Brajendranath De

Brajendranath Deicon male small Brajendranath De icon tree small Brajendranath DeBorn:
Father: UnspecifiedMother: Unspecified
Children: Kanak Nalini De, Lalit Kumar De, Prafulla Nalini De, Naba Nalini Basu, Niraj Nalini Ghose, Hem Nalini Mitra, Sarasi Nalini Datta, Nirmal Nalini Datta, Shishir De, Hemanta Kumar De, Basanta Kumar De, Saroj Nalini Dutt
Siblings: none

He was born at his maternal grandfather’s home at 123, Manicktala Street, Calcutta. His father’s family, originally from Uttar Rarh in Bengal, belonged to the newly emerging middle class of Calcutta. He describes them as Kayastha bhadraloks in his unpublished memoir. According to his relatives and then his descendants, who based their claims on information given by their family elders, one of his ancestors, Baidyanath Deb Sarkar (or Dey) was a member of a branch of the same family to which Ramdulal Dey (Deb Sarkar), Ashutosh Dey (Deb Sarkar) (alias Chatu Babu) and Pramathanath De (Deb Sarkar) (alias Latu Babu) belonged. These three men were considered to be the doyens of Bengali business in the eighteenth century, having brought Waneham Lake ice from America to India for the first time. From Brajendranath’s memoir it emerges that his paternal ancestors had lived in Bhowanipore from the third quarter of the eighteenth century, and owned a number of houses there, of which only 31, Gobinda Bose’s Lane remained at the time of his birth. Bhowanipore, at the turn of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, was one of the newest and most modern suburban localities of Calcutta where affluent families, arriving from either the south of the city or from North Calcutta built their homes. One of his close paternal uncles was Babu Nilmadhab De, who became a Munsiff (Civil Judge/Judicial Magistrate) His father, Babu Durgadas De, who was born in 1830, studied at Hindu College, Calcutta on a Hindu College Junior Scholarship from 1847-49. After his marriage to Trailokymohini Debi, Durgadas was introduced by his father-in-law, Babu Rajendralal Basu, to Raja Dakshinaranjan Mukherjee, His father-in-law and Mukherjee helped him find a job in Lucknow. In 1861, Durgadas went to Lucknow where he was employed in court service.

On his mother’s side, Brajendranath came from a distinguished family of North Calcutta and Barasat.  His mother, Trailokyamohini Debi (née Basu) belonged to a North Calcutta family, commonly referred to as the Garhkata Basus, of Anarpur in the Barasat subdivision of the 24 Parganas in Bengal. One of his maternal ancestors in the late eighteenth century was Raja Manik Ram Bose, a wealthy agent of the Nawabs of Oudh. His maternal grandfather, Babu Rajendralal Basu, a wealthy lawyer, worked as a managing clerk for an English Solicitor’s firm. He once went to Farukkhabad to defend the Nawab of Farukkhabad in a case there. He amassed considerable amount of wealth, with which he maintained a number of houses, two of which included the house he built in Calcutta and the other, his ancestral home, in Anarpur. His mother was also a niece, on her mother’s side, of Babu Peary Charan Sarkar. He was also close to Sarkar’s son, his uncle, J.N. Sarkar, Esq. Bar-at-Law, formerly a student of Balliol College, Oxford, who practiced in the Central Provinces and Berar. His younger cousin, the son of his maternal aunt, was Rai Bahadur Siddheshwar Mitter, who started his career as the Confidential Assistant of Sir Francis Younghusband in Lhasa and later became the Dewan of Chatarpur State. Mitter’s younger brother was Dr. Siddhamohan Mitter, a well-known journalist, who was the Editor of Deccan Post, and also a lawyer in the court of Hyderabad, who later mastered Urdu and Persian and lived in London and then Bournemouth, UK till the end of his life. Sir Nripendranath Sircar, an Advocate General of Bengal, and later Law Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, was a cousin of Brajendranath’s.

On his father’s side, they descended from the family of Ramdulal Dey, Ashutosh Dey [Chatu Babu] and Pramathanath Dey [Latu Babu], three eminent pioneering entrepreneurs of 17th-18th century Bengal.  The bazaar called ‘Chatu Babur Bajar’ was named after Ashutosh Dey.

