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Serampore


Serampore is a pre-colonial town on the right bank of the Hughli river in the Hughli district of West Bengal. This town, lying on the co-ordinates of 22'45'N latitude and 88'21'E longitude, is a few centuries old. Serampore witnessed the growth and decline of the feudal system, the coming of the danes and their settlement and a cultural renaissance initiated by the British following the construction of the east indian railway and the consequent industrial development. There were three phases in the process of urbanisation of Serampore: (i) Pre-urbanisation phase (the period before 1755); (ii) Urbanisation phase (from 1755 to 1854); and (iii) Industrialisation phase (1854 to 1947).

Pre-urbanisation Much before the Mughal period, the region between the rivers Saraswati and Hughli was a thriving locality. The names of Akna and Mahesh occur in Bipradas Piplai's Manasamangal Kavya, written in the fifteenth century. Besides these the name of Chatra occurs in the literature of chaitanya's time. There is a vivid description of the ratha-yatra festival of Mahesh in the accounts of Tavarnier. Ruins of Hindu temples are still found in Serampore, like the one known as Henry Martin's Pagoda, the temple of Radhaballabhjeu in Ballabhpur (eighteenth century), the Ram-Sita temple in Sripur and the temple of Gauranga in Chatra dating back to the 16th century. The Jagannath temple of Mahesh is ascribed to 1755. From the reference in Abul Fazl's Ain-i-Akbari that Raja mansingh, who arrived in Eastern India in the 16th century (1589-90), had pitched a tent for his army in the vicinity of Sripur and from the identification of Sripur with Serampore in the Padshanama of Abdul Hamid Lahori, it is clear that these places had attained importance in the pre-Mughal period.

When Bengal came under the spell of Sri Chaitanya's vaisnavism in the fifteenth century, these places became eminent as Hindu pilgrim centres. Raja Manohar Chandra Roy of Sheoraphuli built the temple of Ram-Sita in Sripur in 1752, and his son Ram Chandra dedicated the villages of Sripur, Gopinathpur and Manoharpur as devottara land to the Gangulis in the service of the deity. It can be assumed that the name 'Srirampur' might have originated either from 'Sripur', 'Sri Ram' or both. Here some aristocratic localities came up, namely Goswamipara, Lahiripara, Mukherjeepara, Bhattacharyapara, Chakravartipara etc, whose inhabitants were Brahmins of different groups and sects. Then arose the need for various artisan and service class people and they came from the neighbouring villages and settled on the granted land. In this way, several colonies such as Patuapara, Kumarpara, Dhulipara, Goalpara etc were formed. This along with the fact that Sheoraphuli was a collecting centre for marketable goods produced in different parts of Hughli, induced many families - the Barujibis, Dattas, Deys etc - to come to settle here before 1755. The cultivating class settled in Sadgoppara, Mannapara, Lankabaganpara etc. The Jele-Kaibarta and 'Sani' Muchi, were already here from the beginning, and had their own localities. The Sunni Muslims, descendants of Mughal soldiers, lived in Mullickpara. Here a mosque still bears witness to their existence.

During the Mughal period, Akna and Mahesh were thickly populated. The hot humid climate of the area was congenial for the textile industry. The land was thus famous for cotton and silk weaving. The Hindu weavers used to manufacture fine cotton pieces, while the Muslim weavers monopolised silk manufacture. In the fertile land, paddy, jute and betel-leaf were grown in abundance. The Kaibartas utilised the marshy land for fishing.

The mode of communication during the pre-urbanisation phase was mainly through the river. Besides, there was the 'Badshahi Sadak' or the grand trunk road. Before the coming of the Danes in this region, the Sheoraphuli Hat was the main internal trade centre. It had close commercial links with Barisal, Khulna, Dhaka, Mymensingh, Rajshahi and other districts of East Bengal (now Bangladesh). From the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, many foreign merchants - french, portuguese, dutch - established their Kuthis here and were involved in trade and commerce. During the Muslim period, the villagers on the bank of the Hughli and Saraswati were included in the zamindaries of Sheoraphuli. These feudal lords not only collected rent but also dispensed justice and often perpetrated oppression and were held in awe by their subjects. The power of the feudal lords declined with the arrival of the European merchants and their gradual taking over of land. Signs of primary urbanisation began to be manifested in places that had already acquired fame as centres of Hindu pilgrimage.

Urbanisation Phase This phase of about a hundred years begins with the coming of the Danes and their acquisition of land in the area. In the mid-eighteenth century, the Danish East India Company sent Soetman, a representative from its Tranquebar office in South India to the nawab of Bengal. Their intention was to secure a parwana allowing them the right to do business in Bengal. Soetman obtained the Parwana by paying fifty thousand Rupees in cash to Nawab alivardi khan along with a huge quantity of gifts.

