Establishment of Calcutta: Why can’t the city celebrate a ‘birthday’?

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August 25, 2021 5:36 PM

What do we know about the birth of Calcutta and what did the High Court say in its historic judgement? Let’s take a look.

The Calcutta High Court deliberated on the matter for months before saying that Charnock should not be regarded as the founder of the city. (Image: Reuters)

Birth of Calcutta: August 24 inevitably brings with itself the discussion and debate around the birth of the city of Calcutta and its age, even as a 2003 judgement by the Calcutta High Court was sufficient to have settled any dispute in this regard. Yet, the issue of when the city was founded and what role did Job Charnock, often credited as the “founder” of Calcutta, play in it continues to be discussed extensively around this time, according to a report in IE. What do we know about the birth of Calcutta and what did the High Court say in its historic judgement? Let’s take a look.

The Calcutta High Court deliberated on the matter for months before saying that Charnock should not be regarded as the founder of the city. It also directed the government of West Bengal to stop associating Job Charnock in this regard by removing textual references and by not celebrating August 24 as the birthday of the city. It added that the city did not have a birthday.

Claiming any day as the birthday of the city meant disregarding the early settlement years, especially because Charnock’s arrival in the city was predated by settlements there.

The report cited JNU History Professor Partho Datta as saying that historians did not consider any particular date as the birthday, mainly because a city cannot be formed in a day. Datta added that the date of Charnock’s arrival was indeed documented and he did decide that there would be a settlement in Calcutta, but that was not the city itself. He further said that a city denoted a lot of people living together, and there being institutions, a government, cultural as well as economic activity which attributed urban aspects to the city, demarcating it from a rural settlement.

If the urban history of the city is to be considered, then as per Datta, the most significant development took place in 1756, over six decades after Charnock landed in Calcutta. In 1756, when the British East India Company was developing what is now known as Fort William without authorisation, Nawab of Bengal Siraj ud-Daulah laid siege to Calcutta, defeating the East India Company in a decisive battle. This led to the British realising the vulnerability of the fort, and when the structure was rebuilt after 1757, Datta said that it had enhanced protection and the construction was done exceptionally well. This, as per Datta, changed what Calcutta looked like.

While building this fort, the British East India Company needed labourers and they went as far as Bihar and Orissa to recruit poor people who were seeking jobs. These people then migrated in order to build the fort. To accommodate the labourers, the British set up the “Coolie Bazaar” near Fort William, giving these migrants a place to stay for the duration of the construction, as per historian P Thankappan Nair. This led to migration into the city from the “hinterland”, giving the city more of a character.

Some other important developments in the city’s urban history included the establishment of the Government House in 1767 and that of the Lottery Commission another 50 years later. The commission was tasked with the development of streets, lanes and roads in the city. As per Datta, markers like water supply, planned roads, and transport were important markers of urban development that took place in the early 19th century, and this could be credited for making Calcutta the great city it would eventually become.

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