Category Archives: Historical Links / Pre-Independence

Danish tavern decked up to start second innings in Serampore

Kolkata :

The double-storey Denmark Tavern, which was in a shambles till a couple of years ago, will soon turn into a lifestyle stay. The edifice on the banks of the Hooghly in Serampore will be Bengal’s second government-backed live-and-conserve endeavour after the St Olav’s Church project, which was restored last year and is in back in use for prayers and religious ceremonies.

Come February and CM Mamata Banerjee will open the doors of Denmark Tavern that has risen out of debris after being painstakingly restored by the National Museum of Denmark (NMD) in tandem with the West Bengal Heritage Commission. The NMD has funded the Rs 3.5-crore restoration and the state tourism department is paying another Rs 1.2 crore for the finishing. It will be running the cafe-by-the-river, which will have six overnight-stay rooms.

The Serampore riverfront, which looked picture perfect during the Danish rule, fell on bad times and the majestic structures were left to rot for decades. In 2012, things started changing with Serampore Initiative, the grand revival of the former Danish colony. The Denmark Tavern restoration is part of the big plans to bring back the old glory of the former Danish colony.

“We are extremely excited about the completion of the Denmark Tavern, which was the most challenging of the restoration work we have done in Serampore,” Bente Wolff, curator, National Museum of Denmark, told TOI from Copenhagen. Over last several months, Wolff has been flying in and out of Serampore to supervise the restoration work.

“This is the first public-private partnership in the heritage sector at this scale. This will give a fillip to the CM’s pet project of river cruise linking all the heritage towns along the Hooghly,” said Manish Chakraborti, the project’s conservation architect
Clearing the morass and rescuing the tavern was the most formidable task ever, said Suvaprasanna, chairman of the commission. “The challenge was in connecting history with architecture. For instance, the exact location of the tavern was not known. Finally, we found documents showing it was next to the SDO’s residence. It took one-and-a-half months to clear the debris,” he said.

“Denmark’s interest in reviving the remnants of the buildings first started in 2008 at the ethnographic department of the National Museum of Denmark,” added commission member Partha Ranjan Das. Archival and field studies were carried out between November 2008 and April 2009 by restoration architect Flemming Aalund and historian Simon Ranten, who produced an elaborate, report.

source: / The Times of India / News> City News> Kolkata News / by Ajanta Chakraborty / TNN / November 21st, 2017

The Indian in the Yasukuni Shrine

Plaque in Yasukuni Shrine, northwest of Tokyo’s imperial palace, features a large black and white photograph of an Indian judge: Radha Binod Pal (1886-1967).

To the northwest of Tokyo’s imperial palace, the Yasukuni Shrine is a 148-year old complex of memorials and cherry tree-dotted grounds, commemorating those who died in the service of Japan between 1869 and 1947.

It has emerged as the symbol of Japan’s fraught relations with its neighbouring countries and its own uncomfortable relationship with its Second World War history. Among the two million people buried there are 1,068 convicted war criminals. Fourteen of these are categorised as ‘Class A’ criminals, found guilty of a special category of “crimes against peace and humanity” by the 11-member team of justices from Allied countries that made up the 1946 Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.

Visits to Yasukuni by senior Japanese politicians are viewed by neighbouring countries, in particular China and South Korea, as provocations, tantamount to a denial of war crimes. Japanese nationalists believe Yasukuni visits to be a justified exercise of sovereignty, indicating a moving on from what they consider to be an overly apologetic stance to the war. On the day this correspondent visited, there were scant traces of these bitter recriminations. A series of memorials dedicated to military horses, pigeon carriers and dogs charmed camera-wielding tourists. But the plaque attracting the tightest knots of visitors featured a large black and white photograph of an Indian judge: Radha Binod Pal.

In Japan, this Bengali jurist elicits the kind of recognition and reverence that other countries reserve for the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. Biographical mini series about the judge are aired on Japanese TV, memorials to him have been erected in Tokyo and Kyoto, and books debating his legacy are published every few years. The average Indian would be hard-pressed to identify Justice Pal at all. Until the war, he was best known for his contributions to the Indian Income Tax Act, 1922. His international profile comes from his participation in, and eventual dissent from, the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.

Twenty-five of Japan’s top wartime leaders were convicted by the tribunal of the new category of ‘Class A’ charges. Going against the grain of Allied judgment, Pal issued a 1,235-page dissent in which he rejected the creation of the ‘Class A’ category as ex post facto law. He further slammed the trials as the “sham employment of legal process for the satisfaction of a thirst for revenge”. And he argued that the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should also be counted as major war crimes.

Procedural flaws

The Indian judge tends to be valorised by Japanese nationalists and historical revisionists who seek to deny Japan’s wartime culpability. But in fact the jurist did not absolve Japan. His intention was rather to highlight the flaws in the legal process of the trial. Since all the judges were appointed by victor nations, the Indian justice thought the trial to be biased and motivated by revenge.

In his 2007 book on Pal, Takashi Nakajima, an Associate Professor at Hokkaido University’s Public Policy School, criticises right-wing supporters of Pal for relying on out-of-context quotes from the dissenting judgment. Pal’s dissent ran to a quarter of a million words, but Prof. Nakajima says that only a handful of quotes tend to be used by historical revisionists as ballast for their agenda.

Back at the shrine, a Japanese tourist gazed at the Pal memorial, silently mouthing the words written on the plaque: “When Time shall have softened passion and prejudice… then Justice, holding evenly her scales, will require much of past censure and praise to change places.”

