Urbanisation & Cultural History of Chandernagore

Dr Biswanath Bandyopadhyay

Urbanization is a normal phenomena of civilization. It is the process through which people from different areas agglomerate in a particular centre with certain facilities which are helpful for them to earn their livelihood mainly by non-agricultural activities. The common criteria of urbanization is the facility of good communication network with the outer world by means of transport and other media which helps in the establishment of a city or town as a commercial centre. In case of the town Chandernagore, the urbanization was by and large guided by colonial attitude. The growth of urban environment in Chandernagore made by the French and the process of urbanization along with the changes related therein will be discussed. This was guided by political and colonial considerations. A full fledged urban culture could not blossom here. Rural culture along with rural festivals also remained popular among the people of Chandernagore. The French created an urban environment which was guided by their colonial attitude but they could not influence the people of Chandernagore.

Chandernagore made its own cultural heritage with the people who came here due to the changes of socio-politico circumstance of this area. It is difficult to survey all these factors in this brief paper.

Brief History

Chandernagore is situated in the Hooghly district of West Bengal and on the West Bank of the river Bhagirathi. It lies only 32 KM from Calcutta.The nomenclature of the place is indebted to a number of factors but it is more likely that this place was named after its deity Chandi and thus called ‘Chandirnagore’, later it assumed the name Chandernagore. The first written document bearing the name ‘Chandernagore’ was a letter written by Francois Martin, Andre Boureau Desland & Pelé, the officials of French East India Company to the Director Caron of Pondicherry. Its needs to be mentioned here that the process of urbanisation had started before it but under the French influence it was accelerated.

In 1688, the French East India Company received permission from the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to establish their “Kothi” (i.e. office and godown) at Chandernagore. They were granted to purchase 942 hector land for 40,000 Sicca. French office & godown i.e. Kothi was constructed beside Hooghly river at “Kuthirmath”. In 1693, The French East India Company received the ‘FARMAN’ for open trade from Emperor Aurangzeb and began to expand their Kothi area. They at the same time tried to increase the volume of their trade. A little trading port was established at Chandernagore. From 1695 the French East India Company began to purchase more lands in Chandernagore in the name of their officials because the Mughal government did not allow the company to purchase any land in its own name in 1691. Jesuit Dutchatz prepared a plan of the Fort de’orlean, the construction of the fort at Chandernagore was started after getting permission from the Mughal authority. In 1696, the fort was completed. At this hour the political atmosphere of Hooghly became more troublesome. In this year Sova Sing, the Talukdar of Chetuaboroda in Midnapore captured Hooghly. The Foujdar of Hooghly Nurulla Khan fled away which prompted the apprehensive subjects from different areas to seek shelter in Chandernagore under French watch. Most of them decided to stay on and engage themselves in trade or other service under French East India Company. In the mean time the French started their trade and developed their army with multiracial people at Chandernagore. Malaabari, Orria, Telengi, Hindusthani, Armany and other people came to Chandernagore. The town acquired a cosmopolitan demographic character. A systematic plan for urbanization was started by the French. A large pond was dug just behind the fort, its soil was used to raise the embankment of the river for preventing flood and attack from outside. The rapid stages of urbanization under the French were started from the early years of 18th century. Purchase of land on behalf of company increased. The French and the other communities began to make Pucca buildings. In 1715 Mr Hardancourt was sent to Chandernagore as Director of the Company. In the same year a magnificent French lodge was built for a sum of Rs 14,000/- at Boroquichanpur. Markets and huts were established in different areas. The town Chandernagore achieved its shape, spread over the areas of Boroquinchenpur, Chak Nasirabad and Gondalpara. During the era of Dupleix (1730-1741) the growth of urbanization was further acclimated with the spread of both export and import trading.

Stage of urbanization

Urbanization made its mark from north Chandernagore. After a few years another settlement was developed in south Chandernagore in the area of Gondalpara Dinemardanga by the Danes. Danes left the place in 1755 and the French took possession of the area. In the meantime Dupleix extended the French Territory upto 300 Bighas and its population increased to 25,000. According to an estimate of 1753 the population of Europeans and natives were estimated to be 25722 of which 12228 were males and the rest females. There were more than hundred castes and 6180 families. The period between 1731 to 1755 (approx) saw the rapid growth of urbanization and trade. Different commodities began to be exported to Surat, Jedda, Mocha, Bussora, China and other places.

