The forgotten city of Chandannagar

Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh *

Some of the European colonies in India did not get independence on the day ofIndia' s day of freedom from British; the French and Portuguese colonies. The Dutch and Danes left quite a long time back, more than a century back, so by 1947, their colonies didn't exist. The French being a victim of German occupation during world war II instantly reacted and held a plebiscite and granted freedom very soon and peacefully.

The Portuguese did not and there are interesting stories of the last days of portuguese colonies. Today, let me tell you about a nondescript forgotten city ofa French colony, which had the potential to change the history of the country and world but a turn in the Hooghly river made it a forgotten city, the City ofChandarmagar (French called it Chandernagor).

It was the first of the western colonies to get independence. For many years, I have been thinking of making a trip to Chandannagar, it is just 47 km away from Kolkata on the other side of Hooghly river and a part of Hooghly District The roads are in excellent condition, a major part of the national highways.

I had many questions in mind such as how a small city like Chandannagar escaped British occupation, how are the people there, are they like the other former colonies of western counties, do they have French wineries, French foods etc. ? The French colonies in India survived due to the Treaty of Paris though the British overwhelmed them after three major historical happenings.

The first was the defeat of Dupleix (Joseph Francois Dupleix) in the hands of Robert Clive in the battle of Chandannagar which established British supremacy in India. Though Dupleix was said to be a good general (his father was one of the high ranking officials of French East India Company), he lost due to lack of support from France.

Of course the battle of Chandannagar was not to be seen in isolation but with the wars in the coromandel theatre known as Camatic wars. Second was the battle of Trafalgar (1805) which gave England a naval superiority. Following which England was regarded as the lone world superpower for more than a century.

The hero of Trafalgar, Admiral Nelson did not live to see his victory changing the world, but he is widely respected that the main square in central London is named Trafalgar Square and his statue on a ta11 pillar adorns the square. The third one is the Battle of Waterloo (1815) which was the last nail on the coffin for French dream as world power.

So, there was another Anglo Irish hero, the Duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley) who from a losing position won the battle of waterloo. In fact the Battle of Trafalgar and Battle of Waterloo were the culmination of a long drawn animosity for trade and colonisation between the European powers which started in the early 17th century.

The fate of the City of Chandernagore had a lot to do with those global happenings. It continued to be a French colony albeit without pomp and grandeur under Governor General of Pondicherry till 1950 when after a plebiscite handed over the colony to India, (The people of Pondicherry opted to remain with France and hence its independence was much delayed).

The French East India Company was formed in 1664 and the city of Chandemagor was established by French East India Company on the banks of River Hooghly (the French called it the Garage in their maps of those days) on a crescent shaped bend, first it bought some land in 1673 and in 1688 it covered a large area of three villages with the permission of Mughal subandar and firmly established it as trading centre and did brisk business even before Job Charnock (the Calcutta High Court ruled that he was not the only founder) formed Calcutta.

The items of trade in those days included Opium, Indigo, rice, jute ropes, yams, Chandannagar cloths, Silk, Sugar etc. There are also records of Gold and silver coins being collected and exported in those early days. From a business point of view, Chandemagor was better positioned to control the hinterland than the fledgling Calcutta.

Its name is said to have come from Chandan (Sandalwood) as it was a trading centre of the same, it is also said to have come from the crescent shape of the river Hooghly at his point. In fact there was a Danish factory in the downside of the river in the adjoining area and upside of the river, there was the Dutch Colony of Chinsurah. Not much has been heard of the Danish factory and the Dutch gave Chinsurah to the British in exchange with an island in Indonesia.

So here, it was the British and French vying to get control of trade. The French were doing very well in Chandemagor for almost a century (1673-1757) and during the time of Dupleix, it was doing extremely well, it was much better off than the City of Calcutta. The Mughal Empire was much weakened in late 17th century economically and politically and Chandannagar was becoming a good trading centre.

By then the European colonialists were fighting for control of more colonies by dealing with local nizams and nawabs and so when war broke out between Britain and France in 1757, the British attacked Chandannagar and greatly destroyed it and its fortification.

The Fort Orleans of Chandemagor was completely destroyed. The French with its money and business should have controlled the river by establishing itself on the other side of the river too, because it was the attack by the navy from the river which won the battle.

