Calcutta: Past and Present/Chapter 10
NEAR AND FAR
Hughly—The Portuguese—Introduction of tobacco—Chinsurah—Serampore—The Serampore missionaries—River scenes—Suttie—Barrackpore—Dum Dum.
WHEN the English arrived in Bengal, in the seventeenth century, they first settled in Hughly, in the year 1633, nearly sixty years before Calcutta was founded. The Portuguese, who were the earliest European traders in India in modern times, had been in Bengal a hundred years before the English, and it was they who founded the town of Hughly, on the bank of the new course of the Ganges. In process of time the new town drew away the trade of the ancient city of Satgaon, which, deserted by the main stream of the river, was growing yearly more difficult of access for merchant vessels, as the old bed of the stream silted up more and more; and the Portuguese grew rich and powerful, and made their influence felt throughout the land.
It is said that it was in the early years of their settlement at Hughly that the Portuguese introduced tobacco to the notice of the Emperor Akbar, and that the Indian pipe, the hookah, was invented. Mr. H. G. Keene, in his delightful "Handbook to Agra," has quoted an account of life at the court of Akbar, from an imaginative sketch by' Mr. J. W. Sherer, C.S.I., which was published in 1852, from which the following extract regarding the introduction of tobacco may be taken. The emperor is supposed to have noticed during the day two Portuguese priests standing amongst the crowd to see him pass by, and to have commanded their attendance in the evening, when the emperor being seated surrounded by his courtiers, the priests also being present,—
"conversation was going on in desultory way, when the younger priest remarked that he had something very singular to show the emperor, if it was his pleasure to see it. Curiosity was excited; Akbar said certainly, that he wished to see everything novel and rare, and begged the priest to exhibit. The young man, feeling in a pocket under his cassock, said that he required a light. This was immediately ordered, and then he, retiring a little, applied the fire to something which he held concealed in his hand, after which smoke was seen issuing out of his mouth.
"At this Akbar laughed contemptuously, and said that every juggler in the country that frequented fairs would do it ten times better. 'Why' he cried, 'they will bring fire out of their nostrils, as well as smoke! If your magic was no better than this, you would not make one rupee a month.'
"This badinage was put an end to by the young priest explaining that there was no feat intended in producing the smoke, but that the curiosity was that the smoke itself was very soothing and agreeable, and that from partaking of it the mind of man became philosophic and cheerful. The priest then opened his hand, showed a small clay pipe, he also exhibited some of the fragrant weed from out of his pouch. Akbar was much interested, and sent immediately for Hukim Abul Futteh Gilani, to ask his opinion of the herb. He insisted, in the mean time, on trying it, much against the remonstrances of Abdul Kadir, who was now present, and assured him it was a device of the devil, and had probably been brought direct from his Satanic Majesty by his servants and emissaries the priests. When the hukim came, he found the emperor coughing very much; for Akbar, not being quite up to the mysteries of the pipe, had swallowed a good deal of smoke, and was suffering accordingly. The hukim with a grave face examined the herb, and afterwards, being ordered by the emperor to try it, declared that it was a pleasant and, possibly, a heathful weed, but that the smoke required purifying before it was imbibed. 'What is it called?' asked Akbar. 'Tobacco,' answered the priest. Akbar agreed with the hukim, that the smoke would be better for purification, but inquired how this could be better effected. The hukim replied that he thought it might be made to pass through water, and from that night he commenced the series of experiments which ended in the invention of the hukah."
The Portuguese traders in Bengal were favoured by the tolerant Akbar, and retained their privileges under his son and successor, Jehangir; Hughly continued to grow in importance and wealth, and the merchants grew proportionately more arrogant and proud. They domineered over the Mohammedan governors of Satgaon; having acquired land on both banks of the river, they exacted duties from all vessels passing up and down the great waterway, and raided the country-side for slaves, who were sent to their possessions in Southern India and elsewhere. In 1632 the Emperor Shah Jehan, having newly succeeded to the throne of Delhi, gave orders that the "European idolaters," the Roman Catholic Portuguese, were to be expelled from his kingdom. Hughly was accordingly attacked by a Mogul army, and, after a stubborn defence of over three months, was betrayed by a Portuguese half-caste, named De Mello, and the Portuguese power utterly destroyed. In Stewart's history it is stated that—
"when Hughly was destroyed, in A.D. 1632, by order of the Emperor Shah Jehan, there were sixty-four large vessels, fifty-seven grabs, and two hundred sloops anchored opposite the town, of which only one grab and two sloops escaped. The captain of the largest vessel, on which were embarked two thousand men, women, and children, with all their wealth, rather than yield to the Mohammedans, set fire to the magazine, and blew them up. Many other ships followed his example. Hughly, having came into possession of the Moguls, was established as the royal fort of Bengal. All the public offices were withdrawn from Satgaon, which soon declined into a mean village, now scarcely known to Europeans."
