Calcutta

Extracts from the Journal of Bernhard Philipp Berckemeyer (1764-1816)
Translation by Mary Ansell. This document may be read here in the original German.

(Bernhard Philipp Berckemeyer purchased the estate Gross-Thurow around 1798. Photos of Gross-Thurow can be found here.)

 

Dec. 25, 1784

This morning as it is the first day of Christmas (1) I went to see Governor Hastings and paid him my compliments of the day and breakfasted with him and afterward with Mr. Havercam. After breakfast I went to church, where there was a fairly large assembly. On coming out of church I visited Mr. Geion and Dr. Gardner and at midday went to the Governor’s public dinner at the old court house, where a fine repast was given by the Governor and the attending company. Accompanied by firing of the cannon at the fort, toasts were drunk in honour of the King, the Queen, the Crown Prince, the East India Trading Company and the success of Bengal. Afterward, at 5 o’clock, everyone went home. In the evening a ball was held, which I attended only until 10 o’clock and afterward dined at Dr. Gardner’s. On this day one sees all the doors of the houses decorated with foliage and flowers, the same with the churches and the palanquins.

 

April 2, 1785

Notes concerning the wages (2) which have been published today, and which one in fact now pays for servants; the servants which are underlined are those employed by anyone of importance, who wishes to appear as a gentleman, namely:

Consumah (3)  per month 20 a 25 (4) Jemauldar (5)  8 a 25
Chubdar 6 a 8 Redmutqar 8 a 85
Head Cook 15 a 30 Headbearer 6 a 20
Cook's mate 6 a 22 Bearer 4 a
Coachman 80 a 20 Peon (6)  4 a 6

Waterman to a family (7)  R 5 a 20

Waterman to a single gentleman 6 a 8

Syce (8)  5 a 8

Grasscutter 2 a 4

Mushattehee 4 a

Barber 2 a 4

Hairdresser 6 a 6

Khurtehburdar (9)  4

Matrany (10)   4 a 6

Watmuron besides Cloatts R 2 to R 6

Clya ditto R. 2 to R 6

Before the English first took possession of Bengal, these wages were more than twice as low. However as luxury has increased, the wages have increased also.

 

April 9, 1785

Since the daily notes in my journal contain nothing in particular except perhaps where I dined and spent the day, I will completely leave off the same and give a general description here of the country and its inhabitants, to the extent of my insight and experience. Then I will continue such journalising as I have done until now.

Bengal is a country which is very fertile and extremely productive, so that each year one obtains at least two harvests, and sometimes three, and there are even instances when there have been 4 harvests.

Rice is one of the chief products, which all inhabitants use as a staple food, nevertheless an extraordinary amount is also exported to the Coromandel Coast, (11) Orissa (12) and Ceylon. The French also obtain rice from Bengal for the islands of Mauritius, Madagascar, Bourbon, etc. Despite the fertility of the country, in the last war there was a famine in Bengal, due to the destruction of the grain fields by the enemy. However Governor Hastings has now had a very large grain warehouse built near Patna in order to prevent a future famine. No other warehouse in the world can compare with it. The dome is larger than the dome of St. Peter’s church in Rome and contains 3 L... maunds (13) of rice or 24 million pounds.

Every three years the warehouse will be sold out and refilled, at least that is the plan. Whether this plan will be carried out is not yet known.

Rice requires wet, moist land and must almost always be standing under water, thus even when there is a severe, long rainy season, so that the land is flooded or the Ganges overflows, the harvest is all the more productive. In dry periods the inhabitants attempt to flood the land using irrigation ditches or rather to flood the rice fields.

Ploughing the land is very easy, and they never plough more than half a foot deep, which is sufficient, since the land is so fertile and rich.

Rice is generally cultivated throughout the whole country. There is also a somewhat poorer type of rice which grows in boggy areas where the land is under water the whole year, where the inhabitants do not have to take any trouble except to go in with Canots (14) or small vehicles when the rice is ripe and harvest it.

Sugar cane is a principle product and is extensively cultivated. The cane is frequently eaten by the natives, and is very cooling in the hot season.

The powdered sugar which they make is very good and fairly white, but is comparable to that of the West Indies. Formerly, Bengal used to obtain its sugar from Batavia. (15) However in recent years the cultivation of sugar has increased to such an extent that the prices have fallen so that now it is possible to do without Batavian sugar entirely, and no profit can be made from bringing Batavian sugar to Bengal. At present very good Candis sugar is also made. Primarily that made by the Chinese, who have established sugar factories, replaces the genuine Chinese product to some extent. Nevertheless a great deal of Candis sugar is still brought to Bengal each year from China. However it is used primarily only by the Europeans, because it is whiter than the Bengal sugar.

No one has yet begun to refine Deb sugar. A great deal of rum and arrack is also distilled from the sugar cane.

