’, and the Company kept up ‘a pretty good garden’ for furnishing the Governor herbage and fruits at table, and some fish ponds to serve his kitchen with good carp, callops and mullet’. Perhaps the tank was one of the fish ponds, and the garden may have formed the Park or Tank Square.

With the construction of the fort at its site, and the reclamation of the tank, the Portuguese and Armenian inhabitants, together with the few Dutch and Danes clustered round the factory, and its adjacent native market place, Burrabazar [sic]. Apart from this small area round the fort and park, none of these deserved the name of town. Yet it was commonly referred to the component mauzas of the settlement and its environs. [See Ray] Surrounding this small town lay 1,470 bighas of land in Dhee Calcutta, or Dihi Calcutta.

On its north was Sutanuti, already containing 134 bighas of inhabited land, with 1,558 bighas under jungle and cultivation. ’To its south stood Govindapur high on the river bank, with only 57 bighas, out of a total area of 1,178 bighas, covered by human habitations, most of the rest being dense jungle. The total amount of inhabited land was about 840 bighas only in the whole of the 5,076 bighas covered by the Sanad of 1698 granted by Azim-ul-Shan.

WHITE-TOWN BLACK-TOWN

Old Court House Street. Thomas Daniell

European Buildings at Calcutta. Etching by François Balthazar Solvyns

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A request was sent on March 11 1694-5 for readying half a dozen Chambers of brick and mud be built on the North side of the Compound for the factors and writers who were so far having their lodging in thatched rooms within Company’s Factory compound. The Town Calcutta grew around the fort with residential and institutional quarters, roads, parks and tanks, without any master plan. As late as June 1768 Jemima Kindersley writes that the town “is as awkward a place as can be conceived; and so irregular, that it looks as if all the houses had been thrown up in the air, and fallen down again by accident as they now stand” [See her Travel Letters]. What she said was hilarious but hardly an overstatement. Calcutta grew freely at will of the individual inhabitants – the blacks and the whites, happily ignoring the law against illegal construction. Calcutta, being an unplanned city cannot be said to be grown as a Dual City separating the Anglo-Europeans and the natives by design. Neither of them had a permanent physical jurisdiction excluding each other. “The critical aspect of colonial Calcutta”, as it is said in a study on Calcutta architecture, “did not lie in such divisions, but in the blurring of boundaries between the two.”[Swati Chattopadhyay. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Vol. 59, No. 2. Jun 2000]

Market Place for Nationalities and Races. Frans Balthazar Solvyns c1790s

]

Gentoo Pagoda and House. Etching with aquatint by Thomas Daniell c1787

 

The localities in Calcutta might crowded together following natural law of selections – guided by their sense of security, sociability, convenience, and economic considerations. We may find the same reasons worked behind breaking down of the so called white communities into smaller cohesive groups. The Whites of different shades, had their own localities, each shifted from one place to other in the process of urbanization. The English left their Perrin’s Garden neighborhood to build home around Fort, and then gradually moved southward toward newly-built Esplanade, Alipore, and Garden Reach, and northward to Dum-Dum and Barrackpore. Armenians and Portuguese were old inhabitants of fringe area of Lalbagh and also had their respective neighbourhoods in the North and Eastern Calcutta. These floating communities came together to develop township around the Fort at the time of Anglo French War. It is odd to think of this culturally and economically incompatible population forms an inclusive township for the ‘Whites’.

FENCED-CITY

The dual-city model, however, could have been little more meaningfully defined in terms of Christian non-Christian dichotomy, particularly in context of the fenced city that Calcutta was ‘at least for a short time’ where the Christians — English, Armenian, Portuguese, and others — lived within the safety of palisades during the Marhatta scare. The native population was settled in the Great Bazar or Black Town, and at Sutanuti and Govindapur, beyond the Christian boundaries.

Newly Arrived Young Officer Tom Raw. By Charles D’Oyly. 1828

“Fancy lane is the entrance to the bailey that ran round the whole town within the palisades. A short distance up this passage the enceinte turned again westwards parallel to the creek. It crossed the present Wellesley place, and in doing so skirted Chaplain Bellamy’s garden, thence it ran up Larkin’s lane and its continuation, where some Queen among huckstresses so waged her trade that the place took on her name and fame. Thence Barrotto’s lane, once called Cross street, opens on the left; this is the bailey beginning its long northward course and keeping, as it does so, at pretty even distance all along from the pilgrim road to Kalighat. The town was a settlement reserved exclusively for the three Christian nations, that is, for English, Portuguese and Armenians, with their immediate dependents, and was so laid out as to keep well clear of the busy heathen highway.” [Hyde 1899]

PLAN OF CALCUTTA WITH THE PALISADES. Source: Old Fort William / CR Wilson

 

The natives were left outside palisade ring guarded against Marhatta threat by the Ditch dug out to stop imminent raid. Marhattas, however, never came back. The fencing of palisade around the fort-centric settlement remained in position for about a decade between 1742 when Chaplain Robert Wynch was in office and the Battle of Lalbagh in 1756. This short-lived history of the fenced-township had left a bemused notion of the character of the young Calcutta.

