Calcutta: Past and Present/Chapter 1
PAST AND PRESENT
Founding of Calcutta by Charnock in 1690—The three villages and their situation—Charnock's grave and its opening in 1892—The 1715 embassy to Delhi—Surgeon Hamilton, his services, death, and epitaph—The building of the old fort—The church—The park—Social conditions.
A DAY in August in the height of the rainy season in Bengal. The muddy waters of the Hughly, beaten level by the ceaseless downpour of the rain descending in heavy unbroken rush, heaved sullenly in thick turbid swell, rising higher and ever higher as the strong downward current was met and checked by the force of the rising tide, rushing in from the distant sea. In the great circling whirlpools formed by the opposing forces, the bloated carcases of drowned animals, great branches of trees, or whole trees with a tangled mass of roots, swept round, lashed by the rain and whirling flood into semblance of some living monster, stretching octopus-like arms. Once and again would sweep by a human form, charred from the funeral pyre, borne on the rushing waters of the sacred stream to meet its final dissolution, devoured by the alligators, vultures, crows, and jackals who haunted the river waves and shores in watchful eagerness for their prey.
Moving carefully and slowly up stream with the rising tide, came a varied fleet of merchant vessels, and small "country boats," which had ridden together at the last safe anchorage, and now toilsomely accomplished another stage of their journey on the dangerous waterway. Sailing with the others came a little "country ship," commanded by an English seaman, Captain Brooke, and bearing a small company of Englishmen, servants of the Honourable Company of East India merchants. Their destination was the village of Chuttanutty, where they had traded at various intervals for several years past. Steering for "the great tree" which was the "sea mark," the worthy captain brought his vessel to a safe anchorage in the deep water below the high bank on which the village stood; and this is how the record of the arrival stands in the old books of the company:—
"1690. August 24th. This day, at Sankraal, ordered Captain Brooke to come up with his vessel to Chuttanutty, where we arrived about noon, but found the place in a deplorable condition, nothing being left for our present accommodation, and the rain falling day and night. We are forced to betake ourselves to boats, which, considering the season of the year, is very unhealthy, Mullick Burcoodar and the country people, at our leaving this place, burning and carrying away what they could."
In this way was Calcutta founded, and such was the manner of the coming of Job Charnock to his last port—the spot where his bones were to lie beneath a stately mausoleum through the centuries, while the settlement he founded amid every circumstance of discouragement and discomfort grew and prospered till it became the capital city of the British Empire in India, such an Empire as the wildest dreams of the Great Mogul never compassed.
Before proceeding further, we may well pause and try to conjure up the three villages, set amid marsh and forest, which at that time occupied the site on which Calcutta now stands. Chuttanutty, where Charnock landed, was a thriving village occupied by weavers, and, by reason of its position on the river-bank at a part where deep water afforded safe anchorage to the trading vessels passing up and down the great waterway, it commanded a good trade in cotton cloths and thread. The name Chuttanutty, or Sutanuti—derived from suta, thread, and nuti, a hank—has been fancifully translated Cottonopolis. The site of Chuttanutty is now occupied by the northern portion of the town: the river-bank at this point has changed less than has been the case lower down, so that Hatkola, as nearly as can be judged, covers the position of the village, and Dharmatola or Mohunton's Ghat that of Chuttanutty Ghat, the actual spot on which Charnock and his companions must have landed.
Lying somewhat back from the river, to the south of Chuttanutty, was Calcutta, occupying the highest ground in the neighbourhood now covered by the business quarter of the town, and extending down Bow Bazar. The southern boundary of this village was a creek or khal, which, coming from the marshy ground to the east, made its way to the river by a course which may, roughly, be said to be now marked by Hastings Street. Various derivations, learned and fanciful, have been suggested for the name "Calcutta," a large number based on a supposed connection with the Kalighat Temple. This derivation has been conclusively shown to be impossible, "philologically, as well as from a Hindu religious point of view," by a learned Hindu writer, but there seems no apparent reason why the name may not have originated from the position of the village on the bank of the Khal, Khal-Kutta, where the creek or stream had cut its way in some great flood, or had been cut by the villagers to drain their low-lying fields.
