Not far from Kolkata is the charming town of Chandannagar, which has a certain je ne sais quois that makes you want to keep coming back to visit. A former French colony that was returned to India only in 1950, the town’s showpiece is The Strand, a beautiful stretch of colonial buildings that transports you to another time. Taking centre stage along The Strand is an elegant pavilion that marks a ghat on the Hooghly. It was built in memory of the town’s most famous son – Monsieur Dourga Charone Rocquitte.
Monsieur Rocquitte’s business empire was so great that it stretched from Europe to the Caribbean, North Africa, Burma and South East Asia. And, like many successful businessmen back then, he made sure he gave back to the town that made him who he was.
But, pardonnez-mois, Monsieur Rocquitte was no Frenchman. Let’s meet his alter ego – Durga Charan Rakshit – a true-blue Bengali who hailed from a family of weavers in Hooghly district in West Bengal, and went on to become the first Indian to receive the French honour, the Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur.
Rakshit moved from his ancestral village Bhandarhati, to the crescent-shaped town of Chandernagore (‘chander’ or ‘moon shaped’, ‘nagar’ or ‘city’), as Chandannagar was then called, 45 km from his village and 42 km north of Kolkata in West Bengal. The town was then a French colony secured first as a trading outpost from the then Nawab of Bengal, Ibrahim Khan, in 1688.
The colony remained a bone of contention between France and Britain from 1756, and was finally returned to the French in 1816. It continued to be administered by the French directly from Pondicherry till 1950, three years after India received its independence from the British.
One of the souvenirs from that era is the palatial estate called ‘Rakshit Bhavan’ at Lal Bagan, the Rakshit family homestead in Chandernagore. Though the Rakshit Bhavan was built later by Durga Charan, the building on its western side was his original home built by his father. This is where Durga Charan Rakshit lived after he moved from his village (around the late 1840s at the age of around 8 years ). The textile business was brought to Chandernagore by Jagannath Dhar, a businessman of Saptagram who had taken shelter under the French government. Hailing from a family of weavers, he moved here to make it big in the textile trade. Little did he know that he was destined for much greater things.
However, his father, Govinda Chandra Rakshit, did not join the family business and instead worked as an order supplier for a French company, Cama Lamoru & Co in Calcutta, the then British capital of colonial India. His goodwill and hard work helped him achieve the post of mutsuddi or baniyan (collector of dues).
Govinda Chandra shared a great rapport with Monsieur Cama sine his economic support to the company, which later had an immense impact on his son’s life. Born on 26th September 1841, Durga Charan was just about 12 years of age when his father died of cholera, and being the eldest among his siblings, he was burdened with great responsibilities. He began his education in a village school but Durga Charan was enrolled by Monsieur Cama in a school at Laldighi in Calcutta, to learn French. Later, he joined Cama Lamoru & Co as an assistant treasurer. All this by the tender age of 14.
Rakshit’s tryst with Cama Lamoru & Co did not end well. He and Gopal Chandra Das, who had headed the village school he had attended, were implicated in a financial scam in the firm. Denying all charges and completely outraged, Rakshit resigned from the company after paying a fine of Rs 5,000. He was now flat broke and had incurred a debt of Rs 1,000. But it was not all bad, for the incident was a turning point in the transformation of Durga Charan Rakshit into ‘Dourga Charone Rocquitte’, a business magnate whose reputation would precede him at home and even abroad.
With the help of a French gentleman, Monsieur Gredy, the enterprising young Rakshit was able to start a small textile business in partnership with a member of the Shobhabazar nobility from Calcutta. It wasn’t long before he turned his first profit – a handsome Rs 2,200 in the first year.
Rakshit’s phenomenal business acumen was matched only by ambition and a keen imagination. After starting his journey in a small store, he soon grew to become an exporter of Indian goods. A diligent and meticulous businessman, he maintained a very strict routine. The Illustrated Indian News, in November 1898, reported that Rakshit was an early riser, who left for the Indian Mercantile Quarters in Calcutta to conduct his business after completing his obligations by six o’clock in the morning, including a check on the correspondence and records of his office. It is said that he was available at his office every day from 10 am, only to return home at 9 in the evening.
Business flourished and, from textiles, the list of Rakshit’s exports expanded rapidly and included paddy, tea, pulses, mustard, oil, textile, opium, poppy seeds, ghee, indigo, gunny bags and so on. Exports were not limited to France; they soon went to Malaysia, Yangon (Rangoon), Trinidad, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Egypt and Mauritius.
Durga Charan Rakshit had finally become ‘Monsieur Dourga Charone Rocquitte’.
From exports, Rakshit started to import various goods, including paint, medicines, metals and alcohol from different parts of the world and retailed them from a shop he opened at 1, World Court House Lane, Calcutta. Business boomed so much that he started to charter entire ships to ferry his goods around the world. His retail store did so well that he began to employ foreigners in the sales department.
With business flourishing, Rakshit did not forget his roots and used the profits from his business for the development of his hometown. He opened Ecole Durga, a boys’ school renamed Durga Charan Rakshit Banga Vidyalaya in 1885. From opening free medical stores to supplying free food grains, to sponsoring pilgrimages for groups of poor people, it seemed there were no limits to how much he loved his hometown.
It’s hard to believe but despite the numerous welfare projects he gifted his beloved Chandernagore, there were dreams that remained unfulfilled, plans that didn’t work out. One of these was a project to build a canal to channel water from the Ganges to fill the ponds in the town, to meet its water needs. The plan incurred severe losses. He also wanted to build a ghat, exactly where the one dedicated to him by his son stands today. Rakshit left an endowment of Rs 20,000 for the ghat, which was later constructed by his son, Shyama Charan Rakshit. Stand at the ghat today and you’ll notice a stone plaque that bears his name – ‘Dourga Charone Rocquitte’.
Apart from being a business tycoon, ‘Dourga Charone’ was appointed Mayor of Chandernagore by the Municipal Committee formed by the French government, and he assisted the Governor as a part of the Council. It was during this time that the French government passed a law, making military conscription compulsory. Panic struck the people of Chandernagore and they sought Rakshit’s help. It was on his written request that the French government withdrew their order in this town.
Impressed with his work for the people, Rakshit was appointed as a judge in the local court as well. The sahib boithak khana (room to meet French delegates) on the first floor of Rakshit Bhavan still bears traces of his transactions with the French Government.
Rakshit’s work not only earned him respect among his own people but also greatly impressed the French Government, which conferred on him honours like ‘Officer d’Academie’ from the Literary Society of Paris, followed by ‘Chevalier de l’ordre Royal du Cambodge’ from Cambodge (Cambodia, then a French colony), and finally the coveted ‘Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur’ on 6th June 1896.
Rakshit’s success was meteoric and, sadly, he did not have the chance to bask in it. He died of small pox on 27th August 1898 in Varanasi, at the age of 56. His death was mourned by all of Chandernagore, while the French Government sent a regiment to pay him a final tribute at the Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi. As in life, in death too he straddled both worlds.
The journey of this man from simplicity to such magnificence lay hidden within the ten bighas (two acres) of Rakshit Bhavan. While he remains as one of the historical figures only confined to the history of Chandernagore today, he was one of the rare treasures who succeeded in ruling over the hearts of the colonizers and added a completely new flavor to India’s colonial past. Yet his story lay in silence, lost from the minds of Bengal, ignored by history, awaiting disappearance into oblivion with the passage of time.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Asmita Dey is an independent researcher, a history teacher, freelance writer and a history blogger.