A house on the Isle of Wight and a plantation in Sri Lanka: chapter 2

THE PHOTOGRAPHER Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879; ‘JMC’) was born in the Garden Reach district of Calcutta (now Kolkata in West Bengal). Her father, James Pattle, was a prosperous English official in the East India Company. JMC and her six sisters, the surviving children of James and Adeline Marie Pattle, had a Bengali ancestor, Thérèse Josephe Blin de Grincourt (1768-1866) She was JMC’s maternal grandmother, a Bengali woman who had married a French man, Ambroise Pierre Antoine de l’Étang (1757-1866, whose presence in Bengal was recorded in “The India Office List 1825” as “De l’Étang, Chevalier Antoine, Knt. St Louis, assist. Stud at Poosa, 1796” (Poosa is in what is now Madhya Pradesh). They married in 1788. At that time, it was not uncommon for European men to have lasting relationships with Indian women. This is well-described in William Dalrymple’s book “White Mughals”. Later, in the 19th century, such interracial liaisons were heavily frowned upon. It was expected that ‘white’ men would only marry ‘white’ women. Incidentally, Thérèse was daughter of a French colonist and his Bengali wife.

As with her sisters, JMC was sent to France to be educated. She remained there from 1818 to 1834, when she returned to India.

Julia Margaret Cameron by James Prinsep

In 1835, suffering from ill-health, JMC travelled to the Cape of Good Hope. This part of what is now South Africa was favoured as a place to convalesce by Europeans based in India. It was in the Cape that JMC met not only the famous astronomer and an inventor of photography Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), but also the man whom JMC would marry in 1838: Charles Hay Cameron (1795-1880). Charles was in the Cape recovering from a malarial illness. A disciple of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, he was a reformer of law in India and education, who also invested in coffee plantations (in 1848) in Sri Lanka.

Julia and Charles married in Calcutta, where she became a prominent hostess in the city’s British Indian society. During the 1840s, she corresponded regularly with John Herschel about developments in the science and technology of photography. He sent her two dozen calotypes and daguerreotypes, which were the first photographs he had ever set eyes on. The Camerons raised eleven children: five of their own; five orphans (children of relatives); and an Irish girl named Mary Ryan (whom they found begging on Putney Heath).

The entire Cameron family relocated to England in 1845, possibly because their two older children had settled there, and Charles had retired. They settled in Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent. They became friendly with one of their neighbours, the poet Henry Taylor (1800-1886), who had worked in the Colonial Office under Robert William Hay (1786-1861), who might well have been related to Charles Hay Cameron’s mother. Later, the Camerons moved to East Sheen, which is closer to London than Tunbridge Wells.

It was through Henry Taylor and Julia’s sister Sara (1816-1887), who was married to Henry Thoby Prinsep (1793-1878), an official in the Indian Civil Service, that JMC was introduced to a set of noteworthy Victorian cultural figures. Henry and Sara had returned to England from India in 1835, and were living in (the now demolished) Little Holland House next to the house of the artist Lord Leighton, near Holland Park in west London. Their home became a meeting place for famous artists, as will be described later. It was here that Sara held a salon for pre-Raphaelite artists, poets, and aristocrats with an interest in artistic activities. At Sara’s home, JMC encountered, amongst other worthy cultural figures, the poet Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892).

Tennyson rented Farringford House in Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight (‘IOW’) in 1853, and purchased it three years later. In 1860, after a long visit to Tennyson on the IOW, the Camerons bought a property next door to Tennyson’s and named it Dimbola after one of their (then coffee) plantations in Sri Lanka. TO BE CONTINUED

What! Why? Is there no Calcutta on the map?

VINCENZO MARIA CORONELLI (1650-1718) who was most likely born in Venice (Italy) was not only a Franciscan friar but also a cartographer. Recently, I spotted one of his maps hanging in a frame in a friend’s home. It is a beautiful work of art, bearing the title (translated from French): “Maritime route from Brest to Siam and from Siam to Brest”. It was made between 1685 and 1686, based on information provided to Coronelli by six Jesuit priests sent out to the Indies by the King of France. Coronelli, based in The Republic of Venice, drew the map.

