In the 1890s, the practice of sky-scraping gas balloons at the height of its popularity in Europe and America was largely unthinkable for the British-ruled Indian subcontinent. Until then, it has not been possible to come in contact with any technology that the public can see through television even if they do not have the opportunity to see with their own eyes.

In March 1892, in the city of Dhaka, the capital of East Bengal, there was a rumor going around for some time that a young foreigner would fly in the sky in a balloon. In the old days when there was no opportunity for any kind of television, it is possible to guess the great interest, enthusiasm and curiosity in the minds of the people. Putting an end to all speculations, on 16 March 1892, a beautiful young lady named Jeanette Van Tassel conquered the skies of Dhaka.

Jeanette Van Tassel, the name is associated with the history of Dhaka due to an adventurous adventure. A detailed account of that memorable day in the history of Dhaka can be found in the famous songwriter Hason Raja’s son Ganiur Raja’s Dhaka travel story. It is to be noted that this incident was not published in the writings of anyone other than Ganiur Raja. He is an eyewitness to this incident. He mentions a total of five trips to Dhaka in his autobiography. He first visited Dhaka in 1892. During the service, he saw a foreign lady flying in the sky of Dhaka.

The amused Nawab family of Dhaka at that time used to arrange extensive entertainment for the city dwellers through various exceptional arrangements. In his autobiography, Ganiur Raja writes that Nawab Khwaja Ahsanullah signed a contract with a foreign balloon company for 10,000 rupees to fly a balloon in one afternoon only. Finally, after the agreement was finalized, the city dwellers were invited to see the exceptional and dazzling exhibition by beating drums for several days.

Nawab Khwaja Ahsanullah

In the presence of a curious crowd on that day, which was scheduled to take off in a balloon, the two banks of the Buriganga, the upper part of the buildings adjacent to the river, the courtyard and the roof of the Ahsan Manzil. At the same time, hundreds of enthusiastic people took up positions in the middle of the river and in the boat. According to the description of Ganiur Raja, from the south bank of the Buriganga adjacent to Ahsan Manzil, the foreigner lady flew into the sky on a small wooden deck hanging under a giant balloon.

Ahsan Manzil

The reason given is that the veiled women of the Nawab’s house should not be deprived of the opportunity to enjoy those different kinds of entertainment. But the day was not exactly as the balloon flying ideal meant. The balloon company could not guarantee that it would be possible to land on the roof of the Nawab’s house due to high wind speed from the south. But the amiable and stubborn Nawab wanted to pay an additional four and a half thousand rupees, but despite the reluctance of her associates, the lady agreed to a dangerous landing for five thousand rupees.

Arrangements were made to inflate balloons on the south bank of the Buriganga. From the description of Ganiur Raja, it is understood that it may have been a balloon like a hot air balloon. In the case of hot air balloons, the smoke is trapped by burning the fuel with the help of a burner and the balloon swells upwards at one stage while the burner is burning. By using fuel like a hot air balloon, burning wood and injecting smoke into the balloon, the rubber-pressed balloon gradually swelled and became huge in public.

When the rope of the balloon was cut with a monstrous sound like the sound of a lot of guns, the upward journey of the balloon started with the huge encouraging sound and applause of the crowd. The lady successfully flew into the air in a balloon with a lot of confidence and courage. According to the Ganiur Raja, the balloon ascended above the height at which the kite vulture eagle is usually seen, and carried the foreigner northward with the upward wind blowing from the south.

Jeanette Van Tassel

According to the previous plan, the lady was supposed to land on the roof of the Ahsan Manzil, but due to bad weather, the height of the balloon was reduced and before landing on the roof of the Nawab’s house, the balloon was floating Jeanette further north. According to the Ganiur Raja, the young woman then jumped with an umbrella over her head. In fact, the lady, a brave skilled in parachuting, jumped from the balloon with a parachute aimed at the roof of the Ahsan Manzil. But due to the noise caused by the wind, the wind swept her away with a parachute two or three miles north-west of Ahsan Manzil. And the curious masses below were following in the footsteps of the balloons. Eventually the parachute got stuck with a Zhou tree and she hung helplessly. That uninhabited place was a part of the garden of the Nawab’s family.

When the rescue operation began, the rescue squad was led by an English police officer, along with a number of local police constables. Ganiur Raja writes that an attempt was made to bring her down with the help of bamboo. But she was afraid to get off. She was not ready to come down until her mother and brother arrived at the scene. Eventually, at the constant call of the police officer, the helpless lady started coming down holding the bamboo, but the irony of fate, she got into an accident in the middle of the descent. She broke the bamboo and fell on the unprotected ground. 

