The Bengali Renaissance man buried in Bristol


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Here outside Bristol Central Library is a statue of Raja Rammohun Roy. Born in 1772 in Radhanagar, Bengal, he is hailed on its plaque as a philosopher, reformer, patriot, scholar and founding father of the Indian Renaissance. And reading up on his life and career, believe it or not, that description almost undersells the guy.

Still, however influential or impressive of a polymath he may be, you might be wondering why he's commemorated here in Bristol.

In fact, I really hope you're wondering why he's commemorated here in Bristol, and not anything like "so what was the Indian Renaissance and how exactly did his intellectual contributions underpin it?", or "what were the influences and impact of his societal reform movements within the framework of 18th-century Hinduism?" Because, much as I tried my little best to read up on his actual work and impact in India, so that I could make a nice little summary of it for youtube, amazingly enough, it turns out that a near-total ignorance about even the most basic facets of Indian history, religion and society are something of an impediment.

A deeply religious and spiritual man, he consumed not only classic Hindu texts in Sanskrit but also the Quran in Arabic, the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Ancient Greek. (He was also fluent in English, Persian and Hindi, all on top of his native Bengali). He founded a movement called Brahmo Samaj, which at the time, as far as I can figure out, and apologies if I am getting this wrong - he considered a reformist, monotheistic movement within Hinduism, but by 1901, a decision of the Privy Council of British India declared that Brahmoism should be considered an independent religion in its own right. He worked to improve education and campaigned against child marriage, polygamy, aspects of the caste system, and sati, the practice of widows self-immolating on their husband's funeral pyres.

When it comes to his impact on Indian theology and society, any more detail than that is beyond me, and even that summary is probably flawed, so I'll get on to explain why he is commemorated here in Bristol. Unfortunately, his connection to the city is a tragic one: he died here on 27 September 1833, after being struck by meningitis while visiting friends at this house in Stapleton.

Actually, if we're splitting hairs, at the time Stapleton wasn't even in Bristol, it was a village a few miles outside of it. Even today, it has a distinctly villagey feel, if you tune out the background hum of the M32, and when he accepted the invitation to stay here from Miss Kiddell and Miss Castle of Beech House (about whom I could find absolutely nothing, sorry) he was hoping for a 'quiet country life' after a hectic time in London. Apparently he didn't get his wish, and during his three weeks here, was inundated with social calls.

Chief amongst his social connections in Bristol was Dr Lant Carpenter. Carpenter was a preacher at the Lewin's Mead Unitarian meeting house, which is this building in the city centre - still a church, although no longer a Unitarian one. Unitarianism is the nontrinitarian branch of Christian theology, which is to say, basically, it believes that only God is God, which I guess parallels Rammohun Roy's strictly monotheistic take on a Hindu tradition that more often leaned toward some sort of pantheism or polytheism. So I might tentatively assume this sparked their cross-cultural intellectual and theological kinship, but…. here we are wading right back into the oceanic depths of my ignorances again.

Rammohan Roy's advocacy of women's rights also made a distinct impression on Lant's daughter, Mary Carpenter. Mary would go on to become an educational and social reformer herself, whose work was notable not just in Bristol, but on a national scale. She set up a school for female young offenders here at the Red Lodge, and was also active in the anti-slavery movement, women's suffrage movement, prison reform and other causes. In 1866 she visited India and applied her efforts towards improving schools and prisons for women and girls there, as well.

As for Roy, ten days after arriving at Beech House he fell ill, and sadly died soon after. At first he was buried in the grounds of the house, but 10 years later Dwarkanath Tagore arranged for him to be transferred to Arnos Vale cemetery, and sponsored the creation of this chattri. It was designed by an English-born artist called William Prinsep who had spent a large part of his life living and working in Calcutta. Once again, I'm not equipped to comment on its 'authenticity', architecturally speaking, since I have no grounding in Indian or Bengali norms.

Roy had left strict instructions not to be buried in a Christian space, so his chattri's presence amongst all these crosses might seem incongruous. But his wishes had been respected. Arno's Vale cemetery is not a consecrated space, as a whole. Rather, individual plots are consecrated or otherwise on demand, in accordance with the religious wishes of that plot's owner.