I was particularly interested to see what of modern India is represented on the map. On the coast of “Guzararatte ou Cambaje” (i.e. Gujarat or Cambay), the Island of Diu, then a Portuguese settlement, is marked, as are “Surate” (Surat) and “Bombaim” and “Chaul” (also  Portuguese settlements). Further south, Goa is marked, and yet further south along the west coast, we can see Calicut and Cochin. On the east coast of India, we can see “Fort S. Thomé” and “Mahapur”, being old names for a place immediately south of Chennai and Mahabalipuram respectively.

The map becomes more interesting when you look at the “Bouches du Gange” (the mouths of the Ganges). Coronelli draws a complex collection of island’s that depict  the Ganges delta, but where one would expect to find Calcutta (Kolkata) on modern maps, there is only a small inset town plan of a place called “Louvo”. This is not a place in India but in modern Thailand (once known as ‘Siam’): its modern name is Lopburi.

The reason that Calcutta is not marked on Coronelli’s map is simple: the place with that name did not exist when the Jesuit priests reported back to Coronelli. Had they made their survey only a little later, they would have been able to report its existence because in August 1686 Job Charnock (c1630-c1692/3) established a trading post (‘factory’) on the River Hooghly, and that became known as Calcutta.  I have visited his grave and mausoleum in central Kolkata.

Clive in India

I AM NOW IN CALCUTTA. Last time I came here, for miles and miles along the railway lines and at stations, there were starving people. Now there is not a sign of famine – it has been organised with the ability of genius…” 

Thus, wrote Clive Branson (1907-1944) from Bengal on the 11th of November 1944. Later in the same letter, this British soldier in India added:

“… it is reported that in the week ending November 5th, 267 deaths occurred in Chandpur town and in the 53 unions (groups of villages), on an average more than 200 in each. The report states ‘Almost all the dead bodies were thrown into the ‘khal’ and paddy fields – to be devoured by dogs, jackals and vultures – as there was no man available to bury or burn those corpses.”

A few lines later, he adds:

The point is that out in the villages people can starve to death without anyone knowing about it, while on the basis of the falling mortality rate in Calcutta Amery will no doubt claim that the famine is over.”

‘Amery’ to whom Branson referred was Leo Amery (1873-1955), who was Secretary of State for India during WW2. The famine was that which decimated many Indians in Bengal and other parts of India.

clive

Writing on the 28th of August 1943, Branson suggested that the famine was to some large extent man-made rather than the result of natural disasters:

But the fact is there is enough food in India now …”

A major cause of the famine he suggested it was:

“… the hoarders, the big grain merchants, the landlords and the bureaucrats who have engineered the famine …”

And, on the 14th September 1943, Branson wrote:

The thing that stands out a mile is that the Government showed no signs of weakness when it came to the arrest of the Congress in glaring contrast  to its utter helplessness (??) (or should we call it co-operation, tie-up) in the face of the grain profiteers (and in a similar situation – the cloth merchants – the coalowners, re employment of women underground).”

These quotes, damning indictments of the situation Clive Branson observed whilst serving in India come from a book, “British Soldier in India”. It contains the letters that Clive wrote from India to his wife in England and was published in 1944 by ‘The Communist Party, London’. The slender volume contains an introduction written by Harry Pollitt (1890-1960), who was General Secretary of The Communist Party of Great Britain from 1941 to 1956. I came across the book while reading an excellent book about the 1943 Bengal famine, “Churchill’s Secret War” by Madhusree Mukherjee, and ordered a copy.

