The Scottish Cemetery Project: Digitising Memories and Mapping the Narratives of Migration and Exchange

The Scottish Cemetery Project: Digitising Memories and Mapping the Narratives of Migration and Exchange

Some of the most interesting and poignant legacies of colonialism in Kolkata are its colonial cemeteries. Much the most famous of these are the South Park Street Cemetery (dating from 1767) which contains the tombs of key names in the colonial history. Less well-known are the Scottish cemetery in Kareya Road (dating from 1826) or the Sudder Bazaar Cemetery in Barrackpore.

These cemeteries (and their counterparts in Scotland) represent an invaluable resource that has not been adequately studied. To facilitate research into these unexplored layers of cultural history – on one level from the tombs themselves and on another, tracing emergent connections between the names of those buried here and key events during the early period of British colonialism – should be a major focus of collaborative research.

Writing about the South Park Street Cemetery, Elizabeth Buettner comments:

Considered collectively, cemeteries enable important questions to be posed that pertain not only to local manifestations of the colonial past in Kolkata but also to their meanings in—and just as importantly, outside—postcolonial India. They act as a barometer that signals how the ex-colonized and ex-colonizers alike not only approach the physical relics and spaces of empire but also reassess the colonial era more generally, imparting them with a diverse range of meanings specific to a historical moment. (Buettner 2006)

Buettner’s comment about the importance of looking at history from perspectives within and outside postcolonial India is insightful. The mushrooming of apartment complexes around and even over cemeteries is something that needs more attention and as Alok Ray puts it, ‘we do not know whether in the century after 1851 [when the Bengal Obituary was published], such a record of tombs has been maintained but the need for such a resource cannot be denied’ (Ray 1980; my translation).

This project addresses the need to record the stories of the many Scots who lived in Bengal and many of whom shaped our society and culture. The aim here is to create a digital archive of the Scottish Cemetery in Calcutta that will help in exploring these stories and the connections between them.

Presidency University has deep ties with the Scottish legacy in Bengal. The Hindu college was founded by David Hare, a Scotsman and Henry Derozio, one of the college's celebrated teachers was taught by another Scotsman, William Drummond. The list of connections goes on and the cemetery itself contains the grave of the wife of one of the early principals of the college and also of students such as Mahendra Lal Basak.

1. Rationale

In the digital age, with the growing popularity of the Digital Humanities and digital archives, the recording of cemetery data is an absolute necessity for preserving memories that are disappearing fast with the pace of time. The project aims at recording the narratives of the people who were buried in the Scottish cemetery in or before 1858. The cut-off date has been chosen as it marks the end of the East India Company’s rule. This period can, arguably, be seen as the formative period of British policy and also best reflective of the advent of European influences in Bengali culture and society. The range of influences here is diverse and research on this phase opens the way to future projects where the later years of history can be focused on.

The narratives gleaned from researching the lives of the people are many; especially, as one finds information on them from both online and offline sources, surprising connections often emerge. Such information is, nevertheless, still difficult to obtain as many of the inscriptions cannot be deciphered and in some cases, the graves have been entirely destroyed. As such, this project has restricted itself, in the main, to those tombs that are still extant or can still be identified using the cemetery plans and maps that are available today.

This project is, therefore, a record of the narratives of those who lived and died in Calcutta before the beginning of the Raj. Much of the information, even of the identities of the people, is lost; this is an attempt to remember and research what remains.

2. Objectives

The aims of the project are as follows:

    To photograph the gravestones and tombs (where necessary and in as much detail as possible).
    To access and digitise burial registers
    To transcribe headstone inscriptions and insert architectural, biographical, geographical, demographic, literary and historical metadata.
    To record such data in a digital database with facilities for framing flexible and comparative searches, the building of timelines and creating map locators.
    Link the information that is at present available only in scattered fragments across libraries, archives, free information repositories, cemetery databases and genealogy websites.
    Build a website with open accessto the database and customizable search facilities.

3. Methodology

The methodology for this project involves three types of activities in the main:

    a) Data collection from cemetery visits, online repositories, databases provided by various sources, archival visits and library research.
    b) Data analysis. Identification of links between sources and with other records.
    c) Uploading of data and review.

Our team has visited the cemetery numerous times and has taken high-resolution photos of the graves (at various times during the day depending on the available light), copied down the epitaphs and taken GPS readings using the Latitude-Longitude app and the GPS Test app on GPS-enabled mobile phones. The readings have been taken twice to cross-check for inaccuracies. After the initial recording of data at the cemetery, the photos have been processed with photo-editing and magnifying software as well as various filters to enable a clearer reading of the epitaphs.

The KSHT has kindly allowed us to use their data as well as the records of the epitaphs made by Ms Bunny Gupta. The digitized versions of the burial records of St. Andrew’s Kirk have been made available to us. We have also availed the India Office Records online via The Bengal Obituary and the List of Monumental Inscriptions by C.R. Wilson have also been helpful. Father Hosten's research in the early twentieth century has been an inspiration for our team and the articles from the Bengal, Past and Present and Calcutta Review, albeit scattered and difficult to find, have been extremely helpful. Our research grant facilitated two trips to the United Kingdom and a great deal of research was made possible at the British Library combined with fruitful interactions with stakeholders. The newspaper collections at both the British Library, London and the National Library, Calcutta provided important clues to further research. We also consulted the India Office Records documents at the British Library that have not yet been digitised.

Two workshops conducted by Dr Neeta Das, conservation architect, were helpful in getting a basic idea about funerary architecture and the construction of the tombs. For further architectural notes, we have consulted Harold Mytum’s Mortuary Monuments and Burial Grounds of the Historic Period and Betty Willsher’s Understanding Scottish Graveyards.

Our data has been entered and maintained simultaneously on a shared google spreadsheet as well as on a development website where all changes are recorded. The data entry and display technology has been developed in-house at Presidency University. The project team comprised postgraduate students from Presidency University and Jadavpur University working under the supervision of Dr Souvik Mukherjee from the department of English at Presidency University.

Metadata based on profession, source and reason for importance have been added to the records by means of clickable tags / labels. The completed and reviewed dataset has been uploaded on the final project website but will continue to be developed and added to.

4. Digital Humanities (DH) in India

The) Digital Humanities or DH, amid much debate and ever eluding any definition, comprise research involving the coming together of computing and IT with traditional Humanities. So one aspect of DH would be the creation of digital texts and editions or cultural archives.The other aspect is the exploration of digital culture: for example, how Facebook affects our culture and whether videogames are art. As eminent DH scholar, Matthew Kirschenbaum, puts it:"[W]e support work from “Shakespeare to Second Life,” as we’re fond of saying." In India, DH is a fairly new field and Presidency University has been one of the first institutions to introduce DH research through conferences, courses and now this projects. DH at Presidency also works closely with the School of Cultural Texts and Records (SCTR) at Jadavpur University. Recently, the DH research group at Presidency has been awarded the prestigious UK-India Research Initiative grant to build a similar database for the Scottish presence in Bengal. Currently, with the setting up of the South Asia Digital Humanities research group, plans are underway to explore possibilities of collaboration on a national level. 


5. Other DH Activities @ Presidency

DH Conference in September 2012:

DH Workshop in September 2013:

'The Dutch in Bengal' workshop in February 2014;

'The Dutch Cemetery in Chinsurah' Digital Archive (published in November 2014)

Digital archive of the Bishnupur Temples (ongoing as part of the UKIERI initiative)

DH gen-ed undergraduate course (every alternate semester):