CALCUTTA UNBOUND

As we see, the early township was populated solely by the White Christians. The natives had no place inside. They had no reason either to live in the new town away from their families and friends. The natives lacking skills in masonry and carpentry had no much prospect of regular employment in construction of the fort or the township, other than menial jobs. They however used to come over to the town to do all sorts of domestic helps attending members of white families, and returned home at sundown. Natives were also engaged in respectable professionsl like Munshis, Banians and Traders. Omichand and Setts, who had customary business relations with the Company men, happily lived in the so-called White Town. Omichand had his house along with those of Eyres, Coates, and Knox at the back of the present-day Writers’ Buildings. Rasbihari Sett and Ramkissen Sett had their houses on the west of the burying-ground, back of St John Church. [See Hyde 1901]

Before the Mahratta invasion Calcutta had become a town, ‘not merely in name, but also in appearance’. The fort was an imposing structure, and the church of St. Anne right in front of it was a notable and picturesque building. The Fort, the Church, all went to dust during siege of Calcutta in 1756. The town resurrected with collective effort through public subscriptions. Maharaja Nabo Krishna, a Hindu resident of Black Town, donated land and money for founding St John Church. His heathenness never stood in the way of gracious acceptance of his gift by the Christian community. The gift represents the whole of St. John’s compound east of the church together with the public footway beyond the compound valued at 30,000 rupee.

This illustrates that the divisions created by the palisades had been only a physical conditions that might not have significant social impact. The fencing was installed essentially as a security measures for the politically advantaged Christian communities alone. They remained doubly secured by inner barricades and the moat surrounding the three towns populated by natives. When the Marhatta never returned to plunder Calcutta, the need of fencing the city disappeared for good.

Half-sisters. Painted by Johann Zoffany

Barring these handful of years, the three-century old Colonial Calcutta had never experienced cordoning of areas dividing the Whites and the Blacks. The separate neighbourhoods were evolved following natural social code. Law enforced by overzealous whites rarely worked in colonial Calcutta. The British Raj never entertained the missionary dreams of a Christian Calcutta. Christian enthusiasm faded out with rising new wave of education reform. Calcutta always retains a heterogeneous and secular character. Its environment helped developing a liberal mindset that could have never produced in walled-city surroundings. Walled-cities, keeping the outside world shut off, turn citizens into traditionalist, regimented and cautious – the qualities are conspicuously absent in native Calcuttan.

BLEND OF WHITE & BLACK

The Anglo-Indian lineage set off in 17th century in India and Britain as well. Those days the Company bureaucrats, petty officers, factors and clerks were encouraged to marry native women. It was felt by some writers that no shame was attached to their offspring who had their English, Armenian, Dutch, Portuguese patrilineal parentage. The White-Indians in Britain were, in contrast, matrilineal, born of Lascar seamen and white women. Marriage is a civil contract – a sacrament to those who believe it. In early colonial Calcutta the institution of marriage was respected by the whites and the natives consistent with their customs. [For more see: Margaret Deefholts] That does not imply nonexistence of racial tensions. It was very much there in strong or mild form depending on one’s frame of mind to appreciate alien culture. The white wives were generally more apprehensive than their male counterparts of the dark-skinned half-naked domestic attendants for their heathen faith and bizarre mannerism. Characteristically, the native helpers, unlike the Afro-American maids and servants, were less submissive and more demanding. There must be some genuine cases of wrongdoing by native servants, and even by respectable native citizens to excite racial feelings against them. But this may not be a good reason for banishing all the local natives on the other side of the fence. There were also instances of large scale forgery and misappropriations committed by the White officials. “The English in Bengal were equally notorious for their quarrels, the natural outcome of the prevailing eagerness to make money and the spirit of espionage fostered by their masters” [See Wilson 1895]. Immorality cannot be considered as a valid ground for dividing the city. And the city was not divided. Otherwise how could we explain making of a whole new race through interracial marriage in colonial Calcutta? Unquestionably there had been lots of willing Whites who accepted native maidens as wives notwithstanding the native ethos. The greatest example of white liberal happens to be no other than the first English settler, Job Charnock.