The third village, Govindpore, was like Chuttanutty, situated on the river-bank, but considerably lower down. The site is occupied by Fort William. All round this village, extending from the Calcutta Khal ("the Creek") to the Govindpore Nullah (Tolly's Nullah), covering the whole of the maidan of the present day, spread a jungle tract of heavy undergrowth and giant trees, the remains of a once dense forest of Soondrie trees, similar to, and possibly a portion of, the forests which give their name to the Soonderbunds or Soondrie forests of the Gangetic Delta. This jungle was intersected by numerous creeks and watercourses, where the muddy yellow waters of the Hughly swept in with the rising tide, or ebbed with the drainage of the surrounding rain-drenched country. A desolate tract, it was haunted by wild beasts, and by armed bands of robbers more to be dreaded than they. These made their headquarters in the village of Govindpore, dashing out in swift little boats to attack and plunder rich cargo-boats as they lay at anchor on the fog-bound river in the dark nights of the rainy and cold seasons, or, turning inland, to fall on and rob footsore and wayworn pilgrims as they toiled on the last stage of their pilgrimage to the shrine of Kali at Kalighat.
The pilgrim route, which here passed through the jungle, is clearly traceable, from the point at Chitpore, where it enters the boundary of modern Calcutta, along Chitpore Road, through Bentinck Street, and so by Chowringhee and Bhowanipore to Kalighat. In Bentinck Street, between Waterloo Street and British India Street, the road crossed "the Creek," and from there, till it reached Bhowanipore, it was called Chowringhee's Road, after Jungal Gir Chowringhee, a pious worshipper of Kali's great consort Shiva. Jungal Gir Chowringhee was the founder of a sect who were known by his name, and who worshipped at a small and very ancient temple of Shiva which stood on the bank of the Govindpore Nullah (Tolly's Nullah) a little above the Zeerut Bridge. This temple was afterwards deserted, and, falling into ruins, was long a decaying landmark in that part of the town, remaining till late into the nineteenth century. Chowringhee doubtless kept the pilgrim road through the jungle in repair as a pious duty, and the grateful pilgrims knew it by his name, which in later years became synonymous with rank and fashion in the English city.
After the English settled in Calcutta, and as year by year the villages grew and spread, the Govindpore jungle was steadily cleared away as brushwood was cut and trees felled for firewood to supply the needs of the growing population. Then came the sudden expansion of the town which followed Clive's victory at Plassey; and, the old fort having been found inadequate for the defence of the settlement, it was decided to build the new Fort William on the ground occupied by the Govindpore village, surrounded as it was by waste lands which formed a natural esplanade. In 1757 the village was removed, the inhabitants were given lands in the town and outskirts on which to build, and were paid compensation for their houses and huts destroyed. The remains of the jungle were cleared away, the land was drained, and the Calcutta maidan was formed, to grow in after years into a beautiful park, the pride and adornment of a beautiful city.
Such were the three villages and their surroundings when Charnock took up his residence in their midst with his half-dozen fellow-factors and guard of thirty soldiers. It may be well to recall that the Company's earlier factory had been established in Hughly, but, in 1686, owing to various causes, the English traders had come to an open rupture with the Mohammedan Governor, and had been driven away and their property confiscated. Great confusion followed, and for five years there was a constant succession of friendly overtures from one side or the other, continually thwarted by personal prejudice or violence, or by belated orders from England on the one hand and Dacca on the other, inducing fresh friction and renewing disputes which had been arranged in the interval. During the continuance of this comedy of errors, Charnock, who was the Company's principal agent in Bengal, had twice stayed at Chuttanutty while conducting negotiations with the Hughly authorities. On the second occasion, he had stayed for the best part of a year, and had erected some buildings: it is to these the entry in the diary already quoted alludes as having been "burned or carried away, nothing being left for our present accommodation."
In spite of adverse conditions, the English set themselves to work in earnest, and the minutes of the first meeting of the "Bengal Council" at Chuttanutty are almost pathetic in the assumption of authority and observance of forms, when the surrounding circumstances are remembered. The Right Worshipful Agent Charnock, Mr. Francis Ellis, and Mr. Jeremiah Peachie duly resolved, "in consideration that all the former buildings here are destroyed," to build "as cheap as possible," a warehouse, a dining-room, a cook-room, a room to sort cloth in, an apartment for the Company's servants, and a guard-house, also a house for Mr. Ellis. The agent's and Mr. Peachie's houses, which were part standing, to be repaired, as also the secretary's office: "these to be done with mud walls and thatched, till we can get ground whereon to build a factory." These mud-walled and thatched houses, which could have been no better than native huts, were the nucleus of the city of Calcutta.
