Learning colonial history via cemeteries…

Fascinating piece by Siddharth Bhatia in Wire.

He points to how one can learn history from cemeteries and points to Surat’s ignored cemetery:

To get an idea of how Company officials saw themselves, one just has to head to the English cemetery in Surat. Obelisks, cupolas, pillars, many of them clearly inspired by Moghul architecture-they are all here, 250 years after they were erected by fond relatives and friends to commemorate the great and the good of the East India Company.

There is no dearth of graveyards of the British in different parts of India – from Park Street in Kolkata to Sewri in Mumbai and many other places where the British were based. Many of the graves have elaborate statuary and fancy memorials in graveyards, but hardly anything rivals the large and ornamental mausoleums of Surat. It is as if, like the great Pharaohs of Egypt, the officials, especially based here in the 17th century, wanted to leave behind structures that would inspire awe and wonder for centuries.

But as Shelley wrote about Ozymandias, King of Kings, it was a delusion. Today, the English cemeteries lie forlorn and neglected, the once important names obliterated – literally – and long forgotten, all the hubris and the pride gone.

Situated in Katargam, an old part of Surat, the cemetery remains neglected, with a sole caretaker from the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) manning the place. Only architecture students and tapophiles (tombstone tourists) visit the cemeteries and, very occasionally, someone from abroad tracing their genealogy comes by. But for anyone interested in colonial history, it can be very rewarding.

How the burials were show of power:

Many of those are buried here, including George Oxenden, the first Company governor of Bombay Presidency, his brother Christopher, and the second governor successor Gerald Aungier, said to be the man who laid the institutional foundations of the seven islands to transform the area into a town. The tomb is unmarked, but most historians now agree it is his. Both are handsome structures, with a dome and staircases leading to an upper level.

There are several others, the marble plaques faded, and quite a few unmarked, small graves, totalling over 400. The graves of those who died in the 19th century are far more modest – by this time the Company had moved its headquarters to Bombay,

The Dutch too had come to Surat, setting up a directorate there in 1616. They were traders and established a small base in the town. There was competition between the two European trading powers and rivalry also in building grand tombs.

The Dutch cemetery is walking distance from the English one; it is smaller but has no dearth of large mausoleums, the biggest one being that of Hendrik Adrian Baron Van Reede, a director of the Dutch East India Company who died in December 1691. “His grandiose mausoleum was intended to rival and eclipse that of his rivals the Oxendens,” says a board in the graveyard. It has a cupola and a gallery above supported by “handsome” columns below. The tomb was adorned with escutcheons and paintings, which have long since gone, though the walls and roof still retain floral designs.

In a small portion of the Dutch cemetery lie many stone plaques that are the graves of the handful of Armenians who lived here at one time, as traders. The caretaker says occasionally someone will come and specifically ask to see Armenian graves.


But is anyone really interested in knowing about history, especially much reviled colonial history? Around the graveyards, are new residential buildings, small businesses and a busy flyover; how long before the inevitable pressures of the modern world once and for all wipe out this vestige of another time?

Here is an interview of Prof. Keith Eggener of University of Missouri who has studied evolution of cemeteries in US.

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