Rise of the British Imperialists
17th and 18th Century – Rise of the British Imperialists
In 1693, Job Charnock died leaving behind the legacy as the founding father of Calcutta.
Alexander Hamilton, who lived in India between 1688 – 1723, wrote that Charnock ‘could not have chosen a more unhealthful Place on all the River’ (Nair). The tropical climate of the country was a major disadvantage for the British settlers. Hamilton is reported to have recorded around 500 deaths in five months from tropical fevers and malaria to cholera and small pox. But the Europeans nevertheless tried to adapt themselves to the natural hot, humid and mosquito infested climate of the region only for one primary reason – the flowing wealth of the region.
Since, Calcutta was strategically located near the sea; it gave tremendous trade opportunities to the British to gain wealth. Additionally, the British had monopoly over the region by choosing to block traders from other parts of the world whenever they wanted. The place was also fortified by natural surroundings with river in the west, salt lake with mangroves in the east and jungles in the south. And most importantly, Bengal was the primary producer of three main things that was of great value to the British: rice, muslin and saltpeter (for gunpowder). The city was also rightly located for export and import of manufactured goods. The city became the hub of a number of indigenous industries such as salt, betel-nut, rice, straw, bamboos, fish, gunnies, ginger, sugar, tobacco and opium, which made the English traders filthy rich.
Other than the East India Company (EIC) the networking of trade of other individual English trader was mostly with the local banias and seths. These classes of native traders served the Europeans as brokers, money lenders, interpreters, etc. It was a mutually beneficial service that made both the benefactors ostensibly wealthy. As aptly quoted by Rabindranath Tagore – ‘Boniker mandondo pohale sarbari dekhs dilo rajdondo rupey’ which meant ‘the trader’s scales became the ruler’s scepter.’
Within a decade of their arrival, the East India Company built their first fort in the area where Calcutta GPO stands now. The fort was completed in 1717. After acquiring land rights from the Mughal Emperor of Delhi, Farooq-Shia, the EIC established the first civil court in Calcutta by the name of Mayor’s Court as per the order of King George I. The city corporation was established and Hallwell became the first mayor of the city. Thereafter, in 1774, the Supreme Court was established. The following year on 5th August, 1775, the historical trial of Maharaja Nanda Kumar was conducted in this very court where he was sentenced to death by hanging because he accused Warren Hastings of corruption. Thus, started the beginning of atrocities by the British Imperialists.
In the meantime, great changes were taking place too in the Indian sub-continent. With the decline of Mughal dynasty, after the death of Mughal Emperor Aurongazeb in 1707, the local rulers across the sub-continent were becoming gradually powerful. The most noted amongst them was the Nawab of Bengal, Awadh and Orissa, Siraj-Ud-Daula.
In 1756, Siraj-ud-Daula grew concerned about British presence in his territory and marched with an army of 30,000 soldiers to the Old Fort near GPO, where he fought the battle of Lal Dighi with the British regiment under the commandership of Lord Clive. Immeasurably outnumbered, many British fled including Clive, leaving behind 200 fellow mates in the fort. The Nawab captured all men and imprisoned them overnight in a blocked room on one of the hottest nights of the year. By morning, only 23 survived the holocaust which came to be known as the Black Hole tragedy in British History. Later the gruesome account of this tragic incident was penned by one of the survivors, John Holwell who later became the Mayor of Calcutta.
Ironically, exactly a year later, on 23rd June 1757, the British returned with vengeance under the command of Lord Clive and conspired against Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula to win the Battle of Plassey near Murshidabad. The betrayal of Nawab by his own general Mir Zafar doomed the fate of Bengal and India forever in the hands of the British. After the Battle of Plassey, the British gained an enormous amount of wealth from the Nawab’s treasury. Over 7 million rupees was said to have been seized by Lord Clive who gained a fortune of over £250,000. In the same year, the British printed the first currency bill in Calcutta mint.
Following the battle of Plassey, many aspiring young English men came to India for better prospects of earning. These men mostly took the job of a writer at the Writers’ Building for a meager pay. Warren Hastings began his career as a writer here for a short while before returning to India as the first Governor General of the country in 1772. Calcutta became the capital of British India under the Governorship of Warren Hastings. The advent of Hastings beckoned great change in Bengal. An ardent scholar and well versed in Bengali, Urdu and Persian, Hastings brought transformations in the cultural milieu of the city. During his tenure, Calcutta developed as a metropolis. In 1780, the first printing press was established by James Hicky that published the first newspaper, ‘The Bengal Gazzette’. In 1784, the first official newspaper ‘The Calcutta Gazzette’ was published. Subsequently in 1784, The Asiatic society was founded by Sir William Jones and Hastings was the first elected President of the privileged museum followed by Charles Wilkins who was the first Englishman to translate the Gita in his personal Bengali printing press and Nathaniel Halhed composed a Bengali grammar.
Simultaneously, many other important developments were taking place around the city. In 1817, The Hindu College (presently Presidency College) in College Street was established with efforts from Rammohan Roy, David Hare and Radhakanta Dev. The college started initially with only 20 students. In 1828, Shaheed Minar (Octorloney Monument) was built. In 1829 Rammohan Roy was successful in making ‘satidaho’ (a Hindu ritual of self-immolation practiced by women on the pyre of their husband) proscribed with help from the British Governor General William Bentinck. In 1839, Sangbad Prabhakar, the first Bengali daily was published. In 1854, the first Railway line in India was inaugurated (from Calcutta to Hooghly). In 1857, The University of Calcutta was established and in 1873 the first Tram car (horse drawn) in the city was launched. Thus, culturally the ethnicity of the two races was gradually blending.