The cessation of trade during the five years' dispute with the English had made it clear to the Mohammedan rulers that a persistence in their high-handed treatment of the traders inflicted loss on themselves. There had been a change of Governors too, and under these more favourable circumstances the factory was built, and prospered. Governor Charnock, however, worn by thirty-six years of hard work and considerable suffering in Bengal, broke down: his mind gave way, and, retaining as he did his position and authority in the settlement, he brought its affairs into a state of confusion and disorder which might have proved fatal but that he died on the 10th of January, 1692, and was buried in the burial-ground of the settlement, adjoining the Creek. This burial-ground now forms St. John's Churchyard, where the mausoleum erected over Charnock's remains by his son-in-law Eyre stands to this day in excellent preservation, the lettering of its inscription almost as sharp and clear as when first raised.Charnock's domestic history has long been the romance of the early days of Calcutta. The story runs that he saw one day a youthful Hindu widow, a girl of fifteen, about to commit sati, to be burnt on her husband's funeral pyre. Moved by her youth and beauty, Charnock with his bodyguard of soldiers dispersed the attendant priests and relatives, and carried away the girl, to be for twenty-five years his faithful companion through all his trials. The old records show that many of the English factors in Bengal were married to native women, many of whom became converts to the Roman Catholic faith. It is quite probable that Charnock was married to the Hindu lady, who was the mother of his daughters, three of
THE CHARNOCK MAUSOLEUM.
[Face p. 10.
In November, 1892, two hundred years after the death of Job Charnock, the mausoleum was repaired by the Public Works Department, when advantage was taken of the opportunity to ascertain whether it contained a vault. The Rev. H. B. Hyde, at that time chaplain of St. John's, in a note read at a meeting of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in February, 1893, after stating that no trace of a vault was found, describes the result of the investigation as follows:—
"On visiting the mausoleum' next morning, the 22nd of November, I found that the grave had been opened to a depth of fully six feet, at which depth the diggers had stopped, having met with a trace of human remains. The excavation was somewhat smaller than an ordinary grave, and lay east and west in the centre of the floor. At the bottom of it the workmen had cleared a level, at the western end of which they were beginning to dig a little deeper when a bone became visible. This bone was left in situ undisturbed, and the digging had ceased on its discovery. On seeing this bone, I felt sure it could be no other than one of the bones of the left fore-arm of the person buried, which must have lain crossed upon the breast. A little beyond it I observed a small object in the earth, which I took at first for a large coffin nail, but, on this being handed up to me, it was very apparent that it was the largest joint of, probably, a middle finger, and that, judging from its relative position, of the left hand. This bone I replaced.... It was quite evident that a few more strokes of the spade would discover the rest of the skeleton, perhaps perfect, after just two hundred years of burial. There can be no reasonable doubt, arguing from the position of the body and the depth at which it lay, that it was the very one to enshrine which only the mausoleum was originally built—the mortal part of the Father of Calcutta himself. Having seen what I did, I had the grave filled in ... if the investigation were to be prosecuted at all, it should at least be in presence of a representative company of Englishmen. For my own part, with the bones of the famous pioneer's hand accidentally discovered before me, and the strange and solemn statement of his epitaph just above them, that he had laid his mortal remains there himself ut in spe beatæ resurrectionis ad Christi Judicis adventum obdormirent, I felt strongly restrained from examining them further."
This opening of Charnock's grave and the uncovering of his bones proves nothing either for or against the tradition that he was laid in his wife's grave: nor does it affect the theory, held by some writers, that the ground now forming St. John's Churchyard was the first plot of land owned by the English in Calcutta, having been used by them as a burial-ground for those of their number who died while journeying up or down the river between Hughly and Balasore from 1640 onwards.
