Chinsurah, once a prosperous trading outpost of the Dutch in Bengal, loves to play hide and seek. Wedged between modern-day structures are souvenirs of the Dutch, who developed the town that had earlier been founded by the Portuguese.
A short drive from Kolkata, Chinsurah was home to the Dutch, British, Armenians and Bengalis between the 17th and 19th centuries. It was, in fact, part of a string of European settlements along the Hooghly River, which included Chanernagore and Bandel.
The Dutch East India Company or the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) was set up in 1602 to facilitate trade between the Netherlands and the rest of the world. Soon, the Dutch reached India and established their first factory at Petapuli on the east coast, in 1606 and sailed up to Bengal in 1615.
They had been granted various farmans or imperial directives for trade from Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan by 1635.
By 1653, the Dutch had firmly established themselves in Chinsurah, and by 1655, they set up an independent Bengal Directorate to trade in spices, sugar, silk, opium, saltpetre and cotton.
Chinsurah was a particularly important trading settlement for the VOC as it was situated between Amsterdam, capital city of the Dutch in the Netherlands, and the eastern capital of their trading empire, Batavia (present-day Jakarta).
But the town has a chequered past, changing hands between the Dutch and British many times over the centuries. It was under British control from 1781-84, and again, during the Napoleonic Wars, from 1795. The settlement was restored to the Dutch in 1814 but, in 1825, the Dutch gave up their Indian possessions to the British in exchange for British possessions in Sumatra, thus ending their time in India.
Even though it’s been almost two centuries since the Dutch left Chinsurah, many remnants of their time here can still be seen, giving this town a unique Dutch-English-Bengali feel. Let us look at some of the town’s most remarkable structures.
Fort Gustavus was the primary station of the Dutch and was demolished in 1827 to make barracks for British soldiers. The only surviving remnant of Fort Gustavus is the artillery wall, which is today a part of the Hooghly Madrassa. Four old Dutch cannons can still be found on the property.
The grandest of Dutch structures here is the house of the Dutch Governor, which today is the Bungalow of the Commissioner of Burdwan. It was built in 1744 and carries the logo ‘VOC 1687’, which stands for ‘Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie’ (Dutch East India Company).
Another noteworthy place in Chinsurah is the Dutch Cemetery, which was used in the 18th and 19th centuries and has around 45 graves. It was built by the Dutch Governor, Louis Taillefert, in 1743. Interestingly, although it is called the ‘Dutch Cemetery’, the people buried here include British and Dutch. The cemetery is currently under the Archaeological Survey of India but the details of the people buried here have been extensively mapped and documented by an Indo-Dutch initiative.
On the outskirts of Chinsurah is a beautiful white, octagonal tomb topped by a dome. This is the tomb of Susanna Anna Maria Yeats (Verkerk), who passed away in 1809. She is locally known as the ‘wife of the seven Europeans’ (all of whom are supposed to have died under mysterious circumstances) and is said to be the inspiration behind author Ruskin Bond's Susanna's Seven Husbands, which also inspired a Bollywood movie!
However, the truth is much paler than the tale as Susanna is recorded to have been married only twice, with both her husbands living long and full lives for those times. The stories may not be true but it is still worth visiting her lovely white mausoleum.
It isn’t only the Dutch who left their mark here; there are many remnants of the British, who ruled Chinsurah for over a hundred years. One of the most prominent is the Ghorir More, a towering cast-iron Gothic clock tower imported in the 19th century from England in memory of King Edward VI. The clock tower stands at a crossroads of four important streets.
Sandeshwar Temple is an important local but historic temple. It has two drums gifted by Dutch Governor Bauke van der Pol and which are still in use at the temple.
Chinsurah also played an important role in the Independence movement as it was here, at the Joraghat, that Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay wrote Vande Mataram, which was later adopted as India’s national song. Chattopadhyay was working as a Deputy Magistrate in Chinsurah when he wrote the novel Anandamath (1882), of which Vande Mataram is a part.
The riverside house where he lived is known as Vande Mataram Bhavan and is the Chinsurah museum today. Besides Chattopadhyay, Kazi Nazrul Islam, the poet-freedom fighter, penned many of his most revolutionary poems while imprisoned by the British in the Hoogly Jail at Chinsurah.
Chinsurah may be a small place and easy to miss, but its fascinating past makes for a riveting tale.