When the Portuguese monopoly of the foreign trade of Bengal was thus destroyed, the English made an effort to take their place, but were unsuccessful till some years later, in 1640. In that year a daughter of the emperor was severely burned by her dress catching fire. Dr. Gabriel Boughton, one of the Company's surgeons at Surat, attended the princess at the emperor's desire, and restored her to health. He patriotically asked as his reward privileges of trade for his honourable masters; these were readily granted by the grateful monarch, and, shortly after, an English factory was allowed to be established in Hughly. The position of the English settlement in the centre of a large Mohammedan town led to constant friction, and, in the end, the Hughly factory became untenable, the English left Bengal and went away to Madras, and when they finally returned it was to Chuttanutty, where they founded Calcutta.
It was while the English were at Hughly that the French and Danes established themselves in Bengal, about the year 1676. Taking warning from the difficulties experienced by the English, they obtained land on which to build their factories at some distance from Hughly and from each other, but on the river for the convenience of shipping their goods. The Dutch who arrived in Hughly during the Portuguese times had also a factory, but they selected a spot adjoining Hughly, and, in their plodding, phlegmatic way, kept themselves to themselves, and prospered accordingly. Captain Hamilton thus described their factory in the early years of the eighteenth century:—
"About half a league further up is Chinsurah, where the Dutch emporium stands. It is a large factory, walled high with brick. And the factors have a great many good houses standing pleasantly on the river's side; and all of them have pretty gardens to their houses. The settlement at Chinsurah is wholly under the Dutch Company's Government. It is about a mile long, and about the same breadth, well inhabited by Armenians and the natives. It is contiguous to Hughly, and affords sanctuary for many poor natives, when they are in danger of being oppressed by the mogul's governor or his harpies,"
Chinsurah was given up to the English about the year 1825, when the Dutch received in exchange the British possessions in Sumatra. Some five years later the Government pulled down the old Dutch Government House, and the fort, Fort Gustavus, to make way for ranges of barracks, which were later abandoned as unsuitable. The old fort bore the date 1687 on its northern gate, and 1692 on the south gate, and contained in its structure some immense beams of Java teak, which had been brought up from Batavia, and which "were found to be as sound as the day they were inserted into the building."According to a writer in the Calcutta Review of sixty years ago, the church at Chinsurah—
THE HUGHLY IMAMBARA.
QUADRANGLE OF IMAMBARA.
[Face p. 221.
Another church at Chinsurah was that of the Armenians, which still stands. It was built in 1695, by "Coja Johannes, the son of Marcar," who, according to his epitaph in the church, "was a great merchant, honoured with the favour of kings and viceroys. He travelled north, south, east, and west, and died at Hughly, in Hindustan, 7th November, 1697."
There are two other buildings of note, the Hughly College and the Imambara. The college is located at Chinsurah, in a large house which was built, in the eighteenth century, by a Frenchman who had acquired a handsome fortune in the military service of the Mahrattas. The Imambara is at Hughly, and was erected and endowed, as was the college, from a fund established by a Mohammedan gentleman, Mahommed Moshin, for the purpose of erecting an institution of public instruction, and a place of Mohammedan worship which should also be a centre of learning. Bandel, which lies immediately above Hughly, was a religious settlement of the Portuguese, founded by Augustinian friars from Goa. The Bandel church is the oldest building for Christian worship in Bengal; it was built in 1660, and contains the keystone of an earlier church, dated 1599, which was destroyed when Hughly was taken by the Mohammedans.