After Charnock's death Calcutta, or Chuttanutty, by which name the settlement continued to be known, grew rapidly, and within the first ten years of its existence was favoured by two fortunate circumstances which materially helped to strengthen the English position. The first was a Hindu rebellion against the Mohammedan rule, which broke out in Burdwan and Hughly and surrounding districts, and continued for two years. The foreign merchants in Bengal, viz. the English at Chuttanutty, the French at Chandernagore, and the Dutch at Chinsurah petitioned the nawab, the emperor's viceroy in Bengal, for permission to erect defensive works round their settlements as a protection against the insurgents. Receiving a careless assent in an order to defend themselves, they seized the opportunity to fortify their factories in a manner which till then had been strictly forbidden. The English began building their fort in 1699, and called it Fort William in honour of their sovereign, William III.
A second fortunate circumstance, which greatly assisted the English Company, was the appointment as Nawab of Bengal of Azim-u-shan, a grandson of the Emperor Aurungzeb, an extravagant and pleasure-loving young prince. On his arrival in Bengal the East India Company gained his favour by presenting him with an offering of one thousand gold mohurs, and he thereupon granted their petition to be allowed to purchase the zemindari, or landowners' rights, in the three villages of Chuttanutty, Calcutta, and Govindpore.
This was a great advance for the English Company, as it raised them at once from the position of mere adventuring traders, dependent on the caprice of the reigning nawab, to an assured status as landholders paying a yearly rental of eleven hundred and ninety-five rupees to the emperor at Delhi, and receiving in return authority to collect rents and to administer justice under the Mohammedan laws within the boundaries of the three villages. Having obtained the nawab's consent, the East India Company at once proceeded to exercise their rights without waiting to receive the emperor's confirmation of their authority, which they had great difficulty in obtaining, owing to the opposition of interested officials of the nawab's Government, who influenced the court at Delhi against them. This opposition was continued for no less than sixteen years, during which time the Company continued to exercise their rights, but were constantly thwarted and hampered by oppressive orders and various exactions, growing more intolerable every year. It was at last decided that the Company should appeal direct to the emperor in person, and it was accordingly arranged that an embassy should proceed to Delhi to try and obtain the required firman from the emperor, which would make the Company's position secure and relieve them of most of their grievances.
Early in 1715 the embassy proceeded to Delhi. The members were Messrs. John Surman and Edward Stephenson, both of the Company's service, and an Armenian merchant of Calcutta, Khoja Serhaud, who acted as interpreter. They carried gifts for the emperor and his court, of "curious glass ware, clock-work, brocades, and the finest manufactures of woollen cloths and silks, valued altogether at thirty thousand pounds sterling." The Emperor Farruk Syar, hearing of these rich offerings, sent out troops to meet and escort the envoys to Delhi, where they arrived on the 7th of July, 1715, after a journey from Calcutta of three months. They were received with much honour and dignity, and proceeded immediately to pay their respects to the emperor.
Writing to Calcutta to report their proceedings, the envoys gave the following account of their reception:—
"We prepared for our first present, viz. 1,001 gold mohurs, the table clock set with precious stones, the unicorn's horn, the gold escritoire, the large piece of ambergreese, the astoa and chelumgie Manilla work, and the map of the world. These with the Honourable the Governor's letter were presented, every one holding something in his hand as usual. John Surman received a vest and culgee set with precious stones, and Serhaud a vest and culgee set with precious stones likewise, amid the great pomp and state of the Kings of Hindustan. We were very well received, and on our arrival at our house we were entertained by Sallabut Khan, with dinner sufficient both for us and our people."
In spite of this favourable reception, the emperor refused to receive the Company's petition or to transact any business till such time as his marriage with a Jodhpore princess, for which arrangements were proceeding, should have been celebrated. The envoys, thus detained, were soon plunged into the intrigues of an Indian court, and involved in counter intrigues. They were obliged to remain attending on the emperor's pleasure, and doling out such of their presents as they had reserved. They spent money lavishly, too, in winning over various nobles and others to support their petition, but after weary months of waiting they seemed no nearer the attainment of their object, and might have had to return to Calcutta disappointed but that the emperor fell ill on the eve of his marriage, and the ceremony had to be postponed.
Attached to the English embassy was Surgeon William Hamilton of the Honourable East India Company's service, whose name deserves to stand high in the records of Calcutta as second only to that of Charnock the founder. When, in spite of the efforts of the court physicians, the emperor's illness continued to increase, Hamilton proffered his services, and so successful was his treatment that the royal patient was shortly restored to health.
