Bengal District Gazetteers - Hooghly

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Introductory notes

The Bengal District Gazetteers were published in the first two decades of the 20th century. The bulk of the series was published under the supervision of Lewis Sydney Stewart O'Malley. L.S.S. O'Malley who entered Indian Civil Service in 1898, joined as Assistant Magistrate and Collector in Bengal. O'Malley was later promoted to the post of Under Secretary to Government and General and Revenue Department when he took upon his work on the Bengal District Gazetteers. O'Malley edited the Gazetteer volume on Hooghly in collaboration with Monmohan Chakravarti of the Provincial Civil Service of Bengal. Chakravarti was also a Fellow of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and a member of the Royal Asiatic Society. The volume was published by The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot in 1912.

After the battle of Plassey, Mir Kasim by an agreement donated the Zamindery areas of Burdwan, Midnapur and Chittagang to the British in the year 1760. For administrative purpose in 1795, the district of Burdwan was divided into two parts, the Northern Division being called Burdwan and the southern division Hooghly. Hooghly became a separate Collectorate in the year 1822. The following excerpts from the Gazetteer have been selected from the chapters on History, Agriculture, Natural Calamities and Land Revenue Administration. The selections highlight how the district is susceptible to floods particularly from River Damodar each year. The region had also been witness to major famines in the years 1669-1671, 1710, 1770, 1783 and 1787.

Selection details

After the battle of Plassey, Mir Kasim by an agreement donated the Zamindery areas of Burdwan, Midnapur and Chittagang to the British in the year 1760. For administrative purpose in 1795, the district of Burdwan was divided into two parts, the Northern Division being called Burdwan and the southern division Hooghly. Hooghly became a separate Collectorate in the year 1822. The following excerpts from the Gazetteer have been selected from the chapters on History, Agriculture, Natural Calamities and Land Revenue Administration. The selections highlight how the district is susceptible to floods particularly from River Damodar each year. The region had also been witness to major famines in the years 1669-1671, 1710, 1770, 1783 and 1787.


[Page 135]


THE general characteristics which distinguish agricultural conditions in the deltaic plains of Bengal are strikingly exemplified in the district of Hooghly. The rainfall is regular and copious, the soil is fertile, and it is periodically enriched by fresh deposits of silt from the overflow of the rivers. The latter are constantly carrying on the work of erosion and accretion, of soil denudation and formation, but the process of soil formation is the more active of the two. The manner in which a large river with a steady slow current acts as a land-builder is best seen in thana Balagarh, where every year the Hooghly (Bhagirathi) throws up chars after the rains, either in its bed or along its bank. If not swept away in a year or two, the chars, when sufficiently raised above flood-level, are eagerly sought after by the ryots. Being renovated annually by deposits of slit, they require no manure, and they grow splendid rabi crops of pulses, mustard tobacco or vegetables. The lands along the river are similarly raised by accretion, and are also made to yield rabi crops, if high, and rice, if low-lying; but a large proportion, not receiving fresh silt deposits, remains waste, and are covered either with coarse or jungly undergrowth.

Thanas Arambagh and Khanakul present many of the typical features of a tract exposed to river floods. Here the Damodar river, rushing down from the Chota Nagpur plateau in a bed too narrow for the passage of its flood water, and restrained on the east by a high continuous embankment, spills over its right bank during the rains. On this side the stream, sweeping over the lowlands, deposits fine or coarse sand, the detritus of the uplands. The low lands are more or less enriched with grass, but on or near the bank, where they are enriched by slit, produce good rabi crops. The higher lands, which are comparatively scarce, are occupied by houses or homestead gardens growing vegetables, and somewhat lower down, by winter rice crops.

[Page 136]

A third aspect of an alluvial plain is seen in the Serampore subdivision and the rest of the Sadar subdivision. This tract is protected from river floods by high banks or artificial embankments, but is liable to be submerged by excessive rain. The lands, whether high or low, are extremely fertile. The uplands yield fine crops of vegetables, and land at a slightly lower level aus rice or jute alternating with rabi. The lowlands adapted by the drainage and refuse of the villages, are eminently adapted for the cultivation of winter rice. Southwards, in the Serampore subdivision, the lowest lands receive the drainage from the whole of the northern tract, which is unable to find an outlet into the rivers. They are consequently converted into extensive marshes covered with reeds, sedges and coarse grasses, but winter rice grows well on their borders.

