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The Hooghly and the World

An absorbing new book shines a light on the time when the Hooghly was a global waterway attracting merchants, missionaries, statesmen, soldiers and others from all over.

January 30, 2021 / 08:27 AM IST

At one point in his Travels in the Mogul Empire, the 17th century explorer and physician Francois Bernier quotes a popular proverb. Because of its abundance, he writes, “the Kingdom of Bengal has a hundred gates open for entrance, but not one for departure.”

For many contemporary historians, it’s both entrances and departures that are important. They shun the temptation to look at cultures and civilisations as indivisible units. Fixed vantage points are abandoned, with movements across boundaries revealing influences and continuities. This, in the words of Sanjay Subrahmanyam, is “connected history”.

Human chronicles of seas and oceans lend themselves well to this approach. Recent books on trade in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, for example, have fruitfully reassessed the roles of the West and the rest.

Rivers, too, play an important part. As Victor Mallet, author of a recent book on the manifestations of the Ganga has written, they have been essential “to every phase of human progress from hunting and gathering, through farming and fishing, to urbanisation, international trade, heavy industry and electricity generation…Globalisation was, and to a large extent still is, a waterborne phenomenon.”

Such liquid linkages are what Robert Ivermee examines in his absorbing Hooghly: The Global History of a River. His focus is on the time following the 16th century when the Hooghly was a global waterway, attracting merchants, missionaries, statesmen, soldiers, labourers, and others. An era when the Portuguese, Mughals, Dutch, British, French, and Danish were drawn to the river and its possibilities.


As the title makes clear, the book isn’t meant to be a comprehensive and indigenous account of the river from earliest times. Rather, it deals with encounters and exchanges between “the individuals and populations from distant locations who, at least for a period, made the Hooghly their home.” Ivermee considers the commodities, ideas, and institutions that travelled over borders.

The book is structured along seven way-stations on the river’s course. Starting with the Portuguese trading post of Hooghly, it moves to Murshidabad, capital of the Nawabs of Bengal, and then to Plassey, from where the East India Company notoriously began its ascent. It sails on to the French settlement of Chandernagore as well as the Serampore of the Danish East India Company. It then travels to Calcutta and its fortunes, terminating in Sagar Island, at the very mouth of the river.

To provide a context for the goings-on in these locations, Ivermee includes larger historical narratives about the rise of foreign trading powers, much of which has also been written about by other historians. (If you’ve read William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy, to take one example, you’re already familiar in greater depth with the mendacity and greed that led to Plassey and after.) The book’s merit, then, lies in yoking such strands to create a panoramic whole.

Elsewhere, the focus is sharper, such as with details of trade and commerce. During the 1650s, for instance, we read that saltpetre and sugar were shipped downriver, along with silk and cloth. “Loaded onto light single-mast sloops, these goods were carried to Balasore, transferred to bigger vessels, and exported further afield. Saltpetre was taken back to England for use in the manufacture of gunpowder; sugar was also sent home to meet the demand of changing domestic tastes, or sold in the Persian Gulf.”

In another example of the river’s global impact, Ivermee points out that French thinkers such as Voltaire and Diderot were sharply critical of the actions of European trading powers in Bengal. (That such benevolence was tinged with racism is another matter.) These views were echoed and extended by others after them, becoming one of the tributaries that flowed into the revolution of 1789. “Overthrowing exploitation in India and usurping existing structures in France,” Ivermee writes, “would be interrelated steps in a global process of change.”

Interspersed with the depiction of these historical networks are pen-portraits of some leading characters of the period. These include Joseph François Dupleix, William Carey, Raja Ram Mohun Roy, and Dwarkanath Tagore. Ivermee brings out how they were influenced by the cross-currents of their age as well as their singular contributions, adding flesh to the bones of his chronicle of connections.

Overall, there’s a paucity of voices from the subcontinent itself, as Ivermee’s sources are largely the texts of those who came to the Hooghly from overseas. In his defence, he does point out that the integration of the Hooghly into global networks took place at a time when Europeans were economically and geopolitically on the rise, and “it follows that encounters involving Europeans are the main focus here.”

Thus, speaking of Calcutta and its extended environs in the 19th century, we read that “both banks of the river were lined with mills, factories, warehouses, and docks, presenting a scene of industrial activity which, in the view of one contemporary observer, ‘rivalled that of the largest cities of Europe’.” The observer’s quote is from the first volume of the Imperial Gazetteer of India – fair enough, but more local voices would have provided a counterpoint to a narrative of residents and locales being changed by outside forces.

The riverine odyssey ends at Sagar Island, site of the thronged Ganga Sagar Mela over the years and an auspicious spot in India’s sacred geography. For Ivermee, it also symbolises the connection of the Hooghly with the world beyond Bengal. He traces British attempts to develop the location, its strategic importance, and how the ecological balance of the delta was eroded by colonial and later engineering initiatives.

Ivermee’s concerns here are the consequences of a neo-liberal order: “prioritising of short-term profits over long-term public good, resulting in cheap, ineffective investments and infrastructure decay.” Quite clearly, climate and environmental goals, not the pursuit of development or growth, should be the focus of policy. This is “a revision of priorities that will necessarily engender cross-border co-operation and may even call the logic of existing borders into question.”

His book effectively illustrates how, over the history of the Hooghly, such borders have been traversed and cultures intermixed. This exchange has created new identities and blurred earlier ones, and is also a reminder that policies of inward-looking self-reliance can only go so far.

Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
first published: Jan 30, 2021 08:27 am
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