Ninety-one years down the line, James Keir is doing for children in Kalimpong what his father did in Kolkata to preserve the memory of Bengali Lascars killed during World War I. SOMA BASU reports
IN 1920, William Ingram Keir laid the foundations of historical monuments in Kolkata. Ninety-one years down the line his son, James Keir, is laying the foundations of a better future for thousands of children in villages in Kalimpong. On a recent visit to the city, he brought copies of a series of photographs and articles published in The Statesman in 1920s that he’d unearthed from the attic of his house in Hong Kong.
His father was none other than the one who designed the Lascar War Memorial, Khidderpore Bridge, the buildings of the Bengal Engineering and Science University (erstwhile Bengal Engineering College) in Shibpur, the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and Islamia College. He’d also replaced the spire of St Paul’s Cathedral — damaged in an earthquake in 1934 — with a tower and designed a number of mosques, temples and gurdwaras in the city and the state.
His own house — a bungalow named Omagh — and orchard in Kalimpong was taken over by the government and then burnt down by Gokhaland agitators a couple of years after he’d left the country. His name is not seen on any of the buildings since, in those times, buildings would have engravings of the contractor and not the designer. However, WI Keir features in newspaper reports and a book called The Cathedral Spire.
James Keir, a 75-year-old philanthropic, has been associated with the Glenn Family Foundation, founded by Owen G Glenn, and he remembers the place in Kalimpong where he’d been brought up and laments the loss of green. He is running plantation drives among the villagers there. For the past eight years, the GFF has been supporting a model village programme in the Kalimpong.
James Keir said his father would never talk much about his life but he would always say, “I am a foreigner in India but a stranger everywhere else.” The father died three months after he left the country in 1967. “The 1934 earthquake had taken him to Darjeeling where he met my mother, who was a Nepali. He later designed the Dhir Dham Temple in Darjeeling that was inaugurated by the then Commanding General, Sir Shumshere Jung Bahadur Rana of Nepal,” the son said. The Lascar War Memorial earned WI Keir an award of Rs 500 for its design in an international contest in 1920 and “remained of special value to him”.
Apart from this memorial, Kolkata has two others — the Cenotaph and the Bengali War Memorial, erected in the memory of Bengali martyrs of the Great War in 1914-1918. This memorial was erected by shipping and mercantile companies at the southern end of the Maidan, within 100 yards of Prinsep Ghat, to the memory of the 896 Lascars of undivided Bengal and Assam who lost their lives during World War I. It was unveiled in 1924 by Lord Lytton, then Governor of Bengal. The memorial, a four-sided column of Oriental architecture, appropriately designed with the prow of an ancient galley projecting from each of its sides, was capped by four small minarets and a large gilt dome. The undulating lines beneath symbolise waves, with chhajjas and trellises to give it a distinctly Indian look.
On an earlier visit to the city, James Keir recalled how struck he was by the neglect of this monument but in a span of a few years the Navy had refurbished the memorial and restored its glory, he said. “However, the golden dome whose glitter used to attract the attention of seamen and remind them of the martyrs, has now been painted pink!”
The Cenotaph, at the northern end of the Maidan to the west of Ochterlony Monument, was erected by public subscription, and its inscription reads, “The Glorious Dead”. It is almost a replica of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London, and it was unveiled in 1921 by the Prince of Wales who later became Edward VIII. Two bronze soldiers stand guard at its approach. In the days of the Raj there would be an elaborate ceremony at the Cenotaph.
On Armistice Day each year, its base would be covered with flowers and the Governor and his entourage, the Military, the Navy and a large gathering of people of all communities would stand in reverential silence for two minutes. The Bengali War Memorial at College Square is hardly visible, covered as it is today with political posters and banners.
Whether William Keir was involved in the design of the Cenotaph and the Bengali War Memorial is not known, but there is no denying how these have been reduced to victims of neglect. While the martyrs were being honoured in India, those Lascars who survived the war were being subjected to racial hostility in Britain.
