Trade Wizards of The East – I: Establishment of Kolkata as a Business Center

The foundation of any city is laid not just on the administrative and organizational planning with foresight on political and economic vantages but also upon speculative insights, inspirational dreams, divine fortitude and interventions along with the hopes, aspirations and sheer perseverance of all those who believe in its destiny.

It is now well known that the city of Calcutta (Brit. distortion of Kalikshetra, the ‘ground of Goddess Kali’) bears its origin to the royal sanction of three villages obtained by Job Charnock on behalf of the British East India Company, from the Mughal emperor Farrukhsiyar. The subsequent development, fortification of its expanses and burgeoning trade led to the city becoming the second most in importance in the mighty British Empire on which proverbially the sun never set.

What is less known is the antecedents that led to the emergence of this city.

The Portuguese had two ports, one seaport in east Chittagong or Chattogram, Port Grande, and another, Saptagram or Satgaon, a river port in the west, between Tribeni and Bandel, called Port Piquenno. They were joined together by the creek Adi Ganga or Tollynullah. Ships came as far as the mouth of Tollynullah at Garden Reach from the sea, thereby the waterbody was navigable by country boats upstream. The marauding pirate activities of the Portuguese of Goa and silting of the river led to gradual dwindling away of Saptagram, as most merchants set their centres of trade in Hooghly.

Kolkata in the 17th Century
(Source: Pic PinterestInformation – Calcutta , old and new by HAE Cotton)

The four prominent business families of Seths and Basaks determined to exploit the prospects of emergent Betore close to Garden reach, set up a village called Gobindapur, named after their deity Gobindaji, by clearing the wilderness on the east bank of the river towards the end of 16th century. Shortly thereafter they founded a cotton bale market aptly named ‘Sutanuti’ close by. There is another story of Gobindacharan Dutta Chowdhury, who it is said was visited by Goddess Kali in his dreams revealing the site of a buried treasure where the village founded by him is now located.

The Portuguese never offered any assistance in developing the upcoming enterprises of the Seths and the Basaks, nor did they endeavor to check the piracy, which earned the wrath of Shah Jahan who attacked their settlements and carried away the residents as slaves to Agra. The Seths and Basaks then tried to cultivate their European connections with overtures towards the British, who were still reluctant to foray into Bengal and were content with their trade at Balasore and Hariharapur in Orissa.


Activity at the banks of Hooghly
(Source: Scarrows)

It was around this time that Gabriel Boughton, a surgeon of vessel Hopewell, happened to cure the Emperor’ daughter, Jahanara, of burn injuries in 1652, which resulted in the British acquiring permission to build a factory in Hooghly. This is yet another example of a doctor gaining access for the British in Bengal. But in the meanwhile, the Dutch had preceded them in arrival and setting up centres in Pipli and Chinsurrah.



After a series of bewildering attempts to set up, Job Charnock found his fancy in Sutanuti for its strategic position, being guarded by the river in west and marshlands in east, he just had the north border to contend with in matters of security. With such arguments he made his case before the company, reluctant to forage on to the eastern banks of the river. The city of Calcutta as described by Kipling mushroomed like a fungus not just from the nucleus of Gobindapur, Kalikata and Sutanuti, but was complemented by Salkia, Betore and Chitpur as well.


Artist image of the Battle of Plassey



The prosperity of the fledgling city drew the attention of the Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah resulting in its annexation by him and subsequently, his being betrayed and vanquished in Battle of Plassey in 1757.






1844 Map of Fort William(Source: History Today)



With the return of the English to Calcutta, the old fort that had proven to be futile in its utility to serve as a citadel was abandoned and the new Fort William was constructed. This led to the displacement of residents from within the city core to the outskirts forming neighbourhoods and localities and decentralisation of markets.




This is the first in a series of posts that will explore the commercial rise and fall of the city and its fortunes along with its changing landscape.

The Bengalis have perhaps forgotten immense entrepreneurial appetite and skills of their forefathers which went into laying the foundation and building of one of the most beautiful cities entrusted to them by their forebears and the responsibility that rests with them to maintain its dynamism to prevent it from decline. With years of communist regime shrouding Bengal in mediocrity we need to be reminded of the daring ventures of antiquity.

Read the next section of this series here

Author: Tanuka Banerjee ( An inadvertent storyteller because tales simply refuse to be kept to self)

Published: May 14, 2018

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