Subscribe to our weekly newsletter


Did you know Warren Hastings founded Digha and called it ‘Brighton of the East!’

9 September, 2020 13:36:16
Did you know Warren Hastings founded Digha and called it ‘Brighton of the East!’

It’s called the Brighton of the East. At least Warren Hastings and the British gave Digha such a prestigious name. At just 187 km from Calcutta, Digha has always been an extremely popular weekend getaway for tourists in Bengal. But how many of us have ever fathomed the history of this coastal town? Digha was originally known as Baricool, a small fishing village, discovered in the late 18th-century by the British.  

The former officiating Principal of Kanthi Prabhat Kumar College, Professor Premananda Pradhan in his book, Hijalinama, mentions the British formally recorded the settlement documents of Digha in the 18th-century. According to those records, there was a Pargana named Bircool in Odisha under Jaleshwar Chakla. The physical maps of 1664 and 1668 depict a coastal village named Narikul, located 24 miles south-west of Contai sub-division town. In the map drawn in 1703, there is a river named Barikool that is located close to Narikul. In a later edition of another map, Narikul is replaced by Bircool.

Pristine beach of Digha

In Haripada Maity’s Medinipurer Swadhinata Sangram, one gets to know that in 1760, entire Chakla Midnapore, Chakla Burdwan and Chakla Chattogram was gifted to East India Company by Bengal Nawab Mir Kashim as a token of gratitude. British East India Company’s Calcutta administration was instrumental for changing the Nawabship of Bengal in favour of Mir Kashim from Mir Jafar. Hastings became the administrative head of Calcutta zone from 1763.

In those days, Chakla Midnapore was divided into 54 Parganas and Bircool was one of them. In 1767, Bengal Governor Warren Hastings failed to obtain the lease of the coastal area of Chakla Odisha. At that point, he spotted Bircool, located in the south-west end of Midnapore, bordering Odisha. Bircool is also mentioned in James Augustus Hicky’s ‘Bengal Gazette’ where he writes:

‘We are informed that the following persons of figure and consequence arrived in Bircool for the benefit of their health from Calcutta. Henry Great esq, Major Camac, Dr Allen, Captain Kilparick of 31st legion……….. And we have the pleasure to assure the friends of honorable party and the public in general that they have received the most essential benefit from the salubrious air of the admirable spot, which we have no doubt will make the place a fashionable resort.’

So it was Warren Hastings who promoted Bircool, near Contai (today’s Kanthi) in the late 18th- century. The blue sea and the vast sandy sea-beach attracted him. The nearby mangrove forest was paradise for hunting. In one of his letters to Mrs. Hastings, he writes: ‘Bircool was the sanitarium, the Brighton of East. ….. and the newspaper and council’s records mentioned constantly that so-and-so gone to Bircool for his health……..It  already has advantage of beach which is free from shark and all noxious animals except crabs & there is proposal to erect convenient apartments for the reception of the nobility and the gentry and organize entertainment.’

Hastings had got a bungalow constructed at Bircool. But after him, the European nobility did not show much interest in the beach resort mainly because transportation to the place was very difficult and tiresome due to non-availability of proper roads and crossing rickety bridges over numerous water bodies of Bengal. The other problem was repeated coastal cyclone, against which the structure erected at shore became flimsy.

In 1796, Jorge Chapman visited the place and spotted ruins of the bungalow. In 1823, a group of Europeans visited Bircool only to find it deserted with overgrown bushes all over. Meanwhile, Hamilton & Company of Calcutta was a swanky jewelry house that catered to the rich and the famous clients who belonged to the upper echelons of society during late 19th and early 20th century. The owner of the store was a British aristocrat named John Snaith. He was a bachelor who loved travelling. Many of his distinguish clients, the landlords of Bengal, business tycoons and Rajas were aware of his travelling zeal and often invited him to visit their fiefdoms.  

Probably one of the famous Baro Bhuians of Bengal, landlord of Balishahi, a client of Hamilton, invited Snaith to the virgin sea beach at Bircool near Contai. John Snaith was already familiar with the name of Bircool and he accepted the invite gladly. It was an arduous journey for Snaith who reached Contai from Belda and from there to the village Bircool, riding on an elephant. This was in 1921. Snaith was spellbound by the rolling waves of the pristine blue sea and the long golden beach that lay ahead. The location of the sea was almost four kilometres away from today’s Digha.

After returning from the trip, Snaith was very keen to buy a plot in Digha. He applied to the British government and he was allotted 11-and-a-half acres of land at Digha. Mr. H.A. Cloy was appointed as an architect to construct a mansion at Digha, the Runswick House. Building material was procured via ships. Bricks were locally manufactured. Snaith often visited Digha on his personal two-seater plane. The sea beach acted as the runway.

Snaith’s attachment to the virgin land grew and in his advancing age, he decided to hand over the supervision of his jewelry business to his nephew, Charles Andrew Flanigan and settled at Digha. Every weekend, Flanigan brought necessary household goods and essentials for his uncle in his two-seater plane that would take off from Behala Flying Club. Sometimes, a few close friends of Snaith would pay him a visit.  Snaith was a great host, always ready to welcome his guests with good food and fine wine. His Christmas party at Digha was quite an affair.

At times, Flanigan would bring children from Barisha orphanage. The garden of the Ranswick House would transform into a paradise with children playing around and participating in fancy dress competitions, sit-and-draw contests et al. During his stay at Digha, Snaith left no stones unturned to popularize the spot as a tourist destination. His close friend, the Raja of Narajole made a beautiful mansion along with a school at Digha. Snaith, meanwhile, approached different government agencies but the British government was bogged down by political issues and the World War II to take up the matter. 

But Snaith was undaunted and finally his perseverance paid off and the first Chief Minister of West Bengal, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, decided to develop the village. The construction of a cheap canteen, Bay Cafeteria, Sarada Boarding and a Government Tourist Lodge commenced. Snaith had adopted Digha as his own home. On 18th December, 1964, when the sea breeze swept across the Runswick House, its owner, John Snaith breathed his last.

Flanigan continued to supervise his uncle’s property and paid his week-end visits to Digha. But times were changing. There was mass exodus of Europeans from India. During the 1970s, Flanigan also folded his business and left India for good. He sold Runswick House and the rest of the property to the State Electricity Board in lieu of Rs 1 lakh. Runswick House still stands erect. It is now the official guest house of the West Bengal State Electricity Board (WBSEB). Within its lush green garden, there is a milky- white tablet with an epitaph engraved on it, that states:

In affectionate memory of John Franc Snaith. The First Resident of Digha

Story Tag:
  • Digha, West Bengal

Leave a Comments

Related Post