Monday, May 3, 2010

Mathew Leslie's Will


(published as lead article in Sunday Statesman, Kolkata and Delhi on 25 April, 2010 under the caption Bibis and Britsh Benevolence)

Until the second half of the nineteenth century the East India Company civilians, generally recruited between 16 and 18 years of age, lived an ‘unattached male’ existence in India. To overcome their ‘home sickness’ and sense of isolation they sought comfort in the arms of native women whom they took as mistresses and concubines but rarely as legally wedded wives. However, these white nawabs left their women well provided for. It is significant that of the Bengal Wills from 1780 to 1785 preserved in the India Office in London, one in three contains a bequest to Indian wives or companions/concubine/mistresses. Cornwallis discouraged miscegenation and such bequests went on decreasing over the decades. Post-Cornwallis, Evangelical Victorian colonial attitudes and the wholesale arrival of memsahebs from England ended all open sexual contact between the two nations. Between 1805 and 1810, bibis appear in only one in four Wills; by 1830 it is one in six; by the middle of the century they have all but disappeared.

Mark Davies, a scholar from Oxford, was recently in Calcutta/Patna to trace his ancestry, particularly on the mother’s side. He refutes the suggestion that most Britons would like to keep their Indian connection under wraps. He asserts that some not only boldly announce it to the world but make a special effort to research their roots and locate their forebears’ graves in India. (If properly handled this may promote what can be morbidly described as ‘graveyard tourism’.) To buttress his point he refers to a book A TUG ON THE THREAD by Diana Quick which is currently making waves in England. But Quick does not quite come to his rescue. She traces her family back to 18th-century India, where they struggled as “country-born” (people of mixed race). She describes her father’s difficulties as the son of a British officer sent to England to pursue his studies just before the war.

Mark Davies learnt from his family records that his ancestor Mathew Leslie (born 1755) was a civil servant under the East India Company from 1773 until his death in 1804. He is the very same Leslie after whom Leslieganj near Ranchi is named. Mark’s family sources revealed that Leslie had at least three Indian bibis. Mark had descended from one of them but he did not know which one. A bibi was a mistress or concubine and seldom the legally wedded spouse. Besides being posted as District Collector of Ramgurh (a much larger version of today’s Hazaribag district) and Rungpur (now in Bangladesh), Leslie had spent many years at Patna on different assignments such as a Judge of the Court of Appeal, his last posting being as Member of the Board of Revenue in Calcutta. Mark’s direct ancestor Robert, Leslie’s son, was born in 1782 when Leslie was probably based at Patna. It was therefore fair assumption on Mark’s part that he had descended from a bibi from Patna. While his search for his roots has so far has been elusive, he has not given up. He kindly let me have a copy of Mathew Leslie’s Will which he obtained from the family archives.

This handwritten Will in 13 pages is couched in neo-classical style of prose. It shows scant regard for grammar and composition. It begins thus: ‘This is the last will and testament of me, Mathew Leslie of Calcutta in the province of Bengal in the East Indies.’ It is dated 13 August 1803. Edward Stuttoll, R. Cramaff and E.S. Cameron witnessed the signing, sealing and delivery of this ‘will and testament’. Leslie died a few months later. Did he have a premonition? Could a life of hard work and indulgence have taken its toll?

More than telling who was to get how much, the Will reveals Leslie’s personality and the working of his mind which we can take as representative of his time. If the Will expresses Leslie’s generosity, it also reveals his racial preferences. He gives his beneficiaries enough to subsist during their lifetime but the corpus is to finally vest in his family estate in Ireland. The Will excludes all movable and immovable properties and is confined to money and securities. Debts, funeral charges and expenses incurred by the executors in the execution of the Will are to be settled before giving effect to ‘legacies, annuities and bequests’. So as to preclude any future complication he included in the Will an ‘Inventory of my fortune on the 31st July 1803’. It is considerable but not so much as to raise eyebrows, granting it was not unusual for the Company’s servants to carry on a business of their own on the side.

Leslie appointed ‘Ralph Uvedale, Thomas Raban and David Colvin Esqs. of Calcutta, Henry Douglas Esq. of Patna, and Archibald Solon Esquire of Baraile, executors of this my will in India and guardians of my children as shall be in India at the time of my demise and of such posthumous child or children as aforesaid during their respective residency in India…’ Ralph Uvedale was then Clerk of the Crown in the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal and Leslie refers to him as ‘my dearest friend’. Dearest friend indeed for his name comes up again and again in the Will. Leslie set apart a sum of Rupees 50000 or 5000 pounds and the interest thereon was to go to Ralph Uvedale, during his lifetime. Some years after Leslie’s demise his son Robert married Uvedales’s daughter. Henry Douglas, another executor, was also a civil servant under the East India Company and could have been Leslie’s colleague at Patna. Douglas died at Patna in 1839 at the age of 78. He lies entombed in the Sabzibag cemetery in the heart of the city. It has not been possible to locate the other three executors.

