On 7 November 2014 Presidency University witnessed two launches, a lecture and a demonstration all concerning the Dutch presence in India, and more specifically in Bengal. Professor Anuradha Lohia, Vice-Chancellor, Presidency University was present, along with Mr. Namit Shah, the Honorary Consul of the Netherlands Embassy in Kolkata. Professor Lohia inaugurated the ‘Dutch in Chinsurah’ website, which, as the tagline says, is ‘a digital exploration of the Dutch influence in colonial Bengal in the 18th and 19th centuries’. Dr. Bauke Van der Pol’s book, The Dutch East India Company in India was launched at the event.
The twin-launch was accompanied by a lecture by Professor van der Pol and a demonstration of the website along with commentary by Dr. Souvik Mukherjee.
Dr. Van der Pol’s lecture offered a background to the presence of the Dutch in India. He explained how six states in the Netherlands combined to form the ‘Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie’, or the ‘United East India Company’, in 1602, and how it spread through India, Malaysia and beyond. Dr. Van der Pol offered a survey, rich in visual illustrations, of the various Dutch settlements in India: Kochi, Masulipatnam (Machilipatnam), Sadraspatnam, Tuticorin (Thoothukudi), Nagapattinam, and elsewhere. Among the places in Bengal, it is in Chinsurah that we find probably the greatest remnants of the Dutch presence. The Dutch had settled in Chinsurah in the first decades of the 17th century and had vacated around the 1820s. The Dutch in Chinsurah were also the first to venture into women’s education, Dr. Van der Pol informed us. He also explained the architecture of the Dutch colonial houses—the bull’s eye, and the stoep, or a kind of pavement extension of a house, that can still be found in various parts of India, especially in Kochi, but often go unrecognized as such. Along with streets-names such as Lily Street or Rose Street, there is also the Peterselie Street in Fort Kochi, often misidentified as the name of some Dutch inhabitant. Dr. Van der Pol explained how it fits in with the Dutch practice of naming streets after flowers or plants, and that Peterselie is in fact the Dutch word for ‘Parsley’. He left the audience hanging with the promise of a short presentation on the visit of the first Dutch prince of Orange to India in 1837.
Dr. Souvik Mukherjee, who has led the team that worked on the Dutch in Chinsurah project, introduced the website and gave us an idea of what one is to expect from it. He spoke of the shifting of the first, the Old Cemetery, to the New Cemetery in Chinsurah, which led to the erasure of about a century’s worth of records—between 1620 and approximately 1750. He took the audience on a tour of the most interesting names buried in the cemetery—and the most intriguing architecture. The cemetery has been geo-tagged by the team with startling precision, and someone navigating the website will be able to locate on a map the exact point at which someone rests, and find thereupon a great deal of information surrounding the grave, including biographical detail, associated images, so on. The “Digital Humanities approach” should be of interest to both, humanists and to those interested in the digital aspects. Milinda Banerjee, who has worked on the project as a historian, also spoke a few words over Skype about his involvement. The amount of data that is available on the website is commendable and the manner in which it is organized is also extremely user-friendly.
At the end, Dr. Van der Pol returned to make his brief presentation on the visit of the Prince of Orange, and showed several paintings that were made by the men who were waiting on the vessel and had viewed the city, or cities, from the river. He gave a brief account of the visit, but promised that much more will be available in his next book which is on this very subject.
Dr. Van der Pol ended with a few images and comments on the works of two Dutch architects in India, Pierre Cuypers (1897) and Willem Dudok (1936). Dudok, he informed us, was behind the designing of the Lighthouse cinema in Kolkata and of the enormous building right next to it, at the junction of Bertram Street and Lindsay Street.
The event came to an end on that note, but for those who are interested in the European presence along the river-front in Bengal, this is just a beginning.
You can view the website at http://dutchcemeterybengal.com/