(Pallavi Aiyar is an author and journalist based in Tokyo)

source: / The Hindu / Home> News> Tokyo Despatch – International / Pallavi Aiyar / November 18th, 2017

Indigo researcher digs out nuggets from past

Jenny Balfour-Paul at The Bengal Club. Picture by Sanat Kr Sinha

• A famous tea company in Calcutta traded in indigo in British India. That’s how its office on RN Mukherjee Road, Nilhat House, got its name.

•Opium and indigo growers were locked in constant rivalry before 1859

• Evidence of indigo dye has been even found in the remains of the Indus Valley civilisation


Such nuggets from history made up writer Jenny Balfour-Paul’s hour-long Bengal Club Library Talk, organised in association with The Telegraph, on November 8.

Balfour-Paul, who has researched indigo for decades, traced its history right from the early evidence to the exploitation faced by farmers in pre-Independence Bengal.

The session was peppered with anecdotes, humour and photographs of travel that she undertook since 2000 to bring together the indigo story.

The highlight of the evening was shots of a handwritten journal by 19th century British explorer Thomas Machell, who got the author inspired in the first place.

Machell had lived in Calcutta and worked in several indigo plantations in the 19th century. His journal traced his experience and the culture of the time, in the form of correspondence to his father in England.

Balfour-Paul shared with the audience how she found Machell’s journals by accident. “I was in the British Library surfing through old books and records when I found this valuable piece of history. It was the word indigo that made me reach out for it,” she said.

One line in the handwritten diary had particularly caught her eye. “I wonder if anybody will find these journals in the 20th century in a dirty library…” Machell had written. “I thought I was meant to find it,” added Balfour-Paul.

The author decided to travel to all those places where Machell had visited more than 100 years ago. She juxtaposed snaps taken during her visits to Calcutta, Bangladesh and also the Marquesas Island in French Polynesia with the British explorer’s illustrations.

Visits to Calcutta brought out some lesser-known facts. “Tea company J Thomas & Co would auction indigo. No wonder their office was called Nilhat House,” Balfour Paul said.

Another story was about her hunt for Machell’s grave. “Two of his journals are missing and I am still putting together the last six years of his life. I was not sure where he had spent his final years,” Balfour-Paul added.

India made Machell ill. He had left its shores for his native Yorkshire only to come back again. “My daughter and I went places in search of his grave, till we realised he had died near Jabalpur. One rainy day in Jabalpur we almost got ourselves arrested as we went grave hunting,” laughed the author.

She has documented many of her tales in her book, Deeper than Indigo: Tracing Thomas Machell, Forgotten Explorer.

source: / The Telegraph, Calcutta,India / A Staff Reporter / Saturday – November 11th, 2017

Kolkata to Chandannagar: The French life

In Chandannagar, time flows as languorously as the Ganga beside it

The statue of Marianne, a national symbol of France, outside the Dupleix mansion. Photos: Ganesh Vancheeswaran

The rains had left the fields lush green, a vivid contrast to the dark brown soil at the base. This dual-colour canvas kept a tight grip on the sides of the road through most of the trip. Bustling villages and near skirmishes with traffic ensured there was never a dull moment on the drive from Kolkata to Chandannagar.

My decision to go to Chandannagar for the weekend had been an impromptu one, taken the night before. The fact that it was the only French colony in Bengal in the 17th century, at a time when the British were making determined inroads into the region, made me curious. And so, late one Saturday morning, I hopped into a taxi for the 53km ride. It was a swift and mildly disorienting transition from the crush of humanity in Kolkata. As we entered Chandannagar, my driver pointed to two pillars topped with urns. He said these were all that remained of the grand gate built by the French in 1937.

I asked him to take me to the Dupleix Museum, located in a large yellow mansion. It is one of the few in India that houses a collection of artefacts from French rule, which lasted more than 250 years. Chandannagar was a major trading and military hub for the French during the 18th and 19th centuries. And this mansion used to be the official residence of French governor generals. Apart from French memorabilia, the museum houses rare collections of statues, letters exchanged between freedom fighters, and news clips on the freedom movement in Bengal. With its colonnaded courtyard, broad slatted windows and high ceilings, it is a throwback to period architecture. Even today, French is taught at an institute that operates from the same premises.

Leaving the museum, I headed to a stall nearby for a leisurely mutka (earthen cup) of tea. I was in no mood to rush from place to place. Already, I could feel my heartbeat settling into a slower rhythm. Chandannagar has that effect on you.

The interior of the Sacred Heart Church.

Continuing my journey into the past, I walked up to the lovely Sacred Heart Church, close to the Dupleix Museum. This church, designed by French architect Jacques Duchatz, was inaugurated in 1884. Stepping into its cool portals, I was transported back to the 19th century. The stained glass, old furniture and colourful murals along the nave are largely intact. Later, I walked through the restored graves and tombstones in the cemetery adjoining the church. Buried here along with other nobles is the long-forgotten French commander Duplessis, one of the town’s founding fathers.

Exploring the streets that evening, I saw a number of rambling bungalows from the French period. The structures, still intact, exuded an air of genteel neglect. There was an abundance of greenery. Traffic was sparse and slow-moving. Passing through the local market, I was struck by the absence of the hoarse cries one normally finds in Indian markets. Even the haggling was absent. It seemed as if the entire town loathed anything loud or frenetic.