Normally only one executor is appointed to administer a Will. So what was the need for Leslie to have five executors? That was presumably because the executors were not merely to administer the Will. They were also to be the ‘guardians of my children as shall be in India at the time of my demise and of such posthumous child or children as aforesaid during their respective residency in India… I desire they will send my children to Europe or not as they think proper. Of this they are to be the sole judges.’ Obviously one executor could not have taken care of all of Leslie’s growing up children. In all humility Leslie gave each executor rupees one thousand ‘for the purchase of a ring as a mark of my sincere friendship and regard for them.’ He had placed a big burden on them and it was a small recompense. Leslie further appointed his brothers Charles Henry Leslie, John Leslie and James Wolfe Leslie ‘executors of this my will in Europe and guardians of the persons and estates of such of my children as may be in Europe at the time of my demise or be afterwards sent there by my executors in India…’ Of the six children mentioned in the Will John and Charles were then in Europe as was a married daughter Anne Hindley; Robert, Charlotte and Sarah were in India. Each one was given Sicca rupees 40000, less marriage expenses already incurred in case of daughters.

Unlike several of his contemporaries among the Indian nobility, Leslie left the women in his life well provided for though some received more than the others.. Even the servants received a gratuity. However, Leslie was not equitable in his bequest to the native women (bibis) he mentions in the Will. The lion’s share went to ‘my girl Zehoorun Khanum late wife of Meer Mahomad Hassan Khan’. She received ‘Sicca Rupees’ 20000 while the other two – ‘my girl’ Heera Beeby and ‘my girl’ Zebon - got only 12000 each. They were to be paid in quarterly installments the interest accruing on the above amount while the principal was to remain intact under control of the executors and was to revert to Leslie’s estate after the demise of the bibis. To each of the above three he also bequeathed ‘a house and premises in the City of Patna’, apparently to be enjoyed in perpetuity. Location and address of the property is not mentioned but leaves one in no doubt that all three were from Patna. Another bibi, ‘my girl’ Afsaroon, was given ‘Sicca Rupees’ 3000 only and no house. It may be noted that Leslie suffixes Khanum to Zehoorun’s name and Beeby to Heera’s but none to Zebon’s or Afsaroon’s. Was Leslie fonder of one than the others or were they graded according to their appeal and loyalty to him or by the number of children each bore him? Atleast, he refers to each of them as ‘my girl’ reflecting endearment and attachment.

It appears from the Will that Leslie did not have an English wife and he did not therefore have any English children. In fact, there is no evidence that Leslie ever married, and as no wife is mentioned in the Will, and no mother is ever named at the baptism of his children, it is safe to assume that all the children were conceived with local women. The Will does not specify which child was born of which bibi.

Names of the mothers of Leslie’s children may have been deliberately suppressed to keep their doors to the British society open. Leslie left it to the executors to ‘send my children to Europe or not as they think proper. Of this they are to be the sole judges.’ Presumably the colour of the child determined eligibility to be sent ‘home’. Many mixed-blood children, if they were very fair skinned, were successfully absorbed into the British upper classes, some even attaining high office, like Liverpool, the early nineteenth century Prime Minister of England. But there were exceptions too. William Fullarton, the founder of Patna on the bank of River Doon in Robert Burns country, Scotland was a very dark, handsome and powerful man and had earned the sobriquet of ‘Black Willie’. His black complexion was certainly unScottish, and it is very much within the realm of probability that he was the product of a liaison his father Colonel John Fullarton had with a native Patna dame. He spent his impressionable years in Patna where he made a fortune as a merchant. On his return to Scotland he founded a hamlet on the bank of River Doon and christened it Patna after the place of his birth. That was in 1802, around the same time that Leslie wrote his Will.

Leslie appears to have collected a virtual harem, not unusual for his time when his peers liked to live and behave like native nawabs or White Mughals as William Dalrymple refers to them. Apparently his domestic help had a large female component and he appears to have taken his pleasure at his fancy. His virility had not dimmed at 48 when he wrote the Will. He could not be sure which of the female inmates he had bedded and when. But he wanted to be fair and gave them the benefit of doubt. ‘And whereas some of the young girls living in my families may be with child at the time of my demise, in which case and in the event of such girl or girls being brought to bed within such time after my demise as will admit of a belief that the child or children so to be born may have been begotten by me and if my said executors shall be satisfied that such child or children was or were begotten by me…’. Each such posthumous child was to receive Rupees 15000 under terms and conditions applicable to the children mentioned above, except that if a posthumous child died the amount was not to pass on to other children ‘in right of survivorship’ but would revert to the estate.

Leslie did not forget his siblings back home. He bequeathed to his sister Mary Peacock the sum of pounds sterling one thousand and to his sisters Jane Collis, Charlotte Dorman and Sarah Falkiner the sum of pounds sterling five hundred each. To his brothers John Leslie and James Wolfe Leslie he gave ‘the sum of pounds sterling two thousand five hundred each for their sole and respective use and benefit.’ He left the ‘residue and remainder of my estate and effects, real and personal, I give, devise and bequeath the same unto my brother Charles Henry Leslie of Cork in Ireland and his sons for his or their separate use and benefit.’

By and large Leslie appears to have been fair and equitable in making his bequests. However, author Diana Quick’s own admission in her book referred to above that she was only nine when her grandfather gave her the peculiar instruction to “marry a pure-blooded Englishman” lends support to the view that East India officials of Mathew Leslie’s generation could have been guided by considerations of maintaining purity of their lineage and keeping their estate within the family in England.


