While his grandson, the great Rabindranath Tagore manages to dominate any conversation on the Tagore family, no history of Indian business can be complete without the mention of Dwarakanath Tagore, ‘India’s first great industrialist’ in the modern sense. If Rabindranath Tagore’s poetic brilliance gave a young nation, wings to fly on, it was the pioneer Dwarakanath’s ambition and vision that shaped the aspirations of a generation.
The late 18th to mid-19th century was one of great change. The industrial revolution was rewriting world power equations, and high on their success, in India the British were reworking their strategy. Far away from the steam-powered factories of Europe, Dwarakanath Tagore was born to a wealthy Bengali zamindar (land owning) family in Calcutta in 1794.
Unlike his peers who lived off the income of their zamindari or acted as banias or agents to the East India Company, Dwarakanath began to harbor bigger plans as he grew up. Breaking from the norm, Dwarakanath began his business career as a commodities trader cum producer. He cultivated silk, spices, and indigo in his estates, exporting them abroad. The end of British East India Company’s monopoly over India’s overseas trade in 1813 was a shot in the arm for ambitious businessmen like Dwarakanath. The extent of his business activities can be gauged by the fact that there are records dating back to 1821, of him sending a ship laden with rum, nutmeg, and aniseed to Valparaiso in Chile and Buenos Aires in Argentina.
With success in trade and the lucrative returns from his estate, Dwarakanath made his foray into the insurance and banking industry, which was just emerging in India. Realizing the potential of the financial services sector, he founded the ‘Oriental Life Assurance Society’ in 1822, with British merchants as partners. This company specialized in life insurance to wealthy individuals as well as marine insurance to traders and their ships.
Similarly, in 1828, Dwarakanath became the first Indian to become a bank director, when he along with his British partners established ‘The Union Bank’ (not connected with the present day Union Bank). It was a counter to British owned banks like Bank of Bengal, which only favored British interests. The Union Bank was the largest Indo-British joint commercial venture of its time and during Dwarakanath’s lifetime; it was the pillar of commercial activity in Calcutta.
Author and Parliamentarian Krishna Kriplani in his book ‘Dwarkanath Tagore, a Forgotten Pioneer’ writes how Dwarakanath was an astute businessman with a hawk’s eye, for an opportunity. In 1834 for instance, he established a corporate entity by the name of Carr, Tagore & Company, in partnership with British merchant William Carr. It was a kind of a modern day holding company, which promoted a number of Dwarakanath’s business ventures. All of which were pioneering
1. Introduction of Steam Technology in factories
As someone who had extensive contacts with the British, Dwarakanath had seen how steam technology had fuelled the industrial revolution in Europe. He dreamt of adapting the steam engine to revolutionize the industry in India, as well. For this, he imported steam engines from England and adapted them for use in his business ventures. For example, he knew that a tugging service from Calcutta to the Bay of Bengal was a necessity. While a ship would take a fortnight to navigate the river Hoogly, which was full of shoals and sandbars, a tugboat could do it in two days. In the 1830s, he established the Calcutta Steam Tug Association which owned several tugboats powered by steam engines. This was followed by steamboat ferry service, which took passengers and goods up and down the Ganges.
2. Setting up coal mines
Given that steam engines were dependent on the coal, to fire the engines, Dwarakanath also bought coal mines in Bengal which he developed into the largest and the most efficient coal mines in India. These are the famous Raniganj coal mines, one of the most important mines in India, today owned by the Coal India Ltd.
3. A Plan for the Railways
The foray into Coal mining brought out another revolutionary idea for Dwarakanath. During a visit to London in 1842, he was struck by the idea of establishing railway lines between Raniganj and Calcutta to transport the coal. The following year, he established the Great Western Bengal Railway Company and even raised funds for his projects. However, the British East India company struck back and flatly refused permission, as it felt that it was inappropriate to have railways under ‘the control of natives’.
4. A Courier Service
There was another visionary project which fell victim to British prejudice. This was the postal and courier service from Calcutta to London, almost 23 years before the opening of Suez canal.
In the 1830s, all the shipping between London and Calcutta had to circumnavigate across the entire African continent through the Cape of Good Hope. Dwarakanath proposed a much faster service.He suggested that the post and couriers could be taken by sea to the Isthmus of Suez as a first step, then overland to Alexandria and then shipped from Alexandria to London. While the Egyptian agreed to the proposal, the British East India Company directors once again refused permission. This plan (and permission) was later handed over to the British company Peninsular & Oriental.
Sadly, Dwarakanath Tagore’s brilliant run at business came to an abrupt end in 1846 when he died suddenly. He was only 51 and had been suffering from diabetes for long. After him, there was no one who could carry on his business ventures. His family preferred to focus on areas of art and culture. All of Dwarakanath’s businesses either shut down or passed into British hands, over time.
Today Dwarakanath Tagore, one of India earliest entrepreneurs is only remembered as the grandfather of Rabindranath Tagore. For a man, so far ahead of his times, he deserves much more!
DID YOU KNOW
The first commercial cultivation of Tea in India was done by the Bengal Tea Association, a consortium of Indian businessmen led by Dwarakanath Tagore. This later became the Assam Company in 1839. The company is still in existence today.
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