Wending my way to the strand, I sat on a bench. A few others had colonized benches to read the newspaper or chat. In front of me, the Ganga, known in these parts as the Hooghly, flowed gently, with barely a murmur. Boats ferrying locals were the only traffic. And quiet descended as soon as the day’s activity wound up with the setting sun.

Fortified by some luchi-aloo dum the next morning, I sallied forth again. This time, to the stunning Nanda Dulal temple with its cream-and-vermillion exterior. This temple is built in the do chala (double sloping roof) style native to Bengal, but is, surprisingly, devoid of the terracotta work that is typical of buildings in this district. I learnt from the priest that this temple, which houses a deity of Lord Krishna as a child, was first built in 1740, destroyed and then rebuilt.

I was tempted to join the boys playing volleyball in front of the temple. In keeping with the mood, however, I decided to return to my room to curl up and read.

Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The author tweets from @theholehog.

source: / Live Mint / Home> Leisure / Ganesh Vancheeswaran / November 09th, 2017

At 233, Asiatic Society archive starts new innings, goes digital

Kolkata :

The journey started way back in 1784 and on Monday, the oldest archive of the country, located inside Asiatic Society, started a new journey as it shifted to the digital mode.

For long, the Centre had been prodding the Society to get its valuable archive digitized but the authorities were unable to comply because of the unionized staff that often put spanners into the process. In 2006, when Pranab Mukherjee was the Union finance minister and chairman of the planning board of the Society, he urged the authorities to fast-track digitization so that the wealth could be made available in the digital domain. At the moment, only members of the Society have access to the archive.

The process could start much later and even on Monday, when the public announcement was made, only the first phase of the digitization was over. The rest will follow in phases.

In the first phase, all publications of the Society, right from 1788, when the first edition of an Asiatic Society publication came out, have been digitally reproduced and linked to the Society’s website. The formal inauguration was done by Jawhar Sircar, former Union culture secretary, who had prodded the Society in his previous capacity, to enter the digital platform.

“This place is steeped in history and is of singular importance but it doesn’t have a complete inventory yet. I am happy that the first step in digitization has happened here but in the 21st century, this is not enough. I urge the Society to accelerate the process, which can also become an income generator when non-members try to access the archive,” Sircar said.

The archive has 50,000 manuscripts in 26 languages, made in varied mediums like palm, palmyra leaves, barks of trees and paper (often handmade, not chemically treated). There are original paintings of Hodges, Daniells, Baille, D’Oyly, Solvins, Rubens and Reynolds, and are among the most valuable in the world of paintings. “In the next phase, we will digitize the paintings. There are some extremely rare views. There are 90 paintings of European masters and 125 masters of the Bengal School in our archives,” said Satyabrata Chakraborty, general secretary of the Asiatic Society. This will be followed by digitization of manuscripts.

source: / The Times of India / Home> News> City News> Kolkata News / by Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey / TNN / November 07th, 2017

Centuries-old temples unearthed in West Bengal A parish anticipating relic tourism

ASI members inspecting the temples in Bhuri, a village near Burdwan

Less than 130 kilometres from Kolkata, in an area at East Burdwan’s Bhuri village, two temples emerged while local workers were digging. The initial inspection and predictions tell that the temples could be centuries old.

Unprecedented and to the dismay of the local workers were digging a section of the land as a part of the Village Panchayat’s cleaning programme aiming to set up a park, two masts of 1.4 metres each came out. The masts resemble the architecture of temples and the primary observation reveals that the temples could be centuries old. Some of the locals also believe that these are Lord Shiva temples that were built during the early British empire.

The land lies beside a canal that connects the River Damodar that was dug years ago to divert water from the village and prevent flood during the monsoons. Whether it was flood or earthquake that led to the demolition and the extinction of these two temples is still a mystery.

Growing anticipation
A team of three from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) visited the site where the temples were discovered. According to one of the members of the team who requested a privacy of identity said, “We can’t say anything as of now, it’s very strange that this part of the country had temples like these. We have to dig another 20 odd feet to unearth the reality and the exact identity of these temples. I would my team to prepare the report as soon as possible.”

The ASI team met the local authorities and explained their expectations regarding the security of the place how to neutralise the local excitement. The village head and local police station were instructed to cover the area and stop any kind of further digging. The temples have already got few dents due to the unprofessional digging and the ASI officials stressed on putting a barricade to stop further damage.

While it was just a park that was on the cards, the local authorities are now expecting a tourism spot revolving on the historical aspects of these two temples. For the time being, they are keeping a close watch on the area and have also managed to set up lights during the night to make sure that there is no unnecessary loss of information.

Relic tourism
The eastern region of India especially West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, and Jharkhand have seen a plethora of religious as well as ethnic diversity since centuries. From the Buddhist settlement in Bodh Gaya and their gradual spread in and around eastern India to the likes of Vaishnavas and various sects of Hinduism practised their culture here. The likes of Moghalmari in West Midnapore district of West Bengal where almost three decades of excavation revealed a Buddhist settlement also adds another hue to this mysterious finding.

History lovers and story seekers have always found their way to dig the reality out of these unique discoveries. While the eastern state is aiming to promote itself as a one-stop destination for all kind of tourists, the unearthing of these two temples near Burdwan definitely has a positive prospect for West Bengal’s tourism industry.
Keep an eye on this space to follow the updates from the unique hamlet nearby the railway station Galsi that recently witnessed the emergence of these two shaman relics.

source: / Media India Group / Home> Tourism / by Sudipto Roy / Kolkata / October 27th, 2017

Where an iconic press struggles for survival

Tucked inside one of the many old red mansions that still dot the city skyline is a 15,000 sq. ft. space, which houses a press that had printed the Indian Constitution. But five years away from its centenary, the iconic printer is gasping for breath.