Dr. Sudhir Kumar Jha


Buddha Colony, Patna

India 800 001

(The author is a former Director General of Police, Bihar, India and a free-lance researcher. He can be contacted at

Sunday, May 2, 2010

There is no harm in imbibing the good, even from those we hate. If we look at our erstwhile colonial masters with unbiased eyes, there is a lot we can learn from them and adopt to our advantage. Private financing for public good is one of them.
Much as we may hate the British rulers, we ought to be beholden to them for the monuments, institutions and systems they bequeathed us. Some of the buildings they built to house colleges, hospitals and Government offices are beautiful specimens of architecture and are landmarks in our cities today. Yet the British were no philanthropists. In fact, they were penny-pinchers at core. But they were clever and resourceful enough to know when to tap funds and get things done without dipping into profits. The British Governors, Commissioners and Collectors involved the local Rajas, landlords and businessmen in this task, cajoling or coercing them as was considered expedient. The Indian ‘haves’ readily responded and donated in cash and kind. In most cases, the motive was a mixture of altruism and self-interest. They wanted to leave behind something for which the posterity would remember them, they also wanted to ingratiate themselves with the British officialdom in the hope of certain favours, most of all for honorifics such as titles of Maharaja, Raja Bahadur, Rai Bahadur, Khan Bahadur, Rai Saheb and Khan Saheb, etc.
As early as the mid nineteenth century, the British prevailed upon these potentates to open a chain of Anglo-vernacular schools in their jurisdictions, this facilitating the introduction of western education in India. The Government also made them partners in promoting higher English education. Premier institutions such as the Patna College in Bihar and the Ravenshaw College in Orissa developed through donations and endowments from the native Sates and local zamindars. The reputed Patna Medical College Hospital would have been stillborn but for the local donors pitching in. Clearance was received from the Government of India in 1921 to set up a medical college at Patna. The project involved heavy capital expenditure but how to palm it off to others? The Prince of Wales was visiting India around the same time. The Government was quick to seize the opportunity and promptly created a Prince of Wales Medical College Fund. A donation in excess of Rs. 15 lakh was collected in no time. While the college was named the Prince of Wales, the donors had to remain content with wards and facilities named after them.
While heath and education were on the top of the agenda, the Government sought private contributions in other fields equally readily. That was how many district towns got their magnificent Town Halls. When the earthquake hit Bihar in 1934, the Government heavily depended on private donations in cash and kind to meet the twin tasks of rehabilitation and reconstruction, in some cases of an entire township. Even memorials to the British monarch and viceroys were raised with the money so collected. The Victoria Memorial of Calcutta, the Taj Mahal of eastern India, are the most outstanding specimens of this exercise.
The Alipur Zoo in Calcutta could not have become the attraction it is without continuous flow of private donations. The Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai (shortly to be named after Chhatrapati Shivaji, if the Government of Maharashtra has its way) owes much to the munificence of people like Ibrahim Ramitulla, Cowasjee Jahangir and the Nawab of Junagadh. The pattern was the same throughout the country. Ironically, these carried the name of a British monarch, Viceroy or Governor. At the best, a plaque in some corner acknowledged the donor.
The Raj had no pretences of being a welfare State. It was a police State and it knew its limitation where public spending was concerned. During over 50 years as a free nation we have stretched the concept of “welfare” State to ludicrous limits. In the process the Government bit more than it could chew. It was suspicious of involving private players in the task of nation-building. Always cash-strapped but still wanting to do everything by itself, it slipped in the core areas of mass literacy and primary health care. The Government failed to nurture even the IITs and IIMs set up during the Nehru era now appealing to their alumni and fishing for sponsors. Centrally funded Delhi University and Jawaharlal University are to follow suit. To add insult to injury while the Indian Council of Historical Research and the Indian Council for Social Sciences Research are languishing for want of funds, the Government has decided to endow a chair of Indian history and culture at the Oxford University at a cost of 1.8 million pound sterling.
Equally said is the story of our heritage sites. Far from erecting new monuments that would make the coming generations proud, we have not been able to look after the ones we have inherited. Rather than throwing its hands up in despair, the Government should draw a lesson or two from the Raj. Fortunately, it does seem to be waking up. The Department of Culture, Government of India, set up the National Culture Fund in 1996 as a funding mechanism “different from the existing sources and patterns of funding for the arts and culture in India”. Donations to the fund, exempt from income tax, are to be used for maintaining the historical sites and developing them as tourist spots. In exchange, the sponsors get advertising space the quantum of which is to be decided by the Department of Culture and the Archaeological Survey of India acting in tandem. The Taj Mahal is not up for grabs but the others are. Only in the year 2K have some offers been forthcoming. Humayun’s tomb in Delhi, a world heritage site, is to be illuminated by the Oberoi group. After Hyatt shied away, the Hotel Association of Northern India has come forward to take over the Red Fort. The Indian Oil Corporation is interested in Qutb Minar. Though the list is long, the restoration of the Sun Temple at Konark and the Ajanta and Ellora caves are the priority. Any sponsors?
But maintenance is not enough. Some long-lasting institutions and monuments ought to be created as also some new facilities developed. One such area crying for help is higher education, technical and professional. Not everyone needs to go to a college. Let institutions of higher professional education be fewer but they be real centres of excellence. Setting them up and then running them efficiently will obviously be an expensive proposition and the State will do well to invite individual promoters of consortia to take up these projects. These should be run as any other business enterprise and not as charitable institutions. Fees will understandably be high and admissions to these will have to be restricted to those who can afford to pay and to the meritorious poor through Government and privately endowed scholarship. Let the institute be named after the promoters if they so wish. In any case, it is not a good practice to name the colleges and universities after political personalities. (We can keep Mahatma Gandhi as an exception). Setting up an Indian School of Business at Hyderabad is a step in the right direction.
We received the legacy of the National Library, National Archives and Natural History Museum in places like Calcutta, Delhi and Mumbai. They have reached a point of saturation and decay. Huge recurring expenditure is involved in preserving and updating the contents and maintaining the structure. Horizons of knowledge have expanded and we need many more archives and museums devoted to subjects such as space technology, oceanography, microbiology etc. For that matter, is a Birla Planetarium in Calcutta or a Tarporewala Aquarium in Mumbai enough for a country of India’s dimensions? Surely we need many more. We talk of environment and global warming but how many botanical parks, comparable to the Shibpur Botanical Garden in Calcutta, have we added during our existence as an independent nation? The Jahangir Art Gallery in Mumbai reportedly remains booked for two to three years in advance, thus denying many potential MF Hussains the opportunity to display their talent. There is need for more art galleries not only in Mumbai but in other cities as well. There must be art lovers among our business barons who will love to set up such galleries and go down in history as patrons of art.
The scope is unlimited. The Government should be the catalyst, offer suggestions and help, and leave the rest to the sponsors (no mailed fist, no pinpricks, please). Once the Government has established its bonafides a generous response can be expected. Our private and public sector behemoths are the present-day Maharajas. The tribe has grown beyond the Tatas and the Birlas. We have Ambanis, Azim Premji, Narayana Murthy and many others and funds can be comfortably taken care of. If the Raj (British) could do it, why can’t we? In fact, we can do better by allowing the promoters and donors to name these after themselves, unlike the British who appropriated the name and sent the benefactors into oblivion.
7th April 2002
HT Sunday Spread

