Rise, ruin and renewal of Barrackpore, British India’s first retreat

New book brings forth interesting facets of history.

In a letter to Queen Victoria dated November 22, 1861, Lord Canning spoke about the funeral of his wife: on how since there was no burial place for a Governor General and his family, and the “cemeteries at Calcutta are odious in many ways”, Lady Canning’s body had therefore been laid to rest in a corner of Barrackpore.

“It is a beautiful spot, looking upon that reach of the grand river which she was so fond of drawing, shaded from the glare of the sun by high trees and amongst the bright shrubs and flowers in which she had so much pleasure,” Lord Canning wrote. The tomb, which began to deteriorate in extreme weather conditions, was later shifted to Kolkata and now lies at St John’s Church in the city. But Barrackpore has been synonymous with the figure of Lady Canning. She had a deep attachment to Barrackpore and wrote in her journal “The house faces a great reach of the river & is crooked to the bank. I want to set it straight to the eye by making another walk at the same angle … I have opened to view a beautiful banyan, of late hidden by shrubs”.

These interesting facets of history have been brought to the fore in a recently published book ‘Under the Banyan Tree – The Forgotten Story of Barrackpore Park’. Written by former Kolkata Police Commissioner and senior IPS officer Soumen Mitra and Associate Professor of English at Scottish Church College Monabi Mitra, the book running to over 177 pages is full of anecdotes, sketches and paintings about Barrackpore, which had become the first weekend retreat for the Governor General and the Viceroys.

Published by Aakar Books, the book underlines Charlotte Canning’s deep attachment to Barrackpore, at a time when the Uprising of 1857 began and broke half a kilometre away from the Government House in the cantonment.

‘Uprising of 1857’

The authors refer that in May 1857 Charlotte Canning wrote in her journal how “a 34th man at Barrackpore made himself drunk with bag (bhang), took a sword and musket & regularly ran amuck (amok). He wounded a sergeant, then stabbed the adjutant’s horse and killed him… He was taken captive, had since recovered and will live to be hanged”.

The authors have highlighted that post-1857, Barrackpore cantonment became synonymous with the new mood in Indian politics, symbolised a location of opposition and dissent for the Indians while the British viewed it as an epicentre of mutiny. The book points that after Shimla was discovered the British withdrew to the hill station for large part of the year and Barrackpore remained a weekend country house.

The book deals with the restoration of the Government House and Garden that had become a police hospital after Independence, languishing in despair and slowly passing out of public memory. What the authors describe as a “twist of fate” is that co-author, Mr. Mitra, has been posted at the West Bengal Police Training branch and has been crucial in its restoration.

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