1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Calcutta

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CALCUTTA, the capital of British India and also of the province of Bengal. It is situated in 22° 34′ N. and 88° 24′ E., on the left or east bank of the Hugli, about 80 m. from the sea. Including its suburbs it covers an area of 27,267 acres, and contains a population (1901) of 949,144. Calcutta and Bombay have long contested the position of the premier city of India in population and trade; but during the decade 1891-1901 the prevalence of plague in Bombay gave a considerable advantage to Calcutta, which was comparatively free from that disease. Calcutta lies only some 20 ft. above sea-level, and extends about 6 m. along the Hugli, and is bounded elsewhere by the Circular Canal and the Salt Lakes, and by suburbs which form separate municipalities. Fort William stands in its centre.

Public Buildings.—Though Calcutta was called by Macaulay "the city of palaces," its modern public buildings cannot compare with those of Bombay. Its chief glory is the Maidan or park, which is large enough to embrace the area of Fort William and a racecourse. Many monuments find a place on the Maidan, among them being modern equestrian statues of Lord Roberts and Lord Lansdowne, which face one another on each side of the Red Road, where the rank and fashion of Calcutta take their evening drive. In the north-eastern corner of the Maidan the Indian memorial to Queen Victoria, consisting of a marble hall, with a statue and historical relics, was opened by the prince of Wales in January 1906. The government acquired Metcalfe Hall, in order to convert it into a public library and reading-room worthy of the capital of India; and also the country-house of Warren Hastings at Alipur, for the entertainment of Indian princes. Lord Curzon restored, at his own cost, the monument which formerly commemorated the massacre of the Black Hole, and a tablet let into the wall of the general post office indicates the position of the Black Hole in the north-east bastion of Fort William, now occupied by the roadway. Government House, which is situated near the Maidan and Eden Gardens, is the residence of the viceroy; it was built by Lord Wellesley in 1799, and is a fine pile situated in grounds covering six acres, and modelled upon Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, one of the Adam buildings. Belvedere House, the official residence of the lieutenant-governor of Bengal, is situated close to the botanical gardens in Alipur, the southern suburb of Calcutta. Facing the Maidan for a couple of miles is the Chowringhee, one of the famous streets of the world, once a row of palatial residences, but now given up almost entirely to hotels, clubs and shops.

Commerce.—Calcutta owes its commercial prosperity to the fact that it is situated near the mouth of the two great river systems of the Ganges and Brahmaputra. It thus receives the produce of these fertile river valleys, while the rivers afford a cheaper mode of conveyance than any railway. In addition Calcutta is situated midway between Europe and the Far East and thus forms a meeting-place for the commerce and peoples of the Eastern and Western worlds. The port of Calcutta is one of the busiest in the world, and the banks of the Hugli rival the port of London in their show of shipping. The total number of arrivals and departures during 1904-1905 was 3027 vessels with an average tonnage of 3734. But though the city is such a busy commercial centre, most of its industries are carried on outside municipal limits. Howrah, on the opposite side of the Hugli, is the terminus of three great railway systems, and also the headquarters of the jute industry and other large factories. It is connected with Calcutta by an immense floating bridge, 1530 ft. in length, which was constructed in 1874. Other railways have their terminus at Sealdah, an eastern suburb. The docks lie outside Calcutta, at Kidderpur, on the south; and at Alipur are the zoological gardens, the residence of the lieutenant-governor of Bengal, cantonments for a native infantry regiment, the central gaol and a government reformatory. The port of Calcutta stretches about 10 m. along the river. It is under the control of a port trust, whose jurisdiction extends to the mouth of the Hugli and also over the floating bridge. New docks were opened in 1892, which cost upwards of two millions sterling. The figures for the sea-borne trade of Calcutta are included in those of Bengal. Its inland trade is carried on by country boat, inland steamer, rail and road, and amounted in 1904-1905 to about four and three quarter millions sterling. More than half the total is carried by the East Indian railway, which serves the United Provinces. Country boats hold their own against inland steamers, especially in imports.