In 1755 Soetman purchased three bighas of land at Sripur on the riverfront and another fifty-seven bighas at Akna for the erection of a factory and port at rupees one lac eighty thousand. Later on, the Danes acquired the Serampore, Akna and Pearapur mahals by paying an annual rent of Sicca Rs 1601/- to the zamindar of Sheoraphuli. Thus, after acquiring a total of 1680 bighas of land, the Danes surrounded their factory with a mud fence and straw roof. They made a canal from Pearapur to the river as the northern boundary of their property. The newly occupied land was named Frederiknagar after King Frederick V. In this way, the Danes founded their kuthi, which was a centre for exporting and importing merchandise.

During the first ten to fifteen years of their settlement, the Danish merchants faced various adversities. However, after 1770, they started making significant progress in trade and commerce and in town administration. Danish laws were promulgated. They laboured hard for the success of their trade. Their prosperity from trade came by way of (1) exporting the merchandise of other European merchants and remitting the accumulated wealth earned by surreptitious and personal trade by English Civilians to their homes through bills drawn on the Danish company, and (2) the excellent administrative performance by Colonel Ole Bie, who was appointed the first Crown- regent of Serampore in 1776. His farsightedness, administrative acumen and diplomatic qualities were a boon to the Danes and their settlement. The Danes also established a bazar (the present Tin Bazar) and allowed private godowns to be maintained. It was he who accelerated the process of urbanisation in Serampore. Gradually, the town became elegant and prosperous and merchants of both foreign and indigenous origin began to arrive and live here.

Initially, the Danish merchants used to buy their merchandise from the Sheoraphuli Hat and exported them to European markets via Tranquebar. Later on, they started collecting the commodities directly from the producers who lived in remote villages with the help of their own representatives. They created a class of trading middlemen, like agents, banias, mutsuddis and stevedores. Sobharan Basak and Anandaram Dhoba, the two local textile businessmen, were appointed as the first 'factors' of the Danes. Nandalal Chakravarty was their first agent, and subsequently he got promoted to the position of a Dewan. Another agent was Patita Paban Roy, who hailed from Katulpur in Bankura. Saphali Ram Dey, a famous merchant, was appointed agent for supplying saltpetre.

At the end of the eighteenth century, two brothers, Ram Narayan and Hari Narayan Goswami, came to Serampere from their ancestral village of Patuli in Burdwan district to seek their fortune. Hari Narayan secured a job at the commissariat of the Danish Governor, while Ram Narayan became the official moneylender to the factory. They amassed a huge fortune and acquired vast landed property. They founded an aristocratic colony at the western side of Serampore with their kith and kin. At their instance, many middle and upper grade businessmen belonging to different places settled here. In 1804, as many as 31 different non-agricultural occupational groups accounted for 10,258 persons at Serampore.

Though initially the Danes were exclusively dependent on their factors for obtaining commodities (primarily silk and cotton fabrics), later on they themselves got involved in direct collection of these merchandise from the producers. They would offer incentives to the artisans in the form of earnest money for making good quality products. To the weavers of Akna and Mohanpur villages, they used to give advances for both cotton and fine silk products. The Danish merchants established their own factory to produce fine cloths. Besides, they collected 'Hammer' and 'Luckline' ropes for ships, various other kinds of ropes and agricultural produce. They inspired the cultivators of pearapur to cultivate indigo in addition to paddy. Mr. Princep was their indigo agent. Another notable source of their income was the Hoondi business. For resource mobilisation, the Danes had other sources of income too. For example, fees for exporting merchandise of other European traders in their own ships, levying various taxes, land revenues from local inhabitants, excise and Bazar duties from businessmen, fees on marriage, collection of rents from ware-houses and so on. Thus at that time Serampore played a dual role: that of a producer and of a commercial port.

Colonel Ole Bie was interested in making Serampore a charming, elegant, attractive tourist resort. It became a well-protected town and the maintenance of law and order was quite satisfactory. To facilitate administrative and judicial work a new Court House was built. An asphalt road was laid on the river bank and magnificent palatial buildings, the cosy and comfortable Palmer's 'River View Hotel', the Danish Tavern, Parks and resting places came up. The civil administration, however, was carried out by a prototype of a municipality known as the 'Village Committee', and Ole Bie was its Governor.

The beginning of the nineteenth century can be considered the most significant period in the history of Serampore, with the arrival of three European Baptist Missionaries - william carey, jashua marshman and William Ward - who are the architects of the Serampore renaissance. Though they came chiefly for the purpose of preaching Christianity, they dedicated themselves to the services of the ailing and distressed people in and around the town, spreading education, social reforms and social reconstruction.