Clive was born in Ahmednagar (India), son of an army officer. Ironically, most of his time in India during WW2 was spent in the town where he was born. He trained to be a painter at The Slade School of Art (part of University College London) and became a prolific and talented artist. Some of his works are housed in London’s Tate Gallery. From the age of 20, Clive became interested in Communism and joined the Communist Party in 1932. Pollitt wrote of him:

He was one of those who endear themselves to all who came in contact with them … he was able to inspire others to hate poverty and fight to remove it, to hate ugliness and see beauty … He was not only a brilliant speaker and organiser, but also did more than his share of what is sometimes called “the donkey work”. Nothing was too much for him …”

During the Spanish Civil War, Clive both recruited for, and from 1938 fought with, The International Brigade. In March 1938, he was taken prisoner by Franco’s Nationalist forces and interned in San Pedro de Cardeña concentration camp, where he painted and sketched the camp and many of its inmates. These artworks are currently stored in the Marx Memorial Library in London’s Clerkenwell Square. Pollitt reports that a fellow prisoner said of Clive:

In any difficult time, Clive was always cheery, putting forward what we should do … He was one of the most popular and most respected among the British prisoners.”

Clive, a true patriot and ardent anti-fascist, joined the Royal Armoured Corps during WW2 and was posted to India where he arrived in May 1942, the month that he sent his first letter published in the book. Pollitt accurately notes that Clive’s letters from India:

“… will make you angry and they will make you sad. They will make you see new colours and shades, an unimaginable suffering and a truly heroic grandeur, extraordinary nobility and equally extraordinary bestiality. It is a vivid and many-sided picture which Clive wanted to record in painting, and which we may be sure he would have executed with feeling and sincerity...”

Reading Clive’s letters today, 76 years after they were composed, still evoked a sense of anger because of the awful things he saw as well as a sense of wonder because of his very evident love and admiration of India and its people.

Whenever he was able, Clive mixed with Indians from all strata of society and delighted in their company.  While in Ahmednagar, Clive was introduced to an Indian artist. At this person’s house, he:

“… did a drawing for 1½ hours of his little niece aged 10. I did it in indelible pencil and ink – this is the medium I shall do most of my work in as it is more lasting – does not smudge – than ordinary pencil. But how difficult are Indian clothes – I shall have to do a lot of careful observation and drawing before I shall know what to do technically’ The Indian just sat and watched me working. He speaks English quite well, and knows a number of famous Indian painters – he himself went to the Bombay School of Art…”

This was noted in a letter dated 13th of April 1943. Several months later, in mid-September, Clive was invited to lunch with his artist friend. I loved his description of the occasion, which was new to him but typically Indian:

We sat on wooden seats about 2 ins. off the ground. The meal was in a room just off the kitchen. Of course we had taken off our boots etc. Each had a large silver plate with the various ingredients put around the edge. A small bowl of what they call butter-milk took the place of water. A pattern, done with vermilion and white powder had been drawn on the ground. In front of me was placed a little silver stand in which a stick of incense burned. Nana’s elder daughter also ate with us. The whole affair was very civilised and friendly.”

In general, Clive was enamoured of all of the Indians he encountered, both those from sophisticated and also humble backgrounds. He was horrified at the way that the British and their government treated them. This is a significant feature of what he conveyed in his letters. Also, the failure and apparent unwillingness of the British to address the terrible famine concerned and upset him greatly. He communicates this eloquently and powerfully in his writing.

One of Clive’s many observations struck a personal chord. It concerns the bookshops that Clive visited in India in search of reading material. In a letter written from Bombay in September 1942, he noted:

I have said a lot about going to bookshops, but I have never mentioned something which hits you in the face about the general trend of literature: 1. Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ is on sale prominently at every bookstall …”

Seeing copies of “Mein Kampf” openly on sale in most bookshops in India is something that has always surprised me since my first visit to India in 1994.

As a Communist, Clive’s political views are not concealed in his letters. He showed little or no sympathy for the policies of Gandhi and the All India Congress. On the 10th of March 1943, he wrote:

How stupid Gandhi’s fast looks compared to the grandeur of a handful of Indian peasants and workers uniting to demand their human rights!  No wonder the Viceroy corresponds with Gandhi and sends the police after the people.”