In the thana of Goghat to the west the level surface of the recent alluvium is no longer seen. The country is composed of old alluvium and disintegrated laterite, and the surface is undulating, being broken by the scouring action of the rivers and surface drainage. Rice and a litter pulse are grown, chiefly along the banks of the hill stream; but much of the land is barren, or is covered with thorny plants and scrubs intermixed with trees.

The rainfall, averaging nearly 60 inches in a year, is more than sufficient for even such a semi-aquatic plant as rice-indeed, 45 to 50 inches would suffice for the usual crops, if timely or evenly distributed, According to the ryot, a little rain in Paus(December-January) is good for the rabi; and light showers in Magh and Phalgun(February and March), besides strengthening the rabi crops, facilitate ploughing. Heavy rains are necessary in Asarh and Sraban(June and July) to quicken the growth of broadcast seedlings and to reduce the ground to the soft slush required for transplanting the young shoots from the nursery. The month of Bhadra(August-September) should be dry, in order to prevent the winter rice plants rotting, and to permit the successful reaping of early rice and jute. In Aswin(September-October) there should be fairly good rain, so that the winter rice just coming into year may ripen properly; and there should be no winds in the following month to blow down the mature grain. Finally, no rain is wanted in Agrahayan(November-December), otherwise the rice stalks rot in the fields before reaping.

The general slope of the country is from north-west to south-east. Heavy rain for several days together on the Chota Nagpur plateau brings down floods in the Damodar and its branches, which do injurious damage to the crops on its west bank. Similarly, a [Page 137] heavy precipitation of rain locally swells the numerous silted up channels in the Serampore and Sadar subdivisions; and as they have no outlet into the main rivers, the waters spills over on either side, to the consequent damage of the crops. The level of water in the marshes of the Serampore subdivision also rises causing loss to the winter rice crop grown along them.

Except in thana Goghat, where the soil is composed of the detritus of the uplands, viz, broken laterite, kankar and older alluvium, the soil consists entirely of new alluvium. This alluvial deposit is 5 to 10 feet thick and rests on a sub-soil of tenacious clay, varying in thickness from 10 to 30 feet. The surface alluvium, where formed from the silt deposits of the Hooghly and its branch, the Saraswati, is of tough clay (entel), but that formed from the silt of the Damodar and its branches is light and porous. At places the Damodar, like the Dwarakeswar, has deposited a layer of sand on the sub-soil, e.g., at Magra and in thana Arambagh. In the swamps, which receive the drainage of the villages, the bottom is of sticky tough clay. The soil in the north of the district is partly a laterite clay and partly a red-coloured coarse-grained sand,characteristic of the eastern Vindhyan formation.

[Page 150]


THE district, being a low lying tract with an abundant rainfall and intersected by three large rivers and numerous smaller streams, suffers more frequently from floods than from drought. Formerly floods were not only of frequent occurrence, but were also attended by great loss of life and property, especially during freshets, when the water in the rivers was banked up by strong southerly gales or high spring tides. Early records show that about 1660 A.D. a strong freshet in the Hooghly river swept away the old Dutch factory in Hooghly town; while on 3rd September 1684 the river rose so high that it was 3 or 4 feet above the level of the Hooghly Bazar and swept away more than a thousand huts in the Dutch quarters at Chinsura.1 Such destructive inundations have been rare during the period of British rule, probably because the level of the west bank of the Hooghly has been gradually raised.

The Damodar has been much more mischievous than the Hooghly, and there is record of its ravages for more than a century post. On the 16th Aswin (about 1st October in 1787, we find that the Damodar burst through its bank near "Barderee " and swept away "hats, temples, ganjes and golahs'' On the 26th September 1823 it again rose in high flood and bursting over its banks inundated the country up to the Hooghly river, which also rose to an unprecedented height. Chandernagore suffered considerably; in the streets of Serampore boats were plying, the College being surrounded by water; and in Hooghly town, Dharampur, Malla Kasim's hat and Bali were submerged and the roads rendered impassable. In the mofussil the police thanas of Rajbalhat (now Kristanagar) and Benipur (now Balagarh) were swept away, and the police officers had to take refuge in boats. 'The 'homeless villagers poured into the town of Hooghly, where they found shelter in shades erected on the site of [Page 151] the Mughal fort (the old court house).3 The distress which ensued may be gathered from the report that the extent of injury that has been sustained is beyond human relief." Ten years later, on 'the 21st May 1833, the Damodar again flooded the district, washing away the bridges over the Saraswati at Tribeni and over the Magra Khal at Nayasarai.