European Place Names

Cover Story: NAME GAME

(Published in the Sunday Statesman, Kolkata and Delhi.)

How the English christened places in India might evoke memories of the Raj, but the circumstances have, nevertheless, become historical legacy that cannot be wished away, says Sudhir Kumar Jha

REMEMBER the faux pas in a recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary? It said Bangalore — not even Bengaluru — got its name as the locals were Bengalis and spoke Bangla. This was the height of untruth and ignorance, a gaffe not expected from Oxford, but it does explain the myth and confusion prevailing in respect of place names. Places get their names by design or sheer accident. These can be plain, catchy or hilarious, obvious or intriguing, but never without some link to the past. Delving into the genesis of the English names of places in India has been an interesting but challenging exercise. For the sake of euphony, the terms “English” and “British” have been used indiscriminately. These place names evoke memories of the British Raj and, notwithstanding the ongoing attempts at renaming them, the circumstances of their naming have become historical legacy which cannot be wished away.
It is sad that no definitive compilation of these names is available. At the beginning of the last century, two Calcutta-based scholars, KN Dhur of the Imperial Library followed by Lt-Col DG Crawford of the Indian Medical Service, made an attempt to list places named after the British. They consulted the survey maps of districts and also went through Newman’s Indian Bradshaw, Smith’s Students’ Geography of India published in 1882 and Keith Johnston’s Atlas of India published in 1894. Periodicals such as Bengal Past & Present and Saturday Journal also yielded some names. To the information so gathered, the two added their own knowledge based on folklore and hearsay. Their total came to a sizeable number, well over 150, but was far from being exhaustive. These came from the whole of British India which covered not only what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh but also Burma and the Malay Peninsula for most of the 19th century. Were they to include the localities or muhallas of towns, roads and streets, public and private institutions, monuments, gardens and parks, et al, so named, their list would have run into thousands. Bangalore Cantonment would have provided over 100 and Kolkata at least 20.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands provide over 40 such names. These islands were formally annexed in 1858 and converted into a convict settlement to confine the great number of life-prisoners left after the Sepoy Mutiny. The British gave the numerous names of their Mutiny heroes and members of the Andamans Commission to places in these islands. Several places in the Sunderbans falling in West Bengal and Bangladesh were named after officers of the Indian Navy, Royal Indian Marine, or Bengal Pilot Service. Amitava Ghosh mentions a few in his captivating book, The Hungry Tide.
The one class of Britishers to have left the strongest imprint on the naming of places were the civil servants from the Provincial Civil Service and, later, from the Indian Civil Service, as District Collectors, and some as Lieutenant-Governors. In the days of the East India Company, military officers carried the flag into uncharted territories and laid the foundations of civil administration. New civil stations established by them carried their names, for example Daltonganj and Hunterganj in Jharkhand and Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. There are railway stations that were named after the British, be it a railway engineer, priest or civil servant, because there was no village of any importance in the neighbourhood after which these could be named — for example Palmerganj between Gaya and Dehri-on-Sone and Twiningganj between Ara and Buxar. Places were also named after ranks in the British army. We have Captainganj and Colonelganj in Uttar Pradesh and Majorganj in Bihar. Brigade Maidan and Barrackpore in Kolkata and Brigade Road in Bangalore, too, have a British army connection.
While many names famous in Indian history are commemorated in place names, many more of the first importance are not thus distinguished. There does not appear to be any place named after Robert Clive or Warren Hastings, the real founders of the British Empire in India.
It is notable that most English names were given to places in the first 100 years of British rule in India, very few in the second half of the 19th century and hardly any in the 20th. Significantly, though the missionaries carried their work deep into the hills and jungles and made healthcare and education available to tribal settlements, not many places are named after them; they apparently did not try to impose their own or any other foreign names. Nor did the British try to change the names of villages already in existence.
It is not that places were named only after Europeans, though exceptions are few and far between. For example, Achipur near Kolkata, on the banks of the Hooghly river, is named after Yong Atchew, the first Chinese settler in India in modern times. He came to Kolkata around 1780 and enjoyed the patronage of the East India Company as a cultivator of sugarcane.
Exceptions apart, these exotic place names are in two parts. The prefix is English while the suffix is vernacular, invariably Persian-Urdu. By far the commonest, in northern India, is ganj, which means a market. Also common are abad and pur, meaning town. Whereas the Hindi garh has been used at least once, as in Georgegarh, nagar does not appear to have been used at all. In southern India, the suffix used is pet, again denoting a town or market; it has also been used in Marathi as Malcolmpet in Mumbai.
Places were not always consciously baptised with English names. They just evolved as a corruption of vernacular names. Take the case of Bangalore. The British, after defeating Tipoo Sultan and restoring the Raja of Mysore in 1799, obtained the right to station their own troops in the state. They built their cantonment on ceded village land just east of the ancient town and fortress of Bengaluru, which was soon anglicised to Bangalore. English Bazar in West Bengal’s Malda district was originally the Rangreza Bazar, the dyers’ quarter. The first letter was dropped along the way and it became Angreza Bazar, and hence English Bazar. Kidderpur in Kolkata is not named after Colonel Kyd but derives from an older local name, Khettarpur.