During 1700-1757 the French designed the first constructive phase of urban administrative structure while the second phase was designed by them in the later part of 18th century after the colony was handed over to them by the British. Boroquichenpur area was the place from where first step of urbanization was started. The growth of urbanization in Chandernagore was an outcome of the colonial desire of French East India Company. It was not sufficiently aided or guided by the French Monarchy as in the case of the British and sometimes the personal opinion of the director general played an important role for urbanization. It seems that different temples and Pucca buildings was constructed in north Chandannagar as this area was a part of Boro Pargana in Mughal administration. Next to Boroquienchenpur Chak, Nasirabad was developed just beside it and it was spread up to central Chandannagar area. Desland, the French official introduced the second stage of urbanization at this hour with the establishment of Gourhati, Labutala, Barasat and Gondalpara in south Chandernagore. The period between 1731 to 1755 saw the rapid urbanization. Now the French became more concerned with the beautification of Chandernagore as a city.

The French tried to beautify the city for their own purpose. A harmonious co-existence of occidental and oriental cultures prevailed in the city. The French constructed many roads running parallel to each other. These roads were connected with important administrative offices like police headquarters, prison along with places of recreation. Most of the roads were well maintained and named after different French personalities like Rue De Martin, Rue de Desland, and Rue de Kurjan etc. The French clearly divided the town into two areas namd – Ville Noire and Ville Blanche. Ville Blanche was predominantly occupied by Europeans while the natives resided at Ville Noire. Ville Blanche means white area and Ville Noire means black town. The map prepared on 27 March,1863 show a well planned town with straight roads. There were open fields, gardens and ponds in the town. The French established an efficient sewerage system. An account of 1826-27 revealed the existence of a big hydrant constructed in 1766 for sewerage. Many travelers became effusive while describing the beauty of Chandernagore but here it is to be noted that city’s beautification and pattern of urban structure remained within Blanche (white) area. Here the French government was guided by colonial outlook because they did not look after Noire area. During 1700 – 1757 AD the French designed the first phase of urban administration structure. The second phase was designed by them in the later part of 18th century when the colony was again handed over to them by the British. A careful study into the layout of the urban administration structure reveals that the administration was completely guided by political and colonial considerations. Here the French government was guided by colonial outlook because they purposely did not look after the area where local people resided.

Environmental Policy of the French at Chandernagore

The environmental policy of the French East India Company was shaped by an colonial outlook. The French authority believed in the term “possibilism” in their environmental policy. In geographical terms that means, they believed that man will control nature for their interest. In colony they tried to make an environment helpful for the people residing in the so called white areas. In the case of the beautification of the city the disparity between the Europeans and native areas was clear. They made underground drainage system, footpath, well maintained roads running parallel to each other and water preservers. Tree plantation was done by the bank of the river and throughout white areas. Sewerage system in white areas was remarkable. A different law was enacted to maintain environment (For instance nobody got the right to cut tree or to make house in white area without permission). As a result of it Chandernagore became a healthy place. Europeans used to come here to enjoy the clean environment. Victor Jankemo and other mentioned it in their memories. Most of them opined that it stood on a better site than Calcutta. In 1766 a big hydrant was constructed to drain out the accumulated water of the city into the river. On the other hand the area inhabited by the local people remained poorly drained and underdeveloped. There was no sign of development in the environment policy of the French. Black town or Ville Noire was underdeveloped. There was no proper drainage system. Water bogs were everywhere. Most of the houses were made of mud or bamboo. Frequent destruction of forest or cutting all sorts of trees in native area was very common. Black people were not allowed in white area of Chandernagore for a long time i.e. upto 1789. After 1789 some sort of change occurred.

The French polluted the social environment by starting slave trade. In case of urbanization the French did not expand the town beyond Ville Blanche the French established different recreation centers like Cabaret Hall, Gambling house, Hotel etc. and they started liquor shops. However, the model of French environmental policy for white areas was remarkable for its modern aspect.