As for the Muslim League in Bengal:

The net result of the League’s scheme is to launch the peasants against the little men and leave the big bastards to control the famine via the black market – such is the first practical application of the policy of Jinnah.” (letter dated 19th June 1943)

Also, as a staunch anti-fascist, he regarded Subhas Chandra Bose as contemptible because he had chosen to fight alongside the Japanese, who were allies of fascist Germany. During his stay in India, Clive met and discussed matters with members of the Indian Communist Party. This is described in the letters and was not removed by the censors. In addition, his harsh but justifiable criticism of Britain’s mishandling of the famine in India passed the censors’ scrutiny and reached his wife’s letter box intact.

Clive was constantly upset by seeing examples of British racism in India. He mentions this often in his letters. The most eloquent example appears in a letter written on the 29th of November 1943:

I am sitting on the grass outside a long army hut. Not far away is an African negro … reading a book. Five minutes ago a B.O.R. [British other rank] came up, stopped, and said to him, ‘Can you read?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What’s the book? Miss Blandish?’ ‘No, Pygmalion.’ I had to record this – whole books could not present the present world situation better.”

(I imagine that the B.O.R. was referring to “ No Orchids for Miss Blandish”, a  raunchy thriller by James Hadley Chase)

In the same letter, Clive noted that the British Conservative MP, Ferris:

“… has made a study of Indian affairs, and has delivered himself of the profound judgement that India is not ready for self-government. I wonder how many whiskies and sodas it took to produce such an original conclusion.”

Sadly, Clive did not live long enough to see India becoming independent in 1947. He was killed in action early in 1944 “…commanding an M3 Lee tank of B Squadron, 25th Dragoons. He was hit a glancing but fatal blow on the back of the head by a Japanese anti-tank shell near Point 315 at the end of the Battle of the Admin Box.” (source: Wikipedia).

Clive’s letters provide a moving collection of well-described observations of India, a country in which many of its citizens were enduring a plight at least as bad as that of people suffering in Nazi occupied Europe. They were under the control of the British, who were fighting to defeat Nazi tyranny. The British were under the leadership of Winston Churchill, who is reported (by his close colleague Leo Amery) to have said:

I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

Here are two short videos well worth watching in connection with what I have written:

https://youtu.be/QI6qg1ERmGE

(Pathé Newsreel with scenes of the famine. Commentary in Punjabi, but images are very powerful)

https://youtu.be/fUjtxHFGUrg

(An Indian historian/author/politician gives a fresh view of Churchill)

 

 

Facts, figures, and famine

blog churchill

 

THE BRITISH PRIME MINISTER, Mr Boris Johnson, appears to be strongly dependent on his chief adviser, Mr Dominic Cummings. Mr Johnson’s hero, the late Winston Churchill, was also very reliant on his chief advisor Professor Frederick Lindemann, First Viscount Cherwell (1886-1957), a scientist. Madushree Mukherjee, the author of “Churchill’s Secret War”, wrote:

“On most matters, Lindemann’s and Churchill’s opinions converged; and when they did not, the scientist worked ceaselessly to change his friend’s mind …”

Lindemann created the ‘S Branch’, a group of specialists whose role it was to report to Churchill after distilling “ …  thousands of sources of data into succinct charts and figures, so that the status of the nation’s food supplies (for example) could be instantly evaluated…” (Wikipedia).

Mukherjee noted:

“… the mission of the S branch was to provide rationales for whichever course the prime minister, as interpreted by the Prof, wished to follow.”

It would seem from this that Churchill pulled the strings, and even the great Lindemann was somewhat of a puppet. In contrast, it is difficult to say whether the puppet-master is our present prime minister or his chief adviser.

