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Job Charnock (1630-1692): The story of the Englishman who founded present day Kolkata and his connection to Madras

March 1, 2013

Job Charnock was born in 1630 in Lancashire. He worked for a private trading company between 1650 and 1653 before joining the East India Company in January 1658. His first post was as an administrator at Cossimbazar on the river Hoogly.

In February 1659 Charnock was posted to Patna, Bihar and was given the responsibility of acquiring the Company’s saltpeter from there. After achieving most Company objectives in Patna during his five year stint he wanted to return to England but the Company was eager to retain him and so they promoted him as Chief Factor in 1664. It was around this time that Charnock married a Hindu widow who was said to have been a Rajput princess and by marrying her he saved her life from her husband’s funeral pyre or Sati.

Charnock rose rapidly within the East India Company and in 1666 was promoted to rank of Senior Merchant. By 1676 he had become the third highest ranking official in Bengal. In January 1679 the Company Directors promoted him to chief of Cossimbazar and he was now second-in-charge of all Company operations in Bengal. This promotion came over the strong objections of Streynsham Master, President of Madras who also oversaw Company operations in the whole of the Bay.

In 1681 after the Company had freed Bengal from the oversight of the Madras Presidency Charnock’s hopes were dashed when the Company appointed William Hedges to the top job. Charnock found Hedges to be an officious novice and the rivalry between the two grew to such a point that in 1684 the exasperated Directors of the Company replaced Hedges with John Beard and Hedges was transferred to Madras. When Beard died on 28 August 1685, Charnock finally assumed the position of Chief Agent in Bengal for the Company.

Within a year of his elevation to the top job, tensions begin to arise between the local Nawab and the English over imposition of customs duty which the English believed was in violation of the ‘firman’ signed between them and the Nawab. Finding himself besieged and in pursuit by the Nawab’s troops Charnock gathered the Company goods and servants and sailed 27 miles down the Hooghly, finally dropping anchor in Sutanuti a place well chosen by him for its deep water port and the surrounding defense. After negotiating a truce and safe passage, a treaty was signed between the English and Aurangzeb the Mughal emperor which allowed Charnock to finally settle down in Sutanuti.

In 1688 Charnock suffered an irrecoverable loss when his wife died. A few months after that his son died as well; it was around this same time that tensions again begun rising between the English and the Mughals. In September 1688 the Company decided to send the largest naval force it had ever gathered with orders to blockade ports and arrest Aurangzeb’s ships. The authority to lead this campaign was vested on a reluctant Charnock who was appointed Commander-in-Chief.

He arrived in Madras on March 7, 1689 to persuade an unwilling council, over the objections of its President and his old rival William Hedges to establish Sutanuti with its defendable position and deep water port as the headquarters for Company operations in Bengal. The selection of the future capital of India was entirely credited to Charnock’s dogged determination.

His other connection with Madras was the baptism of his three daughters at St. Mary’s Church (the oldest Anglican Church outside England) which is located within the Fort St. George complex. On August 24, 1690 Charnock returned to Sutanuti to set up his headquarters in the place that he now called Calcutta. The Directors made his agency independent of Madras on January 22, 1692 thus showing their appreciation for Charnock’s initiative and perseverance. After that Calcutta steadily grew into becoming India’s premier city and its capital.

Charnock died shortly thereafter and a mausoleum was erected over Charnock’s simple grave by Sir Charles Eyre his son-in-law and successor in 1695. It can still be seen in the graveyard of St. John’s Church, the second oldest Protestant church in Calcutta.

Written by Anand Lakshmipathi, Volunteer at Transparent Chennai