The Beginnings of Calcutta with Ranabir Ray Choudhury

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    Kolkata, traces its origins to a clutch of humble villages - Sutanuti, Kalikata and Gobindapur. But in 1690, a new city would rise when a British East India company official named Job Charnock decided to establish a trading settlement here. In his books, 'The City in Making' and 'The Shaping of Modern Calcutta' Journalist and Author Ranabir Ray Choudhury has extensively studied and documented the history of the early days of Kolkata, a phase of Kolkata's history that is still not very well known.

    LHI Circle brings to you the story of the 'Beginnings of Calcutta' in our new multi-media format, in which you can immerse yourself in the story through a combination of text, photos and videos - and hear the author tell you the story of the city

    Victoria Memorial is one of the most iconic buildings in Kolkata. Built between 1906 and 1921, in memory of Queen Victoria, former Empress of India, the building is symbolic of the close relationship the city had with the British Empire. It was from here that the British once ruled the vast Indian subcontinent before the imperial capital shifted to New Delhi in 1911. Despite the move, Kolkata remained India’s commercial capital till the late 1950s, as the hub of jute, tea and engineering companies, as well as prominent banks.

    Over the decades, Kolkata has kept growing, incorporating towns and settlements, with the Kolkata Metropolitan Area now covering an area of 1,480 sq km. This encompasses four municipal corporations and 37 municipalities, making it one of the largest urban agglomerations in the world.

    And yet it was little more than an idyllic rural backwater when a British official named Job Charnock first landed here in 1690 CE, and decided to make it the centre of British trade in Bengal. Comprising the three villages of Sutanuti, Kalikata and Gobindapur along the Hooghly River, and surrounded by fields, forests and marshes, there was little to hint at the potential importance of this region.

    In fact, this area was so unremarkable that it was barely mentioned in the accounts of European visitors in the 17th century CE. Interestingly, the town of Hooghly, 47 km away, figures frequently in the diaries and travelogues of European travellers, as does the Portuguese town of Bandel.

    So how did the territory that encompasses these three villages become one of the greatest cities in India?

    Taking us through the origins and early days of Kolkata is journalist and author Ranabir Ray Choudhary, who has written two books on the subject: The City In Making and The Shaping of Modern Calcutta. Ray Choudhary tells us about the controversy regarding Job Charnock being considered as the 'founder' of Calcutta, what the area was like before he arrived here and why he thought it was important.

    By the time Charnock settled in the village of Sutanuti in 1690 CE, the village of Gobindapur, located where Fort William stands today, was already a busy place. People had begun to settle here thanks to the business acumen of some of the oldest mercantile families in the area – The Basaks and the Seths.

    Then, in the 14th or 15th century CE, the Saraswati River at Satgaon, then an important port in Bengal, began silting up. This prompted the inhabitants of Satgaon, especially the mercantile and trading classes, to relocate.

    Hoogly then was becoming an important mercantile town but among the great merchants, five wealthy families – one of Seth and four of Basaks – emigrated and colonised Kolkata. They arrived at Gobindapur, and after clearing the jungle, settled here.

    They dug tanks for water, built houses and other structures. These included the shrine of their tutelary deity, Govindjee, after whom they named the new settlement ‘Gobindapur’. These founding families also established a cloth market named Sutanuti Hat – a mart for the sale of textiles. It lent its name to the village that grew around it – ‘Sutanuti’.

    While the British East India Company established a trading outpost here after Charnock’s visit in 1690 CE, it was the revolt of Sobha Singh, a petty zamindar from Midnapur, against the Mughals, that gave the first impetus to the fortification of the place. Sobha Singh and his men began plundering towns and villages in Bengal.

    To protect themselves, European traders such as the English, the French and the Dutch assisted the Mughal administration, and in turn received permission to build fortifications. The Old Fort William was built in 1696 CE and stood on the spot occupied today by the General Post Office, Calcutta Collectorate, Reserve Bank of India building and the Fairlie Place railway offices in the western part of the BDD Bagh area.

    With the official grant of the zamindari of the three villages by the Mughals to the British in 1698 CE, a new settlement developed around Fort William. The British began to build their houses to the north and south of the Fort. Interestingly, the BDD Bagh tank, near the Writers’ Building, served as the main source of water for the settlement. While the settlement mostly contained small houses of Europeans and Indians, the grandest building was St Anne’s Church, built right outside the Fort walls. The church, with its tall spire, was consecrated in 1709 CE.

    In 1717 CE, Mughal Emperor Farrukhsiyar granted the zamindari of an additional 38 villages around Kolkata to the British East India Company. With this, the settlement began to expand rapidly. In 1741 CE, the Maratha army of Raghuji Bhosale of Nagpur invaded Bengal and caused widespread destruction. It was the local Indian merchants of Kolkata who pooled their money to build a protective ditch around the settlement. It would be known as the ‘Maratha Ditch’.

    By the 1750s CE, the Nawabs of Bengal began to grow wary of the rising British influence in the region and their trade practices. In 1756 CE, on the pretext that the British had raised additional fortifications around their settlement, Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah sent a large army to capture Kolkata. After a brief siege, Fort William and the settlement around it was captured by the Nawab’s army. The walls of Fort William and St Anne’s Church were destroyed and the settlement was renamed ‘Alinagar’.

    Following the Battle of Plassey on 23rd June 1757, the British East India Company became new masters of Bengal. Gradually, Kolkata became the political and economic centre of Bengal, replacing the old Nawabi capital of Murshidabad. Before 1756 CE, the town was no more than a haphazard collection of houses and roads.

    A large part of the English settlement, particularly around the Fort, had been destroyed during the fighting in 1756 CE. This presented the British an opportunity to reconstruct the town according to a systematic plan, keeping future expansion in mind. A new Fort William was built – it is still standing – and the grassland around it was cleared to create a ‘Maidan’ and the Esplanade.

    As the British Empire in India expanded, the town became home to grander and more imposing buildings. A 1787 CE painting by Thomas Daniell shows a line of imposing edifices beside a broad road. Among these grand buildings was the Belvedere, now the National Library of India, and Government House, the present-day Raj Bhavan.

    In 1803, Lord Richard Wellesley, the then Governor-General of India, wrote a Minute or Administrative Order on the need for town planning and set up various committees for this purpose. This was followed by the setting up of the Lottery Committee in 1817 for the planned growth of Kolkata. The Lottery Committee was thus called because the funds for development were raised through public lotteries!

    From 1817 till 1830, the Lottery Committee extensively developed the basic infrastructure of the city of Kolkata. New localities were laid out, a modern drainage system was installed, and a number of public amenities were established. After the Revolt of 1857, the British government took over the administration of India from the British East India Company. With this, Kolkata truly became an imperial city.

    The city’s most iconic building, the Victoria Memorial, was commissioned in 1906, in memory of Queen Victoria. Many grand buildings like the Grand Hotel, the Managing Agency buildings around Dalhousie Square, Howrah Station and the Howrah Bridge would contribute to the glory of the city.

    Surprisingly, today, the area of Sutanuti, where Job Charnock first landed more than three centuries ago, is still a thriving locality, the nucleus from which a great new city was born.

    If you enjoyed this article, you will love LHI Circle - your Digital Gateway to the Best of India's history and heritage. You can enjoy our virtual tours to the must-see sites across India, meet leading historians and best-selling authors, and enjoy tours of the top museums across the world. Join LHI Circle here

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