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Themes in Indian History III

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Examine how concerns of defence and health gave shape to Calcutta.

(a) In 1756, Sirajudaula the Nawab of Bengal sacked the small fort which the British traders had built to house their goods. Consequently when Sirajudaula was defeated in the Battle of Plassey, the British built a new fort. Fort William would not be easily attacked.

(b) Around Fort William, a vast open space was left which came to be known as the Maidan or garermath. This was done so there would be no obstructions to a straight time of fire from the Fort against an advancing enemy army. Soon the British began to move out of the Fort and built residences along the periphery of the Maidan. This was how the English Settlement in Calcutta started taking shape. The vast open space around the Fort became Calcutta’s first significant town planning measure.

(c) Lord Wellesley was concerned about the conditions that existed in the Indian part of the city the filth, overcrowding and the poor drainage. He wrote a minute (an administrative order) in 1803 on the need for town planning and set up various committees for this purpose.

(d) It was believed that creating open places in the city would make the city healthier. Consequently many bazaars, ghats, burial ground and tanneries were cleared or removed.

(e) After Wellesley’s departure, the Lottery Committee carried on with the work of town planning. In its drive to make the Indian areas cleaner, the committee cleared the river bank of encroachment and pushed the poor to the outskirts of Calcutta.

(f) The outbreak of cholera and plague epidemics in the 19th century gave a further impetus to town planning. The government believed that there was a direct link between living conditions and the spread of disease. Densely built up areas were regarded as insanitary as it obstructed sunlight and circulation of air.


What do the terms “White” and “Black” Town signify?

The British had white skin. So they were often called the ‘white’. They suffered from the white man’s burden and considered themselves as superior to others. On the other hand, the blacks had brown or black skin. So they were called as the ‘black’ such as the Indians or Africans. Thus white signified the superiority over the black.

According to the British, the black areas symbolised chaos and anarchy, tilth and disease. On the other hand, the white areas stood for cleanliness and hygiene. In Black areas, epidemics like cholera and plague often spread. So the British took stringent measures to ensure sanitation and public health. They wanted to prevent diseases of the black areas. So they ensured underground piped water supply. They also introduced sewerage and drainage system. In other words, the British paid a lot of attention towards sanitary vigilance.

Thus white towns were those parts of the colonial cities where the white people lived. The cantonment areas were also developed at safe places. They had wide roads, barracks, churches and parade ground. Besides they had big bungalows in big gardens. In fact, the White Town symbolised settled city life. But in the Black Town, the Indians lived. They were unorganised. They were source of filth and disease.


To what extent are census data useful in reconstructing patterns of urbanisation in the colonial context?

A careful study of the data gathered through the census helps us a lot in understanding the trend of urbanisation. It can be examined as under:

(i) The process of urbanisation was sluggish in India after 1800.

(ii) In the nineteenth century and first two decades of the twentieth century the proportion of the urban population to the total population of India was very low and stagnant.

(iii) Between 1900 and 1940, there was a 13% increase in the urban population whereas during the same period, there was a 10% increase in the population of the whole country.

(iv) The data helps us in the enumeration of people according to their age, sex, caste, religion and occupation.

(v) The British lived in the White areas whereas the Indians lived in the Black areas. The white areas stood for cleanliness and hygiene. On the other hand, the black areas signified chaos, anarchy, filth and disease.


What are the different colonial architectural styles which can be seen in Bombay city?

The different colonial architectural styles in Bombay:

(i) Surving functional needs and simple structure : If one way of realising this imperial vision was through town planning, the other was through embellishing cities with monumental buildings. Buildings in cities could include forts, government offices, educational institutions, religious structures, commemorative towers, commercial depots, or even docks and bridges. Although primarily serving functional needs like defence, administration and commerce, there were rarely simple structures. They were often meant to represent ideas such as imperial power, nationalism and religious glory. Let us see how this is exemplified in the case of Bombay city.

(ii) Expansion of population, commercial activities and foreign trade: Bombay was initially seven islands. As the population grew, the islands were joined to create more space and they gradually fused into one big city. Bombay was the commercial capital of colonial India. As the premier port on the western coast it was the centre of international trade.

(iii) Development of Railway, shipping and administrative units and development of European architectural style in Bombay city:

(a) As Bombay’s economy grew, from the midnineteenth century there was a need to expand railways and shipping and develop the administrative structure. Many new buildings were constructed at this time. These buildings reflected the culture and confidence of the rulers.

(b) The architectural style was usually European. This importation of European styles reflected the imperial vision in several ways. First, it expressed the British desire to create a familiar landscape in an alien country, and thus to feel at home in the colony. Second, the British felt that European styles would best symbolise their superiority, authority and power. Third, they thought that buildings that looked European would mark out the difference and distance between the colonial masters and their

(c) Initially, these buildings were at odds with the traditional Indian buildings. Gradually, Indians too got used to European architecture and made it their own.


How did prominent Indian merchants establish themselves in the colonial city?

The important Indian traders settled in colonial cities like Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. They were most rich as they served as agents or middlemen. They built large traditional courtyard houses in the Black Town. They also bought up large tracts of land in these cities. They made investments for the future. They wanted to impress their English masters by giving lavish parties during festivals. They also built temples to establish their status and prestige in society.