Some names got Anglicised, in pronunciation and in spelling, because the British could not pronounce these the local way. Kanpur became Cawnpore and Munger became Monghyr and Danapur Cantonment in Bihar became Dinapore. Likewise, Waris-ali-ganj in Bihar’s Gaya district began to be called Worsleyganj. Grierson market in Madhubani, Bihar, was named after the eponymous linguist, Sir George Abraham Grierson, ICS, who set up the market while he was posted as the SDO of that area. It has been known as Gilesan Market for generations. Bhendi Bazar in Mumbai is a phonetic caricature of “behind the bazaar”.
Given below, by way of illustration, is the etymology of some place names from Bihar and Jharkhand:
Goldinganj: This is a small village on the Chapra-Sonepur road about 12 km east of Chapra, an old district town in north Bihar. The only claim to fame of this otherwise nondescript place is a ring of mystery surrounding its name. It has a railway station catering to the North Eastern Railway and a post office with the postal index No. 841211. The station is spelt “Goldinganj” while the postmark reads “Gultenganj”. Old records reveal there was in fact one Edward Golding after whom the place was in all probability named. He was appointed the Company’s Commercial Agent at Bettiah in 1766 after the local Raja had capitulated to the East India Company’s forces. In 1769, Golding was promoted as the Supervisor (precursor of Collector) of Saran Parganas. His bailiwick covered what are today Chapra, Siwan, Gopalganj, Motihari and Bettiah districts.
Lesliganj: This is an outgrown village, more of a kasba, in Palamu district of what is now Jharkhand. Located about 15 km east of Daltonganj, the district headquarters, on the road to Manatu, it has the usual appurtenances of an administrative outpost — a dak bungalow, a police station and a block development office. It has nothing much to offer except its exotic name. It was founded by, and is named after, Matthew Leslie, Collector of the Ramgarh Hill Tract in the 1780s. As with other East India Company officials of the 18th century, Leslie’s biographical details are extremely difficult to get. His revenue jurisdiction included the whole of what later became Palamu and Hazaribag districts and part of Gaya up to Sherghati. The Cheros had been the rulers of Palamu but their internal feuds afforded the British the opportunity to intervene and eventually assume control. As Leslie had to continually camp in Chero territory, he chose a hamlet that soon became known as Lesliganj, dropping an “e” from his name. It appears that Leslie’s good work as Collector of Ramgarh was taken note of and he was transferred as the Collector and Magistrate of Rungpore district in East Bengal (now Bangladesh), a more prestigious charge.
Daltonganj: Situated on the Koil river, this is the headquarters of Palamu district, now in Jharkhand. It has the usual components of a civil station but nothing else and has been a poor and neglected cousin of the other towns in Chhotanagpur. Though connected by rail and road to the rest of the country, its back-of-beyond location is responsible for its relative isolation. The town is named after Colonel Edward Tuite Dalton who, as the Commissioner of Chhotanagpur, founded a settlement here in 1861 on government land where the headquarters of Palamu subdivision was shifted from Lesliganj the following year. When Palamu was made into a separate district 20 years later, Daltonganj was the obvious choice as the headquarters of the new district.
Dalton was the commissioner of Chhotanagpur during the Sepoy Mutiny and for many years thereafter. He initiated several administrative measures. In 1862, he ordered an outright substitution of Hindi written in the Devnagri or Kaithi script for Urdu in the Persian character as the medium of instruction and for court work throughout his commissionerate. In September 1870, Dalton laid the foundation of a permanent church at Ranchi in the presence of a large and assorted gathering. He is best remembered for his magnum opus, The Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal, published in 1872.
Forbesganj: This is today a subdivisional town of Purnea division in northeastern Bihar. It borders Nepal and is not very far from the Bangladesh border. The checkposts of various government departments notwithstanding, its busy market caters to buyers from both India and Nepal. The main business today is in grains and timber, jute having lost ground to plastic. How did Forbesganj acquire its exotic sounding name? It is named after Alexander J Forbes, an indigo planter and zamindar in Purnea district. His biographical details are not available except that he came out to India in the early part of the 19th century and spent the greater part of his life in Purnea, where he amassed a large fortune, mostly from indigo. One of Forbes’ indigo factories was at Forbesabad, which name was presumably changed to Forbesganj as the place developed into a township with a flourishing market. While on a trip to Calcutta, he died in 1890 at the age of 84, and lies buried at Purnea.
Sandys’ Compound: In the heart of Bhagalpur civil station, there is a large tract of land that is locally referred to as Sandys’ Compound. At one time this whole area formed the compound of the residence of Teignmouth Sandys, who was the Judge of Bhagalpur around the middle of the 19th century. He belonged to the Indian Civil Service, though the nomenclature had not been fashioned till then. He was recruited as a Writer, like many others before and after him. William Tayler of Patna fame was his contemporary. Educated and promising youngsters from England were appointed as Writers, something like probationary Assistant Collectors and Magistrates, and rose to become Supervisors/Collectors if entrusted with revenue functions or as Judges if utilised for judicial work. Sandys belonged to the first batch of Writers nominated in 1826 for the qualifying examination in 1827.