Municipality.—The municipal government of Calcutta was reconstituted by an act of the Bengal legislature, passed in 1899. Previously, the governing body consisted of seventy-five commissioners, of whom fifty were elected. Under the new system modelled upon that of the Bombay municipality, this body, styled the corporation, remains comparatively unaltered; but a large portion of their powers is transferred to a general committee, composed of twelve members, of whom one-third are elected by the corporation, one-third by certain public bodies and one-third are nominated by the government. At the same time, the authority of the chairman, as supreme executive officer, is considerably strengthened. The two most important works undertaken by the old municipality were the provision of a supply of filtered water and the construction of a main drainage system. The water-supply is derived from the river Hugli, about 16 m. above Calcutta, where there are large pumping-stations and settling-tanks. The drainage-system consists of underground sewers, which are discharged by a pumping-station into a natural depression to the eastward, called the Salt Lake. Refuse is also removed to the Salt Lake by means of a municipal railway.

Education.—The Calcutta University was constituted in 1857, as an examining body, on the model of the university of London. The chief educational institutions are the Government Presidency College; three aided missionary colleges, and four unaided native colleges; the Sanskrit College and the Mahommedan Madrasah; the government medical college, the government engineering college at Sibpur, on the opposite bank of the Hugli, the government school of art, high schools for boys, the Bethune College and high schools for girls.

Population.—The population of Calcutta in 1710 was estimated at 12,000, from which figure it rose to about 117,000 in 1752. In the census of 1831 it was 187,000, in 1839 it had become 229,000 and in 1901, 949,144. Thus in the century between 1801 and 1901 it increased sixfold, while during the same period London only increased fivefold. Out of the total population of town and suburbs in 1901, 615,000 were Hindus, 286,000 Mahommedans and 38,000 Christians.

Climate and Health.—The climate of the city was originally very unhealthy, but it has improved greatly of recent years with modern sanitation and drainage. The climate is hot and damp, but has a pleasant cold season from November to March. April, May and June are hot; and the monsoon months from June to October are distinguished by damp heat and malaria. The mean annual temperature is 79° F., with a range from 85° in the hot season and 83° in the rains to 72° in the cool season, a mean maximum of 102° in May and a mean minimum of 48° in January. Calcutta has been comparatively fortunate in escaping the plague. The disease manifested itself in a sporadic form in April 1898, but disappeared by September of that year. Many of the Marwari traders fled the city, and some trouble was experienced in shortage of labour in the factories and at the docks. The plague returned in 1899 and caused a heavy mortality during the early months of the following year; but the population was not demoralized, nor was trade interfered with. A yet more serious outbreak occurred in the early months of 1901, the number of deaths being 7884. For three following years the totals were (1902-1903) 7284; (1903-1904) 8223; and (1904-1905) 4689; but these numbers compared very favourably with the condition of Bombay at the same time.

History.—The history of Calcutta practically dates from the 24th of August 1690, when it was founded by Job Charnock (q.v.) of the English East India Company. In 1596 it had obtained a brief entry as a rent-paying village in the survey of Bengal executed by command of the emperor Akbar. But it was not till ninety years later that it emerged into history. In 1686 the English merchants at Hugli under Charnock's leadership, finding themselves compelled to quit their factory in consequence of a rupture with the Mogul authorities, retreated about 26 m. down the river to Sutanati, a village on the banks of the Hugli, now within the boundaries of Calcutta. They occupied Sutanati temporarily in December 1686, again in November 1687 and permanently on the 24th of August 1690. It was thus only at the third attempt that Charnock was able to obtain the future capital of India for his centre and the subsequent prosperity of Calcutta is due entirely to his tenacity of purpose. The new settlement soon extended itself along the river bank to the then village of Kalikata, and by degrees the cluster of neighbouring hamlets grew into the present town. In 1696 the English built the original Fort William by permission of the nawab, and in 1698 they formally purchased the three villages of Sutanati, Kalikata and Govindpur from Prince Azim, son of the emperor Aurangzeb.

The site thus chosen had an excellent anchorage and was defended by the river from the Mahrattas, who harried the districts on the other side. The fort, subsequently rebuilt on the Vauban principle, and a moat, designed to form a semicircle round the town, and to be connected at both ends with the river, but never completed, combined with the natural position of Calcutta to render it one of the safest places for trade in India during the expiring struggles of the Mogul empire. It grew up without any fixed plan, and with little regard to the sanitary arrangements required for a town. Some parts of it lay below high-water mark on the Hugli, and its low level throughout rendered its drainage a most difficult problem. Until far on in the 18th century the malarial jungle and paddy fields closely hemmed in the European mansions; the vast plain (maidán), now covered with gardens and promenades, was then a swamp during three months of each year; the spacious quadrangle known as Wellington Square was built upon a filthy creek. A legend relates how one-fourth of the European inhabitants perished in twelve months, and during seventy years the mortality was so great that the name of Calcutta, derived from the village of Kalikata, was identified by mariners with Golgotha, the place of a skull.