The lady, who was suffering from high fever and almost unconscious, died at the hospital. The administration and the people of Dhaka were at loggerheads over her death. The Nawab was not present when she was buried, perhaps because he wanted to avoid controversy over the failure of the English administration.

This unique event was reported in various newspapers of the world at that time. Then, as the days went by, the dust accumulated in the pages of memory and the adventurous journey of Jeanette went completely hidden from the public’s eye.

News of Janet’s death published in an old newspaper

There is no mention of the aeronaut’s name, identity, origin, date of death, etc. in the Dhaka travel story of Ganiur Raja. Social historian Shamim Aminur Rahman later researched and reviewed his Dhaka travel story and an old photograph he had accidentally found on August 1, 1969 in the possession of Khwaja Halim, a son of the Nawab family of Dhaka. Through his best efforts, many unknown information buried in the dust of memory came out. It is known that aeronaut’s name, identity and other information related to her.

The name of the aeronaut, Jeanette Van Tassel, is known from an old registered death list kept in St. Thomas Church. Date of death 17 March 1892. Accidents identified as a cause of death. Ganiur Raja is mentioned to be 15/16 years old, but in fact her death list states that she was 24 years old and an aeronaut by profession.

According to old manuscripts kept in the Dhaka University, Jeanette was born in Ohio, Cincinnati, USA. She was a Presbyterian Christian by faith. More has been said in the newspaper that her father was an architect and he was associated with the famous Chicago Fair at that time. Jeanette was married to Park Van Tassel, another adventurer like her. The balloon exhibition was the family business of the Van Tassel family. Nawab Ahsanullah went to Calcutta and made an agreement with the Van Tassel couple to come to Dhaka and fly in a balloon one afternoon on 10 March 1892.

Jeanette first flew on July 4, 1986, in her home country of Los Angeles, USA, in a balloon. That was also the story of the first lady to conquer the sky in Los Angeles. Then she spent four more years in this profession. She flew in balloons three hundred times before Dhaka and Dhaka was her 41st parachute landing. The next destination in Dhaka was determined to be Corporathela in India. However, it was not possible. Jeanette is buried in Narinder’s famous Christian cemetery.

Reviewing the newspapers of that time, one can understand how much space the foreigner Jeanette had in the hearts of the people of Dhaka. The British administration and the people of Dhaka were at loggerheads over this incident. On the one hand, the residents of Dhaka were blaming the failure of the administration for Janette’s death. On the contrary, English newspapers were supporting the British administration. The newspapers were spreading rumors that the people of Dhaka were spreading rumors. The administration had little to do with protecting Jeanette.  A few days later, when Jeanette’s husband Park Van Tassel left Dhaka, all the arguments came to an end.

Jeanette’s last refuge was in this foreign land. Shamim Aminur Rahman’s active search revealed the tomb of Jeanette Van Tassel, which had been dilapidated for so many years due to lack of surveillance.

Jeanette Van Tassel’s tomb in dilapidated condition

Researcher Shamim Aminur Rahman found out after much deliberation that the name that was published in the newspapers was the post-marriage name of Jeanette, the name before her marriage was Jeanette Rumari. Her father, George John Rumari, was not an architect, but a carpenter. Her mother’s name is Jane Tingley. She was the fourth child of the parents. Although Jeanette is originally from the United States, her family probably immigrated to the United States from Sussex in the United Kingdom. So in various sources she is referred to as European.

Shamim Aminur Rahman brought together Jeanette’s stories, who had disappeared from the public eye, through his book ‘Dhaka’s First Astronaut: Vantasel’, published in 2000. Jeanette is gone, but leaves behind memories of her adventurous adventures. In the memory of Jeanette, 127 years after her death, the first Bengali short film ‘In Search of Jeanette Van Tassel’ ; Created by World Archaeological Tourist and Researcher Eliza Binte Elahi. The film was first screened on March 8 at the Midas Center in Dhaka.

Books published by Shamim Aminur Rahman

Jeanette may never have thought that scratching the end of the 41st parachute landing would sever the earth’s water-soil-air relationship. If Ganiur Raja had not mentioned the adventurous adventures of Jeanette Van Tassel in his autobiography, we might not have known the name of the first lady to conquer the skies of East Bengal 127 years ago, or who knows how much longer we would have had to wait!

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