The French, when they arrived in Bengal, built their factory a few miles further down the river than Chinsurah, at Chandernagore, which, after many vicissitudes, is still French territory at the present day. Captain Hamilton, the free-spoken old trader, wrote severely of the French at Chandernagore, who,—
"for want of money, are not in a capacity to trade. They have a few private families dwelling near the factory, and a pretty little church to hear mass in, which is the chief business of the French in Bengal."
The matter-of-fact captain visited Chandernagore about 1720; by 1740 the town had been transformed under the energetic rule of Dupleix; and when, in 1742, the European traders were allowed, in consideration of the turbulent state of the country, to fortify their settlements, the French built an imposing fort, which they called Fort Orleans, and which was much stronger than the English fort in Calcutta. When Fort Orleans fell, in 1757, to Clive and Admiral Watson, the prosperity of the factory passed away; nor did it ever revive, for from that date the English became more powerful every year, and one by one their rivals, in trade and politics alike, with- drew, leaving them in sole possession of the country, which for centuries had been one great battlefield, on which foreign invaders fought and struggled for dominion over the fair land which they laid waste.
While France still clings to her bright little settlement in Bengal, the Danes at Serampore, like the Dutch at Chinsurah, realized that their Indian possessions had become useless to them, and, in 1845, the King of Denmark transferred his Indian settlements to the British Government, receiving in return a sum of twelve lacs of rupees; and now, beyond the Danish royal monogram on the church and on the gateway of the magistrate's house, and a few names on the old tombstones in the cemetery, nothing remains in Serampore to tell of the Danish occupation.
The Serampore church, strangely enough, was never occupied by a Danish minister. It was built in 1805 by public subscription, to which Lord Wellesley contributed a thousand rupees, on the ground, it was said, that a church steeple would crown the beauty of the distant view of Serampore, as seen from the Governor-General's country seat at Barrackpore, on the opposite shore of the Hughly river. The church had not long been completed when the town passed into the hands of the English. Although in Bengal the representatives of the two nations were on friendly terms, the outbreak of hostilities in Europe obliged them to adopt a similar course. On intelligence arriving in Calcutta of war having been declared between England and Denmark, a detachment of troops from Fort William took possession of Serampore, at six o'clock on the morning of the 28th of January, 1808; at the same time, a naval detachment seized the Danish ships lying in the river off the town. With that event the trade of the settlement ceased, and when, in 1815, the town was restored to the Danish Crown, but few Danes remained as residents.
During the seven years of the English occupation, the church was in the charge of the Baptist missionaries, and they continued to conduct services in it till, in 1845, the town came finally under the English Government, when the church was transferred to the care of a chaplain. It is the "Serampore missionaries" who have given the town its chief interest, and claim to notice. Dr. Carey, the pioneer of the band, arrived in India in 1793. Finding that the allowance of fifty rupees a month, which it was arranged that he should receive from the newly formed Baptist Missionary Society in England, was totally inadequate for the support of himself and his family, he accepted the offer of Mr. Udny, at Mai da, to take charge of an indigo factory at Mudnabatty, on a salary of two hundred rupees a month. Carey remained at Malda for over five years, combining indigo-planting with missionary work, the study of Sanskrit and Bengallee, and the translation of the Scriptures.
In 1799 four other Baptist missionaries arrived, to support Carey and his associate, Mr. Thomas, a ship's surgeon, whose early missionary efforts had in the first instance turned the Society's thoughts to India as a mission-field. Of the four new arrivals, one died within three weeks of landing, and another twenty months later; Thomas also died, and the three survivors—Carey, Marshman, and Ward—remained to carry on, for over thirty years, the enterprise which they then began with so much zeal, and to leave a remarkable record of accomplished work, with which their names are inseparably associated.
The four missionaries journeyed to India in 1799 in an American ship, no doubt for reasons of economy. Being without friends in Calcutta to receive them, they, on their captain's advice, proceeded up the river by boat, and found quarters at Serampore, where they were made welcome by the Danish officials. An amusing printer's error in a Calcutta newspaper led to their remaining at Serampore for the rest of their lives. Their arrival was announced in the paper as that of four Papist, instead of Baptist, missionaries, and, as there was much talk at the time of French spies entering the country in the guise of priests, the notice attracted the attention of the Calcutta Government, and placed the new-comers under suspicion, which left a feeling of distrust long after the mistake had been explained. The occurrence decided the missionaries to remain at Serampore; there Carey joined them, and there the devoted band laboured, as their memorial in the church records, "to the end of their lives, in the cause of religion and humanity."
