Calcutta, as it came to be named, was founded by the remarkable English merchant trader Job Charnock in 1690. He was in charge of the East India Company factory (ie warehouse) in Hugli, then the centre of British trade from eastern India. Attacks from the local Muslim ruler forced him to flee – first down river to Sutanuti and then 1500 km south to Chennai. However, in 1690 he selected three villages – Kalikata, Sutanuti and Govindpur – where Armenian and Portuguese traders had already settled, leased them from Emperor Aurangzeb and returned to what became the capital of British India.
The first fort here, named after King William III (completed 1707), was on the site of the present BBD Bagh. A deep defensive moat was dug in 1742 to strengthen the fort – the Maratha ditch. The Maratha threat never materialized but the city was captured easily by the 20-year-old Siraj-ud-Daula, the new Nawab of Bengal, in 1756. The 146 British residents who failed to escape by the fort’s river gate were imprisoned for a night in a small guard room about 6 m by 5 m with only one window – the infamous ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’. Some records suggest 64 people were imprisoned and only 23 survived.
The following year Robert Clive re-took the city. The new Fort William was built and in 1772 Calcutta became the capital of British administration in India with Warren Hastings as the first Governor of Bengal . Some of Calcutta’s most impressive colonial buildings were built in the years that followed, when it became the first city of British India. It was also a time of Hindu and Muslim resurgence.
Colonial Calcutta grew as new traders, soldiers and administrators arrived, establishing their exclusive social and sports clubs. Trade in cloth, silk, lac, indigo, rice, areca nut and tobacco had originally attracted the Portuguese and British to Bengal. Later Calcutta’s hinterland producing jute, iron ore, tea and coal led to large British firms setting up headquarters in the city. Calcutta prospered as the commercial and political capital of British India up to 1911, when the capital was transferred to Delhi.
Kolkata had to absorb huge numbers of migrants immediately after Partition in 1947. When Pakistan ceased trading with India in 1949, Kolkata’s economy suffered a massive blow as it lost its supplies of raw jute and its failure to attract new investment created critical economic problems. In the late 1960s the election of the Communist Party of India Marxist, the CPI(M), led to a period of stability. The CPI(M) has become committed to a mixed economy and has sought foreign private investment.
You can cover much of Central Kolkata on foot. For the rest you need transport. You may not fancy using hand-pulled rickshaws, but they become indispensable when the streets are flooded. Buses and minibuses are often jam packed, but routes comprehensively cover the city, conductors and bystanders will help find the correct bus. The electric trams can be slightly better outside peak periods. The Metro, though on a limited route, is one of the easiest ways of getting around the city. Taxis are relatively cheap but allow plenty of time to get through very congested traffic. Despite the footpath, it is not permitted to walk across the Vidyasagar Bridge. Taxi drivers expect passengers to pay the Rs 10 toll.
Subhas Chandra Bose airport at Dum Dum serves international and domestic flights. Taxis to the city centre take 30-60 minutes. Haora (Howrah) station, on the west bank of the Hugli, can be daunting and the taxi rank outside is often chaotic; the prepaid taxi booth is to the right as you exit. Trains to the north use the slightly less chaotic Sealdah terminal east of the centre, which also has prepaid taxis. Long-distance buses arrive at Esplanade, 15-20 minutes’ walk from most budget hotels.