In the initial years Brajendranath was admitted to his father’s school, Hare School, Calcutta. He says that his schooling was managed alternately by his father and maternal grandfather. While still living in Calcutta, he was greatly influenced by the personality of the radical journalist Harish Chandra Mukherjee who lived in the same neighborhood as his paternal family. In 1865, at the age of 11, he and his younger sister and brother, Saudamoni and Siddheshwar, went to Lucknow with their parents. After completing his remaining few years of schooling at the Canning Collegiate School, he joined Canning College, Lucknow, where he completed his B.A. degree, ranking first class sixth. There he learnt Arabic under the guidance of Syed Hussain Bilgrami. He completed his M.A. (Honours) degree in English at the University of Calcutta in 1871, ranking first class second in the university.

In England

From a young age his family members encouraged him to perform very well in his career. In 1872, with the Canning College Scholarship, awarded to him by his alma mater Canning College, Lucknow, and also with the encouragement of his father, his granduncle, Peary Charan Sarkar, and his father’s friend Raja Dakshinaranjan Mukherjee, he set sail for England. Initially, De faced financial difficulties while travelling – he lost almost all his money in Bombay – but once in England, he quickly recovered his finances and settled down to joined University College, London. There he began to attend the lectures of Professor Goldstucker, Professor Henry Morley, who taught English, Professor Croom Robertson, who taught Mental Science, Professor M. Forster, who taught Physical Science, and Professor Williamson, who taught Chemistry. In 1873, he appeared successfully for the Open Competitive Service Examination, becoming the eighth Indian to join the Indian Civil Service. His probation period in the ICS lasted for two years from 1873-5. He was also called to the Bar by the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple.

In 1875, towards the end of his probation period, De went to Oxford to explore the possibility of his joining a college there for an year before returning to India to take up his post in the civil service. De approached Professor Sir Monier Monier Williams on whose advised he joined St. Mary’s Hall. He stayed in Oxford for one academic year. De became the first Indian member of the ICS to be admitted to a college in Oxford. He became one of the only four students of his year to be awarded the Boden Sanskrit Scholarship which he held for one year.

At Oxford as a student of Sir Monier Williams he was initiated into the study of classical Sanskrit, and attended a class on Panini. He also met Professor Max Müller, and with a group of students of the same class requested him to deliver a set of lectures on the Rig Veda. Müller spoke on the Vedic accents udatta, anudatta, and svarita. He says that only a few students, including himself, the three other Boden Sanskrit Scholars and a few dons attended Professor Max Muller’s first lecture. The next day when he and the other Boden Sanskrit Scholars went to Professor Muller’s office, they found a note stuck on the door of the room stating that the Professor had left for the continent. But the other academic whose lecture he and his fellow students greatly appreciated attending was Mr. Ruskin, who was the most popular of the three lecturers De mentions in his memoir.
De also became a member of the Oxford Union, when Mr. Asquith (later the Earl of Oxford) was its President. In England, De became friendly with the eminent nationalist leader Ananda Mohan Bose. He was also friendly with Bolinarayan Borah, a successful government engineer as well as his uncle, J.N. Sarkar, who has been mentioned earlier in this article.

On his onward journey to England, De had visited Aden and then sailed down the Red Sea. Next he traveled by train across the desert to Alexandria, and finally crossed the Mediterranean Sea and the Bay of Biscay to reach England. As a student in England, he visited London, Worthingh, Brighton and Southampton. He also traveled to Scotland. He visited Edinburgh, the Isle of Arran, Dunning, Perth, Dunkeld, the Pass of Killiecrankie, Inverness, Glencoe, the Islands of Staffa and Iona, and Glasgow. On his way back to India he stopped at Paris for a week, and then visited Geneva and Chamounix, at the foot of Mount Blanc. Then he crossed over the Alps to Milan and Rome. From there he passed through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea towards India.

Return to India

Like his father Durgadas, Brajendranath started visiting the Brahmo Samaj soon after his return from England, and became a Brahmo . Few years after his return from England, he joined the Brahmo Sammilan Samaj, a branch of the main Brahmo Samaj, which is still based in Bhowanipore, Calcutta. There is, however, a pleasant description in his fourth son-in-law, Gurusaday Dutt Esq.’s book entitled A Woman of India: Being the Life of Saroj Nalini Dutt, of his family members, especially his mother, who was a devout Hindu, and also his wife and children performing their daily prayers in the evening by the river Hooghly at his garden-house in Bandel in Hooghly district.