The chief event in the history of Calcutta is the sack of the town, and the capture of Fort William in 1756, by Suraj-ud-Dowlah, the nawab of Bengal. The majority of the English officials took ship and fled to the mouth of the Hugli river. The Europeans, under John Zephaniah Holwell, who remained were compelled, after a short resistance, to surrender themselves to the mercies of the young prince. The prisoners, numbering 146 persons, were forced into the guard-room, a chamber measuring only 18 ft. by 14 ft. 10 in., with but two small windows, where they were left for the night. It was the 20th of June; the heat was intense; and next morning only 23 were taken out alive, among them Holwell, who left an account of the awful sufferings endured in the "Black Hole." The site of the Black Hole is now covered with a black marble slab, and the incident is commemorated by a monument erected by Lord Curzon in 1902. The Mahommedans retained possession of Calcutta for about seven months, and during this brief period the name of the town was changed in official documents to Alinagar. In January 1757 the expedition despatched from Madras, under the command of Admiral Watson and Colonel Clive, regained possession of the city. They found many of the houses of the English residents demolished and others damaged by fire. The old church of St John lay in ruins. The native portion of the town had also suffered much. Everything of value had been swept away, except the merchandise of the Company within the fort, which had been reserved for the nawab. The battle of Plassey was fought on the 23rd of June 1757, exactly twelve months after the capture of Calcutta. Mir Jafar, the nominee of the English, was created nawab of Bengal, and by the treaty which raised him to this position he agreed to make restitution to the Calcutta merchants for their losses. The English received £500,000, the Hindus and Mahommedans £200,000, and the Armenians £70,000. By another clause in this treaty the Company was permitted to establish a mint, the visible sign in India of territorial sovereignty, and the first coin, still bearing the name of the Delhi emperor, was issued on the 19th of August 1757. The restitution money was divided among the sufferers by a committee of the most respectable inhabitants. Commerce rapidly revived and the ruined city was rebuilt. Modern Calcutta dates from 1757. The old fort was abandoned, and its site devoted to the custom-house and other government offices. A new fort, the present Fort William, was begun by Clive a short distance lower down the river, and is thus the second of that name. It was not finished till 1773, and is said to have cost two millions sterling. At this time also the maidán, the park of Calcutta, was formed; and the healthiness of its position induced the European inhabitants gradually to shift their dwellings eastward, and to occupy what is now the Chowringhee quarter.

Up to 1707, when Calcutta was first declared a presidency, it had been dependent upon the older English settlement at Madras. From 1707 to 1773 the presidencies were maintained on a footing of equality; but in the latter year the act of parliament was passed, which provided that the presidency of Bengal should exercise a control over the other possessions of the Company; that the chief of that presidency should be styled governor-general; and that a supreme court of judicature should be established at Calcutta. In the previous year, 1772, Warren Hastings had taken under the immediate management of the Company's servants the general administration of Bengal, which had hitherto been left in the hands of the old Mahommedan officials, and had removed the treasury from Murshidabad to Calcutta. The latter town thus became the capital of Bengal and the seat of the supreme government in India. In 1834 the governor-general of Bengal was created governor-general of India, and was permitted to appoint a deputy-governor to manage the affairs of Lower Bengal during his occasional absence. It was not until 1854 that a separate head was appointed for Bengal, who, under the style of lieutenant-governor, exercises the same powers in civil matters as those vested in the governors in council of Madras or Bombay, although subject to closer supervision by the supreme government. Calcutta is thus at present the seat both of the supreme and the local government, each with an independent set of offices. (See BENGAL.)

See[edit]

  • A.K. Ray, A Short History of Calcutta (Indian Census, 1901).
  • H.B. Hyde, Parochial Annals of Bengal (1901).
  • K. Blechynden, Calcutta, Past and Present (1905).
  • H.E. Busteed, Echoes from Old Calcutta (1897).
  • G.W. Forrest, Cities of India (1903).
  • C.R. Wilson, Early Annals of the English in Bengal (1895); and Old Fort William in Bengal (1906).
  • Imperial Gazetteer of India (Oxford, 1908), s.v. "Calcutta."