Charnock's Folly

Left: Coat of Arms of the East India Company at the time it established trade relations with Bengal and founded Calcutta.


1600: East India Company established in London.

Circa 1630: East India Company establishes its first factory at Satgaon.

1687: Replacement of the Satgaon factory contemplated at Uluberia.

1690: Job Charnock lands at Sutanuti village and decides on new factory at this site.

1692: The Satgaon factory moves to Sutanuti.

1696: Emperor Aurungzeb grants permission for fortification of the Sutanuti factory.

1698: East India Company purchases the villages of Sutanuti, Gobindopur and Kolikata.

1699: Construction of Fort William completed.

1707: Calcutta becomes a Presidency.

1715: A Company delegation obtains the ownership of Howrah and other neighboring towns from the Moghul Emperor.

1756: Nawab Sirajuddaulah attacks Calcutta and destroys Fort William.

The head office of the East India Company in London

In the last chapter we have talked about the little towns on the banks of the Ganges that Europeans of several nationalities built, mainly between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. We did not mention the activity of one important nationality, who, we shall see, have contributed most to the creation of Calcutta. They are the English and we talk about them now. 

A salesroom of the East India Company in London

The East India Company was formed in 1600 in London by appointment of Queen Elizabeth I. The English began trading shortly afterwards but did not venture into Bengal until about fifty years later. The East India Company established its factories at the old Portuguese settlement of Satgaon near Hooghly and at Cassimbazar and English Bazar, modern day Maldah. Each of these settlements was, however, progressively rendered inaccessible to larger ships and a new site was requested from the Nawab of Bengal, who still served as the governor for the Mogul Empire. In 1687, the East India Company was offered the village of Uluberia, but the Company rejected the proposal, as the village was too prone to silting. The Company suggested another location, the village of Sutanuti, already a trading post, to which the Emperor accepted.

Job Charnock probably met such a fruit seller in Sutanuti, not far from the present day fruit market at Mechuabazar.

Job Charnock, represented the East India Company when the "factory" of East India Company opened at the village of Sutanuti on August 24, 1690. In 1692, the settlement at Satgaon was moved to Sutanuti. In 1696, Emperor Aurungzeb granted permission to the Company to fortify their possessions in Sutanuti. Fortification meant added security to traders and far-sighted Armenian traders realized that the Company was in a position to provide better security than the Dutch in Chinsurah. They financed the Company's purchase of Sutanuti and the neighboring villages of Kolikata and Gobindopur from the Sabarna Roy Chowdhury family of landlords in 1698. Construction of Fort William was completed in 1699, and Calcutta, as the union of three villages came to be known was born.

The typical employee of the East India Company, more commonly referred to as 'Eastindiaman' or 'factor' carried with him such a chest, with pen, ink and paper in order to carry out his business.

Even though the site of Calcutta was not prone to silting and was happily separated from other rival European settlements by the Ganges, it had its distinctive disadvantages. Calcutta was located next to a huge salt water lake, which besides being a breeding ground for mosquitoes, flooded during the rains and when they dissipated, they left in their wake fish that died and putrefied on the streets causing epidemics of cholera and malaria. More than a third of the European population perished in such plagues. This earned Calcutta the sobriquet of "Charnock's Folly" and the "Chance Erected City". Nevertheless, the settlement of Calcutta flourished because of the excellent trade prospects. In 1707, Calcutta became large enough to become a separate Presidency reporting directly to the Board of Directors of the Company in London.


Calcutta's rapid growth forced the Company to seek more land from the Mogul Empire. A delegation led by Dr. Hamilton, a surgeon, visited the court of Emperor Farrucksiyar in Delhi in 1715. The Emperor at that time was indisposed due to an illness, which the surgeon was able to cure. The delighted emperor confirmed the rights of the Company to trade in Bengal and granted ownership of thirty-seven townships on both sides of the Ganges, including the fairly large town of Howrah, just across Calcutta, a stretch of nine miles (fifteen kilometers). Calcutta was at that time plagued by bands of Mahratta marauders who often attacked the town to rob and pillage. Since the Mahrattas were enemies of the waning Mogul Empire, too, the Company had no have trouble to get permission to build a moat around the town. This moat, called the Mahratta ditch, was built in 1742.

Wall hanging from the Company school shows company factor negotiating with local nobles.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, Calcutta was a large city, with a fort that contained a chapel, now the site of the St. John's Church, a building to house the clerks, better known as writers then, and jetties to dock the ships. These docks had names like Koilaghat (Koila:Coal; Ghat:Wharf). The hostel for the writers was rebuilt later and continues to this day as the Writer's Building, the seat of the state secretariat.

At about this time the East India Company's interests diversified into more dangerous areas. The weakening of the Mogul Empire led to Bengal becoming a virtually independent state under its Nawab. When Nawab Alivardi Khan died in 1756 without a male heir, the Company tried to finance the Nawab's widow against his grandson, Siraj-ud-daulah. The Company's inexperience in such matters was obvious, as Sirajuddaulah succeeded as the new Nawab. The first major decision by the new teenager Nawab was to order the Company to pull down its fortifications. The Nawab also asked the Company to surrender the advisor of the Begum, who had sought asylum in Calcutta. When the Company flatly refused to comply, the Nawab marched to Calcutta and beseiged the city on June 16, 1756. Governor Drake and a few survivors escaped and sought refuge in the Sunderban forests, south of Calcutta, at a place called Falta, now the site of an industrial park. Calcutta fell to the Nawab after four days. English troops were rounded up and squeezed into a tiny room in Fort William, with only a small window for ventilation. By what we know of the climate of Calcutta, temperatures may have been as high as 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). By the next morning 123 of the 146 soldiers died. This incident, called The Black Hole, has been disputed by historians as being highly exaggerated. Whatever, the truth may have been, a memorial to the Black Hole was built later near the site, which was opposite the present day General Post Office. It was however, moved to the St. John's Church in 1940 and stands there to this day besides the tomb of Job Charnock, the founder of the city.

The fall of the largest of the European settlements in Bengal was only temporary, needless to say. The English returned to resurrect the city, and build their empire. To read about that story, click here.

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