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The Sahibs of Calcutta, 1756 (part 4)

Updated on March 6, 2016

The sahibs of Calcutta 1756.... Part 4




William Tooke was only 18 years-old when he arrived at Calcutta as a writer for the mighty East India Company. The boy was intelligent, conscientious, hard-working and reliable. The council of the company, the topmost authority, recognised it and promoted him as a factor at the young age of 21 in 1756. The company did not object to its employees having private enterprises perhaps because a writer's salary was low, being five pounds sterling a year. A writer was subordinate to a factor and the lowest administrative rank. It was Tooke's ambition to earn as much money as he could honestly but quickly and return home to England.

In the first Indian month of Baisakh, mid- April to mid-May by the Gregorian calendar, one morning the 21 year old factor of the East India Company rode on horse back to Fort William occupying a large area on the east bank of the river Hoogli which flowed from north to south. As William Tooke sat facing west, he thought of distant home and became reminiscent of his own childhood and his family with a heart saddened by long separation. He was born in 1735 in the township of West Derby, Liverpool. He could just about visualise his grandfather, a tinker drunkard, small in stature, slovenly with sallow complexion. His paternal grandmother, nana, the wife of the man with a drink problem was the opposite; tall, strong and authoritative. Grandfather often was forced to sleep somewhere outside the house if he was inebriated.

Grandmother's whole life seemed to revolve round her son, Tooke's father. She sent him to a circulating school where her son became a pupil teacher; then to Oxford where he matriculated in 1730 at the age of 19. Nana, who was then 39 years old had four other grandsons and a granddaughter who was the eldest. William Tooke was the second child.

Tooke rose and looked behind him. The crimson sun was rising far away. People were moving, other sahibs, memsahibs and black servants or vendors of fruit, vegetables fish and meat among others. He mounted his horse which shook his head and neighed to express his approval or protest at having to work, one would not know. The young factor patted the side of his long neck, probably to say sorry or to placate him, and made the horse trot over to the fort which stood on the east bank of Hoogli. He made an inspection of the new godown to the south of the fort. It was well stocked with cloth, indigo and saltpetre. It was Tooke's responsibility for these because the godown belonged to the company

The north-eastern wind was blowing a putrid smell from the rotten fish in the nearby salt lakes but the young man was not unduly disturbed. His own house being alongside the north of the fort, his experience of unwelcome smell was in phase with the salt lake's offerings.

He thought of going to the eastern side of the fort, past Lalbazar, towards the salt lakes. Instead he moved south past the company house and other buildings until he came to the large white house of Mr Holwell. He did not linger because John Zephaniah Holwell was a member of the East India Company Council. The position was of the highest importance in its own right but he was also the collector of taxes and the magistrate of the cutchery, which was the name for the courthouse dealing with native criminals under British jurisdiction. John Zephaniah embroidered every event very lavishly. That was another reason why the British community generally avoided him.

Holwell's house was palatial, square shaped with the outside plastered white and incorporating the ubiquitous verandahs which were deep. It stood on very spacious grounds with gardens, ponds and statues. On one side of the compound were the servant quarters and storehouses for his private trade.

Tooke turned east from Holwell's house and went to the cemetery. He looked at the graves thoughtfully. In his three years he had seen so many deaths. Most of them were boys going abroad for the first time and dying of cholera, fever or undiagnosed ailments. The hospital was just next door to the north of the cemetery. A joke among the European community was that the distance between the hospital and the graveyard was short so that one could expect a speedy burial if one was admitted to the hospital.

Tooke continued his eastward journey. He passed Mrs Pearce's bridge, looked at the little tank on his left and the Marhata ditch on his right. He followed the Marhata ditch as he rode north and stopped outside Halsibagan, known to the British as Omichand's garden. Omichand was a wealthy Marwari merchant and managed to live just inside the city boundary, a rare privilege granted to a native of India because the white sahibs lived exclusively in an area of Calcutta adjacent to the eastern bank of River Hoogli. The only black faces to be allowed in that region were the servants and of course hawkers and other classes of Indians who provided service to the British households or offices and other commercial establishments. The Indian traders were allowed to enter when absolutely necessary but not to stay under any circumstances.