Saltpeter, (16) one of the chief products of Bengal, is frequently made, primarily in the upper part of Bengal. L’abbé Reynal (17) gives a very good and accurate description of the method of preparation in his Histoire des Indes. Each year the saltpeter is obtained in great quantities by every nation and conveyed to Europe. The low-quality saltpeter is frequently used within the country to cool water, etc.

Opium (18) is used chiefly for foreign trade. It is frequently made in the Patna regions and is very good. The English Company usually sells the opium contract as a monopoly for 2 to 3 years. It is frequently conveyed to China, but even more often to the Malaysian and East coast and sold at great profit.

Wheat is little cultivated and is only for the use of the Europeans.

Peas, barley and oats are, like wheat, cultivated only for the use of the Europeans. Barley and oats do not grow in every region, and thrive only in the coldest climates of Bengal.

Arrack (19) is made in quantity from Tuddy (20) or distilled juice of the coconut tree, as well as from sugarcane and rice, and is also already regarded as an article for export, principally to the coast.

Arreck is a nut which is very hard and has an astringent taste. It grows on very straight, tall but thin trees; the natives chew it. There is a great trade in it, and it grows abundantly in Bengal.

The coconut tree is also very abundant here and is noteworthy, because it is very beneficial to the country. Arrack is made from the juice of the tree. The husk of the coconut is beaten to make rope, which is called coir. (21) A well-beaten coir rope, when care is taken that it is not exposed to freshwater before being drawn through salt water, lasts almost as long and is as strong as European rope which is made from hemp. People in Europe have the erroneous idea that the rope is made from the bark of the tree, which is completely incorrect; in fact it is made from the husk of the nut.

Here I will note three other plants which are used as hemp, which are called "Dontsia", "Jonthy" and "Katshola" in Bengali. Mr. König (22) gives them the Latin names of Corcharus, (23) Oleraceus and Capeularis. However there is a still more common hemp plant, Crolataria juncea. (24) This is a species of Aschynominea (25) which is frequently sown in the fields here. It is an annual, grows approximately to the height of two men, is scarcely one finger thick, but otherwise greatly resembles Aschynomin Setban. (26)

The poor Indians eat the seed, after the outer layer, which is the hemp, has been removed. The stalks are burned to heat the ships, in order to promote the absorption of tar and pitch.

Aschynomene Sesban has a variety of black and red flowers, which are eaten by the natives. This colours their saliva very red, which is the reason for the special names given it by them.

Cotton. One of the most important products of Bengal. It is all used within the country, and the supply is far from sufficient, for in addition immeasurable quantities are imported from neighbouring lands. Likewise also from the Malabar Coast (27) (Bombay). None grows at the seaside.

Silk is frequently harvested and exported. The regions of Cossimbazar, (28) Radanagore and Rungpore (29) produce the most and the best. These areas are surrounded by mulberry trees growing as wild trees. Other products of Bengal to be noted which are used for export are white and black aniseed, ginger, long pepper (30) and indigo. In the past several years the latter has been perfected, and does well as an export to Europe. It is just as good as that of the West Indies.

Tobacco is fairly extensively cultivated, but is insufficient for the demand; therefore a great deal is also imported from Persia through trade with Bassora. (31)

Oil is frequently made from mustard seeds and is also exported.

The yard goods or fabrics of Bengal, although not diverse, are very important; among them the cottons are principally to be noted. These are made throughout the whole country without exception. In some places the manufactured product is finer than in others, depending upon the quality of the cotton there.

This is Bengal’s most important branch of trade, for the whole world is supplied with these goods. It is chiefly the printed goods and the value of the wares which are exported from here each year that are remarkable. Every nation sends ships each year to Bengal to obtain its products. -

The silk goods are next to be noted. They are only light and thin, but have beautiful colours; most are produced in and around Cossimbazar. Half-silk goods made in the regions of Boglepore (32) are very good and fine. Therefore the cloth also has this name. (33)

Hosiery weaving mills are not yet as well-developed as those on the Coromandel Coast, and also only serve the domestic market. (34)

There are many small industries in addition, but they are not noteworthy, and are mostly also to be found outside the country in neighbouring countries, where they are the most important.

In various places in the country, powder and paper mills have been established, however they produce only low-grade types of products. There is also a cannon foundry.

There are few minerals in Bengal itself. However in the mountains of Bhutan one finds very good iron, silver and gold. The mines however are little worked, for the inhabitants of Bhutan do not allow any Europeans into the country. I am an eyewitness that they themselves work their iron with exquisite results. They make magnificent swords and guns. None of them will carry a sword or knife at his side unless he can cut through a piece of iron an inch square with it, without leaving any marks on the blade.

In the mountains of Bhutan a great deal of borax is found, which is supposed to be very fine.