Revelganj: This is an inconspicuous town in Saran district in north Bihar. Situated 12 km west of the district headquarters town of Chapra, it is served by road and rail. Unlike some other places with European names, it is well known that Revelganj was named after Henry Revel. The East India Company posted Revel as the Collector of Customs at Chapra. It may be recalled that at that time, in the absence of satisfactory road and rail transportation, the East India Company carried on the bulk of trade and commerce by the river route. Revel realised the value of having a proper Custom House to earn revenue for the company so he set up one at Godna in 1788. A market grew around it and in no time the place developed as an important river mart. Revel appears to have been resourceful as well as kind-hearted and became a legend in his lifetime for his humanitarian and charitable acts. His memory was held in such repute that his grave was considered a shrine and his name invoked on occasions of calamity and adversity. It stands in front of the Eden bazaar alongside the Chapra-Guthni road. Tarapada Mukherjee, a local zamindar and lawyer, gave the place a facelift and was also instrumental in establishing a municipality in 1876 by combining the twin revenue villages of Godna and Semaria and, as it’s first vice-chairman, had the new township named Revelganj after Henry Revel.
Bakarganj: Not to be confused with Bakerganj in Bangladesh, this lies in the heart of Patna and is named after Robert Barker, an officer in the East India Company’s army. The grant of Diwani to the East India Company in 1765 made the British the virtual rulers of what later became the three provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. A reorganisation of the East India Company’s army followed. Barker had long served the Company’s Artillery and distinguished himself during the siege of Madras. In the reorganisation, he was to have been made Colonel of the Artillery but had to contend with the place originally slotted for Major Knox of Patna fame. Of the three refashioned brigades, the first was located at Monghyr, the second at Allahabad and the third at Bankipore (Patna) under Barker. The 21st battalion raised by Barker at Bankipur became known as Barker-ki-Paltan just as the 20th battalion raised at Lucknow was called Hussaini-ki-Paltan for having been raised on the day of Muharram. Ironically, Barker-ki-Paltan, after several changes of nomenclature, mutinied at Azamgarh in 1857. Barker rose to become a general and Army Chief and was also knighted. He spent three years at Bankipur (Patna) roughly from 1765 to 1768, that is, until the cantonment was shifted to Danapur. The area around his residence developed as a military bazaar or mandi on the eastern side of Gandhi Maidan and was named Bakarganj after him. It is today an extremely congested commercial-cum-residential locality.
Hunterganj: Contrary to popular thinking, Hunterganj in Chatra district, now in Jharkhand, is not named after the famous educationist and indologist WW Hunter. It derives its name from William Hunter who was the Collector of Ramgarh (spelt Ramghur) Hill Tract in 1794. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William had appointed him and other Collectors of the Bengal Presidency Justices of Peace. Hunter’s jurisdiction extended right up to Sherghati in today’s Gaya district. A patch of jungle was cleared to set up his camp during his visits to Sherghati and human habitation slowly grew around it. Soon it was being referred to as Hunterganj and developed as an administrative centre.
McCluskieganj: McCluskieganj is a sad saga of aspirations gone awry. The Anglo-Indians were, generally speaking, a town-bred community without knowledge of agriculture or experience of village life. They were doled out petty appointments in the Railways and Telegraphs departments while their women worked as teachers in convent schools and as stenos in multinational companies. It was becoming difficult to find employment, whether in government departments or in commercial concerns, for the increasing number of Anglo-Indian youth. Having observed their conditions first-hand, the Indian Statutory Commission made a suggestion, with the concurrence of the government of India, that an attempt be made to bring the Eurasians, chiefly the Anglo-Indians, to the land and open up a wider range of self-employment for them. The Anglo-Indians seized upon the idea and was thus born in 1933 The Colonization Society of India Limited, registered as a limited company. On behalf of the company, ET McCluskie, a Calcutta-based Anglo-Indian real estate agent and member of the Bengal Legislative Council, discovered a beautiful spot in the Chhotanagpur forests, 60 km from the district headquarters town of Ranchi. The Society bought 10,000 acres of forest land from the local Maharaja in 1932. Plots were allotted as per the layout plan prepared by McCluskie. In a creditable display of grit and determination to conquer the natural difficulties, they made the clearings, dug wells and planted orchards. It was not long before a large number of sprawling bungalows and cottages situated in the midst of several acres of land came up in these sylvan surroundings. The new colony became home to nearly 300 Anglo-Indian and domiciled European families. McCluskie died soon after and, as a fitting tribute to this pioneer, the new settlers named the place McCluskieganj, the putative Tel-Aviv of their homeland. Come Independence and, feeling deprived and insecure, there was a mad rush to migrate to Australia, the USA, Canada and the UK. The Society went into liquidation around 1955. Today there is nothing much to see here but a place gone to seed. One can take long walks through the forest, do some bird watching and listen to their chirping. Not more than 35 Anglo-Indian families now live here and fewer are descendents of the original allottees.
There is no dearth of English place names. One only has to be inquisitive. There has been a trend in favour of demolishing English names originally given to a place. We cannot turn the clock back by renaming such places. Naming Calcutta Kolkata has not made the traffic less congested. People still prefer VT to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and refer to Connaught Place as CP and not by its new official appellation. Whether we like it or not, these mysterious place names have become a part of our heritage. Dhur and Crawford could not trace the etymology of each and every name they catalogued, leaving enough scope for future probe. Before the trail gets colder, all such names should be collected, collated and a funded research undertaken to record for posterity the circumstances of their naming.

