Trade Wizards of the East – VI The Merchant Princes (Contd.)

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The sun streamed into the horizon throwing peach darts on the tattered sails. The mast of a ship emerged over the undulating waves. Moti Lal Seal stood near the bank of the river mouth, inspecting the offloading of his cargo which would go to supply the essentials to the British army. He would then hurry to Fort William for his regular job.

The discrepancies in the demand of items for meeting the requirements of the colonists with those typically of the natives were so stark that it fuelled innumerable such business opportunities.


Potrait of Moti Lal Seal

Moti Lal Seal sprung from humble though respectable parentage, and destitute of all resources, he fought the battle of life and won it, such as few men similarly circumstanced could win. He started his enterprise by supplying corks of beer bottles to Mr Hudson, who was the biggest importer of the brew. Thereafter he went on to deal in cowhides, silk, sugar, rice and saltpetre. He founded the first indigo mart under the name of M/s Moore Hickey & Co., speculated on property and probably everything else. There was scarce a venture in which he was not involved. He was one of the instrumental persons in founding the first government bank in India, the Bank of Bengal, and funded insurance companies, the very first on Asian soil that underwrote Indian lives.

He worked a flour mill and exported biscuits to Australia for the first immigrants who went off in search of gold Down Under. He became a trading agent or baniyan to 21 first class agency houses among the 50 present in Calcutta. He also founded the first sugar refinery that worked on the centrifugal principle. His amassed wealth which provided for 13 cargo ships and pioneered the use of steamships in internal trade. One of his a steam tugs was even christened ‘Baniya’.

From being a shipping magnate, to an important member of the Agriculture and Horticulture Society of India and Founder-Director of the Assam Tea Company, he was hailed as the ‘Rothschild of Calcutta’ but was avouched as never having used an unfair means of trade.

Free College established by Moti Lal Seal (Source:

Aptly called the ‘merchant prince’ he contributed vastly to philanthropy.  He donated land for Calcutta Medical College, built an alms house in Belgharia and founded and funded a Hindu college named after him for secular studies. Attached to the medical college he established a lying-in hospital for native females and offered 1000 Rupees (a goodly sum those days!) to native widows who withstood social stigma to remarry. In the words of Kissory Chand Mitter,“It was not only the legitimate influence of wealth; it was the influence of a strong will and a sturdy intellect operating on a state of society somewhat different from the present.”

Seal Thakurbari, Belghoria, where 500 poor people would be fed daily at the ‘atithishala’ or alms-house

He founded the Moti Lal Seal Trust in 1848 under which he dedicated all his properties for purposes of charitable purposes. His outlook in his own words was: “I see around me rich men, possessing large funded and landed property. What I ask them is not to deprive themselves of their necessaries and comforts, but spare an infinitesimal portion of their luxuries for die homeless and the foodless. If they have ten carriages and pair, I ask them not to deprive themselves of all their equipages and cattle, but to keep nine carriages and nine pairs, and dedicate the sale proceeds of the remaining carriage and pair to the relief of the poor.”[1]


Ghat built by Moti Lal Seal at the banks of the Hoogly
(Source: NoiseBreak)

When he died in May 1854, his obituary in ‘The Hindu Intelligencer’ read “richest and the most virtuous baboo of Calcutta”, for he was a conservative who built a college to safeguard students from missionary influence and conversion, to educate them in western principles. Despite having orthodox views he wholeheartedly supported the reformist movement of Raja Ram Mohan Roy condemning sati and child marriage as social evils.

On the topic of the merchant princes, one of the most influential businessmen of his times was Prince Dwarakanath Tagore. His ancestry needs no introduction, though much of the fame of his family was on account of his own accomplishments and those of his gifted grandsons.


Dwarkanath Tagore

Educated and well-versed in English, Persian, Arabic and Bengali he earned a fortune by way of translation of property wills and official documents. His landed properties enabled him to raise loans easily on good security and expand his entrepreneurial ventures and he had soon built a veritable empire through successful commercial industrial ventures dealing in sugar, silk and indigo factories. As an estate-owner Dwarkanath was a shrewd businessman not typically given to benevolence, though he was a keen educationist and donated handsomely to funding of educational institutions.

Dwarkanath was one of the stalwarts in promoting and protecting native rights. He founded the Landholders Society March 22, 1838 to take legal measures for protecting native interests. This cut across conservative and progressive delineations in Bengal as well as communities to include all natives and was presided over by Radhakanta Deb, a noted conservative and the leader of the Hindu Dharmasabha, who was also an old rival of Dwarkanath and with whom he had earlier founded the Gaudiya Sabha. Following its convention ‘The Englishman’ observed: “The Hindoos have at last made the discovery that Union is Power.”

Dwarkanath was a close associate of Raja Ram Mohun Roy and stood side by side with him in the fight against ignorance, superstition and moral inertia, though much of his contributions have sadly been forgotten today. He was a pioneering businessman who initiated a new era in native commercial and industrial enterprise. Though Ram Mohun Roy was his friend and preceptor, his influence on Dwarkanath was limited, since he never renounced or repudiated the traditional worship of his family deities. Though a committed progressive, he maintained his relations with the Hindu Dharmasabha and continued to offer and sponsor traditional Hindu worship.

As any successful corporate he dabbled in innumerable ventures expanding the horizons of his business, and owned coal, opium, insurance, banking, tea and shipping lines, in partnership with British firms. Fired by the sight of railways during his visit to Naples, upon his return he founded the ‘Calcutta and Ganges Grand Junction Railway Company’, registered in April 23, 1845, with the intention of financing a railway line from Calcutta to Patna in a deal with the East India Railway Company.

‘Brihat Pashchimanchalik Banga Rail Company, Kolkata’ (1845-47)

Though he died before the start of construction, on account of delays owing to disagreements with the EIR on the route, two years after his death it was finally sanctioned, a belated tribute to this dynamic entrepreneur’s dream for his land.

A British loyalist, as he saw a partnership between England as in the best interest of his country, he was however no sycophant, but an equal to them who commanded and begot respect based on merit and not by grovelling before them.

Understanding the need to cultivate political and administrative connections he took up the post of salt governance or nimki deewan. From buying coal mines to dining with the queen of England and being received by the French monarchy at their harbour, Prince Dwarkanath understood the importance and power of commerce and never shied away from wielding it.


Grave of Dwarkanath Tagore in England
(Source: Flickr-Helen2006)


He died in England after a day of unusually severe inclement weather. His obituaries in contemporary British newspapers paid him glowing tributes, not just for being born into nobility or his pedigree, but for being a great “benefactor of his country” for every private and public undertaking of his time which bore his indelible stamp.

The merchant princes of India, who rubbed shoulders with the British counterparts laid the foundations of this nation in business and trade as we know of it. Just like lakhs of start-up ventures today, they too started from meagre beginnings to blaze a trail of glory, creation of prosperity, progress and bringing about overall regeneration.



Cover Picture:  A Bank of Bengal Note (Source:

Read the next section of this series here

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

Published: July 23, 2018


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[1] ‘Life of Mutty Lal Seal’ (K C Mitter)