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Kolkata’s first linguistic interpreter recruited by East India Company was a Dhobi!

26 July, 2021 14:52:51
Kolkata’s first linguistic interpreter recruited by East India Company was a Dhobi!

Mirza Abu Talib, better known as Shaista Khan was a Subehdar and a general in the Mughal army. He was a maternal uncle to the emperor Aurangzeb and acted as a key figure during his reign. He ruled Bengal for 24 years (1664-1688) with great efficiency. Shaista Khan promoted trade and commerce with European companies. He granted the European companies privileges according to the terms of the imperial farmans. The English thus secured the right to trade and to establish factories in return for becoming the virtual naval auxiliaries of the empire.  It was in 1680 that the British East India Company set up a ‘Kuthi’ (commercial  office) at Garh Gobindapur and began trading with the local business community Initially, the  company’s objective was the spices of the East Indies, and it went to India only for the secondary purpose of securing cottons for sale to the spice growers

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Bengali merchants were the important trading community in Bengal province. They played prominent role not only in the internal trade but also in the sphere of external trade. The Basaks and Seths were the most prominent and prosperous native families during this time and it is believed the British traders initiated their business ventures with members of these two prominent mercantile families. 

But prior to 1679, no European ships were allowed to enter the waters of Hooghly. During this time, Baleswar in present-day Odisha was the main business hub of the British. But in 1679, their first ship named Falcon entered Calcutta Port and this marked the beginning of the Age of Sail and commencement of Indo-British trade in Calcutta. There is an anecdote related to the docking of the ship.  

According to lore, when the merchant ship arrived from England and moored at the site of the present-day Garden Reach, the ship’s Captain Stafford faced a very difficult situation because of his inability to communicate with the locals. He did not know the local language and the natives could not comprehend what he said.  After much deliberation, he decided to seek the help of the Seths and Basaks of Gobindapur. He had been told that they could make sense of English. So, Captain Stafford sent a messenger to the Basaks with the request to send a ‘Doobas’ to his ship so that they would be able to communicate. Actually, a language interpreter is called a ‘Dubaas’ in south India and the captain knew the term from his voyage to south India. 

Bengalis were not familiar with the English language then nor did they know Tamil. They somehow communicated with the British with the cursory “Yes,” “No” or “Thik thik”etc. The Baskas were no exception to the rule. So, they raked their brains to figure out what did the Captain seek from them. But they did not want to turn down his request and antagonize the captain because they knew they would have to keep their allies happy in order to procure more business. 

A meeting was summoned. The Basaks were cloth merchants and they summoned all fellow  merchants and they all tried to figure out the meaning of ‘Dubaas.’ Finally, a senior member of the community came up with a brilliant interpretation. He said, “You people do not realize the Captain and his sailors have been onboard for months and their dresses have got soiled due to lack of washing. So they urgently need a washer man and have sent the messenger with a request for a “Dubaas” (in Bengali, a washerman is called ‘Dhopa,” which is phonetically similar to Dubaas.) So, the Basaks were relieved to understand the Captain’s requirement. 

A large number of washer men worked for them. So, they asked one of them to go and meet the captain. The washer man was beside himself with fear. He requested his masters not to send him to the ‘Whites’ who would devour him! But his masters were adamant to send him because this man knew a few stray words in English and the Basaks believed he would be able to salvage the situation. Finally, the man was forced to agree.

He was given new clothes to wear and gifted delicacies like dry fruits and nuts and other presents and was sent on a boat to meet the Captain. The Captain noticed a small boat arriving towards the ship. On close inspection, he saw a man was on the loaded boat. He realized the Basaks had sent him. So, he ordered his men to fire cannon balls in his honour and welcome him.  The poor washer man was nearly dead with fear. Finally, when his boat reached the ship, the Captain came to welcome him and ushered him on his ship. The washer man gave him the gifts the Basaks had sent. The captain too, loaded him with return gifts. The washer man was enthused by this trip and began to undertake his journey more frequently. Gradually, it became a daily affair. He knew a smattering of English and could comprehend the rest with sign language. During his daily travails, he picked up the language very fast and also amassed a huge wealth as an interpreter.

This washer man’s name was Ratan Sarkar who was the first officially recruited interpreter by the East India Company in 1679. According to many researchers working on the Babus of Calcutta, Ratan Sarkar was sent to Stafford not by the Basaks but by Naku Dhar aka Lakshmikanta Dhar. But this fact has been proved wrong because Ratan Sarkar preceded Naku Dhar’s era. 

At present, two streets in north Kolkata bear the name of Ratan Sarkar -- one is near Jorasanko named Ratan Sarkar Garden Street, also known as Matha Ghosha Goli locally. The other one is at Kolutola, named Rotu Sarkar Lane. 

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