(The author can be contacted at

Writers' Building, Kolkata

Writers’ Block (published in The Statesman, Kolkata and Delhi under this caption)

Sudhir Kumar Jha time-travels to walk the musty corridors of the majestic red structure that has been home to the Bengal secretariat for a century and a half, and the nursery of generations of clerks who are a class by themselves

THE daily commuters who pass it by every day may not cast a second glance at Writers’ Building in Kolkata, but the building is an acknowledged heritage site. Imperial and Gothic in appearance, it has been home to all shades of political opinion, from the imperialists to communists. Its corridors have been witness to history being made and unmade. It has been the seat of the Bengal Government for almost a century and a half.
What may not be so well-known is why Writers’ Building is so called. Nor that the present edifice is not the original but only its latest incarnation. The earliest version, erected around 1690, was a mud hovel within the old fort, meant to accommodate the “writers” of the East India Company. It was destroyed in a storm in 1695 and rebuilt. The site shifted to where the GPO is now, where a single-floor brick building came up in 1706.
The East India Company’s building programme in Calcutta during the 18th century was meant to be utilitarian rather than demonstrative of imperial grandeur. It remained so even after the grant of Diwani and the victories at Plassey and Buxar had riveted the shackles of the East India Company’s rule in Bengal. With a spurt in the Company’s activities, there was an increased influx of hands from England. Apart from a larger working space, a place had to be found to house these people. As the newcomers were unencumbered by families, even dormitory-type accommodation was deemed adequate. By now the Company could have the pick of the location. Without disturbing the existing arrangement, fresh construction was taken up at the building’s current location adjacent to the lake.
The new structure was in place by 1780. Records show that the new edifice had 19 sets of apartments, all identical, contained in a very long, rather solid three-stories block, classical in style, with 57 sets of identical windows, a flat roof and a central projection with Ionic columns. From all accounts it was uninspiring and resembled a military barrack or a seminary, but it was among the few early attempts at large-scale, classically-motivated architecture in India.
This original design was super-imposed in the 19th century in two phases. The first, around the middle of the century, simply embellished the existing structure with low pediments. The second enterprise, undertaken at the height of British imperial power under Queen Victoria, was more ambitious. It now had terracotta dressings, dummy portico and pediment, and a Corinthian facade. The building as we see it today covers 2.8 acres of land and is 705 feet wide; the campus is spread over 10 acres. It is a cluster of 13 four-storeyed buildings and has been home to the Bengal Secretariat since the time of Lieutenant Governor Ashley Eden.
Who were these “writers” that this behemoth, literally as well as figuratively majestic, was named after? With a view to compete with the Dutch spice traders in the Indies, a band of entrepreneurs formed a joint-stock company and obtained a charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 in the name and style of East India Company. In 1675 the Company established a regular gradation of posts. The lowest rank, that of the apprentice, was discontinued soon. Directly above them were the writers. LSS O’Malley believes (The Indian Civil Service, John Murray, London, 1931) that the appellation originated in 1645 and lasted until 1858 when the British Crown took over the direct administration of the country, by which time the mercantile duties of the office had long since disappeared. Above the writers were the factors (in charge of a trading post and not to be confused with the officer-in-charge in a factory), the junior merchants and the senior merchants — titles borrowed initially from the Dutch East India Company and officially employed till 1842. As a rule the East India Company maintained strictly separate cadres for the civilians and the military but there were exceptions when an infantry cadet received writership and vice versa. George
Elliot came out to India in 1779 as an infantry cadet
and received a writership
two years later. He rose to become the deputy military pay master-general.
A writer took about five years to become a factor. As the writers went up the ladder they occupied all the higher civilian offices and discharged assorted functions, mostly related to revenue, the judiciary and mercantile matters. They took on designations such as supervisor, collector, district judge, salt agent and mercantile agent. William Dampiers was the superintendent of police, a post corresponding to the present director general of police of the Bengal Presidency on the eve of the Mutiny and John Elliot, after whom Elliot Road in Calcutta was named, was the president of the Boards of Police and Conservancy in the early years of the 19th century. Some became commissioners, headed the Boards of Revenue and even became governors and governor-general. In all probability Job Charnock, the putative founder of Calcutta, came to India as a writer as did Robert Clive and Warren Hastings.
