Saturday 2 February 2013

When Calcutta became Alinagar

Kolkata then was not the City of today. It was just a cluster of villages- Gobindapur, Kalikata, Sutanuti and Chitpur. However, it an was important trading centre for the British and slowly it also gained currency as a military post.
The British wanted to secure their trade and after obtaining permission from the Mughals went ahead with the construction of a fort.
Siraj-ud-Daula did not take kindly to this action and he asked the British to demolish the structure called Fort William. When the British demurred, he marched at the head of a vast army and defeated the British.
On June 15, the Bengal army crossed the Hoogly and the next day it stood outside the ramparts of Fort William. Captain Minchin was the British commandant of Calcutta.
On June 18, Siraj-ud- Daula launched an attack on the British outposts. The British losses were very heavy. The British then decided to send women and children to a safer place. The asked two of their supposedly bravest officers-Manningham and Frankland -to escort women and children on board the company's ship Dodaly.
Manningham and Frankland, who were also members of the council of the fort,, did escort the women and children to the ship but they refused to come back to land. They then held talks with the ship captain, Young, and moved away.
The next morning, the remaining British troops found that several other ships had followed the example of  Dodaly and vanished in the night. The panic-stricken Brotosh troops led by their Governor Drake, captain-commandant Minchin, captain Grant and a large number of soldiers deserted their post and fled in the remaining vessels. Thus, the defenders were left to the fate of the vast Bengal army.
It is here that Holwell comes in. Since he was senior, he was appointed acting governor and entrusted with the command. He redistributed the force . This was not of any consequence as the British were easily overcome.
Holwell and others decided to escape and sent for the ship St George. Unfortunately, the nervous ship captain drove the vessel into the shallow waters and the ship became struck.   By 5 p.m., everything bar the victory celebrations was over.
Siraj-ud-Daula entered the fort with his soldiers. The British, many of them badly wounded, were bound with ropes and brought before the Nawab. Holwell surrendered and this perhaps rankled him and led him to fabricate the large number of deaths at the Black Hole.
Meanwhile, Siraj-ud-Daula had ordered his soldiers to untie the British prisoners. Since many buildings in the fort were on fire due to the heavy bombardment,  the prisoners were shifted to safety of a small cell built by the British. This structure was near the Maidan (in Kolkata) but it has been demolished in later decades.
A few British soldiers and even Indians prisoners of war died of suffocation. A British soldier, J. Z. Holwell, who survived, spread a blatant lie that 146 people had suffocated. Anyway, since this article will not deal with this issue, I will stop here and get back to the story about the last independent ruler of Bengal-Siraj-ud-Daula.
By then, the British had renamed their settlement as Calcutta. When the British were thrown out of their settlement and many British buildings, including the Governor’s mansion (this was built on the place where the Raj Bhavan stands today), St Annes and other buildings were razed to the ground.
The first task of the new ruler of Calcutta was to rename it as Alinagar. Siraj-ud-Daula chose this name as Ali Vardi Khan was his grandfather. Ali Vardi Khan (1671 – 1756) was the Nawab of Bengal from 1740–1756. He toppled the Nasiri Dynasty of the Nawabs and then took over Bengal. A Shia Muslim, he made Mushirabad his capital. He died of  dropsy in 1756 and he was succeeded by his grandson, Siraj-ud-Daula.
Siraj-ud-Daula had great respect for his grandfather. Since Ali Vardi Khan was already buried in Khushbagh, he decided to rename Calcutta in his grandfather’s honor.
Thus, Caclutta got a new name and soon it came to be known as Alinagar. The maximum damage that Siraj-ud-Din inflicted on his new city was in the locality of Kalikata. The only Indian building or locality to suffer some damage was Burrabazar.
By then, the British evacuees and soldiers had set up camp 64 kms downstream of the Hoogly at a place called Falta. They remained there until British troops led by Robert Clive arrived in Bengal in January 1757.
What followed was a series of skirmishes between the troops of Siraj-ud-Daula and the British before it escalated into the Battle of Plassey. The battle saw the defeat of Siraj-ud-Daula and the rise of the British Empire.
On their part, the British built a stronger and much safer Fort William (the present structure) and renamed Alinagar as Calcutta after they overcame a small garrison of the Bengal Kingdom. This name stood for several centuries before the name was again changed to Kolkata.
Unfortunately, only a handful of people are aware that Calcutta was once Alinagar.

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