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


Debjani Bhattacharyya

PhD defended at: 

Emory University



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.