Crime and the Colonial Capital: Detective Reid in Calcutta

By Abhishek Sarkar

In his book Every Man His Own Detective (1887) former Police Inspector R. Reid describes a case that was a cause célèbre in its time and is largely responsible for the formation of the Detective Department of the Calcutta Police. At 3 o’clock in the morning of 1st April, 1868, an Indian constable patrolling his beat in Amherst Street saw by the light of his bull’s eye lamp “something resembling a heap of female wearing apparel lying on the west side of the main street.” On closer observation, he found it to be the corpse of an Indian woman, recently murdered. A gas lamp was burning across the road opposite the spot where the body was found. The constable had passed the spot just an hour earlier finding the space clear and during his patrol through the adjoining lanes and by-lanes had not heard any voices or any sounds of carriages. The Inspector of the local thanna (police station) arrived at the scene just as the clock of the Trinity Church on Amherst Street was striking 4 a.m. Reid’s description is gripping for the almost tangible sense of atmosphere and topography it evokes.

The body was duly examined by the Police Surgeon and lay unidentified at the dead-house of the Medical College Hospital for four days before being buried, but it had been photographed by M/s Saché and Westfield on 2nd April. Copies of the photograph were circulated throughout Kolkata and the suburbs and a reward of 100 rupees was announced “by beat of tom-tom” for any relevant information. This proved to be the first case in India where photography was successfully used by the police for the identification of a victim. Dr. Norman Chevers, Principal of the Calcutta Medical College, includes the photograph of the cadaver in his learned volume A Manual for Medical Jurisprudence in India (1870). He notes that the body was identified based on “the presence of a small pointed supernumerary tooth, between the middle incisors of the upper jaw.”

The deceased was revealed to be one Rose Brown, an Indian Christian woman. Further investigation led to the arrest of her paramours, named Kingsley and Madhub Chunder Dutt.  Reid relates in detail Madhub’s statement, describing his stroll with the victim on the fateful night along gas-lit streets of central Calcutta, from Baithakkhana Lane through Bow Bazar Street, Wellington Street, College Street, Colootollah Street,  Chitpore Road, Lall Bazar and back to Bow Bazar. Madhub reported that they had been surprised by Kingsley during their promenade and he ran away for his dear life. Hidden in an alley, he watched Kingsley and Rose walk slowly towards Amherst Street.

After this tremendous build-up, Reid brings his story to an abrupt halt. He tantalizingly decides to “leave the solution of the problem, which of these two men, Kingsley or Madhub, murdered Rose Brown?  [sic] to the intelligent police officer.” As if this was not frustrating enough, one learns from Dr. Chevers’s book that “the accused escaped”. Chevers discusses in detail the report of Dr. Colles, who had conducted the autopsy, and supports the court’s decision that Rose Brown was not murdered but committed suicide. As for Reid’s account of the case in his book, he not only omits the official verdict on the case but also withholds his own judgment. His agenda is to provide a do-it-yourself lesson in detection and not to serve a whodunit on a platter.

Reid’s account appears like an unfinished Victorian mystery, falling just a bit shy of supplying the requisite number of clues. Reid advises his pupils that the procedure to be followed for cracking the Rose Brown case is that of the previous case described in the book and analyzed by himself clause by clause for their benefit. The previous case is incidentally that of Leah Judah of 5 Pollock Street, wife of a Jewish opium merchant, who was murdered by her paramour Nasseem Shallome Gubboy and his accomplice Ezekiel Shurbanee in the wee hours of 30 September 1868.

The Detective Department of the Calcutta Police came into existence on 28 November 1868, in the same year as the Rose Brown and Pollock Street murder cases. It was the first time that a permanent and designated elite contingent of specialised investigators was formed in India, a decade before an equivalent body, the Criminal Investigation Department, was set up at the heart of the empire in Scotland Yard. Reid rose to the position of the Superintendent of the Detective Department and was also appointed as the Prince of Wales’s personal bodyguard during his sojourn in Calcutta in 1875-76. Reid published Every Man His Own Detective eight years after he had resigned from the post of the Superintendent of the Detective Department of the Calcutta Police. His other publications including Romance of Indian Crime (1885), Revelation of an Indian Detective (1885), Reminiscences of an Indian Detective (1886) attest to his continuing sense of vocation.

