Historical significance of the Dutch-built Patna Collectorate

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Updated: Oct 27, 2020 3:05 PM

Goods from as far as Sindh were stocked at the Patna port before being finally sent to the Kolkata port and eventually to different European nations.

The historic building served as a large godown for the traders along with serving as a Court of Appeal. (Credit: The Indian Express)

Historical significance of Patna Collectorate revisited! The 12 acre large complex of the Patna collectorate which was built by the Dutch traders has been in the spotlight recently as the state government decided to demolish the centuries old structure to pave the way for the construction of a new collectorate building for the capital city, the Indian Express reported. The idea of demolishing the historic building was first mooted by the government in the year 2016 only to be put on the backburner after stiff resistance came in the form of petitions by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), historians and active citizens of the city. The then Dutch envoy to India had also reportedly intervened to prevent the demolition of the historic building.

However, the idea of building a new complex at the site was revived by the state government and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar laid the foundation of the new Patna Collectorate complex days before the upcoming state assembly polls in the state. The matter finally reached the Apex court which put a stay on the demolition of the building last month.

Construction of the major parts of the collectorate complex was undertaken by the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) which was also known as the Dutch East India Company. The complex was later handed to the British colonisers by the Dutch after the Anglo-Dutch Treaty was signed in 1824. Patna which does not figure in the top trading cities in the present day India, used to be the hub for European traders largely because of its location on the banks of the mighty Ganga river which served the traders as a riverine port in the region. Bihar which was erstwhile the part of the Bengal province served as a major trade destination for the European traders who were besotted with the goods produced in the Indian subcontinent and Asian continent at large.

Explaining the ideal situation of Patna as a riverine port with direct connectivity to the Kolkata port, Professor Murari Kumar Jha of the Ahmedabad University told the Indian Express that Patna served the traders just like the present day Singapore which is one of the biggest trading hubs of the world in present times. Jha also said that goods from as far as Sindh were stocked at the Patna port before being finally sent to the Kolkata port and eventually to different European nations.

Jha in his paper ‘The political economy of the Ganga River: highway of state formation in Mughal India’ wrote that the Dutch merchant Thomas van Cuijck after having obtained the permission from the British for toll free transport of goods from Patna to Hugli port established Patna as a centre of trade. Jha in his paper also mentions that unlike British who attempted to reach Patna through Surat and Agra, the Dutch waded through the Sunderban region to reach the rich Gangetic plain region.

The high volumes of trade at the Patna port also finds a mention in the chronicles of the travellers of the period. Professor Kumkum Chatterjee in her paper ‘Darbar Politics in the Bengal Subah’ refers to a 1620 report that describes the Patna city getting thronged by traders from different countries every year. The varied traders included Mughal merchants from Central Asia and Iran and those from Armenia, Portugal and representatives of the Dutch and English trading companies. Chatterjee in her paper also writes that trade of cotton was the biggest attraction point for the traders in Patna city.

Aided by the apt climate conditions and fine Gangetic soil, the production of cotton and other textiles was the major attraction for traders and Patna city was understood to have been growing cotton and other textile products in abundance. Saltpetre, which is one of the chief ingredients in producing gunpowder was also grown in the region and sold to the Dutch and English companies. Large volumes of opium also exchanged hands at the Patna riverine port during the period.

In terms of quantity, the Dutch traders were ahead of their British counterparts. Dr Lennart Bes, a lecturer of Indian and Dutch colonial history at the Leiden University told the Indian Express that in contrast to the British who had other intentions apart from doing business in the region, the Dutch single mindedly focused on the procurement of textiles from the region and selling it to countries as far as Indonesia.

What led to decline in Patna’s trade?
After being counted in one of India’s most vital trading centres for more than three centuries, the arrival of Railways dealt a body blow to the trade in the Patna city as the role of the city as a forwarding station was substantially reduced and the movement of traffic went away from the Ganga river. Professor Anand Yang in his book Bazaar India writes that with the arrival of railways, the traders could directly ship their goods to Kolkata instead of sending it to Patna first as a stopover.

The historic building served as a large godown for the traders along with serving as a Court of Appeal. Post 1857 when the Crown had taken the direct charge of India, the building was turned into the Patna Collectorate. The Bihar government which seems determined to demolish the structure has said that since the building was used as a godown for storing opium, it holds no heritage value. On the other hand, historians have refuted the argument of the state government and have maintained that the building is a symbol of the city’s thriving past when it served as the country’s important trading hub. Professor Jha told the Indian Express that preserving the building is very important if the government wants to replicate the past and turn the Eastern India and Bihar in particular as the future trading hub of the country.

Manish Chakraborty, who is a conservation architect and professor at Kolkata’s Sister Nivedita University, told the Indian Express that attempts should be made to ensure that both the old and new complex can co-exist instead of demolishing the century old heritage monument. ‘Save Historic Patna Collectorate’ which came into being in the year 2016 when the state government first proposed the demolition of the building, the collective has active support from over 2400 people including many foreigners from countries like US, UK, France, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Singapore, Canada, Iran, Scotland and Brazil among others.

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