Three villages and a city

How the natives and the British collaborated in the making of Calcutta

Written by Kaushik Dasgupta | Published:November 28, 2016 2:04 pm
a city in the making, calcutta, story of calcutta, books news, book reviews, indian express The book cover.

Name: A City in the Making: Aspects of Calcutta’s Early Growth
Author: Ranabir Ray Choudhury
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Pages: 564
Price: Rs 995

Except for the last 36 years of colonial rule, Calcutta, or Kolkata, was the second city of the empire. It was a seat of power, a centre of cultural efflorescence and learning and a hub of commerce. The city, arguably, embodied the triumphs and contradictions of colonial modernity like no other Indian city. A City in the Making is about a period when Calcutta had no pretensions to all this. It was an assemblage of three small villages inching their way towards becoming a town. It is about clearing jungles, creating settlements, planning drainage systems and markets. The book is also about the first footprints of colonial modernity.

On arriving at Sutanuti, one of the three villages which collectively came to be called Calcutta, Job Charnock — credited as the founder of the city — wrote, “We arrived at noon, but found the place in a deplorable condition, nothing being left for or present accommodation and the rains falling day and night. We are forced to betake ourselves to boats, which considering the season of the year is very unhealthy.” Charnock wrote that the Dhaka nawab’s representative, who had come to discuss matters with the English, probably burnt down the place after the conclusion of the discussions. Such was the nondescript nature of the place, which, less than a century later, would become the launchpad for colonial rule in India.

Ranabir Ray Choudhury has ferreted out this episode, and many more, in his early history of the physical expansion of Calcutta. The book is rich in archival details that deal with the initial unplanned growth of the city and the creation of some well-known landmarks in the city. The last part of the book deals with the first attempts at town planning in Calcutta.

When Charnock — and the East India Company — made their initial forays, their mother country was about a century away from becoming a colonial power. The officials of the Company were understandably cautious. “Let your ears be open to complaints and let no voice of oppression be heard in your streets. Take care neither the broker, nor those under him, nor your own servants use the patron’s authority to hurt and injure the people. Go into the different quarters of the town and do and see justice done without charge or delay to all inhabitants. This is the best way to enlarge our towns and increase our revenues,” the East India Company’s court of directors wrote to its officials. The Company was still a trading outfit and the surplus generated from trading operations was not enough to fund town development.

But the Company did lay emphasis on distinguishing itself from erstwhile regimes and being evenhanded in the administration of justice. A 1719 missive from the Company’s court of directors to the council noted, “It is of great satisfaction to us to read that exact justice is administered to all under you and that it shall be continued. We know of no better proof of it than the increase of useful inhabitants who to be sure will resort where they may best be secured from oppression and be treated with humanity. The more such inhabitants there are more will our revenues increase besides other benefits to the place.”

The imperative to populate the city meant a certain degree of interdependence between the English and the local people. Taming the river Hooghly, for example, required the cooperation of the local people. The river was notorious for eroding banks and the official records note that “some part of the charges [for taming the river] had to be borne by the inhabitants, the richer sort, at least”.

However, most of the development work was carried out in the quarters inhabited by the Europeans. There was some “mixing” in a physical sense. But by the mid-1740s, the British were resenting it. One official document noted, “Several Black people having intermixed themselves among the English houses occasion nuisances and disturbances to several of the English inhabitants.” The authorities ordered “an inquiry and lay before us an account of such houses by them in order to quit and remove to proper places in the town.”

A development which left a deep imprint on the city involved the construction of the new English fort (the new Fort William) in the later years of the 18th century. The demarcation of the limits of the ground (maidan) cleared to form the esplanade of the fort threw up more issues pertaining to the segregation of Calcutta’s European and Indian population. This was also a period when building activity touched a dizzy pace.

Ray Choudhury relies largely on official documents, diaries and memoirs of Europeans. But he is aware of the limitation of his sources. He is unequivocal that his endeavour is to plot the official measures that went into extending the physical limits of Calcutta. He draws much from CR Wilson’s archival work on the old Fort William. This limitation notwithstanding, the book throws light upon important aspects about a neglected period in Calcutta’s history. There is much more on this period waiting for the historian’s intervention.