Upon return from England, as a fresh recruit in the ICS, he rented a house in Jorashanko, in North Calcutta where his family, including his parents and wife, Nagendra Nandini, stayed from 1875-7. After his father died in 1877, he moved with his family to the districts. His mother divided her time between his official homes, his garden house in Bandel and their ancestral home in Bhowanipore. Through his working life he lived in the districts, mostly in Chinsura town, where he was posted on numerous occasions. After retirement he returned to Calcutta and took up residence in either rented or owned houses on Lower Rowden Street and Louden Street. He finally bought a house at 20, Theatre Road where his sons stayed together well after his death. He periodically visited Darjeeling during the summer vacations and took residence in houses, such as ‘Langdale’ (1891) and ‘Hermitage’ (1916) there. In the 1920s he bought a house called the ‘White House’ in Darjeeling which was later sold to the state government for the district officials to live in.


Throughout his career, he served in various bureaucratic capacities in Bengal, Behar and Orissa. His first posting in the civil service was as Assistant Magistrate of Arrah in Behar.

While he was in Behar, he maintained close contact with the zamindars of that province. As an official first in Arrah and then in Buxar, he met the Maharajas of Dumrao and Darbhanga on more than one occasion, living as the guest of the Maharaja of Darbhanga on one occasion. He writes in his memoirs that the members of the Darbhanga Raj, especially the zamindar of Parihar, an uncle of the Maharaja, who was the head of a cadet branch of the main zamindari, maintained friendly relations with him when he was the subdivisional officer there. The ruler of Parihar once recited a sloka in Sanskrit to suggest that as a Bengali civilian, De could not aspire to rise to the highest rungs of the official ladder while European civilians, younger than he was, would rise faster to the top. The sloka was as follows:

Uttanga Saila Shikhara sthitha pada panam,
Kakah krishopi phalamulabhate shupaksha;
Sinho bali nakhara-bhinna-gajendra-mundah
Sidatya-ho tarutale khalu paksha hina!

Standing atop and settled on the peak of a mountain,
The crow, thin and weak, but with wings, fetches fruits from trees,
The mighty lion whose claws tear open the elephant kings head
Has to sit at the foot of a tree since it has no wings

The Maharajkumar’s prophecy, made in 1876, came true several years later, in 1905 when he was told by Sir John Woodburn, the then Lieutenant Governor of Bengal in Calcutta that he, De, was likely to be passed over for a full Commissionership since reports written about him by some of his superiors in the service were not entirely favorable.

Throughout his memoir, De clearly indicates that he felt very comfortable working with the landlords of the former Bengal Presidency. Just as he shows sympathy and understanding towards the Zamindar of Parihar, whose income he says was not inconsiderable for the times – Rs. 60, 000 to Rs. 1, 20, 000 per annum – he demonstrates the same understanding for the Raja of Bhagawanpur, the head of the Rajput families of the Bhabua subdivision, who De says was not particularly well off, but was held in high esteem by the other landlords of the subdivision.

As a Bengali civilian De felt it was his duty to look after the interests of all the landlords, especially the ones whose fortunes had dwindled, and who were not in favor with the government.

The welfare of even zamindaris that were brought temporarily under the Court of Wards was paid the maximum attention by De. For instance, his relations with the Maharajas of Burdwan were cordial. During the 1880s, as the Magistrate and Collector (offtg.) he was one of the principal functionaries in the Court of Wards in Bengal. Maharaja Bijoy Chand Mehtab, the Maharaja of Burdwan, then a minor, was placed under the supervision of the Court of Wards and the Burdwan Raj was managed by its Dewan and the minor Maharajas father, Raja Banbehari Kapoor. During this period De worked in close association with Kapoor. De writes admiringly about Kapoor’s administrative skills, his generous hospitality, which De accepted liberally in the company of his colleagues in the civil service, and also the Raja’s savoir faire.

The Ilbert Bill Controversy of 1883 broke out when De was a Joint Magistrate of Hooghly. When asked to comment on the nature of the Bill, he supported the recommendations for increase in the Indian magistrates’ powers. This gained him the contempt of his then Divisional Commissioner, John Beames, Esq., who in the Aitchison Committee suggested that persons of De’s nationality, not calibre, should neither be allowed to draw a salary equal to that of the British civilians, nor should they be allowed to sit in the presence of their British counterparts in the same room. The members of the committee did show disregard for Beames’ views and asked the latter to leave the room while De was asked to make his deposition before the committee fully seated. De was indeed heard by his British superiors, for whom he had the highest regard, but he was also one of the very few early Indian officials, generally perceived to be loyalists of the Raj, who were noted for their courage to speak up in favor of fair play and justice for everybody in India.