"As a clear demonstration to the world, he washed himself, and accordingly received the congratulations of the whole court. As a reward for Mr. Hamilton's care and success, the king was pleased to give him in public, viz. a vest, a culgee set with precious stones, two diamond rings, an elephant, horse, and 5000 rupees, besides ordering at the same time all his small instruments to be made in gold, with gold buttons for his coat and waistcoat, and brushes set with jewels."
This "demonstration" of the emperor's restoration to health took place at the end of November, when the envoys had been six months in Delhi. They now presented most of the remainder of their presents, reserving only a small part for the occasion of the king's marriage, and delivered their petition, but were informed that no business could go forward till after the ceremony. At last, in December, the royal wedding was celebrated with all the splendour which "the riches of Hindustan and two months' indefatigable labour could provide, but the envoys still had many weary delays before them, and it was not until June, 1717, that they at last received the desired firman, and were given permission to return to Calcutta. During this long interval Hamilton had been in attendance on the emperor, and it was largely owing to his influence that the English claims received favourable consideration in spite of opposing interests. In addition, the emperor granted permission to the East India Company to purchase the zemindary rights of twenty-four villages besides the three they already held.
So highly did Farruk Syar value Surgeon Hamilton's services, that he desired to retain him permanently at court, but to this Hamilton would by no means consent, and once more the envoys had to exercise what patience remained to them, and wait till their companion could obtain permission to accompany them. After many representations, the emperor agreed to allow Hamilton to leave him, but it was on the condition that, after he had gone to England to visit his wife and children and to procure medicines which could not be obtained in India, he would return to the emperor's service. This matter being satisfactorily arranged, the embassy at last left Delhi and returned to Calcutta, but Hamilton's compact with the emperor was never to be fulfilled. Shortly after his return to Calcutta the skilful and modest surgeon died, and was laid to his rest in the sadly crowded burial-ground of the settlement.
It has been estimated that during the seventy odd years the first Calcutta burial-ground, now St. John's Churchyard, was in use—that is, from 1692 to 1766—no less than twelve thousand bodies must have been interred in that small plot of land. Under these circumstances the same ground must have been used over and over again, and monuments can only have been erected over a few of these graves. Most of the earlier monuments fell into such a ruinous condition that, in 1802, they were taken down, and such of the memorial slabs as remained in good preservation were arranged in a pavement round the Charnock mausoleum. There they remain to this day, the long and often quaint inscriptions in raised letters as clear and fresh in many cases as though newly cut. Hamilton's grave could hardly have had any monument—apparently there was only a simple headstone bearing a record of his name and services,—for, within a very few years his resting-place appears to have been lost among the crowded graves around.
More than sixty years after Hamilton's death, when the foundations of St. John's Church were being laid, the workmen uncovered the forgotten tombstone. Warren Hastings was then in the closing years of his Government, and he thought so highly of Hamilton's services to the East India Company that he desired to have the lettering of the epitaph gilded, and that the stone should be placed in a conspicuous position in the centre niche of the east entrance to the church. By the time the church had been completed Hastings had left the country, and the stone was placed within the Charnock mausoleum, where it has remained ever since. The inscription is in both English and Persian, the former runs as follows:—
"Under this stone lyes interred the body of William Hamilton, Surgeon, who departed this life the 4th December, 1717. His memory ought to be dear to this nation for the credit he gained the English in curing Farrukseer, the present King of Indostan, of a malignant distemper, by which he made his own name famous at the court of that great Monarch, and without doubt will perpetuate his memory as well in Great Britain as all other nations in Europe."
The following translation of the Persian inscription is given by Talboys Wheeler, in his "Early Records of British India:"—
"William Hamilton, Physician, in the service of the English Company, who had accompanied the English Ambassador to the enlightened Presence, and having made his own name famous in the four quarters of the earth by the cure of the Emperor, the Asylum of the World Muhammad Farruk Siyar the victorious: and with a thousand difficulties having obtained permission from the Court which is the refuge of the universe, to return to his country: by the Divine decree, on the fourth of December, 1717, died in Calcutta, and is buried here."