Chandannagar was returned to France in 1763 but recaptured it in 1793 as fallout of Napoleonic War and returned only in 1815 as a result of treaty of Paris, but by then the British took all the shares of the spoils of the collapse of Mughal empire and Chandemagor and French in India could never regain its old glory. The France also once again came under the rule of house of Bourbon Kings, but they were much weakened monarchy.

Chandannagar's story is a tale of two cities, its climb, decline and fate had been connected with Calcutta. WhenChandannagar had been prospering, Calcutta was just a fledgling, but then history has proven that someone's loss is somebody's gain, Chandannagar's loss have been Calcutta's gain all through.

Two things French still visible in the remnants in Chandannagar are the unmistakable architecture in many buildings and clean thoroughfares. The French time buildings are many but still far below than what I thought. The Dupleix Palace, Sacred Heart Church, Petal Bari, Chandernagore College, RabindraBhavan (formerly JanhvNivas)etc. are a few prominent ones.

They have the unique Anglo French architecture in all of them. The other one being its clean thoroughfares, which now of course looks a little bit small and congested, but the strand road which was the waterfront running for over a mile is retaining its charm of 350 years before. The boulevards are very beautiful till today and the river Hooghly is at its best here.

The Jagaddal village on the other bank is well covered with trees and adds to the beauty of the landscape. Being an old colony and French colony in the midst of surrounding British Colony which became a gigantic empire (neighbouring Calcutta was capital of Raj since battle of Plessey till 1911) its cityscape became different than that of the once a booming trading centre, it was pushed to obscurity. Unlike Pondicherry and other colonies, there were no descendant of French people left.

350 plus years association, one would naturally expect a lot of legacy as in other colonies, but the Frenchlegacy were limited to its buildings and roads. The cloths of farasdanga (faras=France in Bengali, Chandannagar was called so in Bengali, abode of Frenchman), were famous. I did not notice much social legacy, the churches and schools were his few.

So the exoticness of a former colony, the food habits, the dresses, language, the drinks are missing here, perhaps, the lesser presence of French due to global happenings and the Bengali conservative and nationalistic nature did not allow the Indo French amalgamation. Of course, the church, one of the oldest in the country have four hundred members.

Unlike Chandannagar, the French colony of Pondicherry had quite a sizeable number of French speaking population (around 6500 in the last census) when they left the colony. The South Ga. of Chandannagar, the gate at Barasat must have been one of the important monuments during it time, but now it his is going towards obscurity, but the unmistakable inscription is the motto of the great revolution and national motto "Liberte, egalite, fratemite" of French people.

Perhaps, this was the reason that as soon as the British left India, in November, 1947 the French Government declared Chandernagore "Ville Libre"; the "free city" and handed over to India after a plebiscite in 1950. The plebiscite overwhelmingly opted for merger with India. The neighbouring Chinsurah, once a Dutch colony which later became a British colony, nothing Dutch is there except the tomb of Dutch lady "Tomb of Susanna Anna Maria".

Visiting the Dupleix Palace which is now a museum could unfold the whole story of French in India. Same is with other French time buildings, each one has a unique .1e. Like a bend in the Hooghly, the turn in the history changed fates of many cities or civilisations. We enjoy learning each tale and sometimes have our wishes.

The fact is changes have happened, great people have fallen, little ones have risen, beautiful ones have gone, they have all become history now. Now of course, everything is history, a history of 350 years, it cannot be undone. We can only surmise, sometimes in awe and sometimes in appreciation and note that what a people they were.

Having said so much, it is summed that the forgotten City of Chandernagore has many tales to be unfolded and lessons to be learned. It was a day well spent for me. In the evening before I set off for Kolkata, I sat down in one of the many benches in the boulevard and enjoyed the beautiful view of the Hooghly; just could not help imagining the fierce battle between Dupleix's army defending Fort Orleans and army of Robert Clive and Admiral Charles Watson bombarding the fort from the river, what a sight that would have been?

Down the river Hooghly and a little down the history, no one would fail to notice that the victors Clive and his cronies in the East India Company made fortunes at the cost of the peasants, they caused the great famine of 1770and people died in millions. And quiet flows the Hooghly.

* Akham Bonbirdhwaja Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on August 27, 2022.

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