How old is it?

Hooghly Printing is a subsidiary of Andrew Yule, a Central Public Sector Enterprise. It came into being in 1922. This was at a time when the printing industry was in its infancy in these parts. Once running to full capacity, now it is knocking on the doors of the Central and State governments to get printing orders to survive. Hooghly Printing is part of the Andrew Yule Group of companies, which started operations in 1863 when a young entrepreneur from Scotland arrived in erstwhile Calcutta, then the Imperial capital. By 1875, the company had grown to mark its footprints in jute, tea, coal and insurance. Andrew Yule’s control passed from one sibling to another, and Sir David Yule assumed full control of the company after the death of his brother George, who had run it since 1875.

By 1902, Andrew Yule had expanded its business throughout the country with over 30 businesses which included jute and cotton mills, tea and coal companies, a railway company, a paper-making company and a printing press. It even had under its control a zamindari in Midnapore district of West Bengal, where it virtually ran an administration with agriculture, forestry, fisheries, roads, schools, hospitals and dispensaries, the company’s website says.

What did it print?

Hooghly Printing not only printed the Constitution but was also responsible for supplying the parchment paper on which it was printed. The first few copies were printed at the Dehradun printing facility of the Indian government as these were to be the best copies. The rest were printed at HPC.

Why is it in trouble?

In recent times, however, Hooghly Printing’s journey has been a rough one. As printing facilities have proliferated, Hooghly Printing’s need to play by the rules of a government-owned organisation has shackled its growth, admits Andrew Yule chairman Debashis Jana. It has been printing books, brochures and the like, but it needs bulk orders to survive.

What is the way ahead?

It needs to modernise to put in machinery that will help it get customers. It also needs space. Andrew Yule has put in place a strategy of upgrading the unit while relocating it to an unused space in another of its units on the western precincts of the city. Alongside, it is appealing to the Central and State governments to give it orders for printing textbooks.

The Hooghly Printing’s turnover was ₹17 crore in 2016-17 with a post-tax profit of ₹3 lakh. This thin margin is getting steadily eroded. Its parent, Andrew Yule, which celebrated its centenary year in 1963, too fell into bad days with the nationalisation of the coal and insurance business. In 1969, the government stepped in to acquire a 49% stake, making it a public sector enterprise. Its journey continued to be a rocky one thereafter and it moved to the sick bay. It has since made a remarkable turnaround. Today, it is in profit, and there is no reason that Hooghly Printing should not be a contributor to its parent’s strength. No one knows if a plaque would mark the space in Kanak Building on the arterial Jawaharlal Nehru Road, where the Constitution was printed, but it will be pity if a heritage institution like Hooghly Printing is allowed to fall by the wayside, say historians.

source: / The Hindu / Home> News> City> Kolkata / by Indrani Dutta / October 14th, 2017

SOCIETY – The diaspora men

Newly arrived indentured labourers from India in Trinidad. | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

In 1834, 36 impoverished men from Bihar and Bengal set sail for Mauritius to work as indentured labour. Over the next 80 years, more than two million people would travel to some 20 European colonies, the first of a global Indian diaspora, before indentured labour was abolished 100 years ago

When the British abolished slavery in 1834, they populated their plantations with indentured labour from India, launching the biggest international movement of workers after the notorious ‘middle passage’. In 80 years, more than two million Indian labourers were transported to about 20 British colonies before it was stopped in 1917 under intense pressure from Indian abolitionists. This year marks the centenary of the abolition of indentured labour.

Kalachand was on the verge of collapse when Champa, a fellow tribesman from the hills of Hazaribagh, came looking for him that fateful September evening in 1834. Champa too looked starved, but his eyes held a glint of excitement.

“Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you since noon. Didn’t I tell you god is great? We are going to escape this wretched life,” he said.

Kalachand didn’t say a word in response. All he wanted was to eat something. He hadn’t had a proper meal for three days now.

Champa too, and many others, had not eaten the past few days, but he suddenly seemed to have found some energy. Standing on the slushy banks of the Hooghly, he pointed to the Kidderpore depot and said, “This will save us.”

All Kalachand could see was a long shed and some small sail-ships at a distance. “Are we going somewhere,” he asked. “Tapu,” said Champa.

“Come, let’s eat something, I am starving,” he said. “Money?” Kalachand asked. “Don’t worry, I have some,” he said. He didn’t tell Kalachand it was the same Ghulam Ali, who had promised road work in Calcutta for ₹5 a month, who was now promising a brighter future.

Back in his shanty in Howrah, Kalachand found Bachu, Chuniram, Budhu, Bhola, Chota Bandhu and other friends from Bihar, Burdwan and Bankura, preparing to leave. Champa had sold them the hope of a better life on a faraway island working in British-owned sugarcane plantations. They would have legal contracts, medical help, and plenty of money to save for the future. In five years, they could come back and start a new life.

New lives, new names

The next day, September 10, Kalachand and 35 others put their thumbprints on a paper for a contract with George Charles Arbuthnot of Hunter Arbuthnot & Company. It was read out to them by a magistrate at the Calcutta police headquarters. On the contract, their names were written in English exactly the way the white men pronounced them.