Two Commonwealth countries, Australia and New Zealand  erected large war memorials to their citizens near Hyde Park Corner and the gardens of Buckingham Palace. A more modest memorial complex, the Commonwealth Memorial Gates (inaugurated 2002), was put up to commemorate the great contribution that people from countries in the Indian subcontinent, the West Indies, and Africa made to defending the British Empire during the Second World War. An information panel informs the viewer that during the First World War, 1,440,500 men and women from the Indian subcontinent and Nepal “Volunteered for military service in the Indian Army”, and during WW2, “…over 2,500,00… “ men and women from the subcontinent fought for the forces of the British Empire. Between about 64,500 and 74,000 of the military personnel from the Indian subcontinent died in combat during WW1, and over 87,000 Indian (that is from pre-1947 ‘British India’) soldiers died during WW2. These figures are of necessity approximate and without doubt horrific. However, during WW2, the number of Indian citizens, who died of starvation in their own country during WW2 is far more difficult to know. The most reliable approximations give the number of Indians dying of starvation in Bengal during WW2 as being at least three million, that is about half the number of civilians who died because of Hitler’s demented racial theories.

The three million or most probably more Indians, who starved to death, lived mainly in Bengal. They did not perish by accident, as Madhusree Mukerjee explained in her book, which has been highly acclaimed. Unlike other famines in India caused by failures of harvest, what happened in Bengal in 1943 and ’44, the starvation of the Bengalis was probably largely man-made. And, as the book suggests using damning evidence that has come to light since WW2, two men who were most significant in its making were Churchill and his chief adviser Lindemann. 

Churchill was quite rightly focussed on winning the Second World War and at the same time preserving the integrity of the British Empire, which was being challenged by Indian nationalists throughout the two decades leading up to the outbreak of war and after the fighting began. For reasons I cannot explain Churchill did not like the Indian people. To give just one example, he is reported to have said of them in November 1942 that they were:

“… the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans.”

His adviser, the eugenicist Lindeman (Cherwell) was also no lover of the Indians. Mukerjee wrote in her book:

“Inferior as the British working class was in Cherwell’s view, he nonetheless ranked it far above the black and brown subjects in the colonies.”

Later, she wrote:

“All the evidence points to the prime minister and his closest adviser having believed that Indians were ordained to reside at the bottom of the social pyramid …”

Long after India had become independent, Lindemann described (according to Mukerjee who provides reference for this):

“… ‘the abdication of the white man’ as the worst calamity of the twentieth century – more deplorable than the two world wars and the Holocaust”.

The gist of Mukerjee’s book is that important amongst the reasons that the 1943 famine in Bengal was not relieved was that Churchill was not in favour of releiving it. The author wrote that although at times vital supplies and shipping were at critical levels, there were opportunities for famine relief supplies to be sent to Bengal. However, the British government under the leadership of Churchill came up with many excuses to avoid supplying famine relief.

I found the evidence provided in Mukerjee’s book to be reliably persuasive. However, there are many who would prefer not to hear anything but good of the man who helped Britain and its allies win WW2, Winston Churchill. For a defence of Churchill’s behaviour during the Bengal famine, I refer you to https://winstonchurchill.org/resources/in-the-media/churchill-in-the-news/bengali-famine/, an on-line article that tries to demolish an article by Gideon Polya with the title “Media Lying Over Churchill’s Crimes”, published in 2008 (see: https://sites.google.com/site/afghanistangenocideessays/media-lying-over-churchill-s-crimes). 

You can judge Churchill’s possible role in Bengal’s 1943 famine however you wis,  but see what Professor Amartya Sen, a former colleague of my father at the London School of Economics  said. Michael Portillo said to him in a BBC interview on the 14th of January 2008:

“What’s interesting about your description is that it doesn’t appear to rest upon a shortage of rice.”

Sen, who appears to be far more generous than Mukerjee about Churchill’s attitude to the famine, replied:

“No it wasn’t. I think I have to say the British Indian government was callous. I don’t think they were criminal but they were certainly extremely callous and didn’t really worry too much about it. And secondly they were badly misinformed. What had happened is that there was a considerable expansion of demand for food because of the war boom. And with the same supply they were having rising prices. So it wasn’t connected with food deficit at all.”