[Page 153]

Very little is known of any famines in this district prior to the period of British rule e.g., then is no record of its being affected by the terrible famine of 1671, which decimated Bihar of and in which more than 100,00 persons are said to have died in Patna town and its suburbs alone.4 Scarcity appeared in 1710, and culminated in a famine the following year, which probably affected Hooghly; for it is stated that several thousand persons died in the interior for want of food, while in Calcutta the English East India Company distributed 500 maunds of rice among the poor and made special arrangements for importing rice from cheaper marts.5

Coming to the British period, Hooghly, in common with other parts of Bengal, suffered from the great famine of 1769-70. This is evident from the account of the Dutch Admiral Stavorinus, who visited Chinsura in 1769, and wrote:- "The dire effects of famine, too, were felt in Bengal. At Chinsura a woman, taking her two small children in her arms, plunged into the Ganges and drowned herself, not possessing or being able to procure anything to satisfy the raging hunger of her tender offspring. The banks of the river were covered with dying people; some of whom, unable to defend themselves, though still alive, when devoured by the jackals. This happened in the town of Chinsura itself, where a poor sick Bengalee, who had laid himself down in the street, without any assistance being offered to him by anybody, was attacked in the night by the jackals and devoured alive. This dreadful calamity was occasioned, partly by the failure of the rice-harvest the preceding year, but it may chiefly be attributed to the monopoly which the English had made of the rice, which was reaped the season before, and which they now held at so high a price that the natives, most of whom could earn no more than one, or one and a half, stiver (penny) per day, out of which they had to maintain a wife and children, could not buy, for this tribe of money, the tenth part of the rice they wanted, the consequences of which were that whole families perished miserably."6, I,pp.152-53 This account of the mortality is confirmed by the fact that in 1772 the Governor-General in Counci1 reported the mortality in Bengal as "at least one-third of the inhabitants of the province."7, p.381

[Page 154]

In the following decade the famine of 1783 affected Hooghly only indirectly; but the famine of 1788, in which 70,000 persons are said to have died in Eastern Bengal, caused considerable distress, especially as in 1787 several parganas (then within the Burdwan Collectorate) had suffered from a storm and inundation. In July 1788 4,000 persons were in daily receipt of relief in Calcutta, and the Rajas of Burdwan filed a petition pleading his inability to pay his arrears of revenue in consequence of the calamitous state of his district.8

[Page 206]


[Page 209]

After the establishment of British rule a new system was gradually introduced. By the treaty of 1760 A.D. (confirmed by sanads) Mir Kasim Ali ceded to the British the Bengal zamindaris of Burdwan, Calcutta and Chittagong, besides Midnapore(then in Orissa). The zamindari of Burdwan included the present districts of Hooghly and Howrah, except a small strip on the west bank of the Hooghly river which formed part of the zamindari kismat of Muhammad Aminpur. This strip, with the rest of Bengal, finally came under the British administration with the grant of Diwani in August 1765. At first the collections in the Burdwan zamindari lands were supervised by covenanted servants of the Company, but this system proved a failure for after defraying the expenses of reducing the refractory Raja, the collections amounted in the first year (1760) to only Rs. 5,23,691 or one-fifth of the demand, and they were also small in the second year. In 1762 the zamindari was let out by public auction to temporary farmers for three years. The latter failed to discharge their agreements, and, to help them, an impost of 9 annas per bigha was levied on all the baze zamin lands or revenue-free alienations. This impost could only be partially reduced and not unnaturally made Mr.Johnston, the Superintendent, thoroughly unpopular

[Page 210]