William Tooke knew this route pretty well. He had already travelled some 10 miles, his horse sometimes galloping but most of the time merely trotting. About 2 miles due north from Halsibagan was the Chitpur tank. South-west to it on the east bank of the Hoogli river was Kelsall's octagon with a large landing stage. About 500 yards south of it was the Chitpur bridge over the Marhata ditch. Tooke decided to travel south- west to reach his house about a mile and a half away. He had to change course now and again and cross ditches. He eventually took the Lalbazar road which led to the salt lakes.

He left the jail house on the left, the cutchery on his right and, further on, the playhouse on the left. He went across the famous Rope Walk and stopped to have a look at Laldighi which the British called the Great Tank. He turned right skirting St Anne's church and then to his house. He was surprised to learn from a waiting messenger that he had been summoned by Governor Roger Drake at Fort William.

That morning Edward Picard, a young ensign, rode north from his house near the fort along the eastern bank of Hoogli. He passed Cruttenden's ghat, landing stairs, and turned towards Jackson's ghat. He took the wide road east, skirting the Armenian church, and arrived at the crossroads. He paused to have a look at the Portugese church to the right and then turned left and rode on until he came to the Barobazar area. He went up through one of the gates of Barobazar, rode left on the main road and turned north-east on the road to Dum Dum. He turned left at the bank of the Marhata ditch, inspected the Chitpur bridge and followed the river bank, reaching the Governor's premises soon after William Tooke's arrival there.

They sat facing the Governor around an oval table. With him were three other members of the council. Charles Manningham was responsible for the godowns storing export materials. William Frankland was in charge of the import section of the company. Holwell was seated on the right hand side of the Governor. Drake seemed half asleep. His silk breeches were tight and his red coat was embroidered with generous amounts of gold and silver. His wig was ashen. The other council members were dressed in a similar manner but less ostentatiously.

Pointing a finger at William Tooke the Governor asked gruffly, “What do you know of Krisna Das?”

“I am sorry your Excellency,” replied Tooke with a question. “In what respect?”

William Frankland wanted to help. He added, “We want to know the exact circumstances of his escape from Dacca and arrive at the white town. Omichand has given him hospitality and this Krisna Das has applied for the protection of East India Company.”

The answer was very easy for Tooke and with great enthusiasm he started giving the audience a lesson in history as follows:

The British built this fort in Calcutta ostensibly by permission from the Moghal emperor in Delhi. The Moghal divided Hindustan as they called India into several administrative units, each unit being ruled, nearly autonomously, by a viceroy called nabab by the rulers. When the British started to build Fort William, they did not seek permission from the nabab of the eastern region. This region incorporated the provinces of Bengal, Bihar ans Orissa. Dacca was an important city in the eastern part of Bengal while Calcutta stood in west Bengal.

The ageing nabab Alivardi Khan was wise. He knew the British to be skilled at warfare and although the nabab's army had more guns and men than the British, Indians did not have the naval capacity and expertise in sea battle as the British had.

The old viceroy turned a blind eye to the expanding British encroachment so the British started to spread their tentacles with impunity.

Alivardi had three nephews. The eldest died without an heir but his wife Begum Ghasiti adopted a son naming him Akram. She wanted him to succeed to the masnad, the throne. Another claimant was Shaukat Jang the son of the nabab's youngest nephew. He, however, chose Siraj Uddaula, the son of the middle nephew. Upon the death of his grandfather, as he called him, Siraj, a mere youth of 18 years became the nabab of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. The late nabab's eldest nephew was the Governor of Dacca in east Bengal and, unusually for a Muslim ruler, his chief minister was Raj Ballabh, a Hindu, a man with immense power.

Roger Drake interrupted, “You can cut out the boring details. Give us the facts in a nutshell.”

Holwell added, “I believe he has thousands of wives; this Krisna Das I mean.”

Ensign Picard glanced at William Tooke betraying his disbelief at Holwell's pronouncement. A native servant entered with a clay pitcher and started sprinkling water on the coir mattings which hung against the windows with the object of cooling the air diffusing or blowing into the room. He held the long necked pitcher under his left armpit and poured enough water to cover his cupped right palm. He had a technique of sprinkling the water by a horizontal swipe of his right hand. His job done, he went towards the door and kicked the punkhawalla, the fan puller, for no conceivable reason and walked out. The punkhawalla who was sitting on the floor murmured, “Go and kick your father, shala shooer ka bachchha,” making sure first that the servant was well outside the room.” Shala is brother-in-law but it is difficult to establish why it is the height of insult to be addressed as such. Shooer ka bachchha means an offspring of a pig.

