Charnock - Linking Kolkata and a Rock

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    For centuries, an Englishman Job Charnock, who lived in the 17th century CE was revered as the founder of Kolkata city. However, on 16th May 2003, the Calcutta High Court, ruled against giving one man credit for founding a whole city. Charnock’s name was removed from all official documents and purged from memory. So who was this man, what did he do and why is a rock more than 2300 km away in the southernmost tip of India named after him? The story of Job Charnock deserves a retelling.

    Born in London to a family from Lancashire in 1631, Job Charnock made his way to India as an official in the East India Company, when he was 24 in February 1656. His first job was at a factory in Patna, Bihar. He spent the next twenty years of his life at this factory which supplied saltpeter (potassium nitrate) to the British East India Company. Saltpeter was the main ingredient for making gunpowder and also used as a preservative during that time.

    Charnock rose rapidly within the East India Company and in 1666 was promoted to the rank of Senior Merchant. Initially, he signed a contract for five years, which was a norm back then, for anyone wanting to go back to England after a stint in India. But the Company was eager to retain him. Charnock was persuaded by William Blake, the Chief of the Bengal factories, to stay as the head of the Patna factory. The fact that there was nothing worthwhile back in England after his parents’ death also played a role in his decision to stay back.

    Charnock enjoyed India and was perhaps the first European who went ‘native’ i.e. adopt Indian clothes, get rid of his elaborate wigs, etc. This won over the locals in Patna and he cemented his ties to India further when he gallantly married a 15-year-old Hindu Rajput princess who was a widow and about to commit Sati!

    Scottish historian WW Hunter, in his book titled The Thackerays in India and Some Calcutta Graves' says that:

    ‘He remained (in Patna) until 1680, married a Hindu woman and adopted local customs around him. The lady is said to have been a girl of an upper-caste widow, whom he rescued at the risk of his own life while she was being led out to her husband's funeral pyre renamed her Maria.’

    There are other records as well suggesting that Charnock’s wife commanded respect in English society. By 1676 Job Charnock had become the third highest-ranking official in Bengal. In July 1679, he was promoted to the position of Chief of Kasim Bazar (Cossimbazar) in Murshidabad - the center of the silk trade in the region. In this role, Charnock played a crucial role in key trade negotiations on behalf of the British East India Company and his path often crossed that of the then Governor of Bengal Mir Jumla.

    By 1686, Charnock was appointed the official Agent of the Company in Bengal. At the same time, however, things came to a head when there was a dispute between the East India Company and the new Mughal Governor Shaista Khan over the issue of payment of customs duties to trade. Finding himself overwhelmed, under pressure, and in pursuit, by Shaista Khan’s troops, Job Charnock was now forced to gather the Company goods and servants and sail 27 miles down the Hooghly, to Sutanuti, one of the three villages, which would later merge to form Calcutta (Kolkata) city.

    After negotiating, a treaty was signed between the British East India Company and Aurangzeb, the Mughal Emperor, Job Charnock was given the permission to erect docks and carry out trade from Sutanuti.

    On Sunday, 24th August 1690, Charnock set up a new headquarters for the East India Company on the land that spread across three villages - those of Sutanuti, Kalikata and Gobindapur. This new center was named Calcutta, and this was a colonial city developed by the British East India Company and then by the British Empire. No wonder it remained the capital and headquarters of the British Empire in the subcontinent all the way till 1911.

    On 10th January 1693, Charnock passed way in Calcutta at the age of 63. A mausoleum with a gravestone made of special rock was erected for Charnock by his son-in-law and successor Sir Charles Eyre in 1695. It can still be seen in the graveyard of St. John’s Church, the second oldest Protestant church in Calcutta.

    Around 200 years after his death, Charnock’s tombstone captured the attention of Sir Thomas Holland, a noted British geologist. In 1893, as the Director of the Geological Survey of India, Holland was studying a rock series found in South India, till then called the Pallavaram gneiss (due to their prevalence in the Pallavaram suburb of Chennai). On a routine visit to Charnock’s tomb, Holland realized that the tombstone was made from the same stone that he was studying. He carried out studies on it and felt that the stone had indeed brought to Calcutta from South India.

    In his article published in Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1893, he wrote:

    As this is a new type of rock, and modifications of it occur by the introduction of accessory minerals, I would suggest for it the name Charnockite, in honour of the founder of Calcutta, who was unconscious means of bringing, perhaps, the first specimen of the interesting rock to our capital’

    This is how Pallavaram gneiss rocks came to be known as Charnockite. In fact, a study carried out in 1950 did confirm that Job Charnock’s tombstone was indeed quarried from Pallavaram in Chennai. This Charnockite rock is found in several places in south India, the most famous being the Vivekananda rock at Kanyakumari.

    Today, visitors can see the Charnockite rock formations at Pallavaram, Chennai. Also, the tomb of Job Charnock, with its famous tombstone, can be seen in the prescient of St John Church, BDD Bagh in Kolkata.

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    |What ties Job Charnock to Kolkata and why is a stone named after him in the southern tip of India?

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