Before leaving the old settlements and factories on the right bank of the Hughly, it may be well to pause, and recall something of the appearance the river must have presented to the dwellers on its shores, and some of the scenes that were enacted on its banks.Up to the time when, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, railways began to ramify
CARGO BOATS ON THE HUGHLY
CHANDERNAGORE FROM THE RIVER
[Face p. 227.
Stavorinus, the Dutch traveller of the eighteenth century, described in detail the visit of the Dutch "Director" of Chinsurah to the Governor of Calcutta in 1770. The Dutchman sailed in his great "budgerow," or house-boat, in the large room of which thirty-six people could sit down to table. He was followed by a crowd of smaller budgerows, with his officers; there were two kitchen, or "cook-boats," and two store-boats laden with the necessary provisions; making a fleet of thirty-three vessels, which sailed from Chinsurah, at four o'clock one afternoon, and arrived at Chitpore, the northern extreme of Calcutta, at seven next morning. After a stay of two days, which cost the Director a thousand rupees in buckseesh to the Governor's servants, the fleet sailed again with the flood tide, and proceeded up the river to Chandernagore, and so back to Chinsurah.
The Governors of Calcutta were by no means behind hand with their state boats, and, up to the introduction of steamers and railways, the Governor-General's "yacht" was his chief if not sole means of visiting distant provinces. When Lord Wellesley, in 1801, made a tour in the "Upper Provinces" his journey occupied eight months, although it extended no further than Lucknow and Cawnpore. For a week-end visit to his country seat at Barrackpore, the Governor would use his state barge; and Lord Valentia recorded his admiration of the animated aspect of the river there, at the time of his visit in 1803. "The state barges and cutters of the Governor-General, painted green and ornamented with gold, contrasted with the scarlet dresses of the rowers, were a great addition to the scene."
The tales of travellers, and the sober columns of the Calcutta Gazette, which tell of all this brave pomp and show, record also grim details of tragedies the most moving. The river waves, which bore these proud galleys, washed over the stiffening limbs of the dying, gasping out their latest breath on the muddy banks. And when the last breath had fled, they tossed the worn bodies to and fro in their ebb and flow, carrying disease and death through all the land. Down in the lower reaches, where the great river rushes to the sea, frenzied devotees cast their helpless children, or flung themselves amid the swirling waters where the hungry jaws of alligators waited to devour them. And everywhere, up and down the hundreds of miles of the mighty river's course, on its banks were reared the ghastly funeral pyres, on which the living and the dead were consumed together in the awful rite of suttie.
Every one has heard of the inhuman custom of suttie, but few can realize what the terrible reality meant. The following account, taken from the Calcutta Gazette of 10th February, 1785, presents a vivid picture, all the more striking for the plain matter-of-fact language in which it is couched:—
"An Account of a Woman burning herself. (By an Officer.)—A few days since, going in a budgerow from Ghyretty to dine at Chinsurah, I perceived near Chandernagore a vast crowd assembled on the shore; upon inquiry, I found this large concourse of people were gathered to see a Gentoo  woman burn herself with her husband. As I had read many accounts of this strange and barbarous ceremony, but had never seen it performed, I was resolved upon the present occasion to be an eye-witness. I went ashore, and walked up close to the girl; she seemed about twenty-one years of age, and was standing up, decorated with flowers; pieces of silk were tied upon her wrists. Two of her children were near her; the eldest, about eight or nine years of age, was mixing up rice in a large pan, some of which, with many ceremonies, he put into his deceased father's mouth, who was laid upon his back on the pile: this was composed of straw and dry wood, and about four feet high; close round it were six bamboo stakes drove into the ground, about seven feet in height, to keep the pile from giving way too soon after the fire was communicated to it. The girl to me appeared stupid, and so very weak, that two Brahmins were obliged to support her. I asked some persons present whether bhang or opium had not been given to her; they declared not, but that the loss of her husband was the sole cause of her dejection. I however perceived, from the redness of her eyes, that narcotics had been administered; she seemed not in the least ruffled, but surveyed the crowd with great composure, nor did the dreadful preparations appear in the smallest degree to disconcert her. The Brahmins took her down to the Ganges; she sat on the edge of the water and was bathed, while prayers were repeated. Her clothes were then taken off, and a red silk covering (a saurry) put upon her. When she returned from the river, fresh flowers were again put round her neck and arms. At this