“You will need to take a peon with you” — Incredible Discoveries Researching in the Madness of the Calcutta High Court

Pre-September. I began asking scholars and Fulbright Kolkata about how I might gain access to the records that exist at the High Court of Calcutta. The Court holds records, I have come to believe, involving the first newspapermen in Calcutta and some of the important libel trials they were involved in. I was told many stories about the Court’s archives, including that they all been moved, or had been destroyed, washed away in a flood sometime between last year, and twenty years ago.

September. Fulbright sent a letter of introduction on behalf to the High Court asking for permission to begin research. It was returned rejected.

December 12. Not taking no for an answer, I went to High Court along with the AIIS Bangla students as part of a class trip, and met with a lawyer who works there and is a friend of an AIIS teacher.

January 9. Arranged a meeting with the lawyer, and met with the members of the Registrar of the High Court’s (“Original side” of the building) staff. They informed me of the documents that I would need:

  1. Letter of introduction from Fulbright, signed and stamped. Addressed to the registrar of the High Court, Original Side, Runafi Kundu
  2. Letter of introduction from a supporting institution, signed and stamped. Also addressed to the registrar of the High Court, Original Side, Runafi Kundu
  3. Photocopies of my passport and visa pages
  4. My original passport.

January 15. I return with the above documents, having gone in person to JadavpurU., Fulbright, and U. Calcutta to retrieve my letters of introduction, and I submit them. The letters are looked over, and I am brought from one office where they are stamped “received but contents not verified” to another where they are stamped again, to a third office where the double stamped papers are stamped a third time with the date they were received. I am also questioned by the registrar for why I would want access and the nature of my research.

January 17. I am called back to the High Court to draft another letter requesting access to specific record rooms at the Court: The New Building Records Room, The Old Building Records Room, the Mayor’s Court Records Room, the Testamentary Records department and the Company Matters Department.

January 21. In what I think is truly record time, I have been told that I have been granted access to the High Courts records rooms! I also meet with some members of the record rooms that I am to be going to, going to the Old Building Records room, moderately clean room containing people very much focused on their chai and newspapers. I meet with the New Building Records room staff, too, in their dingy room, their staff even more focused on their chai and newspapers. In both cases I indicate what I am looking for: Trial records involving newspapers in the 18th century.

January 22. I come to the High Court where I inspect the New Building Records room. It contains three stories of putrid stacks of decaying Court records from 1862 onwards, many of which are strewn across the narrow floors in giant piles, black with dust. The lawyer informs me that because January 26 is a Republic Day, the workers at the High Court will not be inclined to do any work for the next week, until Tuesday, January 28.

January 28. I visit Old Records room and am told to come back tomorrow. They are not ready. I also return to the New Building Records room. Although they adamantly told me they had no records pre-dating 1870, I had earlier found records from 1862 onwards. I conclude that, indeed, no records exist in this room prior to 1862. Not what I’m looking for.

I am also told that all the records for the whole court have been moved to Khidderapore, on the other side of the city. I find this extremely unlikely.

I also go looking for Mayor’s Court record room, which I’ve been told has 18th century documents, but it’s in another building, the Centenary Building. Can’t find it (keep in mind that there’ no front office or floor plan to speak of), but I do stumble upon a room called “Appellate Records.” Although the director of this room says he “has 18th century records” that may be useful to me, he ignores my questions asking what he might have and insists that I must apply for permission to access his room first. (Of course, this would require me to repeat the whole approval process again, and I’d guess the registrar would be less than amenable to me going to him an saying, “That dude over there says he has records from 18th century, but he won’t tell me what they are, would you pretty-please let me see his records?”)

While waiting, I notice a man comes to the director of this room with his “Peon Book” Peon book!?!? No joke. They actually call people peons at the High Court.

I see another room in the CentenaryBuilding, called the “Records Research Room” founded in 1977. This seems promising, but the room is bolt locked. I also find the Testamentary Records room. The suave director of this room, smoking a cigarette, tells me he has only post-independence records. He appears believable.

January 29. I visit Old Records room again. Their director tells me they have no records on what I want. I don’t believe them. A man does bring out some wills from the 1830s, seems lazy like they don’t really want to show what they have, and irrelevant. The director tells me to go to the Mayor’s Court record room, but I tell him I can’t find it, and ask if one of his staff can accompany me. This appears to be a stroke of genius because it works! One of his staff accompanies me to the registrar’s office where after a short wait, one of their staff members brings me to the Mayor’s Court record room, on the third floor of the Centenary Building, behind the “stamps office” in what appears to be more like a closet than a room.

Inside are sitting two elderly women wrapped in sweaters in the dark. In what appears their only function, they guard a file cabinet to their left in which are five books that contain lists of trials that occurred at the mayor’s court in Calcutta from 1750ish until 1774 when it was abolished and from 1800-1850ish for the Supreme Court. Conspicuously missing are records from 1774-1800, ie, my research period. Disheartening.

I mark some of trials on William Bolts, who had tried to found a newspaper in the early 1770s in Calcutta, and Peter Reed, a salt merchant turned proprietor of Calcutta’s second newspaper, the India Gazette, founded in 1780, as well as a heretofore unknown trial involved James Augustus Hicky, founder of Asia’s first newspaper the Bengal Gazette, in 1773. I am told that I need to apply for permission to see the documents containing their trials. The same permission process again!?!?!?! Argh!

January 31. Armed with my letters of request detailing the trials I want, I blitzkrieg (this how I like to think of it) into the registrar’s office seeking permission. Something comes over me before I do, and I add in handwriting that I am also looking for Hasting’s libel trial against Hicky in 1781—the whole reason for me coming here, despite it not being mentioned in the 5 catalogue books.

I receive permission, but am told in the strictest terms that at all times I must be accompanied by a peon! So, with the accompaniment of Mr. Chandernath Paul the peon (his word, not mine) we enter the Records Research Room.

It’s a mess. Thick with dust, the records are arranged in barely recognizable order in giant twine bound volumes. Despite some setbacks, there we find it! In a volume mistakenly marked 1782, is a record for Hicky’s libel trial, containing an issue of his Gazette recounting his trial, and which exists no where else but in that very room. (Paul mentioned an objection to me opening 1782, but I said the trial I was looking for started in 1781 and ended in 1782 so therefore I had permission to look at it).

Incredible discovery, that the only remaining copy to my knowledge of this issue of the Bengal Gazette exists in dusty room in the High Court of Calcutta, lost to time for over 230 years.

Partial victory is mine!

(No photos, otherwise, I would have let you all into the madness)