Trade Wizards Of The East – V The Merchant Princes

Read the previous section of this series here

18th century Bengal saw the rise of innumerable local entrepreneurs. Being a land opportunity and the most teeming sea port of the country, it received maritime traffic from all over the world.

With the decline of the stranglehold of the Mughals and the advent of the British, who were yet to turn autocratic, the increasing focus of British trade interests in India after the loss of their American colony and American trade houses like those of Boston, Salem, Providence, Philadelphia, Beverly, etc. using Indians as their trade agents, Bengal was on the verge of an economic boom.

Two scions of the soil both having suffered the ravages of the Maratha marauders in their childhood and lost on account of it both material possessions and their parents, went on to script two of the phenomenal success stories of the city like several others.

Though an orphan Ramdulal De was blessed by a benevolent benefactor, educated and employed by him to oversee the loading and unloading of ships at Diamond Harbour after graduating from keeper of books on a meagre remuneration of 5-10 Rupees per month. Being resourceful, industrious and parsimonious he managed to save from such a stipend and invested in timber in Baghbazar, quite to the delight and admiration of his employer.


Potrait of Ramdulal De
(Source: PuronoKolkata)

One day while on his way to visit an auction on behalf of his employer, he came upon a wreckage of a floundering ship, which he astutely assessed to be worthy of retrieval for the value of its cargo. He was late for the errand he had been sent for, but just when he was about to leave, they started auction of the wrecked ship, and he made a single bid and bought it for Rupees fourteen thousand for his employer. A British man then ventured to buy it from him and after much haggling settled for a sum of Rupees one lakh. All of it he then handed over in all humility to his employer. Impressed with his honesty his employer asked him to use it as a capital for his own business. Buoyed by such a windfall, Ramdulal De became a preferred broker to both American and British trade-houses. Armed with astounding negotiation skills, market intellect and local connections and support, he became a household name in American business houses and was much sought after for his services. At times he invested his personal capital as well along with it and reaped the benefits.

30 to 50 American ships would dock at Indian ports annually bringing brandy, beer, Madeira and other wines, spermaceti candles, mackerel and fish, beef, ice, tar, iron and lead, spars, and carried away tea, cloth, sugar, indigo, saltpetre and gunny bags. The Americans were so indebted for his contributions that they were keen to take him to their country to honour him. Religious constraints however prevented Ramdulal De to undertake a voyage and thus instead they named one of the large ships after him! They presenting him with a portrait of George Washington and placed his portrait at the East India Marine Museum there. His death in 1825 was condoled by many businesses in America.

‘Ramdulal Niwas’
(Source: Noisebreak)

The funeral held by his sons, popularly known as Chhatubabu and Latubabu, was something people talked about for days. Being a man of great humility and perseverance he contributed majorly to the founding of Hindu college, which is known as Presidency College today. The palatial residence constructed by him at Beadon Street in North Calcutta, a brick-red Victorian structure, is a heritage building.


Nabakrishna Deb
(Source: Halley’s Scribble)

Another prodigious businessman of note was Nabakrishna Deb, who was royalty and an ally of Lord Clive. He along with Mir Jaffar, Amir Beg and Ramchand Roy divided among themselves the treasury of Siraj-ud-Daulah worth 8 crores. Being educated in Persian along with Urdu, Arabic and later English, he served as a tutor to Warren Hastings in local dialects. A confidante and an ally of Lord Clive when the latter expressed the desire to celebrate the victory of Plassey by offering thanks to the divine, Nabakrishna Deb bought the palatial mansion from Shobharam Basak and within three months arranged a thakurdalan and an entertainment hall with dancing quarters for the occasion to organise the first ‘Durga Pujo’ in Calcutta. As Clive lamented the loss of the only church razed by Siraj-ud-Daulah, Nabakrishna Deb brushed aside the concern of Clive being a Christian as a small matter in the scheme of things that can always be managed. Thus ‘Shobhabazar Durga Pujo’ came to be known as ‘Company Pujo’ that was graced by British and natives alike. A matter of status symbol now for both parties involved, to invite and be invited for the ceremony, Durga pujo started emerging from its orthodox religious tradition to being a social occasion used to display flamboyance and serve an economic purpose as well.

Painting depicting Durga Puja in early colonial times
(Source: Rail Yatri)

‘Shobhabazar Rajbari’, the residence of the Debs still stands a testimonial to the grandeur and opulence of its owners. Its owner is said to have spent a million Rupees on the shrādh of his deceased mother, donated land for St John’s Church and madrassas and held religious meetings of his own. Being well placed in administrative circles he procured the talukdari of Sutanuti and became a powerful political agent. Building roads through wilderness, organising musical programmes, patronising the arts, he lived life as a philanthropist through the medium of his business. He constructed two more houses to leave to his successors, one of them adopted but equally cared for.


‘Calcutta Banians’
(Clay models at Peabody Essex Museum)

Nabakrishna Deb and Ramdulal De were contemporary and examples of the flourishing bene (‘baniya’) culture of Bengal and because of their contradictory natures each had their own respective group of following. Their followers often engaged in arguments of ‘Babu vs Raja’, one being a British political agent, the other a champion of American trade. What is however interesting to note is that the ‘baniyas’ were not an unknown aspect of life in Bengal, as many ignorant Bengalis believe today, and nothing to be ashamed of either. In fact, the 18th century Bengalis did it with élan and it has contributed hugely to the colonial heritage of the city that Bengalis are so proud of today.

Read the next section of this series here

Cover Picture: Frans Balthazar Solvyns captured this American East Indiaman at anchor in Calcutta Harbour in 1794. His painting displayed in Peabody Essex Museum, offers a tantalizing glimpse of America’s forgotten India trade in its prime. (Source: PuronoKolkata)

Tanuka banerjee (An inadvertent storyteller because tales simply refuse to be kept to self)

Published: June 29, 2018


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