Kalachand became Callachand, Champa became Champah, Bachu became Bachoo, Chuniram became Chooneeram, and Chota Bandhu became Chota Bundhoo. Most of their names had “ee”, “oo” and “ah”. It would be repeated a few million times in the next 100 years, changing Indian names to strange-sounding new variations.

After a medical examination and a five-day wait in a barrack in Bhowanipore, the men were finally herded onto a boat on the Hooghly that took them to a medium-sized sail-ship called Atlas. They were led to the lower deck while the dock workers loaded a big cargo of rice. In a few hours, the ship was heading towards the Indian Ocean. Its destination: Mauritius, the once uninhabited island off the southeast coast of Africa, discovered by the Portuguese in the 14th century and colonised by the Dutch, the French, and finally the British.

The tiny land of forests and hills, originally occupied only by dodos, rats and locusts, now had a flourishing plantocracy that desperately needed cheap labour. The abolition of slavery that year was threatening the survival of the sugarcane plantations. The planters needed workers by the thousands or faced bankruptcy. The only source of cheap labour they could think of was India, poor, overpopulated, and with millions from oppressed castes.

For the 36 men cooped up in the Atlas, it was a desperate, uncertain voyage to escape poverty and oppression. What they didn’t realise was that they were making history by launching the biggest movement of labourers in the world after the ‘middle passage’, laying the foundation for a global Indian diaspora.

50 days later

Over the next eight decades, more than two million Indians would travel to about 20 European colonies. A large number would die in transit, many would return to India, but the majority would remain, building vibrant Indian communities and sometimes even changing forever the demographies and socio-cultural and political histories of the colonies.

After 48 arduous days at sea and two days aboard the ship just off the shore, Kalachand and the other men set foot in Port Louis and walked up 16 stone steps carved at the harbour before they were processed and sent to the sugarcane estates. In the following years, till the turn of the next century, about half a million more Indians would climb up this flight.

Those steps, like those at Ellis Island near Manhattan that millions of immigrants to America passed through, would go on to become an iconic symbol of the history of Mauritius, and the incredible story of indentured Indian labourers across the world.

Kalachand and the others were the uninformed first participants of a ‘Great Experiment’ that the British had come up with to substitute slave labour and safeguard their commercial interests. If slaves had been hunted down and sold to the British and other Europeans, the new scheme used a method called indenture, which in simple terms meant a written contract signed by a person to work for another person or company for a fixed tenure and sum of money.

Compared to “slave” labour, indenture was projected as “free” labour, even though the workers were bonded by contract for five years under harsh conditions. ‘Double-cut’, for instance, would dock two days’ pay for a day’s absence from work.

The workers could not easily move outside their estates. If caught without their ‘immigration ticket’, they were jailed for ‘vagrancy’. The colonisers wanted to appear morally right without losing profits, but what they had surreptitiously laid out was “a new system of slavery”, as Hugh Tinker would call it in his seminal book in 1974. (A New System of Slavery, Hugh Tinker, Oxford University Press, 1974)

They chose to stay

Although their contracts promised the workers a return passage to India after five years, a majority of them chose to stay back by obtaining a new indenture. Some did return to India, mostly empty-handed, but many went back with wives and children.

Following the Mauritian experiment, which in the next four years saw more than 24,000 Indians arriving in Port Louis (an average 500 people per month), ships carrying Indian ‘coolies’ from the ports of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay became a common maritime activity for the British.

Between 1838 and 1920, another half a million would go to the Caribbean islands and the Dutch-controlled Suriname (based on a convention on emigration signed between the governments of Netherlands and England in 1870.) By the turn of the 20th century, almost all the British colonies, from Sri Lanka to St. Kitts, had tens of thousands of Indian indentured labourers. A few thousand Indian men had been transported as slaves, lascars, artisans and labourers by European colonies during the slave-trade era, even before the ‘Great Experiment’. However, what makes the 1834 Atlas voyage historic and pioneering is that it was the first-ever lawful movement of indentured labourers in the world.

Although Kalachand and his 35 companions survived, many who arrived in subsequent trips, which had more people packed into small ships, didn’t. Infectious diseases, unsuitable food, and the stress of the journey killed them. Mortality often touched double figures.

But in the later years, with the introduction of faster ships, the mortality rates decreased even as the numbers of workers rose rapidly.

The early recruits endured slave-like working and living conditions, and many perished. The Mauritius Truth and Justice Commission in its 2011 report said: “The treatment meted out to the flow of Indian workers who came to Mauritius between 1834 and 1842 was very harsh. Their recruitment, transportation, housing and conditions of work left much to be desired. The condition of work was so appalling that the authorities decided to suspend further recruitment.”

Most of the early ones were tribal people (collectively called Dhangars) and from lower castes — they were the desperate ones who could be easily duped or even kidnapped. The same report shows the attitude of the planters towards the Dhangars: “They have no religion, no education, and, in their present state, no wants, beyond eating, drinking and sleeping; and to procure which, they are willing to labour.”

Tracing their footprints

Did Kalachand or any of the men who came with him die young? Probably yes, but they left no traceable footprints, melting into the sugarcane fields that seemed to have filled the entire island. With no women partners, they probably didn’t even leave any descendants. But some of the early ones did survive and lived long lives. Some, such as Harran, a Bihari from Calcutta, left a record of their life, including photographs, purely by chance. (Angaje, Volume 1, Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund, 2012.)