Reid in this book deals with various types of swindling and theft, apart from murder. A common motif set by Reid’s accounts is that criminals exploit Calcutta’s status as the hub of administrative and commercial networks and the detective chases them beyond the city’s limits to bring them back to the colonial capital for their trial and punishment. For example, Reid narrates the case of a Dunbar who swindled several leading firms of Calcutta and absconded, constantly changing his location and adopting new identities as he went on cheating more people. At one point he impersonates one Mr. Reid of the Calcutta Detective Police, and causes Reid to be briefly detained as Dunbar himself. Reid follows his scent to Allahabad, Muzaffarnagar, Roorkee, Jabalpur and Shapore, before arresting him in Bhopal.

In another case, Reid and his team sail in a luxurious boat to Chandernagore, then a French colony about 45 kilometres north of Calcutta, in order to capture an absconding swindler. The criminal is lured aboard with dance and music, and the arrest is made just as the pleasure boat is drifting away from the French soil. Reid also reports an ingenious case of salt smuggling on the Hooghly River and an illegal sale of postage stamps carried out by a Jewish merchant in Howrah just off the city limits.

A notable feature of Reid’s accounts is their cross-cultural or multi-ethnic ambit. The peculiarity of his vocation provided the detective a unique vantage of Calcutta, cutting across ethnic and class boundaries. Reid, for example, interacts with a wide range of people from Indian servants and gentlemen to the movers and shakers of the colonial administration.

Reid sets great store by “physiognomy,” the then-fashionable art of judging characters from facial expressions, although it has long been discredited as a pseudo-science. He devotes an entire section of his book to physiognomy and smugly observes that almost every face in “the opium dens and gambling hells of Calcutta” shows a “grotesquely hideous mixture of imbecility with low cunning, greed, and cruelty”. He hastens to add with what seems to be the literary equivalent of a knowing chuckle, “If a man is wanted for the murder of a child for the sake of a silver ornament worth, perhaps, only a few annas, you find him here.”

Reid has hardly any qualms about the ingrained racism of his outlook. While discussing the Pollock Street murder, he observes, “The phlegmatic Englishman may seek satisfaction in the Divorce Court, and the susceptible Frenchman secure it at the point of his rapier, but the Hebrew will be satisfied with nothing less than the life” of the disloyal woman. Besides, Reid is irritated by the deceptive stupidity of Indian domestics and does not think much of Indian policemen either. He uses the term “native” for the Indians throughout. Nevertheless, he is quick to honour merit when he sees it. Once, a lost child of two and a half years was placed at the police station and was seen arranging a handful of grams like the breaking and distribution of type in a printing press. An Indian constable came to the decision that the child’s father was a compositor, which was subsequently found to be true. Reid recommended the constable to be attached to the detective department, and felt thoroughly insulted when his suggestion was brushed aside by the higher authorities.

Reid’s narratives refuse to grant the upper hand to crime. If they accept crime to be integral to life in the bustling, chaotic second city of the empire, they also project the detection of crime to be an equally remarkable part of the less-than-perfect urban experience. A Bengali translation of the book, Engrej Detectiver Chokhe Prachin Kolkata (Old Calcutta in the Eyes of an English Detective, 1966) by the journalist and belle-lettrist Parimal Goswami did not find much favour in its time and its reissue in the new millennium has gone equally unnoticed. Reid’s wise saws, avuncular attitude  and readymade formulae for investigation may appear quite off-putting, but Every Man His Own Detective has a fair share of thrill and old world charm to make for a memorable read.

Parimal Goswami’s translation of R.Reid’s Every Man His Own Detective

Abhishek Sarkar teaches at the Department of English, Jadavpur University. His research interests are the literatures and cultures of early modern England and colonial Bengal.



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