He was famously compared to the Italian original and referred to as the first Medici of Kolkata. In 19th century Paris, he was the elusive Prince of Inde and popularly thought of as the embodiment of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. His wife externed him from his home. His world-famous poet and litterateur grandson allegedly destroyed his writings, journals, personal letters, business correspondences – all records related to him that were available in the family archive and never ever wrote or spoke about him in his entire life.
He is Prince Dwarkanath Thakur, grandfather of poet Rabindranath Thakur – the second Bengali, and possibly Indian, interred in England after Raja Ram Mohun Roy, who, in fact, he was well acquainted with.
He was buried at the Kensal Green cemetery in North London. And, his hearse was drawn by a royal carriage specially sent by Queen Victoria for her friend’s last journey.
Exactly 175 years ago Dwarkanath died in London, on a stormy and rainy evening of 1 August 1846 at the age of 51 – just about a decade before the Sepoy Mutiny – The Great Revolt – India’s First War of Independence. A too antique a ‘Thakur’ (1794–1846) to be remembered by the current generation of the Bengalis as well as other Indians, but truly remarkable for the range of his ideas and the variety of his pioneering activities. No Indian could match what he had achieved during his time.
Who was Dwarkanath Thakur?
Dwarkanath was born in 1794 when Lord Cornwallis, the man who lost America to George Washington, was sent to govern India. During that period, there was hardly any local voice in Imperial Indian discourse.
Dwarkanath was an unusually interesting exception. It is significant to note that the British in general and the East India Company (EIC) in particular, considered him virtually as one of them. It is a distinction that does not apply to anyone, any 'native Indian' of that period, not even to Raja Ram Mohun Roy, a celebrated religious and social reformer, or even some very important Parsi business families of Mumbai, considered important commercial partners to the British.
Roy was loved by the learned, but Dwarkanath had the trust and ear of the East India Company as well as the British administration, the inside track, as they say, if you get the drift.
He was invited to play Whist - the card game, at the Buckingham Palace, and dined with the Queen Mother. He was on first name terms with most of the English nobles and, especially, to their wives. He was Dwarky to them.
Imperial Kolkata’s British population was never very large. The number of British residents fluctuated between 3,500 and 4,000 in the decades between 1820s and 1840s. However, they desired to have in Kolkata of all amenities available back home - newspapers, banks, taverns, hotels, theatres, good road, river infrastructures, police and justice systems.
The private British traders wanted to have independent banks as the EIC would not lend them capital. They wanted newspapers to update their knowledge on the happening back home as well as in Hindoostan and to give vent to their grievances to their rulers. And of course, they aspired for their own kind of theatre, as in London’s Covent Garden and Drury Lane.
Dwarkanath, who could have remained a native baboo like many contemporary Mutsuddies and Banians (native agents of the EIC and British merchants and traders) and could have led a contended prosperous life – instead, decided to become the pivot to shape the institutions that the British longed for.
India's Industrious Pioneer
In 1829, he was the prime mover in forming the Union Bank, the first private commercial bank unattached to either the EIC or any British business houses in India. The bank extended credit not just for exports of indigo, cotton, and silk, but also for new ventures like running steamboats.
By the 1830s, he had equity or other financial stakes in almost all the leading newspapers of Bengal.
JH Stocqueler (1801-1886) the celebrated journalist, author and lecturer who lived in England, India, and the USA, had purchased the Kolkata newspaper, John Bull, in early 1830s with financial support from Dwarkanath and renamed it The Englishman, giving it a liberal focus. He sold the paper in 1843, paid off Dwarkanath, and left for England where he published one of the early handbooks related to India. The Englishman, in its various changed incarnations, is still in publication today, though under a different name – The Statesman.
Dwarkanath was also the leading investor in Chowringhee Theatre, Kolkata – the earliest of the proscenium theatres in the country and India’s very own Adelphi in the first half of the 19th century.
It was alleged that he even had a romantic link with its leading lady, a talented British actress – an event that had a hugely detrimental consequences on his marriage.
He helped usher in modern thinking to the country. William Bentinck, the Governor General of India, enlisted his help to gather indigenous support for abolition of the obnoxious practice of Sati.
For Dwarkanath, association with the progressive movements paid rich dividend. It allowed him easy access to the corridors of power in the EIC and the British government. He had a spectacular elevation in his rank and was an insider into the system that controlled the three permanent British monopoly trades in the then India - indigo, salt and opium, along with tea and coal.
He leveraged his position as Dewan of the Board of Customs, Salt and Opium, to forge awfully close ties with all who mattered in early modern Bengal.
Carr, Tagore and Company
In 1834, Dwarkanath had set up a bi-racial Indo-British merchant firm and managing agency, the Carr, Tagore and Company, which was the first of its kind in India.
The British had earlier accepted only the Parsis as business partners but not any other Indians. In this sense, he was an exception. Dwarkanath’s special status with the ruling EIC and with the indigenous media literally in his pocket, he got chosen as the only Indian, other than a very handful of Parsi merchants, to ship opium to China.
Opium had been long-declared a contraband by the Chinese empire, but the EIC in Kolkata and Mumbai minted money by selling it in public auctions. It was then sent for onward transmission by the opium merchants of London, Mumbai, and Kolkata.
They, in turn, got their ships to carry the load to dealers’ ghettoes in Canton. With the poppy money, the East India Company, and, later, Her Majesty’s Government, all but balanced the India budget. They used the rather questionable income from contraband export to fund the century-long process of empire building.
