In the 1840s, as steam boats sailed down the Ganga and clippers plied the oceans, two men dreamt of railway lines in eastern India. Dwarkanath Tagore, more famous now as Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather, envisioned a line from the coal fields of Ranigunj in north Bengal to Calcutta, the port city from where the immense steamships ran.

The Englishman, Rowland Stephenson, who had travelled to Calcutta in the early 1840s, wrote of a line linking the port city to the markets and opium production centres of the north. It would be a decade before such dreams came to fruition. Tagore, however, died in 1846, a disappointed man, and yet in many ways a visionary ahead of his times.
The books Partner in Empire: Dwarkanath Tagore and the Age of Enterprise in Eastern India by Blair King and Nitin Sinha's Communication and Colonialism in Eastern India together provide considerable information about Tagore's entrepreneurial life.

In the 1820s, Dwarkanath Tagore became foremost among the so-called merchant princes, as Calcutta’s fortunes rose with the East India Company. Tagore’s prosperity also rose as he invested and speculated well on his land holdings and indigo plantations. Yet his failure stemmed not merely from jealous rivals or imperial aversion to a native’s rise, as the historian Blair Kling as written, but also because he came up against the opium trade that flourished in secrecy.

Opium trade

Although the East India Company’s monopoly on trade in India ended in 1813, it fiercely protected and retained its position as the premier cultivator of opium. William Bentinck, governor general in the early 1830s, helped substantially increase the land under opium cultivation in the middle Gangetic plain. More than 5,000 farmers were contracted to cultivate opium. Opium cultivation sustained an entire economy of clerks, accountants and other officials.

Private traders bought the Company's opium at depots such as Patna, sailed with it and paid the trade proceeds into the Company’s treasury in Canton, which was then used to buy tea.  This mutual dependence was fluid and amorphous, never following the clear-cut lines of orderly trade. Made up of officials and traders, their roles frequently intermingling, it was a trade that kept outsiders at bay, in every sense.

Tagore first came up against the East India Company over a petition regarding land use in Bengal. In 1829, a petition of the 'European mercantile community' to own land in mofussil areas, originally referring to regions outside the Company’s capitals of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, was opposed by the Company’s officials and some conservative elements of Bengali society. This was probably because the Company was personally invested in land for opium cultivation. Tagore, however, considered himself an imperial citizen, believing in opportunities for all, and this made him transcend ethnic loyalties in support for land settlement.

In his business ventures relating to shipping, more often than not, Tagore was dogged by bad luck. By the late 1820s, huge ships called Indiamen that had thus far carried opium to China were being replaced by the swifter clippers. As clippers became more popular, Tagore invested in two opium clippers. However, one called Ariel was seized by Commissioner Lin Zexu during the opium standoff with private traders in Canton in 1839, while the other, Mavis, was struck by lightning in 1842.

His company had shares in other ships engaged in Indo-British trade. The Water Witch was a clipper owned by Tagore operated on the opium trade, and in 1848, it was bought by the opium firm of Lancelot and John Dent and Company. Dwarkanath's ships were used more for transporting war correspondence during the First Opium War.

It was in his ships that Tagore sent the first shipment of tea to London in 1838. A year later, his firm became involved in the tea plantations then being set up in Assam by the East India Company. But the latter was not too keen the presence of Carr Tagore and Company, Dwarkanath’s managing agency, in the plantations, according to Sarah Rose's book For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History , an excerpt of which appeared in Smithsonian magazine with the title, The Great British Tea Heist. The frontier areas were, as the government said, vulnerable and it needed the government's and military's presence more.

When Tagore bought the Ranigunj coal fields in 1836, he became virtually the only provider of fuel to the Bengal Presidency, including to the government's vessels. Yet again trying hard not to depend too much on Tagore, the Company made constant attempts to obtain coal from England, despite the fact that the returns promised British coal were considerably and unprofitably higher.

Promise of steam

Tagore saw the immense possibilities that steam offered at this time. Tagore and his agency first invested and built steam engines, using these on tug boats to dredge the Hughli River, where boats often sank. But most steam engines used in sugar mills, steamers, collieries, rice and paper mills were still imported from Britain. Tagore’s company soon found itself a losing proposition as making steam engines in Bengal was expensive, and folded up as shareholders dropped out for one reason or another. A Bengali paper attributed it to jealousy. But major expenses were also incurred in accounting for depreciation and the frequent repair of the tugboats.

Tagore also promoted the Steam Ferry Bridge, a venture to transport men and goods across the Hughli to Howrah. It envisaged an iron floating bridge across the river. But this failed too, in 1844, and was blamed on a poor survey and bad management practices. More discouragement came Tagore's way when he put forward his plans to set up the Indian General Steam Navigation company to operate riverboats down the Ganga.  Steam boats were becoming popular at least for short journeys. The East India Company relied heavily on steamboats and riverboats to draw its opium down the Ganga. He also hoped this company would win the contract to operate a mail steamship between Calcutta and London; instead the contract went to the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O), set up in 1840, to do so in India. P&O would in a big way get involved in the opium trade from the late 1840s soon after it began operations in Calcutta.

Railways in Calcutta

Tagore was one of the early promoters of the railways in India, where his interests would clash with Rowland Stephenson. Around the same time that Stephenson set up his East Indian Railway, Tagore was behind the setting up of the Great Western Bengal Railway Company in 1845. The GWBRC envisaged a line from Calcutta to Rajmahal where the coalfields began; steamers from here could then go up to Mirzapur, a huge emporia of trade. Stephenson’s EIR wanted a line up north to assist the indigo, opium and saltpetre transportation for which Bihar was a key centre. The East India Company was often hesitant to grant Tagore too many concessions and did not act upon even a proposal by one of his associates to begin iron mining operations close to Raniganj  as this would help the railways when it did materialise.

In India, the Company regarded the idea of the railways as fanciful. Stephenson’s EIR was, however, set up in England, it was owned by London shareholders and its shares traded in the London markets. Little wonder the EIR soon won the support of the Company’s court of directors. More important, it promised to expand imperial mercantile trade interests more than local ones.

On Tagore's death soon afterwards, the GWBRC was absorbed into the EIR.  In 1849, the Company entered into an agreement with the East India Railway to build a railway line purely 'experimental'.  The capital was paid by the companies into the Company’s treasury and shareholders assured of a 5% guarantee that came from the Indian treasury.  British engineering industries were again favoured despite the fact that the British owned Jessop and the company was based in Calcutta. The line would run from Calcutta to Rajmahal, following the Ganga, and there a chord line, or a route across a city’s peripheries, towards the coalfields brought the line somewhat in alignment with what Tagore had foreseen.

Tagore died in 1846. The businessmen who thrived under the Company’s auspices were mainly interested in commercial prospects and not interested in long-term investment projects. Tagore’s concept of business, always had a philanthropic, philosophical tone: Business to improve the lot of others mattered more.  And the government of the time, caught between the need to promote economic development in a colony and the doctrine of laissez faire, vacillated. The latter doctrine worked to the advantage of the opium trade.