Private records of some leading business families of early colonial Bengal (EAP906)

Aims and objectives

This project aims to explore the diverse range of material in the custody of the descendants of leading business families of Bengal. The main objective behind this project is to understand the progressive marginalisation of the Bengali business families in almost every sphere of economic activities since 1830s through the family records of some leading business families of Bengal. These family records are extremely vulnerable and they require immediate preservation for a better understanding of pre-industrial Bengal. The project will produce a survey report of the records available at the disposal of the descendants of some leading business families of Bengal. Twenty five to thirty such business families have been identified and will be approached to open up their family records. It is hoped that this survey will then lead to a subsequent major research project.

Bengal had a long and rich tradition of commodity production and trade and commerce in the pre-colonial period and even during the early colonial period. It is interesting that the Bengali business families which prospered immensely during the 18th century and up to the first quarter of the 19th century, failed tremendously in the succeeding period. It is generally explained in terms of colonial economic domination, though this is perhaps insufficient in explaining the complex phenomenon of entrepreneurial apathy of the Bengali businessmen in contrast to their Gujrati and Marwari counterparts. It deserves a close investigation into the family structure, norms and values, law of inheritance, caste ideology and social aspirations of those families to understand their progressive apathy towards trade and commerce. In contrast they turned their attention towards landlordism and other white collar professions generated by the colonial administration. The private records of the leading business families of Bengal, if explored, could shed fresh light on this historical aspect of pre-industrial Bengal. No such initiatives have been taken so far to explore and preserve those records which are extremely vulnerable.


Whilst the project team approached 25 business families it was difficult to earn the confidence of all families. Some were not willing to share their records with strangers and were suspicious of the interest shown in their archives; others had lost or destroyed their records. Of the 25 families approached, 13 were happy to open up their family records to the project team and to make them public for academic research. These families also expressed their willingness to digitise their records in future for long term preservation. The records mainly belong to the category of legal documents, advertisements, catalogues, seals, letterheads, letters, family photographs, family trees, manuscripts of family history, punthis (manuscripts) and printed books. The survey report below provides detailed information on the families involved, sample photographs of the material, and the list of records examined by the team.

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