time, the Brahmins alone asked her, whether the sacrifice she was about to make of herself was her own free choice; and whether any force had been used to compel her to devote herself to death contrary to her inclination. She bowed her head, but I could not hear anything she said, or perceive that she spoke at all. She afterwards sat down, and threw several handfuls of cowries among the crowd, which were scrambled for with great avidity. She then took leave of her children and relations in a very affecting manner. The Brahmins afterwards fixed several combs in her hair, and led her six or seven times round her husband's corpse. I perceived, as often as she came to his head she bowed, and some words were repeated by those who attended her which I could not understand; she then was lifted upon the pile, and laid herself down by her deceased husband, with her arms about his neck. Two people immediately passed a rope twice across the bodies, and fastened it so tight to the stakes that it would have effectually prevented her from rising had she attempted. I could not refrain, at this moment, from asking a person who had been near me all the time, and who had been very ready in explaining every circumstance I had wished to be informed of, the reason of their binding down with cords a willing victim; he told me that, however great her resolution might be, it was very possible, when the fire was first kindled, she might attempt to rise, which the ropes would hinder her from doing. A great quantity of straw and dry wood was now laid upon her, and several pots of ghee thrown over it The preparations, after the unhappy creature was laid upon the pile, took up some time, and this dreadful interval must have appeared to her more terrible than the worst of deaths. She distinctly heard the people around her ordering more fuel, and the fatal brand called for which was to consume her to ashes. When everything was ready, her eldest son came and set fire to the under part of the straw: in a moment all was in a blaze. Two men kept a very long bamboo closely pressed upon the bodies, but the heat was so great that people were constantly employed for some time pouring pots of water upon their heads. Vast quantities of straw, wood, etc., were thrown upon the pile for several minutes after it was lighted, and the heat was so great, that a termination must have been very soon put to the torments of the miserable devoted woman."
The practice of suttie was abolished by Lord William Bentinck in 1829, when it was made a criminal act, punishable by death, to assist a woman in self-destruction.
On the left bank of the Hughly, opposite to Serampore, is Barrackpore, which takes its name from the barracks of the British troops stationed there. The country seat of the Viceroy is at Barrackpore, and affords a cool and restful retreat from the crowded town. Before Lord Wellesley's time the Governors did not make a practice of leaving Calcutta for the country, though Warren Hastings used to take his wife up the river to Rishera, just below Serampore, where they had a residence, Rishera House.
When Lord Wellesley established the Governor's country residence at Barrackpore, he took over the bungalow from the Commander-in-Chief, to whom he paid an allowance of five hundred rupees a month to find himself a suitable house. The writer of an article on "The Left Bank of the Hughly," in the Calcutta Review for June, 1845, stated that Lord Wellesley proposed to build a "palace" in Barrackpore Park, at a cost of three or four lacs of rupees, and to remove all the public offices from Calcutta to Barrackpore. The Court of Directors, however, vetoed the scheme, which would have made modern Calcutta a very different city to what it is at the present day. The foundations of the "palace," which had been laid, were utilized, many years afterwards, by Lady Hastings for a greenhouse. The Marquis of Hastings replaced the "temporary bungalow " which Lord Wellesley had built by a handsome and suitable mansion, and Barrackpore became the country residence of the Governors-General during the hot-weather months, at a time when "the Hills" were still unknown. At the present day, Government House, Barrackpore, is, what it has been for many years past, a week-end retreat for the Viceroy during the four months which he spends in Calcutta every year.Just below Barrackpore Park a group of twenty-four small Hindu temples, clustered together, form an imposing and picturesque object on the bank, as seen from the river. These, the Tittaghur temples, are of comparatively recent date, having been built by a wealthy Hindu family about the close of the eighteenth century. They mark, however, a locality which for long years before that period had an evil reputation as the headquarters of a family of Thugs, or phanseegars—the stranglers. The Thugs were a caste of hereditary robbers who infested the highways of India, not only robbing their victims, but strangling them by means of a handkerchief fastened in a running noose. It was not till the nineteenth century was well advanced that these murderous highwaymen were effectually dealt with, when Colonel Sleeman, in charge of a
GOVERNMENT HOUSE, BARRACKPORE.