Now we should take a look on the cultural aspect followed by the French. Primarily the French maintained a distance socially and culturally from the native people of Chandernagore. French officials and French people were very much reserved, they did not try to mix with the common people of Chandernagore. French established a theatre hall at Gourhati or Gheretti. A few French dramas were started there for the Europeans. Among this drama L Avocat was important. Toynbee mentioned it. Dr Indrani Roy in her essay “Chandernagorer Adi Parba” (published in Jiggasa Patrika) mentioned names of some festivals organized by the French at Chandernagore. After their defeat at the hand of the British in 1757, the French East India Company changed their course of action and tried to influence the people of Chandernagore with their culture. At this hour political hope and colonial glamour of the French in Bengal were lost. Now the French tried to make Chandernagore a cultural centre under their governance. Spreading of French culture and education were started by the French in Chandernagore from the second half of 19th century. Before it, Indo-French literary activities were started by some French scholars. Among them Antkill Doperran and Ogosta Ossain were remarkable. Ogosta Ossain was an interpreter of French East India Company. Ossian started to compose French Bengali dictionary from 1781 and completed it within few years. He composed another French-Hindostani dictionary and completed it on 25 February, 1784 (Ref. Susil Kr. Chattopadhyay, Bharati Patrika 1330, Jaistha issue “Banglai pratham, Akkhani Puratan Farasi Bangla Dalil). In 1774 Ossain composed “Bangla Sabdamala O Niti” Ankkile Doperrian was also remarkable for his literary works. Dr Kalicharan Karmakar wrote essays on him and described his contribution.

From the second half of 19th century Indo French literacy activities started in a full swing and continued till 20th century. The drama of Moliere was translated in Bengali and staged in Chandernagore (Le Medicine Malgre Lui). In 19th & 20th century many French literary works were translated into Bengali and many Bengali literary works got translated into French. I shall mention a few from the list.

Translation from French to Bengali :

  1. San Familli – by Fatiklal Das.

  2. Diary of Miss Aver by Rajkumar Mukhopadhyay.

  3. Drama of Moliere by Kalicharan Mitra.

Translation from Bengali to French:

  1. Stories of Banaful by Sasanka Boral.

  2. Padabali of Chandidas by Nagendranath Chandra.

  3. Folk tales of Bengal by Purnachandra Pakre.

In 19th century Jesuit Missionaries, specially father Berthel and Father Alfanso established St. Maries institution. In this school French and Bengali both were used as medium of instruction. Gradually different schools were established at Chandernagore. Chandernagore Municipal Corporation was established in 1880. The corporation helped in running Bengali medium school with French subjects. A French section was also introduced. In earlier days people had to go to Pondicherry from here to study French literature and language as well as French law and medical science for higher education. At Chandernagore the study of French literature and language has been continued. Free primary education was introduced. A newspaper “Le Pettit Bengali” was published. People of Chandernagore accepted French culture to some extent. They took part in FASTA or fete national which is held on the occasion of French independence day i.e. 14 July.

To sum up it has been found that the history under the French in Chandernagore had undergone evolutionary process. From 1789, the people of Chandernagore began to hear the word “Liberty Equality & Fraternity” from the French. The French government took steps for social welfare. People of Chandernagore were amused by it and at least in two occasions they expressed their will to remain under the French authority. After 140 years of their first colonial advent, they became eager to spread French education and culture among the local people. People accepted them remarkably in the latter half of 19th century. Chandernagore had a heritage of mixed culture and the French merely added their tune to it.

References :-

  • Bagchi Kanongopal – The Ganges Delta – Calcutta University Publication 1944.

  • Basu Asoke – Gangapather Itikatha – Rajja Pustak Prasad.

  • Blochmann M – Description of the geography & History of Bengal.

  • Crawford D. G. – A beief History of Hooghly District, published in 1902, Bengal Press, Calcutta.

  • F. B. Bradley Birt – Chandernagore, Calcutta review Jan to Oct 1918.

  • Malley L.S.S. & Chakroborty M. – Hooghly – Bengal District Gazetteer, Govt. of Bengal.

  • Roy N. R. – Banglar Itihas (Adiparba), Dey’s Publishing.

  • Sett Harihar – Sankhipta Chandernagore Parichaya, Chandernagore.

  • Sen S. P. – French trade in Bengal, Firme K. L.M.

  • Toynbe – A sketch on the administration of the Hooghly District from 1795 to 1845.

  • Alexander Hamilton’s account 1723.

  • Survey map of 1870-71.

  • Bandyopadhyay Biswanath an essay – Banglar Farasi Upanibaser Sahar. Banglar Sahar edited by Sekhar Bhowmick and Arindam Chakraborty, Calcutta 2005, page 44.

    (The author is an Associate Professor of History in the Institute of Education for Women, Chandernagore)

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