This latter inscription was apparently composed by an officer of the emperor's court, who was sent to Calcutta by his royal master to obtain confirmation of the news of Hamilton's death, which Farruk Syar imagined had been fabricated to appease him on the failure of the surgeon to return.
The poor emperor himself closed his splendid career tragically enough within three years of Hamilton's death, when, dragged from his throne and blinded by his own rebellious courtiers, he "the Asylum of the World," was brutally murdered in his dungeon after two months' miserable captivity.
With a confirmation of their rights as legal owners of their settlement and the surrounding villages, the English merchants became firmly established, and their "mud-walled and thatched" houses of a quarter of a century before had made way for brick-built terraced houses, surrounded by gardens. The three villages had grown into a thriving town containing a population of some ten or twelve hundred Europeans and a hundred thousand natives. A church had been built "by the pious charity of merchants residing there, and the Christian benevolence of seafaring men whose affairs call them to trade there." This church, which in compliment to the queen was dedicated to St. Anne, stood on the site now occupied by the western end of the Bengal Secretariat Buildings, and adjoined the main gate of the Fort, which faced "the Avenue," now Dalhousie Square North. The Avenue was a raised road which ran eastward from the Fort, through the marshy lands along the line of Bow Bazar Street, and gave access to the salt-water lakes and the ghats, where boats laden with firewood and jungle produce landed their cargoes for the use of the growing settlement.
Captain Hamilton, a trading seaman who visited India in the early years of the eighteenth century, published in 1727 "a new account of the East Indies," in which he gave an entertaining description of Calcutta at that period, full of little bits of local scandal, and considerably coloured by a strong prejudice against the "Conscript Fathers of the Colony," as he terms them, who appear to have got the better of the worthy seaman and shrewd trader in bargaining. This gossiping chronicler tells us—
"Fort William was built an irregular tetragon of brick and mortar called puckah, which is a composition of brick-dust, lime, molasses, and cut hemp, and, when it comes to be dry, is as hard and tougher than firm stone or brick."
The Fort stood on the bank of the river which flowed along what is now the Strand Road. The site has been so carefully identified and marked out in recent years that but little imagination is required to reconstruct in fancy the high walls with their bastions and buttresses which enclosed the space lying between Fairlie Place and Koila Ghat Street. With the exception of the church and the hospital, all the official buildings stood within the Fort walls. The hospital, "where many go in to undergo the penance of physick, but few come out to give any account of its operation," adjoined the burial-ground where Garstin's Buildings now stand. All other public buildings, the Government House, the barracks, the factors' houses, the writers' quarters, the warehouses, and workshops, were all in the Fort; and closely packed they must have been, for the entire length was only 710 feet, and the breadth at the northern end 340 feet, widening to 485 feet at the south.
Though the Governor's official residence, which Hamilton described as the best and most regular piece of architecture he had seen in India, stood within the Fort, he had his private dwelling-house outside the walls, for the advantage, no doubt, of wider garden space and purer air than could be obtained in the hot and overcrowded area within. This house appears to have stood about where Bankshall Street now runs, and its grounds extended across Bankshall Street to "the Park," Dalhousie Square. Round this locality gather many memories of the early days of Calcutta. It has been conjectured that the walls of the Fort were at one time coloured red, and that their ruddy reflection in the waters of the tank obtained for it its native name, "Lal Diggee," the Red Tank. However this may be, the "Great Tank" was highly valued by the settlers, for, being fed by springs, it furnished a supply of pure drinking water, very desirable when the river was polluted by every form of contamination and was the receptacle for all carrion. The tank was accordingly guarded with jealous care; the surrounding space was laid out with neat gravelled walks, and planted with orange trees and ornamental shrubs, and, surrounded by a railing, was known as "the Park," where Calcutta society promenaded in the cool of the evening. It is curious to think that, after nearly two hundred years of more or less neglect, the old glories of the Park are about to be revived under Sir Andrew Fraser's scheme, and Calcutta society in the twentieth century will pace the garden walks once trodden by their predecessors of the eighteenth century.
