Millennium Post

The Company's Calcutta!

Being the first capital of British India, the colonialists tried to modify Calcutta to their liking – leaving remnants for centuries that tell a tale of stunning architecture and a horrific past

Over the course of 200 years, a single corporation based in Kolkata managed to take military and economic control of two-thirds of India; bring the Indian economy down from 23 per cent of global GDP to a meagre 3 per cent; and even managed to defeat the Mughals, the Marathas, the Sikhs, the Mutineers and Tipu Sultan. The Company, through acts of omission and commission, was the cause of two devastating famines in Bengal, which resulted in the deaths of lakhs of Bengalis, many of whom had to resort to selling their children and even cannibalism.

Here's a look at the many buildings and monuments of the East India Company (EIC) that still stand today, a reminder of a dark past and a warning for the future:

The first home – Belvedere

Today known as home to the National Library, the origins of how the building became the property and private residence of the first Governor-General, Warren Hastings, is apocryphal. Legend says Hastings somehow acquired it from Mir Jafar as a gift for the latter being reinstated after being dethroned in 1760. The first authentic mention of it being Hastings' home was in the 'Proceedings of the Bengal Council', June 20, 1763, which has a request from Hastings for a bridge to be built over the 'Collighaut Nulla' to ease access to his home, Belvedere.

The main church – St. John's Church

Given to the Bengal Council in 1783 by Maharaja Nabo Kishen Bahadur, construction began the following year. Of note here is the chair of Warren Hastings, kept securely in a glass cabinet.

The first man – Job Charnock

Standing majestically at the back of the St. John's complex is the tomb of Job Charnock. His wife was a Hindu who started out as his maid alongside her husband. When the husband died, Charnock attended the cremation and stopped the wife from committing Sati and rather valiantly married her then. She predeceased Charnock, was buried here and he would visit every year on the anniversary of her death, slit the throat of a Cockbird and spill it's fresh blood all over her grave in what can only be presumed to be some sort of Pagan ritual. Charnock himself would be buried here later. The tomb predates the church, indicating the presence of a substantial cemetery well before St. John's was built.

The Naval Officer – Admiral Charles Watson

Having played a critical role in the battles of Chandannagore, Calcutta and others, providing brilliant naval support for Robert Clive, Watson earned himself a respectable tomb, also at the back of St. John's Church.

The Black Hole of Calcutta Monument

Perhaps one of the most controversial chapters in the history of Calcutta, William Dalrymple in The Anarchy provides a more reasonable assessment of the numbers of dead, after the 'Battle of Lal Dighi'. "The most painstaking recent survey of the evidence concludes 64 people entered the 'Black Hole' and 21 survived". This is opposite the main entrance of St. John's Church.

Warren Hastings' Townhouse

Almost entirely obscured by food stalls in front and illegal, multi-storied construction above, this building on Kiran Shankar Roy Road was Hastings' Calcutta home, as Belvedere would have been too far to travel to and from Dalhousie daily. Even the plaque is filthy and barely legible.

The 'Honest' Man – the grave of Henry Vansittart

The once Governor of Bengal, whose home was where St. Thomas' Church on Middleton Row now stands, is said to be buried in South Park Street Cemetery, as per the inscription on the plaque. This is factually incorrect; Vansittart and two other EIC officials were sailing from the UK to India and after a stop at Cape Town, they departed on December 27, 1769, and were never seen again, lost at sea.

The Official Residence – Government House

Home to the Governor of West Bengal, the Raj Bhavan was once the seat of power for the men who controlled everything from Aden to Hong Kong. It was built at an astronomical cost, which eventually led to the dismissal of its mastermind, Richard Wellesley.

The Hindu – Major General Charles Stuart

One of the most colourful of the EIC officers, Stuart was said to have taken a very serious liking to Hinduism, to the extent that he would be seen doing 'Surya Puja' and having a ritual bath in the Hooghly every morning. He spoke down about western women's clothing but praised the Indian sari, saying that it is "elegant, simple, sensible and sensual". His tomb, although in the Christian South Park Street cemetery, is a monument to Hinduism replete with a (recently vandalised) lotus.

The Butchered Official –Sir William Hay Macnaghten

Years after his death in Kabul, Mrs. Macnaghten was finally given the body of her husband to bury in South Park Street Cemetery, except that all she got, despite the towering tomb, was a thumb. Macnaghten was a political officer, working in Kabul to save what remained of the Company army from total chaos when he was killed by Akbar Khan, son of the legendary Dost Mohammed. His severely mutilated body was hung in Kabul's bazaar from a meat hook, before being buried.

Next Story
Share it