Dwarkanath was somewhere in between – being a middle-level sub-agent in the opium trade. But what is startling is the fact that the British had, after all, allowed him a skin in the game, even though he was a Bengali, a race with whom British were always in a love-hate relationship.
Opium was the currency of world trade at that time, and in India the only non-European people whom the British had allowed to ferry the contraband were a handful of Parsis, whom they called ‘near Orientals’ and were treated differently from ‘native Indians’.
In fact, one of India’s current premier Parsi business houses made most of its early fortunes through opium trading only.
Though Dwarkanath did not have a presence in China, a privilege limited only to the Europeans and the Parsis, he could still ship the goods directly to a British-owned firm in Canton - Dent & Company. It is difficult to calculate how much did Dwarkanath earn from the opium trade. Shipping manifests of the era are generally silent about opium in the hold, the trade being clandestine, even though having been blessed by the EIC.
The significance of Dwarkanath’s involvement in the opium trade is far wider than money. The inflow of cash from opium business gave Dwarkanath opportunity to experiment with newer concepts and business ventures. He bought for a pittance a dysfunctional coal pit in Raniganj near Asansol, currently in the state of West Bengal, and turned it into India’s first organized energy firm, the Bengal Coal Company. He also owned a Sugar factory at Ramnagar.
With energy source under his command, his next venture was to launch steam navigation on a commercial scale – commercial shipping. He also had a plan ready to lay railway lines for tapping the faraway coal heads and hauling it to the market in Kolkata. With steam navigation under way, his new thrust was to launch a sea mail service from Kolkata for Europe.
Decades before Kolkata had its first pontoon bridge over the Hooghly River in 1874, which much later at the next century morphed in to the iconic Howrah Bridge, Dwarkanath was hawking the idea of using a ferry boat pulled during high tide by iron chain and steam engine in 1840s across Hooghly River at the same site. It was something like the steam ferry then in existence, across the Hamoaze river, near Plymouth Sound, in England, he had witnessed.
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Acting as the 'Steel Frame'
Dwarkanath had also influenced the British to have more Indian in its civil services. As a result of his efforts Indians could appear in competitive examinations in England for the prestigious and powerful Imperial Civil Service - the ICS, reputedly the “steel frame” of British rule in India, which later metamorphosed to the current day IAS.
Satyendra Nath Thakur, Dwarkanath’s grandson and poet Rabindranath’s elder brother, became the first Indian to qualify for the ICS. Dwarkanath was a pioneer in making Indians compete not with other Indians, but with the world.
He wanted bright and educated Indians to fill in the bureaucratic posts, and judicial and medical services.
Dwarkanath’s descendants seemed to have been ambiguous about the ways in which Dwarkanath had acquired the wealth. Hence the easy way out for them was to pretend that he never existed and they destroyed his memory. Moreover, Digambari Devi, (m. 1811– died 1839) Dwarkanath’s wife, was a very orthodox, strong willed and religious woman. She found it difficult to accept her husband’s closeness to the English society, reformist approaches and disdained his Anglophilia and had barred him from entering the family home
Not very many Indians would remember that even as the main bread earner and head of the family and even being the owner of one of the largest fortunes among Indians, he used to live at the ‘out-house’ of the palatial family-home at Jorasankho in Kolkata, (the house still exists and currently a part of the Rabindra Bharati University), and never ever questioned the rulings made by his wife and the then Brahmanical society.
Kissory Chand Mittra (1822-1873) - the earliest biographer of Dwarkanath and the brother of Peary Chand Mittra – the first Bengali novelist, wrote in his book- Memoir of Dwarkanath Tagore (Thacker, Spink & Co.- 1870), “To collect rents and to buy and ship produce was not a life sufficient for Dwarkanath. In life he wanted to do something for his motherland and for his own generation. To get through life easily and secure as much money as possible by the way, is the theory of the herd of men. But it was not Dwarkanath’s theory. His was to improve and elevate his country, and, if possible, to lead her to greatness and win himself fame. That was the one dream of his manhood, and became the one purpose of his after-life. He was not destitute of ambition — ‘the last infirmity of a noble nature’. He strove to raise his country along with himself.”
Kissory Chand Mittra further stated, “Now what did Dwarkanath leave behind? A Hindu College (now Presidency University, Kolkata) and a Medical College (The Calcutta Medical College Hospital); the revolting rite of Suttee abolished and branded by law as murder; ….”. He had created a solid foundation for a gigantic newspaper industry.
It was with his financial and political encouragement that the first batch of Indian students came to London to study Western medicine at the University of London. Last but not the least, it was his suggestion to the British that allowed the Indians to become the part of the Imperial Civil Services.
After his untimely death, his family members led by his elder son Debendranath, father of poet Rabindranath, turned away from business activities allowing eventually his company Carr, Tagore to wind-up. Instead, they concentrated on the vast land estates – Zamnindari - Dwarkanath had acquired, and lived-off the revenue and the riches of the land for the next hundred years.
Dwarkanath existed in a very short yet immensely interesting juncture of Indian history. Because, after 1857, the British stopped believing and listening to the Indians and used to call them 'b****y Indians' and 'dirty n*****s' throughout the rest of the 19th century, and the basis of racial discrimination in the sub-continent solidified. No Indian ever made it so close as the ‘equal’ as Dwarkanath did in the 19th century and earned the grudging respect of the British crown, civil services, and the commercial establishment.
(Devasis Chattopadhyay is the author of the book ‘Without Prejudice’, a columnist and a Kolkata history buff. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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