For 18th century painters, the Indian port cities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras held a special place.


A painting created in 1818 by British artist Benjamin West shows Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II presenting a parchment to Robert Clive, a British colonel. According to historian John McAleer, the event depicted in West’s painting can be classified as one of the most crucial events in the history of the British Empire and one of the most important legacies of the Battle of Plassey which took place in 1757 in Palashi, Bengal.

The scroll, which forms the center of the painting, was responsible for transferring the rights to collect taxes and the power to administer justice in Bengal to the East India Company. He got the ball rolling, establishing the East India Company as a major power and Calcutta as its headquarters.

The artwork appears in Image of India: The People, Places and World of the East India Company by McAleer, Senior Lecturer at the University of Southampton. The Table Book, published by Niyogi Books, explores Britain’s complicated relationship with India through images of the Indian subcontinent, by artists and travelers of the 18th and 19th centuries.

In a chapter entitled Politics, power and port cities, McAleer describes the context of the East India Company’s position in mid-18th century India, its maritime trade routes and activities, the port cities it occupied, and the depiction of India in a variety of texts. and images. The three main ports presented in the story are Calcutta, Bombay and Madras.

Mughal Emperor Shah Alam hands the diwani to Robert Clive, transferring tax collection rights in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa to the East India Company; by Benjamin West, 1818. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Artists like William Hodges, Jan Van Ryne, William and Thomas Daniell traveled across India and drew whatever they found beautiful and exotic. Along with people and culture, there are also several landscape paintings.

Old Fort, Playhouse and Holwell’s Monument, Calcutta; by Thomas Daniell, 1786. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

McAleer writes: “Although the Company traded from Surat to the northwest coast in its early days, the Company’s first permanent stronghold in India was at Fort St George (Madras). Fort St George figures prominently in most works of Madras. According to McAleer, the approach to the city was one of the defining moments of British travelers’ encounters with India.

According to the book, Hodges reportedly said:

“The English town, rising from the interior of Fort St. George, looks rich and beautiful from the sea; the houses being covered with a stucco called chunam, which in itself is almost as compact as the finest marble, and, since it bears such a high polish, is equally splendid with this elegant material. The style of the buildings is generally beautiful. They consist of long colonnades, with open porticoes and flat roofs, and present to the eye an appearance similar to what we can imagine of a Greek city in the time of Alexander.

“Fort of St. George on the Coromandel Coast, Madras, belonging to the East India Company of England”, a line engraving by Jan van Ryne. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

By the beginning of the 19th century, Bombay had become a major center of British commerce in the West. “The view of Bombay by George Lambert and Samuel Scott provides a glimpse of its development during the first sixty years under the control of the company … this time,” writes McAleer.

A painting of the East India Company colony in Bombay and ships in the port of Bombay, by George Lambert and Samuel Scott, 1731. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Although the two port cities, Madras and Bombay, featured in many paintings at this time, it was Calcutta, the capital of British India, that really captivated the artists. “It was a magnet for the people in charge of the company,” writes McAleer. “Many artists who are trying to forge new careers have done so directly for the city. It was therefore one of the most represented places in India. The artists offered a variety of perspectives (literally and metaphorically) on its river, landscapes, waterfront, buildings and people.

View of a house and a bazaar in Calcutta; by Francis Jukes, 1795 (Image from Wikimedia Commons).

After Colonel Clive’s victory at Plassey, Calcutta’s population had surpassed 100,000, and by the 1770s the city had become the seat of the Governor General and the headquarters of major army and navy commands. According to Imagine India, a French visitor in 1790, Louis de Grandpré, described it as “not only the most beautiful city in Asia but one of the most beautiful in the world”. Hodges, taken by the beauty and wealth of the city, painted it at least five times.

A view of Chinsura, the Dutch colony of Bengal, by William Hodges, 1787. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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