Tooke continued to tell them that a shrewd man like Raj Ballabh anticipated that Siraj was going to succeed his grandfather and he was bound to take revenge on him for supporting his aunt, begum Ghasiti. He sent an enormous amount of treasure with his son Krisna Das to Calcutta. William Watts, the chief of the East India Company's Kasimbazar factory up north helped Krisna Das escape to Calcutta in view of the great service his father rendered the British while holding high office.

Governor Drake fidgeted at this moment. He made a handsome personal profit out of this deal and did not want everybody to know the amount involved. He said, “Well that gives my council members a good account of the event.” He turned to Ensign Picard and said, “The problem is this. Unlike his grandfather who appreciated our presence in India, this upstart is saying that we have no right to build a fort anywhere in Hindustan. He is also most insolently objecting about us, high or low, not paying any taxes to his treasury on the money we are making as a company and as individuals. He is threatening to oust us from Bengal!”

William Frankland said with gravity, “Of course we don't think anything will come of it. Considering the intrigue in his court it is unlikely that Sir Roger Dowla will survive long.” He laughed heartily because the British soldiers corrupted the young nabab's name in this manner.

Holwell said, “Just the same we need to fortify the fort.”

It was a pertinent point which was taken by the ensign seriously. He said somewhat forcefully, “I must speak to David, Captain David Clayon that is.”

Drake's young face suddenly looked mature. He said, “We have already done so. I want you to work something out with him.”

They both had a sumptuous meal at the Governor's dining table with plenty of wine and arrack to drink. The latter was a native drink and a good substitute for whisky although more potent. They all lay down Indian fashion on thick mattresses on the floor for afternoon siesta, a most welcome habit on a hot afternoon. William Tooke could not sleep; His mind wandered.

He remembered vividly how elated grandmother was when her son went for Deacon's orders and was ordained in 1745. Tooke was 10 years old. He had a letter waiting in the offices of the East India Company in Calcutta in 1753 telling him that his father went to the Walton district in Liverpool as curate and master of the grammar school. His stipend was £35-00 p.a. and an extra £6-00 as master. He was given a house in the church yard. Now in 1956 his father was 45 years old and grandmother, still alive, 65. He sends money home and has asked his father to buy a large plot of land in or near Liverpool where he proposes to build a mansion once he gets back to England a rich man with position and power.

Tooke dozed off and they all woke up to find the sky black with clouds racing against one another. A cyclonic storm raged and lightning struck like the shooting tongue of a giant python; a flash of lightning followed by cracking thunder. They both came out to the verandah and watched.

William Tooke thought of Shiv, Mahadev, a very superior devata, whose wife Durga, at the request of the Aryans, comes down to the plains to slay Mahishasur, a dark-skinned aboriginal ruler to be deposed from his position as the ruler under the pretext that he terrorises the population of Aryavarta, the then India, so that his empire can be occupied and ruled by trespassing Aryans. Mahishasur must be eliminated because he is the original inhabitant of the land with more right to stay and enjoy his own way of living than the fair-skinned aliens with different ways.

The violent, destructive storm disappeared quickly and the black buffalo-like clouds dissolved, exposing a clear sky, the colour of lapis-lazuli. The earth remained damp and steaming for a while but only for a while. These storms come briefly in the month of hot Baisakh as if to tantalise the dry earth or to console it with the promise of the on-coming persistent, heavy downpour a few weeks later.

The two young sahibs gathered their horses and trotted along the Avenue in Lalbazar, turned right at Rope Walk, passed the playhouse and to the home of Captain David Clayton. They were received by a very attractive Eurasian girl, the latest addition to the captain's household, who said that the captain has just woken up and would be with them as soon as he could. The sahibs ignored her and started talking among themselves.

“I am curious about this Krisna Das” asked Ensign Picard.”What is going on really?”