Relationship with the rulers of the Indian Princely States

Later in his career, De showed that he did not feel uneasy when dealing with the rulers of the former Indian States, but his means and methods of dispensing justice or dealing with a particular issue was not always approved of by the rulers. The modes of governance adopted by the then modern civil servants were often found to be too modern, progressive and liberal by the rulers of the former Indian States. A minor grandson of the Maharaja of Rewah, a former 17 Gun Salute Princely State in Central India, once, while witnessing De dispense justice in a village, disapproved of what he called an excessively even-handed approach in dealing with cases. When De asked him what should be the best means of delivering justice, the boy replied, “jhat-mundi kaat deti” (“We cut off the head”).

De became a full Magistrate and Collector as early as in 1891. As the Magistrate and Collector of Balasore, he and his Divisional Commissioner, Romesh Dutt, Esq., ICS, one of the stalwarts of moderate nationalism, had to work in the additional capacity of Assistant Superintendent and Superintendent of the three Tributary Mahals of Mayurbhanj[dead link], a 9 Gun Salute State, and Keonjhar and Nilgiri, both Princely States of eastern India. Dutt and De’s involvement in the administration of Mayurbhanj was more than their involvement in the administrations of the other two States. On one occasion, in Mayurbhanj, Dutt had to negotiate the marriage alliance of Maharaja Sri Ram Chandra Bhanj Deo, then the minor Maharaja of Mayurbhanj, with his grandmother, the Dowager Maharani. De, who by his own admission stood silently behind his Commissioner, throughout the conversation between the Commissioner and the Dowager Maharani, writes admiringly about the manner in which the Dowager Maharani dealt with these two new civilians. Even though she ran Mayurbhanj on her own in the absence of her eldest son and daughter-in-law, parents of the minor Maharaja, and seemed weary of the provincial government’s policies vis-a-vis the administration of an Indian State, she still possessed a great strength of character and determination to ensure that her grandson, the Maharaja was not married (for the time being) to a progressive Brahmo lady from Calcutta, and was instead married more appropriately, to a daughter of the Raja of Chota Nagpur, according to the norms and conventions prescribed by her family’s religion.

While he was in Orissa, De also acted as the Sessions Judge of these three States. As a First Class Magistrate, exercised the power to try cases and hear appeals from cases that had been tried earlier by the Managers of the three Tributary Mahals, for instance the Manager of Nilgiri, who exercised the powers of a Second Class Magistrate. De was also the Port and Customs Officer of Balasore and Chandabali at this time.

Growing concern for developmental work

As De grew in seniority in the service and began to assume greater responsibilities, he began to show more concern for developmental work in the districts where he was posted. As the Magistrate and Collector of a number of districts in Bengal and Orissa, namely Faridpore, Khulna, Balasore, Malda and Hooghly, he initiated a number of civic developmental schemes for the welfare of the people of these districts. His contribution to the development of Hooghly district was considerable. He made his mark as a civilian when he was the Magistrate and Collector of Hooghly. He was the first Indian to be the Magistrate and Collector of that district. In the late 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century, in addition to his responsibilities as District Officer, he was also appointed as the Vice President of the District Board of Hooghly. He befriended the highly respected Zamindar of Uttarpara, Babu Joykrishna Mukherjee, who was also a member of the Board, at the Board meetings, and also became friendly with Mukherjee’s son, Babu (later Raja) Peary Mohan Mukherjee, who, even though he was not a member of the Board, used to come to its meetings to escort his ageing father. De writes that Babu Joykrishna Mukherjee in spite of his advanced years still spoke with precision and showed great intellectual ability. De was also elected the first official Chairman of the Hooghly Municipal Corporation. He wrote in his memoir that he was the only official who was elected as Chairman of any district municipality in India after the passing of an act by which quite a few mofussil municipalities other than that of Calcutta were empowered to elect their own Chairman. As Chairman he contributed to its civic upliftment, such as ensuring the smooth supply of filtered water to the Hooghly-Chinsura Municipal Corporation which lasted for several years. He also contributed significantly to the maintenance of the Hooghly Imambara in Chinsura. Indeed, his commitment to the cause of the upliftment of Hooghly, of which he was a long serving Magistrate and Collector, was evident in a short report published in The Statesman towards the end of his career. The report, commenting on the development of industry and agriculture in Hooghly, extolled De’s administrative skills and his commitment to the development of the district.[29] De also contributed significantly to the development of Uttarpara town, an effort in which he was ably assisted by the Mukherjee family.