They established more than a hundred 'monitorial' schools in the region. Mrs Hana Marshman established the first Girls' School at Serampore, which received much public approval. Carey made an outstanding contribution by founding the serampore mission press in 1800 where the wooden Bangla types made by Panchanan Karmakar were installed. Perhaps the crowning work of Carey and his two associates was the establishment of the serampore college in 1818. They had to spend their last farthing of hard-earned money for the construction of its magnificent building. It was the first college in Asia to award a degree. Carey became famous as the father of Bangla prose. The Mission Press published three books - the Bangla translation of the Bible, Hitopadesh and Kathopakathan. Munshi ramram basu, the pundit appointed by Carey, brought out Pratapaditya Charit and the Bangla versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The first issue of the second Bangla daily, Samachar Darpan came out in 1818 under the editorship of Carey. At the same time, the Serampore Mission Press brought out the English daily, Friends of India. Another outstanding contribution of the missionaries was the installation of India's first paper mill, propelled by a steam engine. Between 1801 and 1832 the Serampore Mission Press printed 2,12,000 copies of books in 40 different languages. In this cultural development, the local inhabitants had only a passive role. Only a few among the affluent, comprising absentee landlords and businessmen, seized the opportunity for higher education by sending their children to the academic institutions of the missionaries. On the other hand, people belonging to the lower economic stratum sent their children to the monitorial schools run by the missionaries, which provided basic education. In the process, there emerged a section of local gentry, who had a favourable attitude towards the missionaries.

Between 1801 and 1839 Danish trade and commerce as well as the civic life of Serampore experienced a severe decline. While in 1803, 113 European ships were loaded and unloaded at Serampore port; there was only 1 in 1815. The aggressive attitude of the British merchants located in Calcutta and their continuous harassment of the Danes in Serampore hit the company at its root. The situation became so critical that the Danish Governor, Pater Hansen, was constrained to sell off the entire property to the English for a paltry sum of rupees twelve lacs on 11 October 1835.

Industrialisation Phase During the last days of Danish rule in Serampore, the entire civic administration was completely disrupted. After taking over the possession of the town, the British company began to look after its civic amenities. The earlier 'Village Committee' was transformed into the Serampore Municipality in 1865. Rishra and Konnagar were also included in it.

At that time, the affluent high caste section of the Serampore population displayed no sign of modernisation, nor did they subscribe to an urban ethos. The Indian economy during the period was passing through a severe recession. There was continuous migration of rural people to the urban centres. Landless labourers from Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Orissa came to Serampore in search of employment. When the second Jute Mill was opened in 1866 in Serampore (the first one was set up in Rishra in 1855) the town began to grow as an industrial town. Along with the Jute mills, many other subsidiary factories came up in the erstwhile rural areas within or on the fringes of the town.

Thus, with the capital investment of the British the commercial town of Serampore was transformed into an industrial one. The deciding force behind the process was the laying of the railway line from Howrah to Burdwan in 1854. It ushered in a great change in the social composition of the town. Between 1866 and 1915, six more jute mills were established in Rishra, Serampore and Gondolpara. The local landlords, thikadars and mill-owners made arrangements for the habitation of the labour force around the factories. Thus at Mahesh, Akna, and Tarapukur mouzas adjacent to the Ganges, a number of workers' colonies, namely Oriyabasti, Gayaparabasti, Chhapra basti, Telengipara basti etc were established. Because of the arrival of these migrant workers, the population in Serampore increased from 24,440 to 44,451 between 1872 and 1901. These habitations of labourers were mere slums, unhygienic, overcrowded and full of stench. There was no provision for even a minimum of civic amenities in their dwellings.

In 1914, an arrangement was made to supply filtered potable water from the Municipality. The Town Hall was established in memory of Kishori Lal Goswami in 1927. At the initiative of the Government, the weaving school was founded during the thirties, and later on it was raised to the status of a Textile College. The municipality began to provide electricity in 1938. After fifty years of British possession, Serampore was swept by the waves of a Bengali cultural and nationalist movement. The spirit of nationalism influenced many youths from middle-class families. It resulted in the decline of foreign investment in industries. But there was an increase in indigenous investment. The Bangalakshmi Cotton Mill was founded out of the swadeshi spirit. From the beginning of the twentieth century many primary schools and educational institutions were set up at Serampore. The descendents of some of the older aristocratic families donated their residential buildings for benevolent purposes.

After 1947, Serampore has become a satellite town of Calcutta. Its process of urbanisation is still incomplete. [Prafulla Chakrabarti]