Tooke replied, “Well, on the face of it one would say that a young headstrong nabab is making an unnecessary fuss about a man. All he is after is his wealth. That may be so but there is more to it than meets the eye. I blame the Governor. When the nabab sent him the letter he should have at least read it. I am told he didn't even open it. What is more he has not sent any gift to the nabab by way of congratulating him for ascending the throne, as is customary. The Dutch at Chinsura and the French at Chandernagore have done it. Drake has failed to comply with the protocol. The young nabab must have noticed it.”

“We are at war with the French,” mused Ensign Picard.

“The French have been beaten in the south around Madras as you may know,” said Tooke in the way of dismissing the subject. “More importantly, there is going to be a calamity here if Drake does not handle the situation properly; if he does not stop being arrogant and discourteous.”

The three of them went to Lalbazar park taking the goat skin flasks with them and sat by Laldighi. It was at least two hours before sunset, if not longer, but a cool moist breeze made them comfortable. They drank wine from the flask and talked. “If the nabab attacks,” said Captain Clayton, “We won't be able to do much. The fort is not fortified well. It needs strengthening.”

“That should not be difficult,” suggested Ensign Picard.

“It is difficult,” said Tooke. “The nabab has forbidden any work on the fort. Not only us. Even the French, the top man is a friend of the nabab, at Chandernagore have been warned against any fortifications.”

“What is happening?” asked the ensign. “Is he trying to destroy us?”

“It may be,” answered Tooke. He lowered his voice as the park was getting full of ladies and gentlemen strolling a little earlier than usual because of the unexpected coolness of the afternoon. “But,” he continued. “I don't think his noblemen will allow this. On top of it we have got these avaricious Hindu merchants. They do very well out of us. Of course the British make the most profit by fair means or foul.”

Captain Clayton said, “From the military point of view, the situation is less promising. I have only seventy British soldiers, one lieutenant and Ensign Picard. Of these seventy British, a few are for combat duty with the ensign at the Chitpur redoubt. The rest are frequently asked by order of the council to guard the godowns or transit vehicles carrying company merchandise. There are about 20 topasses, Portugese half-castes, you know, but these are not reliable even at best of times. We have 20 black soldiers but they are employed for labouring in the sun or act as interpreters. Altogether we have about 250 Europeans in the garrison.”

“And most of them,” added Tooke, “are fugitives from justice back in their home land. Their ability and loyalty are doubtful.”

“How many Europeans have you got?” asked the captain looking at the ensign.

“About ten,” came the reply.

Captain Clayton said, “I don't understand why the Governor hasn't talked to me or rather it is Captain Minchin who should discuss all this with us. After all he is the commander of Fort William.”

Tooke replied, “I suspect someone has talked about the strategic importance of the bridge at Chitpur. Hence the presence of the ensign at the meeting. I was invited because, I think, the Governor wanted to know how much I knew in case I wrote about it for publications back home or the house journal that has started here in English.”

“Of course, I forgot,” said Ensign Picard smiling. “you are a chronicler.”

“I have a great interest in writing,” said Tooke seriously. “But I need money; a lot of it; hence India. So like all of you I work for very little pay even as a factor but my energy is devoted to my private trading. I want to go home as soon as I can and take care of my family. There is also this. I don't want to wake up one morning to discover that I am dying of cholera or something.”

Ensign Picard suddenly felt homesick. He was a southerner. He asked, “You are a northerner. Is your Liverpool a big city? As big as London?”

“No,” replied Tooke with a smile. “My grandmother is known as the local historian. She told us that the city grew with the expansion of slave trade in England. There was this Pool, a shallow tidal tributary of River Mersey where ships docked. In 1708 there were only 13 streets in Liverpool for a population of 6,000. As the demand for slaves increased, bigger and bigger ships had to be designed and assembled. A dock, occupying an area of 4 acres was constructed to accommodate large ships in 1715. To give you an idea about the increase in tonnage of ships, in 1700 Liverpool Merchant, at least I think that was the name of the ship. weighed 80 tons, carried 220 Africans from Africa to Barbados and sold them for £4,239-00. Within a decade and a half slave traders commissioned ships weighing 300 tons or more. Nearly all of them sailed from Liverpool with cargoes of cloth, utensils and spirits to barter for slaves along the coast of Guinea. From there the ships made the 50 days' voyage to the West Indies; sold the slaves and came back to England with sugar, tobacco and molasses. In a good year one hundred large ships made that round trip.