Harran reached Mauritius in December 1836, and did multiple indentures without ever going home. He rose through the ranks, finally becoming an overseer. He was booked for ‘vagrancy’ twice and was photographed by the Immigration Depot for the first time aged 76. His photo, available in the Indian Immigration Archives of Mahatma Gandhi Institute in Mauritius, shows a nattily dressed labour-hardened man with a white beard who looks to have done well for himself.

The stories of Harran and some others, available in the archives, throw light on the early migrants who survived the neo-slavery. The details of the later migrants, particularly those who came in the late 19th century, are well documented.

In the Caribbean islands, migrants fared better because they started travelling late. Munshi Rahman Khan, who became a sort of legend in Indian indenture history for his unique autobiography, was one such. (Autobiography of An Indian Indentured Labourer, Shipra Publications, India, 2005.) Hailing from a village in Hamirpur in the United Provinces, he was a schoolteacher. On a visit to watch the Ramlila in Kanpur, he was lured by the “sugary talk” of two agents into a job in Suriname as a sardar or supervisor at a salary of 12 annas or ₹24 a month, unheard of in India at the time.

He left Calcutta in 1898, finished his five-year indenture, but chose to stay on as an agriculturist while also working as a sardar in railroad construction. He got married and bought a plot near the capital of Paramaribo. By the time he migrated, the reforms in indenture laws and land ownership and the falling sugar prices gave him a different life experience. His memoir is a rich source of history.

Workers to owners

In 1870, the planters were forced by falling prices and labour shortage into land parcelling or grand morcellement — selling small plots on the fringes of their estates to labourers. Many labourers thus became small planters. By the 20th century, there were 40,000 Indian planters who accounted for about 30% of the estates. Their descendants went on to become prime ministers and presidents, ministers, writers, academicians, artists, and businessmen. Nearly 70% of Mauritians are of Indian origin, and they dominate the island’s politics. In Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname, Indians constitute 40%, 51% and 35%, respectively, of the population.

Where are the women?

Indenture history and literature is dominated by the stories of men. But the Mauritius Immigration Office records (1853) [New System of Slavery, Hug Tinker, p-70] show that a handful of women too travelled in the early years like Deeti in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. The very first woman immigrant to Mauritius, and possibly in indenture history, to be issued a number by the Mauritius immigration authorities was Rimoney from North Bihar in 1845. (Satyendra Peerthum, Le Mauricien, 3 November 2016) And what a story it is!

Rimoney, 30, was a widow with a 12-year-old son when she was recruited by an agent in Calcutta where she was struggling to make ends meet. She was literate and so got a job as shopkeeper in an estate while her son was enrolled as labourer. She worked for several years, and with her savings, bought some land to become a vegetable farmer who employed other immigrants and later expanded the business.

There were other women too who migrated under extraordinary situations despite the prevailing patriarchy in India. Gauitra Bahadur, an American journalist of Indian origin, explored the 1903 journey of her great-grandmother Sujaria from Majhi district in Bihar to Guiana, in the book Coolie Woman. Sujaria’s story is fascinating because she was single, pregnant and, above all, a Brahmin for whom crossing the seas was taboo.

By 1910, about 23% of the indentured Indians in Mauritius were women — sifting sugar, stirring the juice, maintaining the mills.

An imagined India

The most remarkable feature of the indenture phenomenon is the creation of a “coolie diaspora” more than a century before the present diaspora India prides itself on. Recruited mostly from the Bengal and Madras presidencies, and to some extent from the Bombay presidency, the labourers and their descendants preserved their culture and heritage in its original form and created an India of their imagination, from handed-down memories and later, from satellite TV and cinema. A poor Tamil woman selling flowers on a Durban street dreams of meeting Rajinikanth in his Chennai home. Women, including young urban girls, who’ve never seen India, wear salwar-kameez and bindis and perform Bharatanatyam.

Temples are prominent in the diaspora’s cultural heritage, whether in Mauritius, South Africa, Fiji or the Caribbean, and Shiva and Kali temples, and Amman, Subramanya and Venkateshwara temples dominate. Shivratri, Diwali, Thaipoosam and Kavadi are gala events, with some rituals likely to surprise even Indians for their adherence to detail.

In Mauritius, for instance, a huge crater-lake atop a secluded mountain has been made into their Ganga Talo, where they celebrate Shivratri with bells and incense and rituals, an astonishing recreation of a heritage that travelled with them when they left their homeland more than 100 years ago.

The 16 steps the emigrants climbed are now immortalised as the centrepiece of a Unesco World Heritage site called Aapravasi Ghat. The Ghat, the barracks and the immigration depot have been restored and converted into a living museum. In its cool interiors, exhibits and faces tell the story of the odyssey of generations of bonded labourers from a country more than 3,000 miles away, how they built a nation with their sweat and blood, and finally, how they owned it.

As Kalachand stood at the steps, Champa probably whispered to him that the tapu they had reached was Marich tapu, Mauritius, the centre of a new India they would soon build.

@pramodsarang is a journalist-turned-UN official-turned-online columnist who lives a semi-hermit life in Travancore and adores Sanjay Subrahmanyan.

source: / The Hindu / Home> Society / by G. Pramod Kumar / October 28th, 2017

The touch of civility – Jeremy Raisman’s career in India

Peterhoff, in Simla, where Jeremy Raisman stayed in India

Jeremy Raisman is not a name many recognize in India or Britain. But while a few British Jews might take pride in his achievements in the Indian Civil Service, the few Indians who know he presented five wartime budgets as finance member of the viceroy’s council may not remember him with affection.

