The whole reason Calcutta developed into what she is today, was shipping. There are those who deny the role of the British in the formation of the city, or those who say that Charnock’s landing here could not possibly mark the birth of the city. But even such people agree, and the historic evidence is difficult to refute, that this part of the world was fairly active in trading, especially in textiles. The village of Sutanuti, some say got its name from the yarn, or suta, that was spun and sold from here, to European and other ships, which would venture up the Hooghly. During the British era, the imperial capital was the largest and most important port in the East of India, and many of the shipping companies that operated then, are still active today. Among them is Turner Morrison.
Turner Morrison was the Calcutta arm of the Liverpool based Turner & Co., whose founder, A. Turner, was also the chairman of the Fleetwood based British Shipowners Co. Turner Morrison & Co. was established in Calcutta in 1864, and by 1877 ranked third among the Calcutta agencies, behind the formidable Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co., and Nicol Fleming & Co., with 118 vessels, totaling 146,326 tonnes. In March 1878, Turner floated the Asiatic Steam Navigation Company Limited, which was a subsidiary of Turner Morrison & Co. Asiatic was officially registered in the U.K., and because of the patronage of Messrs Thomas H. Ismay and William Imrie, managers of the White Star Line (who operated the Titanic), had its vessels built by Harland & Wolff of Belfast. But its ships rarely, if ever, returned to England, and Asiatic’s primary theatre of operations was the Bay of Bengal.
|Prison cells on Asiatic's ships. ©D. Beedle|
Inspite of bitter competition with Mackinnon Mackenzie’s British-India Steam Navigation Company, Asiatic continued to do well, until 1890. That year Asiatic lost two of its ships within a space of five months. Seeking to recover from this disaster, and to increase its area of operations, Asiatic sought and obtained a contract from the Imperial Indian government to carry mails to and from the Andaman Islands. However, this had a sinister downside. In order to win the contract, Asiatic had to agree to transport convicts to the penal settlement of Port Blair; the infamous Cellular Jail. Known to Indians as Kaala Paani (literally Black Water), Cellular Jail housed Indians involved in the freedom struggle and is representative of the some of the worst repressive excesses of British rule in India.
Coming back to Calcutta, the Turner Morrison building on Lyon’s Range, behind Writers’ Building, originally housed Graham's Trading Co. (India) Ltd., Place, Siddons &. Gough, and the Norwich Union Life Assurance Society besides their own offices. It is symmetrical building, with a recessed central bay, with four plain columns that have composite capitals. Cast iron plaques with the company’s monogram may be seen on the gates, and a plaque near the entrance confirms that the foundation stone was laid by Sir Robert Watson Smyth on the 18th of March, 1924. When I photographed the building, it was green and white, with the capitals painted gold, but it seems it is repainted regularly. Security staff on the ground floor would not let me in, but confirmed that the building was in good shape and maintenance work was carried out regularly.
Post 1947, like many British businesses in the region, things changed for Asiatic. The sugar and rice trades which were its backbone were lost, and Asiatic was eventually absorbed by P&O. Turner Morrison however, continues to exist and prosper under Indian management, and has a wide variety of commercial interests.
- by Deepanjan Ghosh
Maritime Enterprise and Empire: Sir William Mackinnon and His Business - J. Forbes Munro
European Calcutta - Dhrubajyoti Banerjea
Calcutta Illustrated – John Barryhttp://www.merchantnavyofficers.com/asiaticsteam.html
PRISON CELL PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY http://www.merchantnavyofficers.com/. ©D. Beedle