Support for Indian nationalism

Barring the first ten years of service, his career coincided with the first phase of Indian nationalism. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, he was known in British official circles to have sided with the moderate nationalists. His proximity to the nationalists became evident when, as the Magistrate and Collector of Khulna, he was befriended by Dr. K.D. Ghosh, the Civil Medical Officer there, who was the father of Shri Aurobindo Ghosh. De’s closeness to members of the newly emerging nationalist elites in Bengal eventually prevented him from being appointed to higher posts in the civil service. Even though De was appointed as Commissioner (offtg.) of Burdwan thrice at the height of the Swadeshi movement (1905) in Bengal, at the time of his retirement in 1910 he continued to remain as the District Magistrate and Collector of Hooghly. He was severely criticized by his British colleagues in the civil service due to his ‘pro-nationalist’ sentiments and the decision to visit a number of Swadeshi Bazaars in the Burdwan Division. He says that his visits to the Swadeshi Bazaars were less motivated by nationalist sentiment and more by his eagerness, as a government official, to ensure that law and order as well as peace and tranquility were maintained in the Division, especially in and around the places where the Bazaars were held, in the wake of the unrest caused by the Swadeshi movement. However, his decision to tour the bazaars was seen as an example of an Indian official’s patriotism, which later won him high praise in nationalist circles, especially among Congress leaders, such as Surendranath Banerjee, and also from his Indian colleagues in the civil service.[32] In 1910, when De retired from the civil service, the Bengalee, the nationalist daily edited by S.N.Banerjee, wrote that De in his long career as a civilian showed “… a little intuitive sympathy with his countrymen, born of first-hand knowledge of their desires, their requirements, their character and their temperament, … testimony to the efficacy of … the governance of men is complete.

Even the Pioneer, a pro-Raj newspaper, supported the view that De was an exceptionally able and patriotic administrator, committed to the maintenance of law and order in his district. It wrote: “If it had been possible to multiply Mr. De sufficiently, there would have been no trouble in Bengal“. The Indian Opinion added: “… but these are men who glide out of the service unnoticed while the person who is chiefly responsible for the mischief probably makes his exit under salutes, in a coat covered with ribbons and stars.

As the District Officer of Hooghly, he started a club, called the Duke Club in the district exclusively for Indians. His decision to start a club only for the Indians was prompted by the British refusal to allow Indians entry into their clubs. One of his Commissioners once told him to not even entertain the thought of wanting to join one of the British clubs in his district. Social prejudices of his colleagues towards Indian members of the covenanted civil services were responsible for his steadfast support for the welfare of the other Indians of his district, which won him rich accolades throughout his career and also many friends. His popularity in Hooghly became most evident during his retirement. The Indian Daily News reported that “Both Hindus and Mohammadans, headed by Raja Peary Mohon Mukherjee, C.S.I. and by Nawabzada Sayid Ashrafuddin Ahmed Khan Bahadur are going to give Mr. and Mrs. De two farewells … with the exception of Messrs. Faulder, Inglis, Duke and Maddox, no civilian was more popular in Hooghly district than Mr.B.De.


He retired from the civil service in 1910. After retirement he became a Vice President of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and translated and edited in two volumes Nizamuddin Ahmad’s Tabaqat-i-Akbari. The third volume, which he had left fully prepared, was published posthumously by Dr.Hidayat Hosain. This book gives a general history of India from the Mohammadan conquest up to 1594.

After retirement, he was also appointed as a Member of the Calcutta Improvement Trust.

After his death the Hooghly municipality renamed a road and a town hall in Chinsura after him due to his reputation as one of the earliest Indian and one of the longest serving Magistrate and Collectors of the district. A hall in Malda town, where the town’s dramatics club is located, is also named after him. He was the District Magistrate and Collector of Malda.

On his birth centenary in 1952 his family members arranged for the publication of segments of his memoir “Reminiscences of an Indian Member of the Indian Civil Service”, (Calcutta, 1925-9) in the Calcutta Review, the journal of Asiatic Society, Calcutta.

In 2001, approximately 2000 photographs of himself and his family members were given on loan to the photographic archives of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Later, the archive was shifted to the newly established Jadunath Sarkar Centre for Historical Research, CSSSC, Calcutta, and the photographs too were deposited at ‘Jadunath Bhavan’, where the new Centre is located.


3 thoughts on “Brajendranath De

  1. The siblings were as follows, in this order: Lalit Kumar, Hem Nalini [Hem], Kanak Nalini, Niraj Nalini [Belle], Naba Nalini [Naba], Saroj Nalini [Saro], Hemanta Kumar [Hemta], Prafulla Nalini [Pippa], Sarasi Nalini [Dolly], Basanta Kumar [Basta], Nirmal Nalini [Nina] and Sisir Kumar [Sisir].

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