VNT: Thương điếm đầu tiên của người Anh ở Ấn Độ, cách đây khoảng 400 năm, nằm trong đống đổ nát:
Forgotten Heritage: A photograph of the building as it existed in 1920 (left) and its remains today
Four hundred years ago, a maverick English sea captain, Thomas Best, sank four Portuguese galleons off the Surat coast with his two ships, Red Dragon and Hosiander. Captain Best and his crew’s exploits in the naval Battle of Swally (corruption of Suvali) on October 28, 1612, impressed the Mughal governor of the province so much that he got them a treaty ratified by Emperor Jahangir, which translated to trading rights. By January 1613, the first East India Company factory had come up at Surat.
Four centuries later, those early footprints of the British Empire have been obliterated. There is no sign of the factory — more of a warehouse — save fragments of a wall that once belonged to the sprawling establishment. The ruins are a testimony to our indifference to heritage structures.
Of course, nobody could have imagined that the English would expand that first factory into another factory, that factory into a province, and that province into an empire in about 150 years. But at Surat in 1613, there were five principal factors — Andrew Starkey, Canning, Aldworth, Withington and Kerridge — who struggled hard to stay afloat in the face of Portuguese hostility, intrigues of the Portuguese Jesuits, and unfriendly behaviour of Mughal crown prince Mirza Khurram (later Emperor Shah Jahan).
Khurram, who had the jagir of Surat, favoured the Portuguese over any other European power, and so did the Surat Mahajan Sabha, a representative body of Indian traders. However, it was Khurram who gave Sir Thomas Roe the firman to trade in 1618 in the name of his father, Emperor Jahangir, after the English once again defeated the Portuguese fleet at Surat and proved their mastery over the seas.
According to historian H G Rawlinson, the factory was one of the best buildings in Surat and was leased to the company for £60 per annum. “It was a solid, two-storied building, opening in Muhammadan fashion, inwards. The outside was plain stone and timber, with good carving ‘without representations’. The flat roof and the upper story floors were of solid cement, half a yard thick. Inside was a quadrangle surrounded by cloisters or verandahs. The ground floor was used for the Company’s trade; the rooms opening on to it, utilised as stores and godowns, presented a busy scene in the shipping season…” he wrote in his 1920 book British Beginnings in Western India: 1579-1657; an account of the early days of the British factory of Surat.
TOI traced the English factory and found its location not far from the Surat fort. This fort was commissioned by Sultan Mahmud III — who was fed up with Portuguese attacks on the city — and built by an Ottoman officer named Safi Agha at a time when Mughal Emperor Humayun was in exile and the Pathans held sway in Delhi. The fort became Mughal when Emperor Akbar annexed the subah of Gujarat to his empire. But in 1759, the English occupied it. Subsequently, the Raj used the structure to house the revenue and police departments, in whose occupation it has remained.
The Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC), its offices located in a Mughal building called Mughal serai, is responsible for the fort but it’s clearly in a complete mess right now. The corporation tries to reason on its website: “…such a great fortification built to provide the citizens of Surat with an adequate defence against the attacks of the invaders seems to have been forgotten from the minds of the present generation.” SMC has also complicated matters by dumping all the silt and waste from the ongoing Hope Bridge expansion project inside the fort.
Historian Uday S Kulkarni visited the place last month and was struck by the lack of awareness about the importance of such heritage places there. “The rich history of the 500-year-old fort and the erstwhile English factory have been apparently forgotten; and what ought to be Grade A monuments are neglected by the Archaeological Survey of India and the civic administration. The Mughal serai is still a civic office and the British cemetery with tombs of historical personalities is poorly marked and attended,” says Kulkarni.
Surat municipal commissioner M K Das squarely blames the degradation on encroachments. “Whatever anomalies you’ve seen have happened only in the last one month or so. We are trying to fix this. We’ve found out 150-year-old maps of the place and are trying to restore the fort scientifically,” Das said.
Yet the corporation does not appear to have any concrete plans to this end. “I’ll connect you to the person who has been supervising this work. I’ll text you his number and you can speak to him,” Das said but failed to respond to further queries.
A sliver of hope may be found in the three-part Chowk Bazaar Heritage Square project though, which is a plan to revamp the Tapi riverfront in Surat and all the heritage structures lying along it. This plan was conceived a few years ago and Rs 17.5 crore has been allocated for the first phase. “A tender of Rs 20 crore will be soon be floated. It will take us a while to complete the work and we haven’t really fixed a timeframe for this. Work has to be done holistically so that people know and appreciate the importance of the fort. Right now, 75 per cent of the offices inside the fort have been vacated and we are happy with the progress,” says C Y Bhatt, deputy municipal commissioner and the official in-charge of the project.
Still, there appears to be no move to mark the historic English factory with a pointer or plaque. “We don’t have any information about the factory, so I don’t think we will do anything about it,” Bhatt says.
And if the SMC has been working with 150-year-old maps, it’s surprising that they don’t have information about the English factory. And the fort debris might yet be cleared, but that’s going to take a while according to Bhatt. “We will clear it in the third phase and go for complete renovation. All the construction that you see on the riverfront is related to the project. It might look ugly right now, but in future it will look great,” he says. Whether that future includes an old brick wall that once held up an old English factory is anyone’s guess.