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East Meets West
Chronology of Pre-Anglian European settlements

Circa 1 AD: Trade with China and Arabia makes Tamralipti a prosperous port.

Circa 1450: Admiral Zheng He arrives in Tamralipti with the ensign of the Ming Emperor to further promote trade.

1537: Portuguese traders establish the first European 'factory' or settlement at Satgaon.

1588: Portuguese abandon Satgaon to establish Bandel de Hooghly.

1599: The Church of Our Lady of Happy Voyage consecrated at Bandel.

1625: Jan Companie establishes a 'factory' at Chinsurah, a few miles south of Bandel.

1632: Moghul Emperor destroys the Portuguese settlement at Bandel.

1673: The French colony of Chandernagor is established.

1699: The Danish East India Company establishes the settlement of Fredericknagore.

1757: The British take Chandernagor.

1763: Chandernagor restored to the French.

1777: The Danish East India Company goes into insolvency. Fredericknagore becomes the Danish Crown Colony of Serampore.

1794: The British take Chandernagor for the second time.

1799: Reverend William Carey establishes printing press in Serampore.

1815: Chandernagor restored to France after Napoleon's fall.

1819: Serampore College established.

1825: The Dutch hand over Chinsurah to the British in lieu of the island of Sumatra.

1827: Serampore University created by Royal Charter.

1845: Denmark cedes Serampore to the British.

1949: The French tricolor is replaced by the Indian tricolor in Chandernagor marking the departure of the last of the European colonial powers.

What the harbors in the Gangetic delta may have looked like when Admiral Zheng He arrived in Tamralipti

Although Calcutta's official birthday is August 28, 1690, the city's environs date back to nearly two thousand years ago, when Tamralipti, now known as Tamluk, was a thriving port of the Gupta Empire, trading with the whole of South East Asia. Tamralipti was the starting point of the southwestern silk route that passed through Bengal and Assam and Burma before ending in the Yunnan province of China. After the decline of the Gupta Empire, Bengal was ruled successively by the Pala and Sena dynasties. Tamralipti, the center of all maritime activity of a kingdom that thrived on foreign trade, continued to develop into a cosmopolitan city. Tamralipti's decline began after Bengal fell to the Sultanate of Delhi in the twelfth century. The new ruling class from Central Asia obviously had little exposure to the sea and was poor seafarers. In spite of the decline, Tamralipti survived at least until the fifteenth century, the Ming Emperor's fleet led by Admiral Zheng He, called on Tamralipti, in order to strengthen trade relations with Bengal. By the sixteenth century Tamralipti was subject to excessive silting and the new traders from Europe began seeking other sites.

Tamluk has silted over the centuries and is no longer an active port. There are plans to dredge the river and reopen Tamluk to the maritime world, but until then the oldest version of this great city remains a sleepy little town. 

The flag of the Kingdom of Portugal might well have been the first European ensign to fly in what is today the metropolitan area of Calcutta.

In 1537, the Portuguese sailed up the Ganges to establish their settlement in Satgaon. In 1580, they moved to a new settlement called Bandel de Hooghly. In 1599, the Portuguese consecrated the Church of Our Lady of Happy Voyage. The Portuguese colony was short-lived. The Portuguese had flouted their agreement with the Moghul Empire and had engaged in slave trade, had fortified their territory and were supplying arms to the Arakan Kingdom that was at war with the Moghuls. Emperor Shah Jehan attacked and destroyed Bandel de Hooghly in 1632 and all survivors were imprisoned. A change of mind of the Emperor led to the release of the prisoners a year later and permission was granted to rebuild the settlement. However, Bandel never revived much except for the church. The church was already a pilgrimage for Christians, Hindus and Moslems alike, at the time of the attack, and continues to do so. The church is now a Basilica and a major center of the Roman Catholic religion in South East Asia.

The flag of the Dutch East India Company that once flew over Chinsurah and Baranagore.

One of the main reasons for Bandel's decline was the competition by other European nations and their trading companies. In 1625 Vereenigte Oostindische Companie of Holland, more commonly known as the Jan Companie, established a settlement at Chinsurah a few miles south of Bandel to trade in opium, saltpeter, muslin and spices. They built a fort called Fort Gustavius and a church and several other buildings. A famous Frenchman, General Perron who served as military advisor to the Mahrattas, settled in this Dutch colony and built a large house here. The Dutch settlement of Chinsurah survived until 1825 when the Dutch in their process of consolidating their interests in modern day Indonesia, ceded Chinsurah to the English in lieu of the island of Sumatra. Fort Gustavius has since been obliterated from the face of Chinsurah and the church collapsed recently due to disuse, but much of the Dutch heritage remains. These include old barracks, the Governor's residence, General Perron's house, now the Chinsurah College and the old Factory Building, now the office of the Divisional Commissioner. 