[Face p. 234.
Another military station in the neighbourhood of Calcutta is Dum Dum, lying away from the river, about four miles to the north-east of the town. In the old days, before the country had been drained, the Great Salt Water Lake, which lies to the east of Calcutta, ran up as far as Dum Dum. At that time the jungle-grown shores of the lake were the haunt of tigers and other wild beasts, and its waters of duck, and teal, and innumerable birds. Now it is a wide, treeless stretch of low-lying level land, the clay soil dry and cracked in the winter months, but flooded in the rainy season, when it springs into verdure, and for mile upon mile the rice crop of the villages waves green. Just beyond this low land lies Dum Dum, and Dum Dum House, a well-built house, standing on a low artificial hill, or rather mound, once surrounded by a moat, portions of which still remain. The late Mr. R. C. Sterndale, who once occupied Dum Dum House, had a theory that the mound had been thrown up and fortified in very ancient times, and that later it had been a stronghold of robbers, who, passing through the Salt Water Lake in their long and narrow swift-rowing boats, plundered inland villages, or, gaining the river, would attack the slow-moving heavy cargo boats and merchant vessels, robbing and slaying with impunity, and carrying home their plunder to be hoarded away in subterranean chambers and passages.
Whatever may have been the early history of the spot, it was in the days of Clive's Government, between 1757 and 1767, that Dum Dum House was built, for the benefit of change of air for the convalescent servants of the Company, after illness. A similar sanitarium was established at Baraset, but the bungalows erected there were less substantial than the house at Dum Dum. They were converted later into quarters for the young cadets of the Bengal establishment on their arrival in the country, and when the system was altered the cadet establishment at Baraset was done away with, and the connection with the military ceased, leaving only a weed-grown cemetery as a mournful memorial of the past.
Dum Dum, from being a sanitarium, grew to a military camp. When Colonel Pearce's detachment of Artillery returned from Madras in 1785, they were quartered at Dum Dum Camp, and were there reviewed in February, 1786, by the Commander-in-Chief, on which occasion Colonel Pearce "gave an elegant entertainment, at which were present, besides the Commander-in-Chief and the Governor-General, a very numerous and respectable company."
Dum Dum is now a quiet and dull little station, with an undesirable reputation for damp and malaria. In its early years it was the scene of many brilliant entertainments, and the centre of much generous hospitality. As the station grew, it became the fashionable resort for Calcutta society, and many a gay cavalcade of fine ladies and gentlemen passed along the raised Dum Dum Road to be present at a grand review, or to grace a performance in the little theatre with their presence, and wind up with an elaborate supper, when toasts were honoured with it "three times three" The gay dames and gallants have long slept quietly in their far-scattered tombs, but the memory of their bright passing to and fro lingers in the country-side, where the simple village folk, as they gazed after them across the level expanse of their rice-fields, threaded their own exclamations of pleasure at the sight on the melody of a song, which may yet be heard when, in the quiet evening hour, mothers croon their babes to rest:—
"Dekho meri jan!
Bibi gia Dum Dumma
Oora hai nishan.
Burra sahib, chota sahib,
Dekho men jan!
Lia hai nishan."
Which may be freely translated:—
"See, oh! life of mine!
The Company's ensign!
The lady to Dum Dum hath gone,
Flieth the ensign.
Great men, little men,
Officers so fine.
See, oh! life of mine!
Goeth the ensign."
Like the East India Company itself, and its servants before whom it fluttered, alike in the gay processions of peace as in the stern ranks of war, the Company's nishan, their badge and symbol of power, has passed away from the land. And, day by day, as the years go by, the memory of it fades, and "the old order changeth, yielding place to new"
BADGE OF THE EAST INDIA COMPANY
- No. VIII., vol. iv„ Dec, 1845.