It was mandatory for these writers, at least during their probationary period, to reside in the Writers’ Building. The stipulation of compulsory residence for writers was annulled in 1835. After being used as mercantile offices for some years, Writers’ Buildings became the home of the Bengal Secretariat. It became one of the community’s most conspicuous landmarks.
A writer was what the term conveys — a junior clerk, a scribe. There were so many of them. One can visualize them slogging out their days on a high stool scratching interminable entries into a ledger in poor light, holding a quill in one hand and swatting mosquitoes with the other. These writers were sent to factories (trading posts); they kept accounts and were responsible for correspondence with London. Every letter to the head office was made out in triplicate to ensure that at least one surely reached its destination. Two copies were sent by two different sailing ships and the third went across land. Theirs was thus an existence of unbroken drudgery and tedium. A welcome break came in 1830 when David Wilson, a British national, opened a confectionery-cum-bakery less than 100 metres away. The writers could now take short breaks and hop across for a bun or pastry. The outlet, begun to serve primarily the writers, later morphed into the famous Great Eastern Hotel, the first modern, European-style hotel in the country. Alas, the heritage hotel is reportedly up for sale. Thankfully the Writers’ Building faces no such threat.
Contrary to popular belief, writers were poorly paid. Perhaps it was in line with the Company’s philosophy: a penny saved is a penny earned. Sir john Shore, successor to Lord Cornwallis as governor-general, had started his Indian career in 1769 as a writer with a salary of Rs 96, then equivalent to £ 12 a year. He was barely able to afford half the rent of an ill-ventilated modest dwelling. Paying low wages was a sure inducement to indulge in “private practice” and corruption. The Company connived with its employees when it came to creative personal trading, as long as its profits were not affected. Corruption was condoned as a well-deserved recompense for spending half one’s lifetime in hazardous exile.
The Company’s policy was to “catch them young”. Writers were inducted at the age of 16. Writers’ petitions or job applications had to include baptismal certificates, testimonials and details of education. Considering the writers’ impressionable age and virtual lack of education, in 1800 governor-general Lord Wellesley wanted to establish a college at Fort William for the purpose of completing the education of the company’s servants but was overruled by the court of directors. His dream came true with the opening of the East India College at Haileybury in England in 1806. Wellesley set up on his own in 1800 not a full-fledged college but a modest seminary for instruction in Oriental languages which survived until 1854 by which time it had long outlived its utility.
An act of 1826 gave the directors discretionary power to appoint young men between 18 and 22 as writers. A writership was a passport to great riches and it was not always acquired without dubious dealing and corruption. This arrangement lasted from 1827 to 1832. Those appointed under the “nomination” scheme included well-known names such as Sir Robert Montgomery, lieutenant governor of the Punjab from 1859 to 1865 and William Tayler, commissioner of Patna during the Sepoy Mutiny.
An Act of 1853 introduced the system of open competition for appointment to the civil service in India — the principle was not applied to the home civil service until 1870 — and the first exam was held in 1855. Henceforthe writers began learning the Indian languages, customs et al on the job as the arrangement at Fort William had by then been done away with. The East India College, however, sent out the last batch only in 1858 with the result that for two years the list of writers was made up of Haileybury men and Competition Wallahs, to borrow the title from George Trevelyan’s famous book.
The hereditary connection with India was to become a remarkable characteristic of the Hailebury system. Sons stepped into their fathers’ shoes as a matter of course and brought their cousins and their nephews along with them. The Bengal lists included several Plowdens, Colvins, Tuckers and Metcalfes. The Bombay and Madras allotments showed a similar trend. As Kipling put it in his story The Tomb of His Ancestors, generation after generation came out to serve India as dolphins followed in line across the open sea.
The first Indian to enter the civil service by competition was Satyendranath Tagore (1864), followed in 1871 by RC Dutt, BL Gupta and Surendranath Banerjea. Their induction put Bengal in the forefront of western learning. The writers have long been gone but Writers’ Building stands tall to salute their memory. The Indian Civil Service (ICS), the so-called “steel frame”, had every reason to be beholden to the writers. Our bureaucrats even today find it difficult to forsake the Writers’ legacy.