The history of Calcutta practically dates from the 24th of August 1690, when it was founded by Job Charnock (q.v.) of the English East India Company. In 1596 it had obtained a brief entry as a rent-paying village in the survey of Bengal executed by command of the emperor Akbar. But it was not till ninety years later that it emerged into history. In 1686 the English merchants at Hugli under Charnock's leadership, finding themselves compelled to quit their factory in consequence of a rupture with the Mogul authorities, retreated about 26 m. down the river to Sutanati, a village on the banks of the Hugli, now within the boundaries of Calcutta. They occupied Sutanati temporarily in December 1686, again in November 1687 and permanently on the 24th of August 1690. It was thus only at the third attempt that Charnock was able to obtain the future capital of India for his centre and the subsequent prosperity of Calcutta is due entirely to his tenacity of purpose. The new settlement soon extended itself along the river bank to the then village of Kalikata, and by degrees the cluster of neighbouring hamlets grew into the present town.
In 1696 the English built the original Fort William by permission of the nawab, and in 1698 they formally purchased the three villages of Sutanati, Kalikata and Govindpur from Prince Azim, son of the emperor Aurangzeb.
The site thus chosen had an excellent anchorage and was defended by the river from the Mahrattas, who harried the districts on the other side. The fort, subsequently rebuilt on the Vauban principle, and a moat, designed to form a semicircle round the town, and to be connected at both ends with the river, but never completed, combined with the natural position of Calcutta to render it one of the safest places for trade in India during the expiring struggles of the Mogul empire. It grew up without any fixed plan, and with little regard to the sanitary arrangements required for a town. Some parts of it lay below high-water mark on the Hugli, and its low level throughout rendered its drainage a most difficult problem. Until far on in the 18th century the malarial jungle and paddy fields closely hemmed in the European mansions; the vast plain (maidán), now covered with gardens and promenades, was then a swamp during three months of each year; the spacious quadrangle known as Wellington Square was built upon a filthy creek.
A legend relates how one-fourth of the European inhabitants perished in twelve months, and during seventy years the mortality was so great that the name of Calcutta, derived from the village of Kalikata, was identified by mariners with Golgotha, the place of a skull.
The chief event in the history of Calcutta is the sack of the town, and the capture of Fort William in 1756, by Suraj-ud-Dowlah, the nawab of Bengal. The majority of the English officials took ship and fled to the mouth of the Hugli river. The Europeans, under John Zephaniah Holwell, who remained were compelled, after a short resistance, to surrender themselves to the mercies of the young prince. The prisoners, numbering 146 persons, were forced into the guard-room, a chamber measuring only 18 ft. by 14 ft. 10 in., with but two small windows, where they were left for the night. It was the 20th of June; the heat was intense; and next morning only 23 were taken out alive, among them Holwell, who left an account of the awful sufferings endured in the "Black Hole." The site of the Black Hole is now covered with a black marble slab, and the incident is commemorated by a monument erected by Lord Curzon in 1902. The Mahommedans retained possession of Calcutta for about seven months, and during this brief period the name of the town was changed in official documents to Alinagar. In January 1757 the expedition despatched from Madras, under the command of Admiral Watson and Colonel Clive, regained possession of the city.
They found many of the houses of the English residents demolished and others damaged by fire. The old church of St John lay in ruins. The native portion of the town had also suffered much. Everything of value had been swept away, except the merchandise of the Company within the fort, which had been reserved for the nawab. The battle of Plassey was fought on the 23rd of June 1757, exactly twelve months after the capture of Calcutta. Mir Jafar, the nominee of the English, was created nawab of Bengal, and by the treaty which raised him to this position he agreed to make restitution to the Calcutta merchants for their losses. The English received £500,000, the Hindus and Mahommedans £200,000, and the Armenians £70,000. By another clause in this treaty the Company was permitted to establish a mint, the visible sign in India of territorial sovereignty, and the first coin, still bearing the name of the Delhi emperor, was issued on the 19th of August 1757. The restitution money was divided among the sufferers by a committee of the most respectable inhabitants. Commerce rapidly revived and the ruined city was rebuilt. Modern Calcutta dates from 1757. The old fort was abandoned, and its site devoted to the custom-house and other government offices.
A new fort, the present Fort William, was begun by Clive a short distance lower down the river, and is thus the second of that name. It was not finished till 1773, and is said to have cost two millions sterling. At this time also the maidán, the park of Calcutta, was formed; and the healthiness of its position induced the European inhabitants gradually to shift their dwellings eastward, and to occupy what is now the Chowringhee quarter.
Up to 1707, when Calcutta was first declared a presidency, it had been dependent upon the older English settlement at Madras. From 1707 to 1773 the presidencies were maintained on a footing of equality; but in the latter year the act of parliament was passed, which provided that the presidency of Bengal should exercise a control over the other possessions of the Company; that the chief of that presidency should be styled governor-general; and that a supreme court of judicature should be established at Calcutta. In the previous year, 1772, Warren Hastings had taken under the immediate management of the Company's servants the general administration of Bengal, which had hitherto been left in the hands of the old Mahommedan officials, and had removed the treasury from Murshidabad to Calcutta. The latter town thus became the capital of Bengal and the seat of the supreme government in India. In 1834 the governor-general of Bengal was created governor-general of India, and was permitted to appoint a deputy-governor to manage the affairs of Lower Bengal during his occasional absence.
It was not until 1854 that a separate head was appointed for Bengal, who, under the style of lieutenant-governor, exercises the same powers in civil matters as those vested in the governors in council of Madras or Bombay, although subject to closer supervision by the supreme government. Calcutta is thus at present the seat both of the supreme and the local government, each with an independent set of offices. (See Bengal.)
See A.K. Ray, A Short History of Calcutta (Indian Census, 1901); H.B. Hyde, Parochial Annals of Bengal (1901); K. Blechynden, Calcutta, Past and Present (1905); H.E. Busteed, Echoes from Old Calcutta (1897); G.W. Forrest, Cities of India (1903); C.R. Wilson, Early Annals of the English in Bengal (1895); and Old Fort William in Bengal (1906); Imperial Gazetteer of India (Oxford, 1908), s.v. "Calcutta."