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Fort William: The Rise and Fall of an Imperial Empire

Fort William, standing on the eastern bank of the river Hoogly in Kolkata, West Bengal, bears within its womb the story of the evolution of the city itself. This fort has witnessed defining moments of history, which were significant not only for Bengal but also for the Indian subcontinent as a whole. The fort complex too has evolved in tandem with larger political developments. This colonial edifice now acts as the headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army. As a strategic military zone, the fort is off-limits to civilians. However, the fascinating history surrounding the fort arouses considerable curiosity among the general public.

A view of the Salimgarh Fort Gate

A view of the interior of Fort William, a watercolour by William Wood, 1828 CE. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Old Fort William

The original structure of Fort William was built in 1696 CE by the British East India Company on the banks of the river Hoogly. The East India Company (EIC) which arrived in India as a trading concern was at this time outgrowing its commercial role to develop a firmer ground on the Indian soil. During the second half of the 17th century, the EIC acquired the right to trade duty-free in Bengal which led them to build factories here. By 1698 CE they also acquired the right to collect taxes from the towns of Sutanuti, Calcutta and Govindpur. This necessitated the building of a trading station and military base that would help the English to defend their trading interests not only against the local rulers but also against other competing European powers.

The prison at Salimgarh, Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

A painting of Old Fort William, 1754 CE. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Old Fort William was built as a two-storied brick structure with projecting wings. In 1700 CE, this structure was officially named “Fort William” after King William III. By this time Calcutta had come to be called a Presidency and the Governors and Governor-Generals of the EIC assumed the added designation- “of Fort William in Bengal”. Sir Charles Eyre was the first “President and Governor-General of Fort William in Bengal”. He built the South-Eastern bastion of the fort and the adjacent walls. His successor John Beard added the North-Eastern Bastion in 1702 CE. By 1716 CE, the construction was complete for all practical purposes. The city of Calcutta evolved around Old Fort William and modern Calcutta is its child and heir.

The Swatantrata Senani Smarak, Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Black Hole Monument at St. John’s Church, Kolkata. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Black Hole Tragedy

During the second half of the 17th century, the might of the Mughal empire declined and the Nawabs strengthened their authority as independent rulers of Bengal. The EIC, whose commercial interests in Bengal were steadily on the rise, often faced hostility at the hands of the Nawabs who were suspicious of their activities. The English, on their part, often abused their commercial privileges by giving away free passes to native traders to trade custom free and by levying large duties on goods coming to their districts. Nawab Alivardi Khan (1740-1756 CE) ruled with a firm hand and kept a close watch on the activities of the Company. He was succeeded by Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah in 1756 CE who was only 23 at the time of his ascension and even more skeptical of the English. Around this time the Seven Years War which was in full swing in Europe, led the British and the French to increase their fortifications in Bengal. Siraj-ud-Daulah was angered by this and ordered them to halt all construction. The British, however, refused to heed. The young Nawab then marched on to Calcutta with a huge army and quickly captured the surrounding areas. At this, the English Governor and residents fled leaving behind only a small garrison of soldiers and some staff to defend Fort William. The forces of the Nawab soon prevailed upon the British and took prisoners who were then interred in a small locker room for the night. John Zephaniah Holland, who was leading the British forces, records that around 146 prisoners were thrown into a tiny dungeon (measuring only 18 ft by 14 ft) out of which only 23 emerged alive the next day. This incident is known as the “Black Hole Tragedy” and is recounted by the British as a night of horrors. However, Indian historians, in the 1950s, argued that the number of prisoners had been greatly exaggerated by Holland. The British sought to avenge this atrocity and sent a force under Colonel Clive and Admiral Watson with express orders stating that, “the object of the expedition was not merely to re-establish the British settlement in Bengal, but also to obtain ample recognition of the Company’s privileges and reparations for its losses.” Clive left no stone unturned to obtain a victory, entered into a well-planned conspiracy with the Nawab’s own general and confidants, and famously defeated him in the Battle of Plassey in 1757 CE.

After 1757 CE: the New Fort

The decisive victory in the Battle of Plassey changed the future of the EIC in India. The older fort which so easily fell to the forces of Nawab was now deemed insufficient and the necessity of a formidable structure that could act as a base for the growing political ambitions of the EIC was felt. The area around the old fort was cleared for building this reinforced structure and was called the “Maidan”. Today, it comprises the largest urban park of the city and is popularly referred to as the “lungs of Kolkata”. The present-day fort complex covers an area of more than 170 acres and houses many colonial and modern-day structures together.