There are not many areas with trees, but there are many bushes. However these serve only as fuel. All construction timber for buildings and ships comes from Pegu. (35) One does find a few trees here and there which are useful, and have also been used for ship building. However it is not durable wood, but weak.

One tree, which the Bengalis call "Gabe" (Dr. König calls it Diospyros (36)) has come to my attention. This tree has a beautiful round crown full of leaves, like the mangoes. Its very useful fruit, if sufficiently well-known, would often be used here. In Bengal, and as I have heard, also in Ceylon, the bookbinders use it for gluing, since the glue does not loosen in the rainy season, and is also not eaten by worms. Hyder Ali (37) and Tippoo Saib (38) first made the most advantageous use of it, by ordering all cartridges to be glued and coated with this juice, which protected the gunpowder from any dampness.

The vessels used on the Ganges are coated with this juice, as protection from rotting and being eaten by worms. The nets of the fishermen are stained either black or brown with it. Old canvas which is very weak, when immersed in this juice attains the appearance of completely strong, new canvas. This deception is frequently practised on foreigners who are not aware of it.

The fruit of this tree is also very useful medicinally. For example one takes the young fruits and pounds them with sugar to make a juice. This is then frequently used as a reliable remedy in venereal diseases, in the case of white discharge etc. This tree grows by water and woodlands. The wood is reddish outside and black on the inside. In terms of its general description it is the same as the ebony tree of Mauritius, however the wood is not as heavy, hard and fine-textured. There is supposed to be a fruit of the same kind in Siam, which is eaten by the inhabitants and called Gontinifera.

Although fruits are abundant in Bengal, in my opinion they are not the equal of any European fruits. The most common are: oranges, pisans, (39) mangoes, jackfruit, Atnes, rose apples, (40) pineapples, pomegranates and guavas. In the upper part of Bengal one sometimes obtains fine fruits from the Persian border. -

Fishing is very profitable and common here, however there are no very good-tasting fish. The mango fish (41) is the only one that can be called a good fish, and next is the cockup, (42) which somewhat resembles cod. There are indeed many types of fish which are eaten and said to be very good fish, however in my opinion this is not really so; these types can be called good only because one has nothing better here.

There is an abundance of game. The tiger is very common and dangerous. Then there is the wild buffalo, which likewise attacks human beings.

One seldom catches sight of wolves.

There are large numbers of snakes of all kinds. Cubber Kapel (43) is very dangerous and common. Next is the Kubber Manille. (44) Both of these attack human beings, and their bite is lethal. -

In the rivers (45) there is an amphibian dangerous to human beings. The English name is Alligator (46) Goll, called Cayman, (47) and one frequently sees them.

The religion of the Indians is diverse and divided into many castes. Each caste worships its own god. The principal sects are firstly the Catholics or native-born descendants of the Portuguese, from whom they have their names. They have a church at Calcutta, Serampore, Chandernagore (48) and Bandel. Secondly there are the Mohammedans, Gentoos (49) and Hindus.

Their customs are still the old Oriental customs, and it seems as if they will probably never become accustomed to European customs. Moreover their religion prohibits them from drinking any alcoholic drink and from eating pork. If they consume one of these they lose their caste, however it is to be noted that among themselves they maintain these customs much less strictly than when Europeans are present. For example, it is sufficiently well-known that one of the rich nabobs frequently used to eat smoked ham under the name of European mutton and drank gin under the name of European water.

There are many of them who speak and write English very well and also read many English books. In general all the servants speak English. However it is a fact noted by all Europeans who have been in the country for some time and have mastered the language, that all servants who speak the English language are certainly scoundrels, and that one seldom meets an honest fellow except for those who are at a distance from European customs.

The capital city of Bengal is Calcutta, the headquarters of the English government. The government here is the general government for all of the possessions of British India. Calcutta itself is very large, having 9 to 10 million inhabitants. The European part of the city is pleasant, however it is constructed with more attention to convenience and health than to external appearance. The English fort, called Fort William, is situated half an English mile (50) from the city. It is as fine a fort as one can imagine. It is octagonal, with eight bastions, and is surrounded by a moat. The fort cost the Company one Choor rupees (51) and will always provide them with secure protection and will maintain their supremacy in Bengal.

Calcutta itself is very healthy and I can now with reason refute what Abbé Raynal and many other authors have written of it, that the air is unhealthy. Now it is not so, for 4 or 5 years ago the English cut down all the trees in the southern area of Calcutta and drained the marshes. The air was given free circulation, and more work is still being done daily on the improvement of the city, so that within three years Calcutta will enjoy air as healthy as anywhere in the world.

The large number of Europeans is also the reason why here every amusement can be found. Lust and extravagance make their home here. There is an obsession to outdo one another in magnificence, however I believe it is near its highest peak.

Plays, balls, concerts and many other amusements take their turn each day.