“Hooghly: The Global History of a River” by Robert Ivermee

Devotee praying in the Hooghly River in front of the Vivekananda Setu (photo: Glenn Guy) Devotee praying in the Hooghly River in front of the Vivekananda Setu (photo: Glenn Guy)

When we think of Indian rivers, it’s usually the Ganges that comes to mind, that mysteriously holy river now polluted by sludge and city waste. It also features the half-burnt corpses of devout Hindus floating down it on their final journeys and people bathing in it to purify themselves.  Like all rivers, the Ganges was, of course, a river of life as well as death, the reason for people settling along its banks and nurturing themselves with its flowing waters. The West has long been fascinated by the Ganges; writing in the late 1640s, the poet and MP Andrew Marvell imagined his “coy mistress” wasting her time, of which he imagines they had an eternity, in India instead of responding to his advances; “Thou by th’Indian Ganges side shouldst rubies find,” he whinges, while he is left in England “by the tide of Humber” to bemoan his enforced celibacy. But who in 1645 had heard of the Hooghly, a fairly short distributary of the Ganges which eventually finds its way south to the Bay of Bengal? Probably not even Andrew Marvell, writing a hundred years or so after the Portuguese merchant Pedro Tavares first set foot on its bank in 1578, and born a year after the English arrived in Bengal (1620). 

For modern readers, however, this compelling, scholarly and engagingly written account of the Hooghly by Robert Ivermee, who teaches at SOAS University of London and the Catholic University of Paris, more than makes up for our lack of familiarity with Indian rivers other than the Ganges. We may not find any rubies by the Hooghly, but its banks witnessed important incidents not just of global exchange but also the way different foreign settlements (Mughals, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Danish and English) interacted with each other and with the local population. Ivermee does not omit the historical context, either; he details the history of the nawabs of Bengal in Murshidabad and concludes this far-reaching yet compact study with a chapter on “The Hooghly’s Global Future”, thus bringing the globalization of the Hooghly full circle.

 

Hooghly: The Global History of a River, Robert Ivermee (Hurst, September 2020)
Hooghly: The Global History of a River, Robert Ivermee (Hurst, September 2020)

Heraclitus once famously said that “you can never put your foot twice into the same river,” using the flowing water as a metaphor for the passing of time, and this seems an apt way to view the Hooghly. As the years passed steadily and European ships arrived, the river changed, but it had always been changing; archaeological evidence of rice-farming communities on the Hooghly goes back 3000 years, and by the 11th century larger settlements had been established. Ivermee tells us that “the earliest migrants in Bengal were probably Mongolian people from Burma and the Himalayas,” who by the 5th century BCE were augmented by Aryans, the people who brought with them Sanskrit language and literature along with the “hierarchical Brahmanic society” that soon took hold. Around 320 BCE the Hooghly area was incorporated into the Mauryan Empire, whose greatest emperor, Ashoka (reigned 268-232 BCE), introduced Buddhism by sending monks out into his extensive lands, which included Bengal. However, worship of the Hooghly itself had been around a lot longer than the Aryans, and the Brahmanical tradition itself incorporated into itself older mythological systems, folklore and legends. All this history would be waiting for the Europeans when they arrived, as relative latecomers riding the tide and certainly not equipped to control it altogether, although, as Ivermee tells us, they certainly made every effort to do so.

After establishing the historical and cultural-religious contexts of the river, Ivermee takes readers on a fascinating journey down the Hooghly from Murshidabad to Sagar Island, stopping on the way at Plassey, Chandernagore, Serampore and Calcutta. Doing this allows the author to “focus on a set of interrelated subjects central to understanding an age when events on the Hooghly were of global significance.” Each place visited is connected with different groups of people who came from faraway places and settled on the river to carry out commercial ventures, bringing with them their various ideas, religion, values and culture as they did so, which all became mixed in with the existing local culture and civilisation. These places are locations representative of the kingdom of Bengal, the rise of the Dutch, Danish, French and British East India Companies, and, in the case of Calcutta, the “unfinished conquest of nature” via railways, sewers and methods of conveying drinking-water, turning it into an “imperial mega-city” connected to the vast subcontinent by rail. Sagar Island, the last stop, represents “the Hooghly’s global future.” As Ivermee states, this book’s goal is to show that global history is about “the process of integration on a global scale,” not just about encounters between different people or commerce. “Through the Hooghly’s history,” he writes, “borders have been traversed, the interaction and exchange of different peoples and cultures has created new identities and rendered others less meaningful.” Along with this, we will read of corporate power-struggles, the development of capitalism and the sinister parts played by slavery and human trafficking.