Job Charnock Mausoleum. St John’s Church, Calcutta. Courtesy: Manors of Charnock Richard

JOB CHARNOCK. We understand from Bruce, a large number of the servants of the factory and Charnock himself had contracted interracial matrimonial [Bruce 1810] Carey called Job Charnock ‘an old Anglo-Indian patriarch’. Charnock married an Indian wife, adopted many of the local manners and customs; adopted some of the local superstitions. ‘It was at Patna that Charnock learned to understand the Indian ways of thought and action’. [Wilson 1895] Their marriage was not however recorded in any Church Register. Most likely, Charnock married his Hindu wife Maria following Hindu rites, while all his three daughters, Mary, Catherine, and Elizabeth were married in Christian Churches. [Curzon] Charnock Mausoleum was erected at St. John’s Church graveyard in 1695,  three years after his death. The Mausoleum was installed by his son-in-law, Sir Charles Eyre, the President and Governor of Fort William in Bengal, who must have taken his best care to complete the edifice timely and justly. There must have been some reasons, good or bad, for the holdup, and also for the final shape of the things. Without going into detail, we may point out here that in the Mausoleum “Charnock and his wife are said to have been buried, but the inscription on the original tombstone only mentions Job”. [Yule 1887] This might suggest some unspoken reservation at work against interracial marriage; or more likely, it was a social taboo against marriage between unequal classes. It seems Charnock was robbed of his wife’s identity by his own fellows who never dared to interfere with Charnock‘s wishes so long he was alive. Lying in his grave Charnock paid an exorbitant cost for defying social canons.

WILLIAM PALMER joined the East India Company in 1766 and rose to the position of military secretary to Governor General Warren Hastings. Like Charnock, William Palmer was a romantic, but not a social nonconformist. It was probably in 1781, under Muslim law Palmer married Bibi Faiz Baksh, a princess of the Delhi royal house. Later she received the honorific title, Begum from Delhi Badsha. She bore Palmer six children. One of them was John Palmer the ‘prince of Calcutta merchants’.

Major William Palmer with his second wife, Bibi Faiz Bakhsh by Johann Zoffany, 1785

William Palmer happily lived with Bibi Faiz Baksh until his death in 1816. In his will, Palmer admitted that Bibi Sahiba has been his ‘affectionate friend and companion’ for more than thirty-five years. Their marriage was most honourably acknowledged in the native as well as European societies. The secret behind the generous acceptance of the Black and White marriage by both the communities was seemingly the equitable socio-economic status they held.

CLAUDE MARTIN served the British East India Company’s Bengal Army as Major General. He was before in French Army. Martin loved Tipu Sahib as a hero, loved India as his second motherland. He had a colourful personality, and an innovative mind. He was perhaps the first balloonist on Indian sky, and a self-styled surgeon. A map of the neighbourhood of Calcutta, dated 1760 or 1764, credited to Claude Martin. He accumulated huge fortune, and ensured that people were not cheated ‘who have passively succumbed to the yolk of corruption.’ The major portions of his assets were left for founding three institutions, in Lucknow Calcutta, and Lyon, his birthplace. Above all, he was a highly sensitive human being. It is not so easy, however, to assess the private life of this middle-aged childless Frenchman. It might be too subtle and intricate for us to interpret the kind of relationship he had thoughtfully built up with three girls nearly 30 year junior to him. Martin had acquired Boulone and two other native girls. He intended to give them protection and best possible education. The girls learnt to read and write in Persian, studied principle of religion, modesty and decency. When ‘at age of reason’ these girls were prepared to choose any one they pleased for either husband or companion. Not Boulone, but the two other girls preferred to chose native husbands. Boulone a Lakhnavi girl lived with Martin in Lucknow. But their story may be found significant and in context.

General Claude Martin. Details not known. Courtesy: La Martiniere College, Lucknow

Boulone Lise and her adopted son James Martin. Oil by Johann Zoffany

Martin loved Boulone as the most ‘virtuous wife’, yet she was not Martin’s married wife. Martin argued that if from the social point of view, ‘the essence of the marriage tie is its indissolubility during life then these women should amply justify their status as rightful wives’. But they could also merely play a role of virtuosity under social compulsion, instead of acting spontaneously and willfully. Martin also maintained that ‘the curse and misery of the unacknowledged half-cast was the European blood in their veins and the accompanying inexplicable longings’. Such cases were commonly dealt in line with conventional morality. Martin had two alternatives: either to drive the native girls into marriage with native boys whom they despised, or drive them into connections with Europeans whom Martin himself despised.
The only workable solution for Martin was to place the girls in his own house in a position obviously respectable in native eyes. To a native, mistress was only a wife of lower rank. Their consideration rested upon the inferior status a girl held prior to marriage. There is an element of truth in their argumentation which was present indiscernibly in both halves of Calcutta society – Blacks and Whites.

END NOTE

Calcutta has been largely a multi-ethnic city, then and now. The native Calcuttan inherited their liberal ethnic characters from the historicity of free living conditions and of their being in constant interactions with surroundings, which a divided Calcutta could never have delivered.

 

 

REFERENCE

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