Still, to say Rammohan Roy came to Stapleton as a break from his engagements in London rather invites the question of what he was doing in England in the first place. He was here as an envoy of Mughal Emperor Akbar Shah II, to lobby the colonial British government. In fact, the Raja in the oft-quoted name Raja Rammohan Roy is not a name but a title, loosely translated to prince, which he'd been granted for this mission. The emperor, apparently, wanted a larger emolument from the British, and thought the request would have more weight coming from a prince; but of course a man of Rammohan Roy's social conscience was not here simply to demand more money.

In 1829, the British Governor-General of India, Lord William Bentinck, had officially outlawed sati; Roy had played a major behind-the-scenes role in making this happen. But orthodox Hindus of the time opposed this ban, and were seeking to overturn the law. Roy therefore came to London to lobby in support of its preservation.

(Pedantry alert: I said he outlawed sati in 1829, which he did, and I described him as Governor-General of India, which he was, but technically, he didn’t outlaw sati in 1829 as the Governor-General of India, because technically, that office did not exist until 1834.

In 1829 his title was officially Governor-General of the Presidency of Fort William, where the ‘Presidency of Fort William’ was a.k.a the ‘Bengal Presidency’. Fort William was in Calcutta, which was the capital of the Bengal Presidency (today Kolkata, the capital of the Indian State of West Bengal), so in that sense the Bengal Presidency was centred on Bengal (the ethno-linguistic region), but should not be mistaken as being synonymous with Bengal (the ethno-linguistic region) since it grew far beyond that to encompass parts of modern day Pakistan, Malaysia and so on, as well as large parts, but not all, of the rest of non-Bengali India. Outside the Bengal Presidency, at this time, other parts of British India were controlled via the East India Company rather than directly by government, and as such Bentinck was technically not the governor of (all of) India at that point, but for the purposes of this video he was de facto close enough that it didn’t seem worth taking 2 minutes to detour through Britain’s bureaucratic inconsistencies in carving up the place.

That said, the distinction is probably somewhat relevant to this story, inasmuch as, in a parallel universe where the British governor was based in a ‘Tamil Presidency’ in Tamil Nadu, for example, the Bengali intellectual Ram Mohan Roy would likely not have had the same degree of access or influence.)

I discovered early on in my searches that the Bengali Renaissance has been viewed as a sort of launchpad of the Indian independence movement, and I’d also read that through his work as a clerk at the East India Company, Rammohan Roy had been one of the first Indians to reliably estimate the exact extent to which Indian wealth was being plundered back to the UK. I had therefore expected to discover he visited the UK to demand an end to the colonialist regime of foreign rulers imposing their foreign laws. It was rather startling, therefore, to realise that the situation was almost exactly the opposite: in this particular instance, he was campaigning for the continuation of foreign laws imposed contrary to local culture and custom.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that his reception amongst subsequent independence campaigners and postcolonial thinkers in the subcontinent has been mixed. No less a figure than Gandhi took a few shots at him, suggesting that his enthusiastic embrace of Western philosophical, theological and scientific modes of thought, his campaigning for Indian schooling to occur in English using English-style methods and syllabuses, and so on, amounted to some sort of cultural or intellectual surrender or sell-out.

But others, like Rabindranath Tagore, defended him, insisting Roy synthesised Western thought into his Indian wisdom with no loss of dignity. And today it seems he continues to be held in high regard by many in the worldwide Bengali diaspora: his tomb was most refurbished courtesy of a hundred-thousand US dollar donation from a Singapore-based entrepreneur named Aditya K Poddar. The deal was brokered by Carla Contractor, one of the Trustees of Arnos Vale cemetery, via the Mayor of Kolkata, Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya. Carla Contractor was also instrumental in getting the statue of Rammohan Roy installed outside the library, against some opposition at the time from people who felt he had insufficient connection with the city to merit such a prominent commemoration.

I can see their point, in a way; when I looked into his story I was a bit surprised to discover that the only thing he really has to do with Bristol is that he unfortunately died here. But Carla argued he was "a builder of bridges between races and religions, an educational and social reformer, a fighter for women's rights and a man of courage", and that surely it was absolutely appropriate for a city to honour such a man, even if his life and career had not unfolded here.

I may have struggled to understand the finer nuances of Raja Rammohan Roy's life and career, but that sounds like a sentiment I can get behind.

That's all for this video. If you enjoyed it, then please like and subscribe and all that jazz, and if you didn't enjoy it, but rather found it frustratingly ill-informed and lacking any credible perspective, then, y'know… welcome to the club. Cheers.