Wednesday 14 September 2011

Calcutta Street

A series of events involved two traditional enemies, France and England, this time not on the battlefields of Europe or in the sparkling Caribbean waters, but in far away India.

The circumstances that brought our ancestors to these islands of Trinidad and Tobago are as varied as we ourselves. Events set in motion on the other sides of the world, in some cases precipitated by circumstances whose origins had their roots in the contentions of other nations, would produce causes that would affect the lives of thousands 200 years later.
Take for example the term ‘black as the black hole of Calcutta’, which has come to mean to us a very dark night, a dark and dingy room or a very bad mood. The ‘black hole of Calcutta’ was originally an awful prison in that Indian city.
About the year 1700 there were no more than a few hundred English people living in India. 100 years later, tens of thousands of English men, women and children lived there. Whole regiments of soldiers fought on the borders to the Himalayas; elaborate bureaucracies adjucated over states with populations greater than the British Isles themselves. How did it then happen that viceroys were in control of extensive provinces, and kings of ancient lineage and maharajas who were the descendants of the Gods started to pay homage to a slightly plump, somewhat stern elderly lady of mostly Germanic descent, named Victoria?
This remarkable development was in part a result of the struggle between France and Britain, which filled the age and was fought out all over the globe. It can be argued that the events that culminated in the creation of an Indian Empire, however, would not have taken place had not the time been ripe for European intervention there.
The great empire of the moguls was in a process of disintegration. The East India Company, a trading concern, had done very well in India from the 1600s onwards. Controlled from the City of London, the company had become so wealthy that it could support an army in India and all the necessary apparatus to conduct elaborate trade, commerce and diplomacy.
The French too possessed a trading company, the Compagnie des Indes. Both organisations had the same object: the promotion of commerce and the gaining of financial profit for their principles.
Those convivial times of making money began to change. By the 1740s, events in Europe prompted keen competition to become open hostility, and the European business interest to take sides in the collapsing mogul empires’ administration. The continent of India was up for grabs.
Various princes and maharajas were courted by the interests of the warring European powers as expressed in their trading companies. Pitched battles were fought with local troops being commanded by either French or Englishmen.
Out of this milieu arose a significant individual. His name was Robert Clive. He came from a middle class family in Shropshire. At the age of 18, he was a clerk in India. At 27, he was pronounced by the British prime minister Pitt a ‘heaven-born general’.
Things came to a head when an Indian prince, Surajah Dowlar, prompted by the French, laid siege to British-held Calcutta. The small garrison and mostly the English civilians fought bravely, but in three or four days it was all over. They had lived in peace too long. A terrible fate now overtook them. 146 Europeans surrendered after the enemy had penetrated their defences under a flag of truce. Taken, they were thrust into a prison cell, 20 feet square. - the black hole of Calcutta, as the English press described it subsequently. By the morning, all but 23 were dead. The city was looted and occupied and the East India Company’s premises burnt.
In January of 1757, Clive relieved Calcutta at the head of an army comprising about 1,000 British soldiers and 1,500 Indian troops. He blasted his way through the city’s ancient walls, and in a series of terrifying street battles defeated a French/Indian force of some 40,000. Within ten years, much of India was under British control - not British government control, but the East India Company’s control.
Clive of India was one of several empire builders, which included Gordon of Khartoum, Lawrence of Arabia and Alexander of Tunis. Englishmen named for places scattered all over the world in an empire ‘upon which the sun never set’.
British India of ‘the Raj’ was administered from the City of London. Its banking and commercial establishments controlled a vast land mass made up of diverse peoples ranging from stone age, post-Neanderthal tribes to the white priests of Brahma in the Himalayas. Layers upon layers of civilisations, literally one upon the other, remnants of ancient religions, promoted by living saints, versed in languages now extinct except to pundits and maharajas. Vast populations lived rural lives in never-ending landscapes. Great poverty existed next to sumptuous wealth, and instant death was any and everyone’s constant companion.
Religious control of millions of people had long been institutionalised by military means, and a regimented order of the society had produced a system of organising the entire continent into a hierarchy of classes or castes. Depending into which you were born, your position in life would be immutable.
All this appealed to the British. Once conquered - and India knew about conquerors - it was not too difficult to absorb the newcomers, especially as the new rulers were much easier than the previous Mongol emperors.
By the turn of the 1800s, Britain had emerged as the winner of the European wars of the previous century. It controlled the shipping routes of teh world’s oceans from the distant east to the West Indian islands in the Caribbean sea.
As African slavery proved increasingly too expensive to maintain and with profits falling in the Caribbean, the British government decided to free the slaves, and in so doing save the City of London’s commercial interests. This really meant to stop seeing the slaves as commercial property and to suddenly perceive them as human beings, and subsequently leave them to their own devices under the law of cause. But this, however, did not solve the economic problems of the City of London’s interest in the Caribbean. Within seven or eight years after the emancipation of the African populations in teh British colonies, the mutual interest of London in both India and the Caribbean, namely Guyana and Trinidad, proceeded upon a courcse of action that resulted in the wholesale transportation of several hundred thousand Indians to the New World over a period of 72 years, to work here under a system of forced labour, known as indentureship.
The fate of nations was controlled by a handful of government officials and bankers. To paraphrase historian Donald Wood in his book ‘Trinidad in Transition, Trinidad and Tobago is a product of the Seven Years War between England and France, of the French Revolution and of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The relief of Calcutta, following the deaths in that city’s black hole, produced British India. The fall of French power in the Caribbean made for the freeing of the slaves by the British and the transportation of a people to the other side of the world to Trinidad. So next time you walk up Calcutta Street in St. James, know that this is not just a quiet street in suburbia, but a landmark in memory of world events that brought so many of us here.

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