A stone’s throw from the expansive greens of the Royal Calcutta Turf Club in the Hastings area of Kolkata, is the neighbourhood of Watgunge, a contrast in every possible way from its upmarket neighbour that demands some of the highest real estate prices in the city.
Watgunge, bordered by the Hooghly river on one side, the Tolly Canal and the neighbourhood of Khidderpore on the other, is one of the city’s oldest areas. The evolution of Watgunge is similar to that of Khidderpore. Because of the proximity of both neighbourhoods to the waters of the Hooghly and the dockyards, the British decided to build on its shores close to 250 years ago. But they couldn’t be more different.
While Khidderpore is distinct for having somehow withstood rapid modern construction seen elsewhere in the city, primarily due to the vast swathes of land under the control of the Kolkata Port Trust, Watgunge has not been similarly fortunate. Today, the neighbourhood is a densely-packed area, with chaotic bylanes and crumbling mansions, best navigated on foot, but it was not always like that.
The neighbourhood of Watgunge is named after Colonel Henry Watson, a British East India Company employee and military engineer who was instrumental in setting up the first dockyards of Bengal in the Khidderpore-Watgunge area. The book, ‘Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers’, Volume I, edited by Sir Alec Skempton, provides insight into the work of Watson. His professional skills brought him to the attention of Robert Clive, who arranged to have Watson dispatched to India in 1763. Upon his arrival in India in 1764, he was appointed a Captain in the service of the East India Company, where he gradually rose in ranks to become Colonel and Chief Engineer of Bengal.
In 1765, the then Chief Engineer, referred to only as Captain Martin in historical texts, suggested developing a dock at Calcutta. The concept of a dock in the capital of the British Raj in India was taken up for further consideration by Captain Martin’s successor, Lieutenant-Colonel Archibald Campbell. By the end of 1768, the Court of Directors of the East India Company gave their approval.
Watson was instrumental in assisting Campbell in drawing plans for the docks in the city which were submitted to the Company in March 1769. In 1771, Watson secured rights of the planning of the docks from Campbell but there is no information concerning how or why this transpired. The book indicates that Watson returned to England in 1772, presumably to secure financial and political support, returning to Bengal in November 1776, after having obtained the required support for his plans.
Watson’s plans, according to the book, were two-fold. He wanted to open the docks at Khidderpore, as well as open navigation from the Hooghly to the ghats in Bally, on the opposite bank of the river, in what is Howrah. During this trip to England, he also received the appointment of the Chief Engineer of Bengal. Watson had risen so high up in the Company, that he was also involved in work pertaining to the development of Fort William.
The Indian subcontinent was a destination for men and women in England and continental Europe who were seeking fortunes, fame and adventure. Many peerages that continue to exist, particularly in Britain and Ireland, directly and indirectly benefited and prospered and were sometimes saved from disastrous ruin, as a result of the wealth their holders were able to acquire for themselves in the Indian subcontinent. The baronetcy of Carbery in the Peerage of Ireland, that is still in existence, is one such example.
Colonel Watson’s work on the docks of Calcutta led to him acquiring a handsome sum of £100,000 from the Company, which upon his death in 1784, went entirely to his daughter and sole heir Susan Watson. The inheritance made Miss Watson an attractive a prospect for fortune-seeking lords of Britain and Ireland, who were willing to give title-seeking women what they wanted in exchange for the considerable fortunes that their fathers had acquired in the colonies. Fortunately, for the titleless Miss Watson and the fortuneless Baron Carbery of Ireland, her father’s money came handy.
In the book ‘The Pursuit of the Heiress: Aristocratic Marriage in Ireland 1740-1840’, author A. P. W. Malcomson writes that by the 1750s, the finances of the Baron Carbery were in obvious shambles, as hedonist peers were wont to be. So it was in the best interests of both parties, when George Evans, the 4th Baron Carbery, found Miss Susan Watson.
In 1792, they married. But Miss Watson was shrewder than the baron could have imagined. Capitalising on the baron’s eagerness to marry her for her inheritance that would inject desperately needed funds into his estate, Malcolmson writes that Miss Watson forced the baron to sign a settlement where after his death, she would keep her own inherited fortune, be entitled to a jointure of £2,000 and have ownership of his English estates at Laxton. Although the matter was not a straightforward process, as it rarely is in any case involving inheritance in English and Irish peerages, it will not be an exaggeration to say that the spoils acquired by Watson, saved Castle Freke, the seat of the Baronetcy of Carbery, a peerage that has continued to this day.
H.E.A Cotton, a historian and writer known for his documentation of the city of Calcutta during the 19th century in his book, ‘Calcutta: Old and New’, writes of Watson, the “chief Engineer of the (Bengal) Presidency”: “a contentious man, strongly opposed to Hastings” but entitled nevertheless to special remembrance at the hands of Calcutta as the pioneer of ship-building at Calcutta, the architect of Fort William in its final stages, and the Red Road and Old Court House Street and the surrounding Esplanade.”
Today, close to the dockyards of Watgunge is a brothel area, a remnant of the neighbourhood’s colonial past, that has maintained a consistent presence since the docks were first established more than two centuries ago, for seafarers docking in the city.
During the Second World War, the city became a center for Allied forces in the India-Burma-China triangle, threatened by the prospect of an onslaught by the Japanese, who had made inroads into Burma. The dockyards of Khidderpore and Watgunge played a significant role in several ways during the war and also became a center of crime, hosting servicemen from Allied nations.
These men, looking for distractions from the strain of war, turned to petty fights and sought brothels around the city. According to archives of the Calcutta Police during the Second World War, brothels existed in several parts of Calcutta, where some had foreign sex works, specifically for servicemen belonging to the Allied forces. These records state that the bordellos in Watgunge housed Japanese sex workers.
Japan’s attacks on Calcutta between 1942-1943, during the Second World War took a heavy toll on the docks at Khidderpore and Watgunge, where several ships and warehouses in the two adjacent neighbourhoods were destroyed. After India gained independence, the city slowly rebuilt itself, with the two neighbourhoods redeveloping and growing in different ways.
If one manages to walk down the neighbourhood of Watgunge today, narrowly escaping vehicles hurtling down its narrow lanes at high speeds and hawkers selling wares on the footpaths, the crumbling mansions, warehouses and dockyards stand witness to a neighbourhood that has rapidly changed.
Some 10,000 kms away, in Castle Freke, Ireland, the seat of the Barons Carbery, has been recently restored by the family. One wonders whether the descendants of George Evans, know of the neighbourhood of Watgunge in Kolkata, the spoils from dockyards of which, saved their ancestor from certain financial ruin, and allowed him to avoid the shame that would have inevitably followed.
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