The sea route from Boston to Kolkata is long, arduous and fraught with risks. A ship leaving the Port of Boston goes on to the Gulf of Maine, enters the North Atlantic Ocean heading for the Strait of Gibraltar, thereon to the Alboran Sea and the mighty Mediterranean, emerging in the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea, heading for the Arabian Sea and then on to the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Mannar, the Palk Strait and finally, the Bay of Bengal before narrowing in to the Kolkata Port.
Imagine embarking on such a hazardous voyage over 300 years ago when parts of the passage were through unknown domains. Surely, such bravado could only be justified by the promise of bounty at the end.
In the 17th century, that prize was the trading city of Calcutta, whose port was renamed last week to Syama Prasad Mookerjee Port. The new name for the Kolkata Port honours the role of an unsung political hero who was also the founder of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh. But it also brings the spotlight back, albeit briefly, on the oldest surviving port in the country, one that evokes memories of a bygone era when India was a hugely influential destination on the global maritime routes.
At its peak, Calcutta, as it was then called, sent out and received ships to and from every corner of the globe though it has the trading links with Europe and West Asia that are better known. There is, for instance, evidence of trade between Calcutta and Massachusetts back in the 17th century with items such as lumbar, wines and ice being shipped from the US city to India while silk, saltpetre, ginger and jute went the other way. The voyages must have required some courage since the Hooghly was and remains a fierce river. Watercolour paintings from that era capture the ferocity of the waves even as menacing dark clouds loom overhead.
Undeterred, the Yankee traders sailed forth, covering a distance of some 10,000 nautical miles between the two cities. The Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University holds evidence of the booming trade between business families in both cities. According to a wonderful collection of essays titled Calcutta through 300 years produced by Marg Publications in 1990, one of the merchants of Calcutta, Ramdoolal Dey, became so popular with the American traders that in 1801 they presented him with a portrait of George Washington. In turn, well known Indian families like Mitter and Dutt commissioned their portraits for presenting to their American trading partners. In many of these canvases, the port of Calcutta is a visible presence.
Set up in 1870, the port is an integral part of modern Kolkata’s rich trading history dating back to the time when the British first set up a factory at Hughli in 1651 after seeing the potential of trade with the Mughal empire’s richest province. Subsequently in 1690, they established a new settlement called Calcutta.
The agency driving this was the rapacious East India Company which was given trading rights by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1717 against yearly payment of Rs 3,000. By this time, it had become the United Company of Merchants of England Trading to the East Indies and true to its reputation, it exploited the free trade rights to enrich its coffers. It was only in 1870 that the port was brought under the administrative control of the government and a Port Commission was appointed to develop it further.
The start of the industrial revolution in 1760 led to a boom in machine-made textiles and sadly turned India from being a large exporter to an importer of cotton yarn. By the first few decades of the 1800s, Arab ships from Cairo were sailing down the Red Sea carrying bales of cotton yarn and headed for Calcutta. The city was now a throbbing and thriving centre of commerce with large agency houses like Barings — the same that finally collapsed in 1995 — in partnership with local merchants like Gisborne, using the port to bring British yarn to the country. In his monumental work Empire of Cotton, Sven Beckert writes about how British merchants virtually reversed the cotton trade: “Tellingly, Manchester manufacturers McConnel & Kennedy, who had earlier in the century found most of their yarn customers in continental Europe, by the 1860s were corresponding with customers in Calcutta, Alexandria and similar distant parts of the world.”
Paintings dating back to the 1850s capture a bustling port with massive ships, their masts aflutter, sailing into a dockside lined with palm trees and small fishing boats. When the camera was invented in 1816, almost inevitably it was to Calcutta, the first city of the country, that its lens turned to. Some of the earliest pictures of the time capture the ongoing construction work to build the two large entrances to the riverine port. But the limitations of the new invention prevent these photographs from capturing the grandeur and the sheer beauty of the ships coming down the river. For that, we need to turn to artists like William Daniell and poets like James Atkinson who describe their first view of the city in ecstatic terms.
Facing rough weather today, the Syama Prasad Mookerjee Port can look back on a glorious past when it was the gateway to the wonders of India.
(Sundeep Khanna is a senior journalist. Views are personal.)
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