(https://sites.google.com/site/drgideonpolya/bengal-famine-broadcast).

Seeing the war memorials near Hyde Park Corner and a Holocaust memorial nearby in Hyde Park, and having recently finished reading Mukerjee’s book, inspired me to write this short piece in order to provoke interest in one of the horrible tragedies that happened during WW2, the Bengal Famine of 1943.

Mukerjee’s book presented me with one very superficial resemblance between Churchill and his admiring biographer Boris Johnson. Both had their devoted advisers. Although Churchill might not have done things to everybody’s satisfaction, he did play an extremely important role in suppressing the forces of evil that were threatening Britain and its allies during WW2. Let us hope that Boris will follow in Winston’s footsteps in our fight against another evil enemy, the Corona virus, and lead us to victory.

 

To Maurice from Bob

THERE WERE AT LEAST 3 JEWISH girls in my wife’s school class in Calcutta during the mid 1960s. Then, the city had a sizeable Jewish community, many of its members and their ancestors having migrated from Iraq, especially Baghdad.

Recently, a friend gave me an old book about the Tollygunge Club in Calcutta. Inside it, there is an undated handwritten inscription: “To Maurice, with love from Bob”.
My friend did not know who Bob is or was, but told me that the book was part of a collection once owned by Dr Maurice Shellim.

Maurice Shellim, a was born in a Baghdadi Jewish family in Shanghai (China) in 1915 and died in London (UK) in 2009 (see: http://www.jewishcalcutta.in/exhibits/show/notable_members/maurice-shellim).

By profession, Maurice was a medical doctor. According to Dalia Ray, writing in her book “The Jews of India”, he was a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons and Physicians (London), having studied medicine at London’s Guys Hospital. Ray also records that he took part in the functioning of a free medical clinic set up by his coreligionist Dr E Musleah.

After buying a painting by Thomas Daniell (19th century painter of Indian scenes), Maurice Shellim became very interested in Daniell and other British painters in India. Eventually, he published a book about Daniell and his nephew William Daniell: “India and the Daniells: Oil Paintings of India and the East”.

Maurice also published a book about the historic Park Street Cemetery in Calcutta. He had devoted much time and energy to conserving this picturesque resting place for the remains of British families.

In his later years, Maurice and his immediate family moved to London, but he often visited Calcutta.

Most of Calcutta’s Jewish people have left the city to settle abroad. Although anti-Semitism has never been a problem in India, many of Calcutta’s Jewish folk chose to leave in the decades following 1947. Probably, many of them left to improve their economic prospects, but Dalia Ray suggests that because most Indian Jews had been pro British they began to feel that they might begin to feel uneasy in independent India. She also wrote that after the establishment of Israel as a sovereign state, many Jews wanted to fulfil their centuries old desire to reach the Promised Land.

Today, there are very few Jewish people left living in Calcutta.

I would not have been likely to have discovered the story of the remarkable, highly cultured Dr Shellim had I not seen that scribbled inscription in an old book.

PS: ‘Bob’ was most probably Bob Wright, a Britisher who lived in Calcutta for over 30 years. He worked for a large company and was involved in the management of the Tolleygunge Club.

An Indian hero

SUBHAS CHANDRA BOSE (1897-1945) was, along with Gandhi, one of the most important fighters for the independence of India. Without doubt, the activities of Bose and their consequences were one of the main reasons that the British left India in 1947. A one time president of the Indian National Congress, he later parted ways with it.

Before 1940, Bose was placed under house arrest in Calcutta by the British. In 1940, he escaped and made his way to Nazi Germany, where he arrived in 1941. The German authorities were prepared to cooperate with him to bring about the downfall of the British Empire in India.