He comes to mind because the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea library has mounted a display of Indian books to commemorate what the British now call “Partition”. A leading Queen’s Counsel who wonders if India’s judiciary maintains the same high standard as when Soli Sorabjee was attorney-general asks what I think of Partition. So does a benign peer who campaigns against caste discrimination among subcontinental immigrants in Britain. Also a revered academic who has authored erudite tomes on India and Pakistan. I stress the commemoration is of Independence, but Partition is what the avalanche of television talks and discussions calls it. TV imposes its thinking and terminology even on the learned and discerning. It prefers Partition. Why?

A journalist I first encountered during the staged drama of “Mujibnagar” offered a typically English explanation. “‘Partition’ makes us feel guilty,” he said. “We love that!” He finds the endless televised interviews with Hindus and Muslims who had lost all, especially their closest relatives, in the great upheavals of 1947 tiresome. “The one question they never ask is ‘So many of your relatives were killed but did you kill anyone?'” He says Saudi Arabia promised the infant Bangladesh a billion dollars or more to call itself an “Islamic republic”. Mujib refused. Now he fears India is on the brink of betraying the dream of its founding fathers and turning into a rabid Hindusthan.

The books displayed – Nehru’s letters, Gandhi’s thoughts, Mountbatten, Jinnah and even a tattered biography of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad – celebrate the empire’s guilty conscience. It would have been too much to expect The Undark Sky, subtitled “A Story of Four Poor Brothers”, by Jeremy’s nephew, Geoffrey Raisman, among them. India isn’t its main theme. Geoffrey was – I have just discovered he died in January – a distinguished neuroscientist who made it his mission to find a cure for paralysis caused by spinal chord injury. We met many years ago at a formal dinner at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He was then working on The Undark Sky and later sent me a copy. He told me how his grandparents had fled Lithuania and settled down in a Leeds slum called Leylands. They were tailors with 11 children. Jeremy, born in 1892, was the third and most successful. John came fifth. Harry, Geoffrey’s father, was the sixth.

The family had never seen chocolate biscuits or butter and jam on bread until Jeremy won a scholarship to Oxford. Visiting Blenheim, the Duke of Marlborough’s grand palace that was Churchill’s ancestral home, Harry Raisman echoed another more famous Jew. “The history of England,” he declared, “the history of any country, is nothing more than an account of the bitter, continuous struggle of the common people against their rulers, the kings and queens, the dukes, barons, earls…” It isn’t for that radical explosion that The Undark Sky came to mind at the Kensington library’s exhibition but because of Jeremy Raisman’s Indian career. The boy who had once pointed to an elegant country house in Yorkshire and said “One day I’ll have a house like that” lived in Peterhoff, a Simla mansion burned down in 1981, whose ballroom could take two hundred dancing couples. It’s a house I went to see once for my mother had spent holidays there as a child when her uncle, S.R. Das, lived in it as law member.

J.R.D. Tata visited Peterhoff and beat everyone at ping-pong. Raisman backed Tata’s steel production. He also helped to conserve India’s sterling reserves. They amounted to a handsome £1,300 million or Rs 1,733 crore at the prevailing exchange rate, being mostly money an impoverished Britain, which had “to spend vast sums buying equipment from America… to sustain the war”, owed India. Churchill’s government expected India to pay even more for the war effort than the Indo-British agreement on sharing expenses stipulated. Some in London, including Maynard Keynes, wanted Britain’s debt reduced or cancelled. As India’s effective finance minister, Raisman objected to both. He wanted the agreement adhered to, and told the war cabinet in London on August 6, 1942 that being a belligerent “had already caused a heavy increase in India’s own expenditure”. It could not accept a larger defence liability. But his testimony was kept secret because it might set a precedent. Churchill didn’t want any Indian who succeeded Raisman “to claim the right to attend the war cabinet”.

Perhaps not so surprisingly in that pre-Islamist age when the Jew in question had cast himself in an imperial English mould, Sir Jeremy’s sympathies, personal and political, were with Muslim potentates like the Nizam, and the Nawabs of Bhopal and Chhatari. He didn’t like Gandhi. When he offered not to jail Gandhi in return for tacit cooperation and Gandhi replied he had to stick to his principles, Raisman grunted “Principles! With the bodyguards we provide to protect him, it costs the government of India millions to keep one man in poverty.” The Aga Khan’s palace wasn’t much of a prison!

Gandhi cropped up many years later when Mountbatten told Jeremy at a lunch in London, “In my opinion you were responsible for the death of Gandhi.” Asked why he thought that, Mountbatten replied Nehru had told him so. Raisman explained to Geoffrey, Harry and John, “After independence and the partition of the country, there was a financial crisis. The Reserve Bank of India was holding all the gold and currency reserves. The new Reserve Bank of Pakistan appealed to the British Government to intercede for them. I was asked to go out and advise. I refused, but in the end they insisted, and I agreed to go out, but only on the condition that I would give advice, but I would not enter into any discussion. I would give my opinion and that was that.” He advised that the gold reserves should be shared between India and Pakistan. “It was only fair. Both countries had paid taxes. They were entitled to it. Without reserves, the national banks couldn’t function. It was only common justice.”