In the 18th century British parliament passed dozens of acts resulting in the Africans being classified as a commodity, as for example like cattle or, worse, like spices from India; although a valuable article with a price tag on it. Britain, a super global power in waiting, dominated the Atlantic. Slave trade flourished as did Liverpool with it. The town plan of 1725 shows the town spreading outwards from the edge of river Mersey along Titheburn Street, Dale Street, Church Street and Hanover Street. Handsome buildings were also being erected as money poured in from the slave trade.”

Captain Clayton asked, “Did they abduct the people of Africa by using soldiers?”

William Tooke replied, “There were always armed men on board a ship I am sure but leading Africans and the Arabs did the abduction mainly and bartered them for British goods which consolidated their already high status in their society.”

Captain Clayton thought it would be a good idea to have a look at the black town because the nabab's army could easily come from that direction. The three hatmen or topiwallas, as the natives described them, rode along Lalbazar road for about a mile and had a quick drink of arrack at the Bread and Cheese Bungalow, a hostelry exclusively for white sahibs. They crossed the Marhata ditch and moved alongside it sometimes to the north, at times to the east.

The whole area was known as No-man's Land where the white militia lived with their native women and mixed race children. There were also topasses who were usually employed for army duty by the East India Company. The houses were small but brick-built with small windows and wooden double doors which were short in height and width, warped and cracked. Here and there the sahibs came across open drains which they crossed, each holding a handkerchief to his nose.

They moved further east and entered the black town. The dwellings had thatched roofs and mud walls and floors. The front of each house had a mud verandah with slender wooden poles to support the sloping roof above it. The verandah had a loom and the rooms on the first floor had small windows. The outside walls at the back of the houses were patted with cow dung cakes with deep finger marks imprinted in them. The majority of the houses had a small garden at the back with mulberry bushes and marigolds. The houses were strewn about in random disorder.

There were men roaming about purposefully. They had shoulder length hair and simple turbans. They wore long loose robes, some white and others saffron and grey with sashes tied tightly around their waist. They all wore sandals. Some of the boys were completely naked while the older ones wore dhotis. The children were unkempt but healthy looking. William Tooke wondered if they died off like the white Europeans with those countless diseases so rampant in Bengal. He half turned to the ensign who said, “These are baboos, that is, office workers you see. The manual workers normally wear knee- length dhotis and are usually naked up to the waist.”

The sahibs noticed a crowd encircling something and shouting; men and women creating a cacophony of sounds. They moved towards it. Ensign Picard asked in broken Bengali what the matter was. Immediately the crowd broke away from the human circle and stood facing the sahibs. The teenage girls covered their mouth with the end of their saris. The older ones pulled their saris over their heads and covered their foreheads. The children stood quietly in anticipation.

A man, dressed in a dhoti and kurta with a gamchha on his left shoulder, was sitting on the ground on his haunches with his head between his two palms. A gamchha is a small piece of cloth with a multi-purpose use such as wiping the face or carrying a small amount of shopping. It is very useful as a towel if one wished to bathe suddenly. A cow was standing patiently beside him with a thick cloth on its back which nearly reached its hoops. An oven fired clay jar with a spout and capacity of about a pint and a half of liquid rested on its side on the ground with a hint of milk in it. The story crystallised.

The townspeople of Black Town of Calcutta, 1756, preferred their milkman to bring the cow to their neighbourhood and milch it in their presence to ensure that it was not adulterated with water as was the wont of milkmen of India. This milkman, a Bihari, that is, a native of the adjacent province of Bihar, had been visiting them for a year and milking the cow in front of them in the late afternoon, seven days of the week come rain or the residual heat of a brassy sky. Only recently some smart Alec, as the Bihari remarked pejoratively using an equivalent phrase in his own language, pointed out that whether it was summer or winter the cow was always covered presumably to keep it warm. Secondly one cow could not possibly keep on producing milk throughout the year. The other most important point was that there must always be a recently born calf with the mother because some of the citizens were well aware of the technique of milking a cow. First of all, the calf was allowed to suck its mother's tits for thirty seconds or so. It was then forced out of the way while the milker rubbed her tits with mustard oil. The final step was for the milker to squeeze the milk out of the udder by rubbing the tits with his fingers in a sliding motion.