The flag of the French colonies that flew over the Administrateur's residence in Chandernagor until 1949.

The coat of arms of the French East India Company.

A soldier of the French garrison in eighteenth century Chandernagor.

The French established their colony at Chandernagor in 1673. Until the middle of the next century, Chandernagor rivaled Calcutta in its trade. The wars between the English and French were reflected thousands of miles away in the waters of the Ganges, too. Chandernagor was a heavily armed French garrison as was Calcutta for the English. The French built the Fort d'Orleans amongst a number of other buildings. Chandernagor's history reflects the upheaval of Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the course of these wars, Chandernagor was taken by the British twice between 1757 and 1763 and then again between 1794 and 1815. Chandernagor was the sourcing point for opium for the French and supported more than half of the finances of French Indo-China. Chandernagor remained a French colony until 1949 when a referendum led to its merger with the Republic of India. Chandernagor was a favorite spot for rich Calcuttans during the first half of the twentieth century for French food and wine, duty-free. Chandernagor's French aura remains even after almost fifty years since the departure of the last Adminsitrateur. A gate with the motto of the French Republic "Liberte Egalite Fraternite" marks the entrance to the former Etablissment de Chandernagor. The quai Dupleix, Chandernagor's waterfront road is lined with shady trees and public benches, replicas of the ones in Parisian parks. The former Administrateur's eighteenth century mansion is now a museum of French heritage in Chandernagor. The former Hotel de Paris, the Couvent Saint-Joseph and Rabindranath Tagore's house are amongst the many heritage buildings that line the quai Dupleix. Behind the Administrateur's residence stands the Eglise du Sacre Coeur, reminiscent of French village churches with a statue of Joan d'Arc and a Lourdes grotto. On the Rue de Paris, to the north of the town is the French cemetery with more memories of the colonial age.

The Danish flag that was the ensign of the colony of Serampore and the guardian of wisdom until it was replaced by the Union Jack.

The Danish East India Company established a colony called Fredericknagore, in honor of King Frederick the Fifth near Serampore in 1699. Occupied twice by the English during with their war with Denmark, Fredericknagore failed as a commercial venture. In 1777, after the Danish company went bankrupt, Serampore became a Danish crown colony. Serampore's commercial failure was complemented by its immense success on the cultural front. As the English did not permit missionary activities in their territories, Serampore became a safe haven for missionaries in India. In 1799, Reverend William Carey and two fellow Baptist missionaries established the first printing press in Asia, here in Serampore and began printing copies of the Bible. In 1819, Carey went on to establish the Serampore College, the first institution of western higher education in Asia. In 1827, a Royal Charter by the King of Denmark incorporating it as a university at par with those in Copenhagen and Kiel. In 1845, Denmark ceded Serampore to Britain ending the nearly 150 years of Danish presence in Bengal. Serampore's Danish heritage lingers to this day. Serampore University's massive 1821 neo-classical building now serves as a Baptist theological institute and a museum on the life of William Carey. The mansions built by wealthy Danish families on the waterfront, the St. Olaf Church, Royal Danish Army barracks and the cemetery stand testimony to Serampore's Danish heritage to this day.
Before Chinsurah became a Dutch colony, it was already home to Calcutta's oldest expatriate community. Armenians arrived here in the sixteenth century and settled this town. Their interests, however, were more local than their Dutch counterparts. They settled permanently in Chinsurah as traders, quite unlike the Dutch who remained predominantly sailors. The Armenians funded the English East India Company to build Calcutta and moved to this city where they continue to live to this day. However, the Armenians continue to gather at the old Armenian church in Chinsurah for the celebration of the festival of St. John the Baptist, their patron saint, in the last week of January. 

The number of nationalities who ventured into the area that would eventually become the city of Calcutta was many. Greeks established a colony in Rishra, Prussians in Bhadreshwar, Belgians in Bankibazar not to mention the second Dutch colony at Baranagore, mainly a port and loading dock for the Dutch ships. With the rapid development of Calcutta, these colonies wound up and their residents moved to the city and continued to contribute to its growth.

The small European colonies that dotted the banks of the Ganges, ended up in the great cosmopolis of Calcutta, once a tiny hamlet that chance directed to be the second city of an empire on which the sun never set, at least for a fairly long period in time. 

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