This tortoise had seen the rise and eventual decline of British colonialism in India and for Sen, who had been looking for a vehicle to write a history of her native land, this was a gift.
“This was the longest-living creature on earth, and during its life it had caught the British sailing into Calcutta, and the man at the center of it all, Robert Clive, who brought British rule to India.”
The tortoise was no accidental tourist, but a true witness to history, since this tortoise was among the gifts presented to Clive when he arrived, Sen said.
Many historians attribute to him British rule in India, and he is sometimes known as the “conqueror of India” even by his admirers.
Clive first arrived in India in 1743 as a civil servant of the East India Company, returned a decade later for military service, and was known for his extravagance and ostentatious displays of wealth. A political figure back in England, Clive became a military leader who eventually secured British rule of India over rival France, laying siege to and later capturing a number of key ports in India.
Sen, who grew up in Calcutta, moved to the United States in 1987. She he loves history and wanted to do something on her native land.
As an archivist at Bayonne Library from 1991 to her retirement in 2006, she was largely responsible for bringing previously scattered materials on the history of Bayonne to one location in the reference sections—a monumental task considering where the materials were and their condition when she found them. Some records were stashed in the basement of City Hall where they slowly deteriorated. She had to preserve them before she could get on with organizing them.
Always an avid reader, Sen pursued a career in library science, working for two years at Jersey City Public Library before coming to Bayonne.
Though a resident of downtown Jersey City, Sen believes her lasting legacy is the collection of historic treasures she managed to assemble during her 15 years in Bayonne, making certain Bayonne has the most information possible about its long history.
"I love history and I love literature," she said. "So I looked around, and I decided to build an archive. We had a lot of information, but it was scattered. So when someone had a question about Bayonne, finding it was a problem."
A significant archiving challenge
In her quest to build the Bayonne Library's archive, Sen visited other libraries such as those in New York and Newark to see how theirs were put together.
During these tours, she also discovered material they had that Bayonne didn't.
"So I bartered to get those things here," she said.
In 2000, her work was acknowledged by a state archival evaluation service.
The archives had a remarkable number of historic treasures such as a film by the Edison Film Company of the Standard Oil fire of July 4, 1900.
The collection also includes a handwritten copy of Bayonne's city charter that was drafted by the city's first mayor, Henry Meigs, prior to the 1869 founding of the city.
Books that she has since wrapped in protective Mylar sheaths list the names of residents who served in World War I, World War II, even some in the Spanish American and American Civil wars.
The archive also contains about 850 postcards depicting images of historic Bayonne buildings and events. Maps from as early as 1861 are also available for researchers.
Although taken down in order to paint the archive room during her last tour of duty there, the walls also feature large photographs of the opening of the Bayonne Bridge.
The collection includes a five-volume survey of the city's historic sites, structures, and districts, compiled in 2000. Sen was one of 27 librarians across the nation to receive The New York Times Librarian Award in 2004. After serving at the reference desk for 15 years, Sen said it was time to move on to something else. She said she still loves Bayonne, calling it a city with the heart of a small town.
A unique point of view
Since retiring, Sen has written and published, but she was still trying to come up with a way to write the history of British rule in India that would appeal to the general public.
Clive, of course, did not keep the gift of the tortoise, but had it sent to a local zoo. But this didn’t matter to Sen, who thought, “Why couldn’t I write the history from the point of view of the tortoise?”
This would allow her to have a first-person narrator for that history, someone—if a tortoise can be someone—who actually lived through the entire history and could comment on what it saw, the rise and fall of the British Empire, the conflicts and the progress, even the rise of the remarkable Gandhi, who was instrumental in liberating India from British rule.
Married at the time to the head of a British company in India, Sen hobnobbed with the upper classes while living in India. She didn’t work; she went to parties. But this gives her a view of society and history that most people lack. A socialite in India before moving to the United States, Sen has a unique perspective about the relationships that existed in historic and even contemporary India, not just between the British and Indians, but also among the casts of India. Instead of having the history of her country written by outsiders or from the perspective of the British, she can tell the story from the view of native Indians and its impact on the nation and perhaps even the world at large.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.