Job Charnock and the Great Tree
If we care to time travel some 300 years back and loiter somewhere around Neemtollah we may see an Englishman dressed in a loose shirt and pyjamas, holding court under a huge tree on the banks of the river. His face looks haggard, the lines delineating years of struggle, hard work in the hot and humid climate of Bengal and sheer exhaustion. Between talking animatedly with fellow men he sips arrack and smokes the hookah, like many early Englishmen who adopted the Indian way of life.
Indeed, it is Job Charnock, the founder of the trading post of the East India Company at Chuttanutee or Sutanuti, which eventually grew into the second city of the British Empire. But it is not Job Charnock or his contribution which is our subject of interest but the “great tree”. It not only provided shade to Charnock and his companions, who resided in simple thatched huts in contrast to the large elegant structures that later came to dot the imperial city but was an important landmark for mariners. Though there are many myths surrounding this enigmatic Englishman, son of a mere pastor, one can assume the great tree did exist since it served as a prominent mark for seafarers of the era.
An English chronicler observed that “at Chuttanutty Point there stood in olden days a great tree which served as a sea-mark to pilots and has been identified by some as the famous Boytaconnah tree under which the Father of Calcutta sat and mused.” Baithakhanah Street, connecting Lalbazar and Circular Road (APC Road), derived its name from this famous old tree which according to an old map (Upjohn, 1794) of Calcutta, stood at “its eastern extremity” and formed a “Boytaconnah” or resting place for the merchants who traded in Calcutta and whose caravans rested under its shade.
Charnock himself had scrambled to the shore at some point close to Nimtollah, somewhere between Beniatollah and Sobhabazar Ghat. He had landed at the old ‘Sootalooty Ghat,’ which provided access to the village of weavers at Sootalooty (also ‘Sutanuti’) or Chuttanutty. Their fine workmanship is said to have attracted the English in the first place to this marshy piece of land. It was said that Job Charnock chose this site because of the pleasure he found in sitting and smoking under the shade of this large tree. However, it found no place in the Wood’s Map of 1784. In Hicky’s Gazette of 1781 we find a mention of a “Garden House situated of Bread and Cheese Bungalo (sic), opposite the great tree and forms the angle of the two roads.” Today, this might seem quite far fetched to an avid student of Calcutta’s history, considering the Hooghly (the river) no longer flows close by and Circular Road or modern day APC Road may seem far off from its banks but this is because the city has undergone quite a bit of transformation since the days of Charnock. The creek which once flowed from the river to the salt lakes at Beliaghata has been filled in. It is hard to believe that in the distant past ships sailed through what is now a busy thoroughfare, Creek Row.
Initially, English historians had identified the great tree as the one at Baithakhana, somewhere near the present day Sealdah Station but later they came to believe it was somewhere near Neemtollah or Battala. Some identified it as a neem tree, some as banyan while others thought it to be a peepal tree. Apparently, Neemtollah and Neemtollah Ghat owed their names to this neem tree of gargantuan size which was near the temple of Maa Anandamoyee. Charnock had come ashore at a spot, just north of this tree. It got burnt down in a fire in 1879-80.
During Charnock’s days settlement was yet to flourish in Calcutta; it was merely a saucer shaped piece of marshy land, overrun by forest and wild animals, an extension of the Sunderbans. Yet, the great tree gave refuge to a man, fatigued to the very bones after being driven out of Hooghly, Hijli, Chittagong, shortly before death overcame him in 1693.