 

One great contribution that this book makes, I believe, is that it shifts the emphasis from the British East India Company, whose story is quite well-known, to the fact that there were other equally significant foreign commercial endeavors operating in Bengal, not to mention the fact that the area had its own well-established political and religious structures throughout the period covered in this book. Many English-speaking readers, I suspect, likely may not know much about the Portuguese traders, the Dutch, French or Danish companies, perhaps even less about the nawabs of Bengal, let alone how they all fit together to tell a riveting story based on the history of a rather minor river, at least in terms of its length and its comparison to the mighty Ganges. In fact, not just the microcosmic Hooghly but the whole area we know as the Bengal Delta comes, through this book, to be seen almost as a kind of international “melting-pot”, with the river as a kind of magic cauldron into which all the various ingredients are thrown and mixed together in a seething mass. Battles were fought, money made and lost, ideas exchanged, literature and art created, ambitions fulfilled and frustrated, politics, religion and power are all combined as the Hooghly meanders happily along, oblivious to the frenzied human activity taking place on its banks.

Beginning with the port of Hooghly itself, Ivermee examines each of the settlements which established themselves along the banks of the river, and how some of them, particularly the British East India Company, came to power, starting from the basically mercantile and moving steadily to political spheres, thus influencing the way that India itself developed. In 1717, the Mughal emperor Farrukhsiyar granted, by royal decree or firman, the English a right to trade custom-free (as long as they paid an annual fee to the emperor) and buy land around Calcutta. They were even allowed to mint their own currency: “only the right to coin money freely would ensure the long-term profitability of the Company’s Bengal trade.” This acquisition of formal approval gave the East India Company its ultimate opportunity to expand not just its mercantile influence but to acquire political power as well. Plassey, for example, one of our stops on the Hooghly, was the site of the famous battle where Robert Clive defeated the forces of the nawab Siraj-ud-Dowlah, whom English historians “portrayed as a drunken tyrant who terrorised his subjects,” the view that was prevalent at least until the time I was in school. After all, didn’t the nawab hate the English and lock many of them up in the Black Hole of Calcutta, where they were starved, deprived of water and left to die from suffocation in a cramped and sweltering room? Ivermee balances the books on Siraj-ud-Dowlah; he had legitimate grievances with the East India Company, not least their decision to expand Fort William without his permission. The nawab saw this as just another English attempt to encroach on his power. When he asked them to stop building, they refused, citing war with France as an excuse, as the Compagnie des Indes was firmly established by that time (1755) in Chandernagore, another city on our Hooghly journey. But these dramatic events are only a part of the story.

During the course of the journey, Ivermee introduces readers to a number of fascinating characters associated with the cities on the way to Sagar Island, the final stop. Few of these names will be familiar; English-speaking readers are more often acquainted with the more famous (and usually British) figures such as Clive or Warren Hastings, both associated with the East India Company. He begins with Pedro Tavares, who managed to pique emperor Akbar’s curiosity and subsequently benefit from his generosity and Murshid Quli Khan, the founder of Murshidabad, a former slave-boy whose talents were discovered by Aurangzeb and who rose to become a powerful ruler in his own right. Ivermee introduces us to many others, foreign and native, whose careers flourished in the Hooghly area, such as, Joseph-François Dupleix, under whose governorship from 1731 Chandernagore reached the peak of its power and who vastly extended French trading throughout Bengal and surrounding areas. There’s also William Carey (1761-1834), the Serampore missionary of humble origins with an interest in Sanskrit language and literature who, among other accomplishments, made a fortune in indigo, learned Bengali, translated portions of the Bible into that language, introduced printing and founded Serampore University, the first degree-awarding university in India. Indians we may mention include Carey’s Hindu counterpart the eminent religious philosopher and social reformer Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833). As well. we encounter a considerable number of British surveyors and engineers who studied the river and attempted to annex its powers.

 

Ivermee combines historical knowledge and erudition with a sense that history is not made simply by great men and impressive events, but by hordes of lesser human beings and smaller events which, taken together, change the way history progresses. The Hooghly remains in the centre of it all, oblivious to the great events taking place along its course and of its importance as what John Keay calls “a crucible of global exchange.” It’s the cement which keeps the various nationalities connected to each other at the same time as they are, as Matthew Arnold put it, “in the sea of life enisled” in their various settlements.

Ivermee does not unnecessarily elevate the importance of the Hooghly: he demonstrates—via a compelling story—that even a short tributary river can be an important source of all manner of global interaction. “Above all,” he concludes,

 

the Hooghly’s global history prompts us to remember that power is never absolute… The dimension of the Hooghly’s past should inspire the search for new approaches and ideas to shape its global future.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.