According to Mountbatten, Nehru refused. “What!” he exclaimed “Give them the money! They’ll only use it to buy arms to murder our people with.” Hence the appeal to Gandhi. “Gandhi’s influence was tremendous. People worshiped him like a god. Well, Gandhi at once backed my decision. He agreed it was only natural justice, and with that, of course, it was agreed to transfer the gold and currency reserves. They included the sterling balances I had fought so hard for at the war cabinet…”

Jeremy had called on Nehru on the morning of Gandhi’s assassination. Nehru told him, “You know the old man’s being very difficult and causing me a lot of worry because there’s a lot of opposition building up to him.” Raisman went on, “That very afternoon, Gandhi went out as usual, to pray in public… One of his fanatical followers just walked right up to him with a revolver and shot him dead at point blank range.”

Sir Jeremy sat back. John, fumbling with his pipe, remained silent. “Let’s have tea,” said Harry, playing the host. The Jewish refugees from Lithuania had become almost English. Almost but not quite. Unlike the English, they rejected any share of the blame. “Of course I told Mountbatten that I didn’t agree I was responsible” was Sir Jeremy Raisman’s disclaimer. He probably remembered 1947 as the year of Partition more than Independence, but with none of the English sense of guilt for the bloodshed.

source: / The Telegraph,Calcutta,India / Front Page> Opinion> Story / by Sunanda K Datta-Ray / Saturday, October 07th, 2017

Newly-discovered maps from 1887 tell Kolkata’s municipal story

Painstaking effort: In this British-era map of Kolkata, water bodies are shown in blue and concrete structures are marked in pink.

The newly-discovered Kolkata maps, created over a seven-year period, plot buildings, trees, lakes and even dustbins

Almost a hundred years before satellite-based mapping made information available to people at their fingertips, a municipal survey done in Kolkata by British surveyors documented not only streets, houses, landmarks and water bodies but also trees, telegraph and telephone posts, urinals, wells, hackney carriage stands, and dustbins, among others.

The maps of the first major municipal survey of the city carried out over a span of seven years from 1887 are so precise that they follow a scale of 50 feet to an inch. The survey was conducted by Lt. Colonel W.H. Wilkins, who had surveyed Bassein in British Burma. The exercise involved ₹2.38 lakh.

The West Bengal State Archives is now ready with a publication comprising 38 such maps detailing the city’s north division, from Mahratta Ditch in the north, the Hooghly river in the west, the Circular Road, Panchanna Gram in the east and Jorasanko and Kasaripara area in the South.

Titled ‘Calcutta Municipal Maps 1887-1893,’ the publication provides a rare glimpse into the urban history and landscape of Kolkata with the minutest details.

Simonti Sen, the director of State Archives said the painstaking detail in the maps was impressive.

“These maps will not only serve as a milestone to those interested in urban history of the city but can be of immense use to environmentalists who can look up information on water bodies and clusters of trees that existed between 1887 and 1893,” Ms. Sen told The Hindu.

The maps were discovered rolled up in a corner of the State Archives when the renovation of its premises was taken up in 2015. Archivists came across 20 inch x 18 inch sheets with alphanumeric markings that did not make much sense in the beginning.

After a thorough search, scores of such maps were found and it was ascertained that the alphanumeric markings were the order of the maps. The maps were marked on the basis of street names and names of landmarks. Consultations with experts showed that they were part of the survey done by W.H. Wilkins. Each map sheet bears the names of nine or ten surveyors, mostly British, including that of Col. Wilkins.

First effort

“The Calcutta Municipal Corporation was set up in 1876, and this may be the first major survey after that. We believe that the aim of the survey was to increase the tax base of the corporation. One can see the pucca houses and katcha houses being marked differently. Moreover they take into account all municipal infrastructure from sewage lines and drains to telegraph and telephone posts,” Sarmistha De, archivist who has worked extensively on the publication said.

Both Ms. Sen and Ms. De are convinced that the maps, which are being brought to the public domain for the first time, served as the basis of the survey conducted by Major R.B. Smart between 1903 and 1914, which historians call the most “noteworthy of all surveys made on the city till date”.

A changed city

One important thing that the maps point to is the significant change in Kolkata’s green cover and water bodies. They have distinct symbols for different kind of trees, while water bodies are shown as blue spaces, concrete structures are marked pink, and katcha houses, grey.

Almost all 38 maps indicate large open spaces and green. These areas have turned into the most congested parts now.

The maps highlight important educational and cultural institutions of 19th century Kolkata. For instance Bethun College and School, one of the first educational institutions exclusively for girls has been marked as Bethune Female School.

The historic Scottish Church College set up by Alexander Duff in the beginning of 19th century is described as The General Assembly’s Institution in map sheet no. S9. More landmarks such as Duff’s Hindu Girl’s School (sheet no. Q7) and Free Church Institution (sheet no. O3, O4) are also mentioned.

The Star Theatre which conducted its first show on 21 July, 1883 can also be seen at the crossing of Cornwallis Street and Grey Street. (map sheet no S7).

Historians can also find details about the Bengal Music School founded by Rabindranath Tagore, in 1881, referred to in map sheet numbers P4 and P5.

These map sheets also provide a glimpse of the transformation of urban geography.

The name change of some old city streets becomes immediately evident: European names have yielded to Indian ones.

For instance Cornwallis Street changed to Bidhan Sarani, Schalch’s Street to Durgacharan Banerjee Street and Grey Street is now Shree Aurobindo Sarani.

After the current publication, the State Archives plans to reveal 68 other maps.

source: / The Hindu / Home> News> Cities> Kolkata / by Shiv Sahay Singh / Kolkata – September 30th, 2017