Millennium Post

A City Above Pretence

Joanne Taylor's The Churches of India takes the reader on a fascinating journey through India to discover the history and architecture of various churches across the country. Excerpts:

By the late 18th century Kolkata had surpassed Chennai and become the site of the East India Company's headquarters. As the centre of British India the city began to resemble a grand European capital and every new building made it clear that the British intended to stay. Kolkata became known as the 'Jewel of the East' and the 'City of Palaces.'

As the capital of West Bengal it is the most important city on India's east coast. It displays all the characteristics of Victorian England in its architecture, however crumbling the old colonial era buildings may be. It has created its own unique identity. Kolkata's story is as fascinating as the city itself.

In 1685 Job Charnock, an agent of the British East India Company had set up a factory in Bengal but after a falling out with the Mughal ruler in 1690 he was forced to move the trading post down the Hooghly river to settle at a village called Sutanuti or 'thread market: This was one of three villages (the other two were Gobindapur and Kolikata) which would later grow into the city of Kolkata.

A fort was completed in 1696 and named after King William III of England. Wherever there was a British fort in India there would be a church and so the first English church in Kolkata was St. Anne's built in 1704 and situated near the main gateway of Fort William.

H.E. Busteed's Echoes of Old Calcutta published in 1908 describes a visit to St. Anne's on a typical Sunday in the early 18th century;

'I have been at church in my new palanquin (the mode of genteel conveyance) where all ladies are approached by sanction of ancient custom by all gentlemen indiscriminately, known or unknown, with offers of their hands to conduct them to their seat. Accordingly those gentlemen who wish to charge their condition (which between ourselves are chiefly old fellows) on hearing of a ship's arrival make a point of repairing to this holy dome and eager tend their services to the fair strangers.'

Regrettably St. Anne's no longer exists. In 1756 the twenty-three-year-old ruler of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah heard that Fort William's fortifications were being increased without his permission, he was enraged. Aware of Britain's global colonial ambitions the Nawab resented their presence in Bengal. Therefore when the British ignored his request to stop militarising their 'trading post', Siraj-ud­ Daulah sent his forces from Murshidabad to attack Kolkata and capture the fort. In the process St. Anne's was completely destroyed.

It was during the siege that British captives were imprisoned in a small cell the British soldiers had named 'the Black Hole'. There was much confusion and the prisoners were forgotten and left in the Black Hole overnight. Many died from lack of ventilation and water. Despite varying accounts of what happened it was a great tragedy for the victims and resulted in the city of Kolkata becoming synonymous with the 'Black Hole' incident ever since.

Retaliation came in the guise of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Clive, 'Clive of India' to the British, who was sent from Chennai to recapture the fort and the city which the Nawab had renamed Alinagar. In June 1757 in a small village between Kolkata and Murshidabad 2,800 soldiers of the East India Company under Robert Clive attacked 50,000 Bengalis and allies under Siraj-ud­ Daulah at the Battle of Plassey. Though more a skirmish than a battle the Nawab's army had no chance of winning as Siraj-ud-Daulah's army chief Mir Jafar had secretly aligned himself with Clive, bribing the Nawab's men to side with the British during the battle. The Nawab was defeated. Later Jawaharlal Nehru wrote that Clive had won the battle 'by promoting treason and forgery.'

The Battle of Plassey was a turning point for Kolkata as it confirmed the East India Company's presence in Bengal and marked the beginning of the Company's rule in India. It also foreshadowed the birth of the British Raj even though direct control by the British Government would not take place untill858. It bears some thought about the outcome if Siraj-ud-Daulah's enormous army had remained loyal.

The traitor Mir Jafar had his former ruler tortured and killed in Murshidabad where his corpse was paraded through the streets on an elephant. Mir Jafar then became the Nawab of Bengal, Orissa and Bihar, a puppet ruler of the British and Robert Clive was given a peerage, Baron Clive of Plassey.

With the British triumph and their trading success, Kolkata and its people began to rise. Hindu moneylenders, merchants, tradesmen, boatmen and even courtesans realised they could become rich by serving the increasing number of British, mainly Scotsmen, who arrived to facilitate the running of the Company. It was a time of great confidence. Europeans made huge fortunes and Indian merchants aspired to be like them. By 1772 Kolkata became the capital of British India and a new Fort William was completed. Later the Neo-Gothic St. Peters church was built inside the fort. Today it is used as a library for the Eastern Command of the Indian Army. Yet by the late 19th century Kolkata began to brew with anti­ British defiance. The British became fearful of another uprising similar to the Mutiny of

1857 when Hindus and Muslims fought side by side against the British. In response the Viceroy of India Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal in 1905 to 'ease administration: The eastern areas of Bengal were separated from the rest of the state creating two provinces; simply put, West Bengal and East Bengal. West Bengal was predominantly Hindu while the eastern part was mainly Muslim. The result was more unrest; in fact almost the entire state of West Bengal rose in protest and joined or supported the Swadeshi Movement that boycotted foreign goods and encouraged domestic production with a view towards independence. Kolkata was now the centre of the national movement of independence. Irrespective the British continued their 'divide and rule' policy, provoking a separate consciousness between Hindus and Muslims.

In 1911 Delhi staged a spectacular durbar to celebrate the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary, the Emperor and Empress of India. An empty plain was covered in 40 square kilometres of canvas tents which housed 300,000 dignitaries including the princes of different states whose tents were ornate, even sumptuous.

(Excerpted with permission from The Churches of India; written by Joanne Taylor; published by Niyogi Books. The excerpt here is a part of the chapter titled 'Traders Become Rulers'.)

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