Captain Suresh Biswas, myth and reality
María Helena Barrera-Agarwal Arts & Letters

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“… he had a hero. Another Bengali, who left home a hundred years ago and went to England, working as crew on a ship. Eventually, he ended up in Brazil - or was it Mexico? - and joined its army. He became a colonel and greatly impressed everyone by his valor and courage.’ ‘Do you mean Suresh Biswas?’  Feluda asked. Lalmohan Babu, too, had recognized the name. His eyes gleamed. ‘Yes, yes,’ he said hurriedly, ‘Colonel Suresh Biswas. He died in Brazil.’”

The Adventures of Feluda

Satyajit Ray

 

My curiosity was piqued. A Bengali martial hero in Brazil? I was quite surprised. Let me explain why.

The British policy in then undivided Bengal was based not only on tangible control of the region and its inhabitants, it also required the nurturing of an ideology that promoted a stereotype whose aim was to conceptualize Bengalis as weak, lacking martial virtues. Bengalis were even denied a chance to build a military career. In such a context, how did a Bengali emerge as a martial hero in a land as remote as Brazil? 

The answer to this question is found in the pages of a Kolkata newspaper, the Amrita Bazar Patrika (ABP). Established in 1868, by the Ghosh brothers, ABP promoted the idea of India’s freedom since its beginning. The journalistic line privileged patriotic pride, denouncing the injustices rooted in the colonial system and proclaiming the worthiness of the native population. As part of that policy, it aimed to provide Bengali and Indian life examples: ABP readers were presented often with profiles of Indians, depicted in ways vastly contrasting those promoted by the British imperial machinery.

In such a context, in 1894, ABP published its first note about Suresh Biswas’s exploits. The news item had a solid base: its referential frame was the news coverage of the Brazilian Civil War being fought that year. Despite the geographical distance, it was a conflict that was covered with interest in India. A broad range of newspapers regularly reprinted news taken from the European media. ABP was no exception to that trend. In the first semester of 1894, it surprised its readers by adding to its coverage a wholly original angle. In an article, it was revealed that a Bengali was fighting heroically in the Brazilian war, as a member of the Brazilian armed forces.

The exact way in which Biswas was first featured cannot be established, as the issue in which the article appeared cannot be located.  Nonetheless, the existence of the note can be ascertained thanks to a reference in a second article on Biswas, published by ABP,  where it is mentioned that “Suresh Biswas, the Bengali Lieutenant serving in Brazil, and an account of whose brave deeds was, the other day published in these columns, is not dead.”

The article also features a more direct link to Biswas himself: ABP transcribes a brief letter written by him to his uncle. Biswas’s style is marked by clarity:

“My dear uncle_ Last month, I know not the exact date, I received your letter dated 17th of July 93. At present, I cannot write to you more, a time will come when I will write to you about me more at my leisure. The only information I can give you about me now is that I have been very ill, and have suffered from one of those revolutions in my system from which I have so very often narrowly escaped. I am getting better, for God will so have it.” 

This letter is the first of a number of pieces of correspondence that were published in the newspaper, in the years to come. The source of the documents is Suresh’s uncle, Kailash Chunder Biswas. The link between Suresh’s family and the ABP was a regular one, allowing the publication of many important documents, including testimonies of at least two of Biswas’ friends, from India and Brazil.

The material published in the ABP was, eventually, complemented by two books. The first book, published by Upendra Krishna Bandhopadhyay, in Bengali, was titled Lieutenant Suresh Biswas.  The second book, written by Hur Chunder Dutt in English, was titled Lieut. Suresh Biswas: His life and adventures.  In his book, Bandhopadhyay introduces himself as a friend of Suresh’s family.  He edits together facts related to his life, including the letters written by Suresh to his uncle in Kolkata. Dutt is a writer and journalist who has worked for and founded a variety of Bengali newspapers.  His sources concerning Biswas are similar to those used by Bandhopadhyay, including a direct connection to the family.  

Every reference to Suresh Biswas, in the 20th and 21st centuries, has as its sources Bandhopadyay’s and Dutt’s books. There is no evidence of other materials being used. 

Europe

Born on 1861, in Nathpur, Nadia District, Suresh belongs to a family of modest resources. His father, Girish Chunder Biswas, and his uncle, Kailash Chunder Biswas, are state employees. The obituary dedicated to Girish mentions that he was a devout Vaishnava. Despite such background, a teenaged Suresh abandons Hinduism, converting to a Protestant denomination.

Soon after his conversion, Suresh departs from Bengal. In a letter written many years later, one of  his friends mentions that he “went to England with a European gentleman taking the appointment of a steward in a ship.” Other testimonies suggest that, after sailing from Kolkata, he resided temporally in Rangoon, before starting his journey to Europe.

It is impossible to determine the exact year of Suresh’s arrival to Europe. The first documented details of his presence in the continent date from the World’s Fair at the Royal Agricultural Hall, Islington, 1881-82. The Fair’s manager, John O’Connor, had put together, as entertainment fare, a series of acts. Some are assured by the Continental Menagerie:

“Agricultural Hall. [...] The grand Continental menagerie, which occupies the center of the Hall, and which is open to all, contains a really good collection of animals, birds and reptiles, including a group of African lions, amongs which a clever Hindoo lion tamer performs at intervals.”

The tamer is Suresh, whose spectacular performance finds echo in another note, in which his feats are described with admiration:

“Among the beasts are three lions, which leap and perform other acts at the bidding of their keeper, Suresh-Biswas, who enters their cage. This exhibition, which takes place frequently, attracts great attention, and the daring young Hindi, master of the king of beasts, is loudly applauded for his display of temerity.”

In a Fair flyer, Biswas is depicted at the cage door, facing the public, while the lions wait, calmly, behind him. 

The image confirms the newspaper’s description, suggesting Suresh’s poise and fearlessness. It also gives context to his feats: the public observes, mesmerized from a lower plane, while the tamer – defined as “lion hunter” in the flyer – does not shy from a gallant and superior stance. 

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