After the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese, Bose and his colleague Abid Hassan Saffrani (1911-84), who was studying engineeringin Germany and anti-British, were placed on a German submarine in early 1943. It took them to Madagascar, where they boarded a Japanese submarine that took them to Japanese occupied Sumatra. Then, they proceeded to Singapore, where Bose persuaded captured Indian troops to fight the British to gain independence for India. It was during this time that Abid Hassan Saffrani coined the salutation ‘Jai Hind’.

Bose led his Indian National Army on an ill fated military expedition to enter India via Burma. In 1945, Bose was killed in an air accident in Japanese held Taiwan. Abid Hassan Saffrani returned to India and after Independence served his country as a diplomat.

The photograph shows Bose with Abid during their journey on the German submarine in 1943. (Bose is on the left with spectacles)The print I saw is in the possession of a nephew of Abid, who lives in Hyderabad.

Some days before I met Abid’s nephew, we met a lady in Calcutta. After spending an evening with her, I expressed my interest in the anti-British activists, who lived in Calcutta. Hearing this, she revealed that she is related to one of them. We asked which one. She told us that her grandfather was Sarat Chandra Bose, the brother of Subhas Chandra Bose who helped Subhas to escape from Calcutta in 1940. We were amazed to hear this.

EUROPEAN HAUNTS ON THE HOOGHLY RIVER: Former European trading posts

PLEASE TAKE TIME TO READ INDIGO SEXY”, so announces a sweet female voice over the public address system in the passenger cabins of aeroplanes flown by Indigo Airlines. Actually, this voice is encouraging flyers to read Indigo’s in house magazine “Indigo 6E”. The November 2029 issue of this well produced monthly had an article about places that I have long wanted to visit: the places on the banks of the River Hooghly that were once occupied as trading posts by Europeans from various parts of that continent.
I knew that, apart from Britain, at various times the following nations had had tiny colonies on the banks of the River Hooghly (north of Calcutta): Holland, France and Denmark. Until I read an article in “Indigo 6E”, I was only barely aware that Portugal also claimed a parcel of land. That was at Bandel.
One day, we rented a car with driver to explore the former haunts of the nations listed above. We commenced at Bandel. To reach this place we drive pat endless numbers of heavy trucks north along the National Highway that links Calcutta with Delhi until we reached a road to Bandel.
To our grumpy driver’s indignation the road to the centre of Bandel was amazingly congested with cycles, tricycle rickshaws, autorickshaws, pedestrians, a variety of motorised three wheelers, dogs, trucks, buses, and so on.

Eventually, we reached the imposing church of the Miracle of Our Lady of Bandel that is separated from the Hooghly by a large garden. The church, which was built on a piece of land gifted to the Portuguese in exchange for military assistance given to a local ruler, was built at the very end of the 16th century.

The original church, one of the oldest in Bengal, still stands but has been heavily restored. It has been buried beneath shiny tiling, both outside and inside. The only original feature visible is an altar piece that looks as if it was created many centuries ago. The church was part of an Augustinian monastery, and is now part of a Salesian institution. The cloisters, like the church, are lined with tiling.

We drove south, following the Hooghly, to Chinsura, which the Dutch had occupied from 1656 to 1825. Apparently, there are several Dutch buildings in the town, but we did not find them. Instead, we managed to see the exterior of the town’s Armenian church, which is the second oldest church on Bengal. It is surrounded by a high wall surmounted by fierce looking spikes. A local informed us it wasonly opened up once a year, and we were not in Chinsura on that day! Later, we learnt that it is open for masses one Sunday in three.

Between Bandel and Chinsura, we came across an elegant house standing next to but high above the Hooghly. It was the place that Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838-94) lived for several years. Some say it was the place where he composed the patriotic poem “Vande Mataram” in the 1870s. It was set to music by Rabindranath Tagore. The British imperialist authorities made it a punishable offence to sing in the esrly part of the 20th century.

We drove south along congested roads that more or less followed the Hooghly until we arrived at Chandernagore, which was a French enclave until 1947.

