Monday, 24 August 2015

Royal Exchange, Clive Street

To rid the city of what it calls its “colonial hangover”, the government of West Bengal has renamed the road once known as Royal Exchange Place, to India Exchange Place, although the building that houses the Bengal Chamber of Commerce still bears the name “Royal Exchange” in gigantic letters on its fa├žade. The list of people who have at some point occupied these premises on Clive Street (now Netaji Subhas Road), is a long and impressive one.

 
The earliest known occupant of the premises was Mrs. Beard, widow of Charles Beard, whose father John, was the President of Bengal and added the North East bastion to the Old Fort William. Charles’s tombstone may still be seen in the St. John’s Churchyard. The building then became home to Robert Clive and that is how Clive Street came to acquire its current name. After that, Philip Francis, member of the Supreme Council of Bengal lived here. Francis was the chief antagonist of Warren Hastings on the Council, and their disagreements would lead to a famous duel, in Alipore, near the present National Library Building. Francis described it as “the finest house in Bengal”, and paid an annual rent of £ 1200. Sometime after 1842, the premises were purchased by the Oriental Bank Corporation which was liquidated in 1892. Some 60 years earlier, on the 19th of December, 1833, 25 businesses got together, and in the following year, formed the Calcutta Chamber of Commerce. By 1853, The Calcutta Chamber of Commerce had been reconstituted as The Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry, with 104 members. It was then housed in the Bengal Bonded Warehouse on Clive Street, but a bigger office had become necessary. The decision was made to purchase the Oriental Bank Corporation’s building in 1893, but as the Chamber’s activities and members kept growing, that too was found to be inadequate. In 1903, on the occasion of the Chamber’s Golden Jubilee, the decision was taken to build a new headquarters, and this is the present day Royal Exchange. In 1914, the Bengal Chamber moved to temporary offices on 20, Strand Road, while the old building was demolished and the new one built. Designed by T. S. Gregson of Messrs Gregson, Batley &. King (Architects), Bombay, the foundation stone was laid in 1916 by Lord Carmichael and the structure, of Grecian architecture, erected by J. C. Bannerjee &. Co., of Calcutta, at a cost of Rs. 5,00,000/-, completed and formally opened in 1918 by Lord Ronaldshay. The Bengal Chamber had its offices on the upper floors, while the Royal Exchange on the ground floor was used by traders for business transactions.


A curious relic still preserved within the Royal Exchange is the so called “Mutiny Gate”. This rather hefty gate was placed on the stairs of the Oriental Bank Corporation by its then manager, in 1857, in case mutinous sepoys attacked Calcutta. But as is well-known, Calcutta escaped the Sepoy Mutiny completely unscathed. Another relic, one that the government’s de-colonization drive has not managed to obliterate, is the Royal coat-of-arms, which may still be seen on top of the Southern face of the building. The Royal Exchange is one of only 3 known structures in Calcutta (Kolkata) still to bear the Royal coat-of-arms. It is in the form of a shield, flanked by a lion on the left, a unicorn on the right, and topped by a lion. At the base is seen the Latin phrase “Dieu et mon droit”, which means “God and my right”, which is the motto of the United Kingdom, outside of Scotland. First used as a battle-cry by Richard I and subsequently adopted by Henry V, “Dieu et mon droit” is probably a reference to the Monarch’s divine right to rule.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

SOURCES

The Social Condition of the British Community in Bengal: 1757-1800 – Ghosh, Suresh Chandra
Calcutta Old & New – Cotton, H.E.A.
Calcutta Illustrated – Barry, John
European Calcutta – Banerjea, Dhrubajyoti
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