Fictions of Possession: Land, Property and Capital in Colonial Calcutta, c. 1820 to c. 1920 Open Access

Bhattacharyya, Debjani (2014)

Permanent URL:


This dissertation studies the creation of a market in urban land as a central project of colonial urbanism in Calcutta from 1820 to 1920. It explores how a complex set of human-land-water relations was translated into a recognizable language of property. Broadly, it charts the birth of a specific juridical notion of property bolstered by an economic narrative of use shedding light upon colonial liberalism's unsettled relation to property rights. More specifically, by analyzing instances of land-acquisition, property disputes and regulation of housing speculation in colonial Calcutta, it charts the process through which ownership became financialized. Through this process of financialization, a monetized value of land replaced a social value in land as a possession involving a complex system of patronage, gifting practices, ancestral spirits and gods.

As Calcutta expanded from a trading post of the East India Company to the second capital of the British Empire from 1757 to 1911, the politics of land as social capital was transformed into a political economy of ownership. The decades following 1820 marked a crucial period in establishing laws pertaining to land acquisition, land titles and property rights over "alluvions." The legal ordering of spaces through the nineteenth century created new narratives of law to render fictitious earlier existing authorities and thereby delegitimizing various ways of dwelling in spaces. By the early twentieth century, another kind of fiction emerged encapsulated in the promise of a future value in land: a fiction that made speculation possible. Through an intricate negotiation of value as an economic, social and moral entity, land in colonial Calcutta was transformed into capital. Simultaneously, various narratives of possession authorized through maps, notarized government paper, and property deeds restructured the urban power networks.

In studying the transformation of the non-revenue generating marshes into property this dissertation demonstrates that law provided an important epistemological framework in the development of imperial cartography and a propertied geography throughout the nineteenth century. In mapping this particular history of the production of urban property this dissertation revealed the gap between the necessary and possible juridico-economic definitions of property: a gap where multiple ownership patterns exist.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents Introduction: The "Land" Question: Property, Market and Law 1 I. Knowing the Land 1 II. Where is the "Land" in Colonial Urban History? 12 III. Property, Law and Market: 32 Chapter 1/ Story-telling as Owning: The Many Histories of Calcutta 46 I. Calcutta as Narrated by its Historians 46 II. Calcutta's History as Imperial Allegory 50 III. Between "British Enterprise" and Planning Nightmare 59 IV. Historical Closures: Calcutta's Many Origins 72 VI. Historical Disclosure: Fluid Poetics of the Urban 79 VII. Conclusion: Narrating Spatially and Framing the Project 88 Chapter 2/ Fabricating Symbols of Possession: Translating Calcutta's Riverbank 92 I. Limiting the Fluid City 92 II. Writing History with the Knots and Folds of the River 99 III. The Curious Case of the Land that Grew: The Company as General Zamindar 117 IV. The Many Biographies of One Plot of Land 130 V. Concluding Remarks: Muddying Property 135 Chapter 3 / Value's Other: Maidan as a Hollow Core of Calcutta 140 I. Possessing the Maidan 140 II. Terra Economica: Neoliberalism and Environment 147 III. The Time of the Park: The Unconsumable Open Space in Calcutta: 152 V. "This Wicked and Foule Fayre": Spectacles in the Green 166 IV. The Politics of Open Space 169 VI. The Haunted Maidan 179 VII. Conclusion 188 Chapter 4/ Speculation and Land-Profiteering: Fixing the Fiscal Geography of Calcutta 192 I. Introduction: A Financial Activity in Search of a Lexicon 192 II. Between Native Mendacity and Colonial Economicity 201 III. A Twentieth-Century History of Necessities 206 IV. A Long History of "Hoarding" 214 V. Land as Fictitious Capital: "Squeezing and Profiteering" 221 VI. Conclusion: Fatalistic Future Vs. Developmental Futures 240 Conclusion: "Fictitious" Possessions 245 Glossary 256 Appendix 259 Fort William, Judicial Criminal, 1820, April 1st, No. 15 259 Bibliography 273

About this Dissertation

Rights statement
  • Permission granted by the author to include this thesis or dissertation in this repository. All rights reserved by the author. Please contact the author for information regarding the reproduction and use of this thesis or dissertation.
  • English
Research Field
Committee Chair / Thesis Advisor
Committee Members
Last modified

Primary PDF

Supplemental Files