In 1765 Mr.Verelst was appointed Supervisor of Burdwan. He restored the old system of managing the revenue, and gradually improved the hastabud collection, until in 1770 the receipts amounted to Rs, 47,18,918, and the charges to Rs. 6,61,486, leaving a net income of Rs. 40,57,432. The famine of that year caused a considerable diminution in both the demand and the collections, which continued for several years, In 1788 the gross demand was Rs. 43,58,026, the net demand being Rs. 37,35,755, but the collections were only Rs. 36,96,825. including arrears. As regards Muhammad Aminpur, the revenue(with abwabs) amounted to Rs. 3,38,560 in 1765, the year of the grant of Diwani, but in 1783 had fallen to Rs.2,55,113. How heavy the abwabs, were may be realised from the fact that in the latter zamindari they aggregated, in 1765, Rs, 1,34,425 on a total revenue of Rs. 2,06,325, or no less than 65 per cent; while in the Burdwan zamindari they amounted in 1760 to Rs. 8,49,099 or nearly 48 per cent of the revenue demand(Rs 22,51,306)

In 1784 Pitt's India Act ordered an enquiry into the complaints of dispossessed zamindars, and directed the Company to take steps forthwith "for setting and establishing, upon principles of moderation and justice, according to the laws and constitution of India, the permanent rules by which their respective tributes, rents, and services shall be in future rendered and paid." In 1876 the Court of Directors sent a despatch on the system of transacting business with the zamindars and other landholders. It assumed that sufficient information had been collected during the 21 years which had elapsed since the grant of the Diwani to enable a permanent assessment should be promptly fixed for ten years and that, if it proved satisfactory, it should be declared permanent at the end of that period. In the same year Lord Cornwallis was sent out as Governor-General with instructions to carry out the Directors orders. On his arrival, however he found that the information available was insufficient for the purpose. He therefore continued the annual settlements then in vogue and instituted further enquires. These enquiries disclosed three facts. "First, that the Muhammadan revenue system of a fixed rate, varied and increased by cesses, the system which the Company was appointed to administer by the Imperial grant of 1765, had broken down, and no longer afforded protection to the cultivators. Its breakdown had been due partly to the accumulated weight of its own exactions, and partly to the altered economic relations of land to labour, resulting from the [Page 211] depletion of the population by the famine of 1769-70. Second, that the record of customary rates had ceased to be a protection to the resident cultivators, and that the village registers had become to them a record of crushing obligations rather than a record of rights. Third, that the people had themselves made a movement to readjust rents to the altered economic conditions, by developing a body of non-resident cultivators or temporary tenants, whose presence in almost every village tendered to reduce customary rates to the standard of supply and demand, and whose status had by 1787 legitimized itself".9

These enquiries led to the Permanent Settlement of 1793, by which the assessment of land revenue was fixed in perpetuity. As regards the distribution of the assessment, Sir John Shore estimated that the British. Government received 45 per cent. of the gross produce, the zamindar and his under-renters 15 per cent. and the cultivator 40 per cent.10 As regards the persons with whom the assessment was made, the Government got rid of all complexities, whether of origin, status or title, by establishing a uniform tenure for all zamindars; and, in addition to old allowances, made over to them in perpetuity whatever increment might be obtained either from the improvement of their estates or from the reclamation of waste land. As regards the cultivators, it was intended to protect them from enhancement of rents and exaction of cesses by giving them a statutory right to pattas stating the quantity of land held by them and the sum liable to be paid for it.

This is a selection from the original text


agriculture, famine, fertile, flood, rain, relief, rice, ryot, zamindar

Source text

Title: Bengal District Gazetteers - Hooghly

Editor(s): L.S.S. O'Malley, Monmohan Chakravarti

Publisher: The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot

Publication date: 1912

Edition: 1st Edition

Place of publication: Calcutta

Provenance/location: This text was transcribed from images available at the Digital Library of India:

Digital edition

Original editor(s): L.S.S. O'Malley, Monmohan Chakravarti

Language: English

Selection used:

  • 1 ) pages 135 to 137
  • 2 ) pages 150 to 151
  • 3 ) pages 153 to 154
  • 4 ) pages 209 to 211


Texts collected by: Ayesha Mukherjee, Amlan Das Gupta, Azarmi Dukht Safavi

Texts transcribed by: Muhammad Irshad Alam, Bonisha Bhattacharya, Arshdeep Singh Brar, Muhammad Ehteshamuddin, Kahkashan Khalil, Sarbajit Mitra

Texts encoded by: Bonisha Bhattacharya, Shreya Bose, Lucy Corley, Kinshuk Das, Bedbyas Datta, Arshdeep Singh Brar, Sarbajit Mitra, Josh Monk, Reesoom Pal

Encoding checking by: Hannah Petrie, Gary Stringer, Charlotte Tupman

Genre: India > gazetteers > district

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