Bengal: Sea swallows Fort Fraser

Cyclone Yaas hasn’t just ravaged the ecologically fragile Sunderbans and wrecked the lives and livelihood of lakhs of people, it has also washed away a slice of Bengal’s history. At Fraserganj — named after Sir Andrew Fraser, lieutenant-governor of Bengal in the early 20th century — it has completely destroyed the more-than-a-century old Fort Fraser, a top draw among tourists visiting weekend beach destinations Bakkhali and Fraserganj.

Situated around 122km south of Kolkata, the fort by the sea had been battered repeatedly by cyclones and rising tidal waves but finally bit the dust under the onslaught of Yaas.

“The fort had been crumbling for years. Several cottages had come up around it but since this is a coastal erosion zone, these too were damaged,” said Bankim Hazra, the state Sunderbans development minister. “The government had discussed a restoration plan in early 2020, but then came Amphan, Covid, the polls and now Yaas. The fort can no longer be salvaged. We will try to retrieve portions of the remains and turn it into a monument in memory of Fraser sahib,” Hazra added.

According to historians, Andrew Fraser, the then Lt governor of Bengal, discovered the beach in 1904 during one of his many sea and river voyages around Bengal. He fell in love with the place and built a fort and a guest house at Narayanitala, the nearest village that was later renamed Fraserganj.

The fort was surrounded by coconut groves and became a talking point among Englishmen in Kolkata.

In recent years, although large parts of the fort was swallowed by the advancing sea, the remains of the structure was still a must-stop for tourists visiting the nearby beaches. Last year, cyclone Amphan dealt it a cruel blow. Last month, cyclone Yaas brought about the final fall. The high tidal waves swamped the structure and all that remains of it today are a few stones jutting above the swirling water.

According to Anurag Danda, a Sunderbans expert and senior research fellow with Observer Research Foundation, an independent global think tank based in Delhi, the wiping out of the fort is a great loss to Bengal history.

“Fraser had a very important impact on the entire coastal belt in this part of Sunderbans, including Fraserganj, Sagar islands and parts of Namkhana and Mousuni island. Until Fraser arrived, all the settlements were lost periodically and no revenue could be generated for either the East India Company or the British India government. Eastern Sunderbans was brought under cultivation through the zamindari system whereas Fraser introduced the ‘ryotwari’ system,” said Danda.

Born in Mumbai in 1848, Fraser had joined the Indian Civil Service in 1871 and served as the Lt Governor of Bengal between 1903 and 1908. He had earned the wrath of freedom fighters after presiding over the 1905 Partition of Bengal and escaped two bids on his life in1907 and1908. But his service in British India earned him a CSI, an order of chivalry founded by Queen Victoria, and the knighthood. He died in 1919 at Edinburgh, Scotland.

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