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Map showing the string of early cantonments across the Bengal Presidency

Mirza Firuz Shah
Shah Alam II 1759–1806
Stacked Wooden Logs


The Bengal Presidency, officially the Presidency of Fort William and later Bengal Province, was a subdivision of the British Empire in India. At the height of its territorial jurisdiction, it covered large parts of what is now South Asia and Southeast Asia. Bengal proper covered the ethno-linguistic region of Bengal (present-day Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal). Calcutta, the city which grew around Fort William, was the capital of the Bengal Presidency. For many years, the Governor of Bengal was concurrently the Viceroy of India and Calcutta was the de facto capital of India until 1911.

The Bengal Presidency emerged from trading posts established in Mughal Bengal during the reign of Emperor Jahangir in 1612. The Honourable East India Company (HEIC), a British monopoly with a Royal Charter, competed with other European companies to gain influence in Bengal. After the decisive overthrow of the Nawab of Bengal in 1757 and the Battle of Buxar in 1764, the HEIC expanded its control over much of the Indian subcontinent. This marked the beginning of Company rule in India, when the HEIC emerged as the most powerful military force in the subcontinent. The British Parliament gradually withdrew the monopoly of the HEIC. By the 1850s, the HEIC struggled with finances. After the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the British government assumed direct administration of India. The Bengal Presidency was re-organized. In the early 20th century, Bengal emerged as a hotbed of the Indian independence movement, as well as the epicenter of the Bengali Renaissance.

Bengal was the economic, cultural and educational hub of the British Raj. During the period of proto-industrialization, Bengal significantly contributed directly to the Industrial revolution in Britain, although it was soon overtaken by the Kingdom of Mysore ruled by Tipu Sultan as South Asia's dominant economic power. When Bengal was reorganized, Penang, Singapore and Malacca were separated into the Straits Settlements in 1867. British Burma became a province of India and a later a Crown Colony in itself. Western areas, including the Ceded and Conquered Provinces and The Punjab, were further reorganized. Northeastern areas became Colonial Assam. The Partition of British India in 1947 resulted in Bengal's division on religious grounds.

Company Territory (Bengal Presidency)

Monghyr and Allahabad were garrisons within pre-existing fortresses, while Bankypore was merely expanded and upgraded in name from a Company factory barracks. It was at Berhampore and shortly after at Dinapore (Danapur) close to Patna, both within entirely self-contained spaces, that a new architectural model was employed to articulate a purely military urban settlement.

What made these two cantonments—Berhampore and Dinapore—perhaps unique was the decision to build both immediately in pakkā work, information that can be gleaned from the Bengal Despatches to the Company’s Court of Directors and the subsequent 1773 Committee of Secrecy reports by the House of Commons.29 From the Despatches we know that the cantonments at Monghyr and Bankypore were of flammable material, and that both were “utterly consumed by fire” in 1766 and 1767 respectively. A decision was made to rebuild them in brick “to prevent such Accidents […] which will be cheapest in the end & require little Expense in repairs.”

Berhampore and Dinapore, however, were conceived from the outset upon a grander template. Both followed the same layout, that of a large inner field or compound: a parade ground almost perfectly square in the case of Berhampore, measuring less than half a kilometer across either side; and a duplex or double square at Dinapore, with officers’ quarters forming a smaller, conjoined duplex (figs. 3a and 3b).31 Both were bound by a tight arrangement of barracks for soldiers and shared officers’ quarters. Dum Dum would follow this same pattern.32 At this point the spacious officers’ compounds with solitary bungalows had not formed a part of the language of these cantonments. Rather, a solid little town of brick and “chunam” plaster, polished brilliantly white as at Berhampore and decidedly cuboid, emerged.

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Very good information.

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