The Swatantrata Senani Smarak, Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Maidan, Kolkata. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Robert Clive started the new structure in 1758 CE and the first phase of construction was completed by 1781 CE at a cost of 2 million pounds at the time. The second phase of construction started in the 1860s and lasted till the end of the century. The new fort was built in brick and mortar as an irregular octagon and included structures inspired by Georgian and Gothic styles. The structure was designed as a star-shaped fort with the majority of the perimeter facing landward. The walls and defenses of the fort were structured to defend against cannon firing (as per the need of the times) rather than explosive shelling. A (now dry) moat (9 m deep and 15 m wide) surrounding the fort used to be filled by a sluice from the river. The ramparts of the fort were mounted with thousands of cannons. Access to the fort was controlled by six gates, namely, Chowringhee, Plassey, Calcutta, Water Gate, St. George and Treasury gates.

The Swatantrata Senani Smarak, Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

A map of Fort William, 1844 CE. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Granary Barracks inside the fort complex were built by Governor-General Warren Hastings (1772–1785 CE). In 1856 CE the Dalhousie Barrack (named after Lord Dalhousie, 1848-1856), a four-storey building, was built as an army garrison to accommodate soldiers. The Kitchener’s House, initially built as a blockhouse for the Fortress Assault Company in 1771 CE, was converted into an official residence for the Commander-in-Chief of the British Indian Army in 1784 CE. It, however, got its name much later when Field Marshal Herbert Horatio Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, lived here between 1902 and 1909. It has now been converted into an Officers’ Mess. The St Peter’s Anglican Church, a beautiful Gothic structure built between 1822 and 1825 CE, flaunts exquisite stained glasswork depicting Biblical themes. The Church has now been converted into a library.

The Swatantrata Senani Smarak, Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

St Peter’s Anglican Church, Fort William

Fort William soon emerged as the official governing base for British India. After the Charter Act of 1833, the post of Governor-General of Bengal was converted into “Governor-General of India”. This post was further converted into “Viceroy of India” after the First War of Independence of 1857, through the Government of India Act, 1858. Calcutta remained the capital of India under British rule till it was shifted to Delhi in 1911.

After Independence, the control of the fort passed into the hands of the Indian army who made considerable additions and renovations. The fort complex has now been upgraded and equipped with modern amenities such as a golf course, a boxing stadium, a swimming pool, a shopping complex, restaurants, a post office and even a movie theatre! It also houses a museum that exhibits a range of weapons and armour dating from the medieval era to the present. The Vijay Smarak, built in 1996 as a memorial dedicated to the martyrs of the Sino-Indian War (1962 and 1967) and Indo-Pak war (1971), is located next to the East Gate of the fort. It comprises of three tall granite columns with the insignia of the Eastern Command.

The Ball Tower: Sentinel of a Bygone Era

Fort William also houses an intriguing structure, the Ball Tower, which has a fascinating history. This tower was a part of a now obsolete system of communication that predated electrical telegraph, known as the Semaphore telegraph. This particular Ball tower was in fact only one in an entire set of towers built in a straight line of vision from Fort William to Chunar- a distance of 694 kilometres! Each tower contained an apparatus installed on top of the structure visible from a distance. The apparatus contained movable elements which could pivot and change position to symbolize an alphabetic letter. Two people equipped with telescopes were stationed on either side of a tower to read signals from the neighbouring tower, which would be then passed on to the Semaphore operator, who would again repeat the signal for the next tower. It is said that this system worked so efficiently that on a clear day, messages would pass between Fort William and Chunar in a matter of just 50 minutes! The 100 ft tower at Fort William contained the main operating system of the Kolkata-Chunar line. It was initially built in 1824 CE as a signaling tower for ships. In 1881 CE, a time ball was installed on the tower which would be raised daily at 12:55 hrs. and lowered at 13:00 hrs. and henceforth the structure came to be known as the Ball Tower. After 1850 CE, the Semaphore Telegraph gradually became obsolete with the introduction of the electrical telegraph.

The Swatantrata Senani Smarak, Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ball Tower, Fort William. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fort William, once a symbol of the oppressive British Raj, has now been transformed into the military base of a modern, secular and democratic nation. The Indian Army has gradually opened up to the idea of allowing access to selected areas of the fort complex to the general public. On 16th Dec 2019, the occasion of the 48th Vijay Diwas- a commemoration of the decisive victory won by our country in the Indo-Pak war of 1971, it was announced that the Vijay Smarak would be open to everyone on Sundays and public holidays.

As a historic edifice that has stood witness to the rise and fall of an imperialistic empire, as well as the growth of a free nation, Fort William enunciates the fact that history is always in the making.