That afternoon the Bihari carried out a ritual by flicking his palms over his shoulders and chanting inaudible mantras. He then went under the cover with his clay jar and soon the sound of jets of milk hitting an empty space could be heard by everybody. In a few seconds the sound changed to that of liquid jets hitting a liquid surface. As soon as he came out to transfer the milk to the container of a waiting customer, a man asked abruptly, “Where is the calf?”

“What are you buying?” retorted the milkman. “A calf or milk!”

Another man asked, “How do you get milk from the same cow for one full year?”

“What do you know of cows you city people?” snapped back the Bihari. The crowd grew ominous. Someone pushed him. As he fell on his side, the jar rolled on the ground emptying the bulk of the milk. The milkman got nervous but he shouted as he got up that he would not stay in a place inhabited by primitive people. He empasised that he had never experienced such behaviour in all his life. “At any rate,” he said, “none of you have paid me for a month. How do you expect me to buy food and other


The same man asked again. “Answer the question. How does she continue to give milk month after month?”

“What kind of a fool are you?” shouted the exasperated Bihari. “Do you expect me to get inside her stomach to find the answer to your stupid question?”

The man became very angry. He gesticulated as he bawled out, “Whom are you calling a fool! Your father is a fool.”

Now it is one thing to hurl abuse at a person. That can be countermanded or ignored. It is, however, unthinkable to ignore one's parents or grandparents being dragged into the quagmire of insults.

“Watch it,” shouted the milkman wagging his finger at his adversary.”It is your father who is a fool.”

“All your ancestors are fools,” replied the man with venom.

This was a grand opportunity for the crowd. If they could show their aggression clearly, the milkman was bound to feel intimidated and flee. There was a much welcome financial advantage here because none of them paid him for a month as the milkman correctly complained, even though milk was delivered on time every day, watered or not. The crowd took a menacing posture and started to advance towards the milkman while chanting abuse, at which point the sahibs appeared.

After hearing the story which the ensign interpreted, Captain Clayton moved forward and whisked the cloth away. They were amazed to see that the cow was in fact a bull

which was castrated. This is an age-old Indian custom. The bulls used as beasts of burden are prevented from experiencing the joy of sexual union with a cow; hence they are rendered impotent by castrating them. That preserves their vital energy for such tasks as pulling a plough or a bullock cart. The people ensure that there are enough stray bulls with their precious part intact so that they can father calves for the benefit of mankind.

They all had to admire the milkman. He firmly fixed a large goat- skin bag on the underside of the bull. He stitched a small udder-shaped bag to it which was obviously connected to the main bag. There was a tit in the small bag which was kept closed with tapered wooden dowel. Obviously he practised till he became competent to pull the dowel out and manipulate the artificial tit for discharging milk in the clay jar. He fixed a skirt woven from dried palm leaves between the bull's private part and the large bag.

A serious discussion ensued. They agreed that they were unanimous in pronouncing the milk being watered all the time. Pure milk produced a scum once boiled. The scum was tasty and nourishing. The milk from this man was so dilute that they could not get any taste from it; getting a scum was out of the question. The crowd took a decisive action. They shouted, “Get him. Kill him,” but in the hubbub the Bihari managed to slip away unnoticed by the citizens of Black Town.

“I am glad he got away,” said William Tooke as the sahibs rode off.

“But he is an outright rogue Sir!” exclaimed Ensign Picard.

As the topiwallas of White Town moved further east, they came across open fields with scattered mud huts forming little villages. An advancing little boy folded his palms in reverence to the sahibs, ever so white, ever so big and handsome, as he continued to take his cattle back to the villagers, hitting the strays gently with a twig and shouting, 'Hut, Hut'. Women walked in a row with clay pitchers full of water balanced on their heads, their arms dangling along their sides. The sahibs, now stationary but mounted on their horses, watched the ripples of the flesh as the wet saris revealed the curves of their bodies.

It was now dusk with smoke from the huts causing a translucent curtain a few feet above the ground. The women seemed oblivious to the men and, the white sahibs thought, the nymph-like apparitions appeared to merge suddenly into the smoke to be seen no more.



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