The Institut de Chandanagor, a fine colonial building that could do with a little restoration, was once Dupleix House the former residence of the French governor. It now houses a museum that has many exhibits that recall the history of European trading settlements along the Hooghly. It stands in gardens, where once stood a fortress built by the French. The museum faces a lovely riverside promenade that includes a late 19th century pavilion built with French funding. This edifice is adorned with sculptures depicting elephant heads. At the southern end of the promenade, there stands a house, which Rabindranath Tagore has mentioned several times in his writings. When the river rises, its lower storey fills with water, by design.

The church of Sacre Coeur stands about 100 metres back from the promenade. It was built in the late 19th century, but was first established in 1691. Its interior has recently been redecorated with garish colour paint.

It was a long drive to Serampore on the Hooghly. We drove there along through narrow winding lanes and a stretch of the Grand Trunk Road. The Grand Trunk runs from Chittagong, now in Bangladesh, to Kabul in Afghanistan, passing through Calcutta and Delhi. It has existed for at least 2500 years and is one of the longest roads in Asia (almost 3000 miles).

Between 1755 and 1845, Serampore was under Danish control. The Danes knew it as Frederiknagore. We visited the church of St Olave, whose design resembles that of St Martins in the Fields in London. The internal walls of it plain but elegant interior bear memorials to several Danes who worked either for the Danes or for the British, who inherited Serampore from the Danes, or fir both. Serampore is also the home of Serampore College, which was founded in 1818 by Joshua Marsham and William Carey (1761-1834). Carey was born in Paulerspury in Northamptonshire. This village is the home of friends of ours. It was following a visit to them that we were first alerted to the existence of the former Danish colony on the Hooghly.

Before returning to Calcutta, we had coffee at the recently restored Denmark Tavern that overlooks a lovely stretch of the Hooghly. The tavern was first opened in 1786 and appears in a painting by Peter Anker dated 1790. The original building has been beautifully restored and is still serving its original purpose.

Although we only saw a few of the haunts of the former non-British European settlements on the bank of the Hooghly, our visit has made us want to revisit them in the future.

Toy Train to Darjeeling

My mother’s father, who died young in the early 1930s was Mayor of Barkly East, a small town in the Eastern Cape (South Africa). He was the driving force in bringing the railway over the mountains from Lady Grey to Barkly East. This was the most expensive (in terms of cost per mile) stretch of railway ever built in South Africa. It included a series of switchback stretches to allow the trains to ascend or descend the steep mountain slopes.

Today we travelled on a narrow gauge mountain railway with at least 5 switchbacks. It is the so called ‘Toy Train’ that runs incredibly slowly between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling which is in the foothills of the Himalayas, more than 2000 metres above sea level.

We took almost two hours to travel the first about three miles. This was mainly because of a seemingly interminable wait for a signal man to arrive to allow our train to cross a river near Siliguri. Soon after we began moving, we passed tea gardens and began our several hour slow ascent towards Kurseong, Ghum, and Darjeeling.

The train follows the route of NH55, crossing over it frequently at unguarded level crossings. The serpentine course of the railway is designed to lengthen its route in order to reduce the gradients that need to be tackled.

The wheels squeal and shriek as the carriages wind around the tight curves of the tracks. The engine’s horn blasts very frequently to clear the path for the train.

The views from the train are spectacular. The carriages pass extremely close to buildings, plants along the side of the track, and steep drops. Passing through towns on the route, sometimes we were so close to shops beside the track that it would have been easy to snatch goods from them. Leafy branches sprung through the open carriage windows, shedding leaves and flowers.

The flora along the route was very varied. We passed a multitude of colourful flowers including magnificently exuberant poinsettias.

Because of our slow start we travelled the last three and a half hours in darkness as the sun set long before we arrived at our destination.

Our enjoyment of this superb railway journey was enhanced by having conversations with a businessman from Bangalore and a couple from Lincolnshire in the UK.

Even though it is very slow, a trip on the Toy Train is thoroughly recommendable.