The upkeep of the Park cost ten rupees monthly, and in the old records are various entries of payments, such as Rs. 24 for orange trees for the use of the Park, and Rs. 20 for cleaning the tank and repairing the walks. The latest entry for repairs of the tank is dated 1753, but two years later it would appear to have fallen into a shocking state of neglect, as, in May, 1755, Mr. Holwell requested the Board that he might have permission to repair and enclose the tank and prohibit the washing of people and horses therein, the latter practice making the tank at times so offensive "there is no passing either to the southward or northward."
When Captain Hamilton wrote his account there were many ladies in Calcutta. The English ladies were chiefly the wives and daughters of the senior merchants who had accompanied their relatives from England. Other factors who had been long in the country had contracted alliances with native women, many of whom became converts to Christianity, mostly to the Romish Church. These ladies appear to have been accepted in society, and their number was added to by the wives and daughters of the Armenian merchants, who formed an important section of the community. So prosperous were these Armenians that, in 1724, they built a church, which was dedicated to St. Nazareth, in compliment to the chief promoter of the building fund, Aga Nazar, and which stands to this day, the oldest church in Calcutta.
The gossipy Captain Hamilton gives a lively description of the manners and customs of this mixed society. He says:—
"Most gentlemen and ladies in Bengal live both splendidly and pleasantly, the forenoons being dedicated to business, and after dinner to rest, and in the evening to recreate themselves in chaises or palankins, in the fields or to gardens, or by water in their budgeroes, which is a convenient boat that goes swiftly with the force of oars. On the river sometimes there is the diversion of fishing or fowling, or both: and before night they make friendly visits to one another, when pride or contention do not spoil society as too often they do among the ladies, as discord and faction do among the men."
Elsewhere the worthy captain records: "The Company has also a pretty good garden that furnishes the Governor's table with herbage and fruits, and some fish-ponds to serve his kitchen with good carp, calkops and mullet. Most of the inhabitants of Calcutta that make any tolerable figure have the same advantages; and all sorts of provisions, both wild and tame, being plentiful, good, and cheap, as well as clothing, make the country very agreeable, notwithstanding the above-mentioned inconveniences that attend it."
Chief of these "inconveniences" appears to have been the unhealthiness of the situation of Calcutta, lying as it did between the river and a great salt-water lake.
"This overflows," says Hamilton, "in September and October, and then prodigious numbers of fish resort thither; but in November and December, when the floods are dissipated, those fishes are left dry, and with their putrefaction so affect the air with thick stinking vapours which the north-east winds bring with them to Fort William that they cause a yearly mortality. One year I was there, and there were reckoned in August about twelve hundred English, and before the beginning of January there were 460 burials registered in the clerk's book of mortality."
This terrible mortality following the rainy season continued for over half a century after Hamilton wrote, and it was quite a matter of course for men as the sickly season came round to make their wills and set their affairs in order, and for the survivors at the close of the period to congratulate each other on their escape from death.
The situation of Calcutta was not only unhealthy, but was exposed to the fierce storms which sweep up from the Bay of Bengal at the close of the south-west monsoon. On the 30th of September, 1737, such a hurricane devastated the country for sixty leagues up the Ganges, and did an immense deal of damage in Calcutta. The Gentleman's Magazine for June, 1738, gives a quaintly worded and harrowing account of the havoc wrought when—
"an earthquake overthrew abundance of houses, and in the storm twenty thousand ships, barks, sloops, boats, canoes, etc., were cast away, a prodigious quantity of cattle of all sorts, a great many tigers, and several rhinoceroses were drowned, even a great many caymans were stifled by the furious agitation of the waters, and an innumerable quantity of birds were beaten down into the river by the storm. Two English ships of five hundred tons were thrown into a village about two hundred fathoms above the bed of the Ganges, broke to pieces, and all the people drowned pell-mell among the inhabitants and cattle."
Curiously enough, a sentence has been interpolated by successive writers when quoting this account of the storm from the Gentleman's Magazine, to the effect that the steeple of the English church sank into the ground without breaking. There is no such statement in the original, though no doubt the steeple was destroyed. In a despatch from Calcutta to the Court of Directors, dated January, 1749, permission is requested for the rebuilding of the church steeple "which was thrown down in the storm, the foundation of which being already laid we imagine the expense will not exceed eight thousand rupees." Whether the storm alluded to was that of twelve years earlier, or a subsequent one, is not clear, but it is evident the steeple could not have been swallowed up entire for the foundation to have remained.