India sent more than 1,300,000 soldiers to fight in Europe during World War I.. Many Bengalis worked on merchant ships, often in the engine rooms, under appalling conditions and for very low pay. In 1914, Indian deckhands earned between Rs 16-22 a month and firemen (who worked with the engines) Rs 20. Their British counterparts would get triple the amount. Nearly 3,500 Indian seamen were killed during that war and another 1,200 were taken prisoner. By 1919, Indian seamen made up 20 per cent of Britain’s sea-going labour force.
A compilation of stories of migration under a three-year project of the London School of Economics and the University of Cambridge gives insight into what Bengali Lascars and their families had to face when the war ended. A number of Indian soldiers and sailors settled in Britain but, soon enough, race riots broke out in 1919 in the port cities of London, Liverpool, Glasgow and Cardiff, where small coloured communities were attacked by Britons angry about competition for jobs and over fears of racial mixing between “coloured” men and white women.
In Cardiff, unarmed Black and Asian settlers were fired on by local mobs led by colonial troops from South Africa and Australia, and three men were killed. There were failed attempts to send back Black settlers in 1919 and 1921. In 1925, Lascars were targeted by the Special Restriction (Coloured Alien Seamen) Order, which said that all “coloured” seamen had to register with the police, even though many of them were British subjects.
A letter in the British Library dated 7 September 1925, from the wife of a Peshawar-born Indian domiciled in Britain and working as a seafarer, describes the treatment of some Asians (who were British subjects) under the Home Office Coloured Aliens Seamen’s Order, 1925, “My husband landed at Cardiff, after a voyage to sea on the SS Derville, as a fireman and produced his Mercantile Marine Book, RS 2 No. 436431, which bears his ‘Certificate of Nationality’, declaring him to be British and is signed by a Mercantile Marine Superintendent, dated 18 August 1919. This book and its certificate were ignored, and my husband was registered as an Alien. Would you kindly inform me if it is correct that the Mercantile Marine Book should have been ignored as documentary proof? I have been married to him seven years, and we have three children, therefore the knowledge that my husband is not a recognised British subject causes me much consternation, as should anything happen to him in a foreign port his rights as a Britisher would be jeopardised and consequently my own and our children’s.”
Despite this, the small communities of Bengali settlers in the 1920s and 1930s were very important in providing support and shelter to new arrivals. Individuals such as Ayub Ali and Shah Abdul Majid Qureshi, who set up the Indian Seamen’s Welfare League in Aldgate in 1943, were early community contacts, and helped new arrivals find work, either back on the ships or in the local clothing and hotel businesses. They also ran Bengali “coffee shops” — an early form of the Bengali restaurant trade.
James Keir said his father was not interested in bigger projects later in his career. Instead, it was the variety of work and the research that appealed to him. To build a mosque or a temple needed an intricate understanding of culture and religion. “My father would sit for hours studying the architectural styles of various religious places. Learning about various cultures gave him immense pleasure,” he said.
St Paul’s Cathedral was designed by Major (later General) William Nairn Forbes (1796-1855) of the Bengal Engineers, who was also responsible for the Bengal Mint. The spire was damaged during the earthquake in 1934 and was replaced by a tower designed by William Kier after the Bell Harry Tower in Canterbury.
The pleasure of meeting and talking to the son of the man who designed the Lascar Memorial was embellished by reading about this community in Amitava Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. Who knows, the next time you visit Britain you could come across a Bengali restaurant whose owner could just possibly be the descendant of a Bengali Lascar and/or a martyr of World War I. The world is a small place, indeed.
SIR, ~ Soma Basu’s “Oceans apart” (8th Day, 20 November) was an interesting read. William Ingram Keir was consulting architect to the Government of Bengal. The Lascar War Memorial and other monuments in Calcutta were designed by him as part of his duty. The credit for designing the Lascar and other memorials in Calcutta has already been acknowledged by Allister Macmillan (Sea Ports of India and Ceylon, London: Collingbridge, 1928, p 34) and other chroniclers on Calcutta. This memorial was built by Mackintosh Burn Ltd. John Barry (Calcutta Illustrated 1941/1953) and others have already given detailed descriptions of Lascar and other memorials. WI Keir is not a forgotten name in Calcutta, but his contributions are not spectacular.
Yours, etc., PT Nair, Kolkata, 20 November.