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Forgotten history: American aeronaut Jeanette Van Tassel lies buried in Dhaka Christian Cemetery

The balloon in which Jeanette Van Tassel rode in Dhaka on 16 March 1892. Photo by Fritz Kapp via Wikimedia Commons and Luminous-Lint. Public Domain.

The balloon in which Jeanette Van Tassel rode in Dhaka on 16 March 1892. Photo by Fritz Kapp via Wikimedia Commons and Luminous-Lint. Public Domain.

The first manned balloon flight in present-day Bangladesh happened in 1892, and ended in tragedy. A Dhaka Nawab contracted a balloonist troupe from the USA and advertised that a daredevil woman from America would ascend in a balloon and fly over the Ahsan Manzil, the Nawab's palace by the river Buriganga, and descend via a parachute. People crowded to the nearby riverbanks, waiting to witness the rare spectacle. With the sound of a gun, the balloon's rope was cut, and, as the crowd cheered, the balloon ascended to the sky. Everything went as planned, until a strong north wind blew the balloon away from the landing site. Sensing trouble Jeanette jumped and deployed the parachute, but was also blown off course by strong winds and was finally stuck in a tree-top around 3 km from her intended destination. Injured while descending from the tree, she succumbed to her injuries a couple of days later. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Dhaka Christian Cemetery.

Over the past few decades, several Bangladeshi researchers have dug out this information, which has led to several pieces in newspapers, and even a book published in the year 2000.

Traveller and writer Onu Tareq visited Van Tassel's grave in August 2021 and wrote about it on Facebook:

​​ঢাকাকে সর্বপ্রথম অনন্য উচ্চতা থেকে দেখেছিলেন এক মার্কিন তরুণী, ১৮৯২ সালের ১৬ মার্চ বেলুনে চড়ে ঢাকা দেখেছিলেন তিনি। ঢাকার নবাব আহসানউল্লাহ ১০ হাজার টাকা চুক্তিতে ঢাকার আকাশে ওড়ার জন্য একটি দল এনে ছিলেন, যার অন্যতম সদস্য ছিলেন মার্কিন পেশাগত জীবনে আকাশচারী ২৪ বছরের তরুণী জিনেট ভানতাসেল। উল্লেখ্য তিনি ৩০০ বার বেলুনে চড়ে ছিলেন, যার মধ্যে ৪০ বার প্যারাসুট এর সাহায্যে ঝাঁপ দিয়ে অবতরণ করেন। ঢাকার আকাশে বেলুন থেকে প্যারাসুটের সাহায্যে লাভ দেওয়া ছিল তার ৪১তম ও শেষ প্যারাসুট ঝাঁপ।

উল্লেখ্য যে বৈরী বাতাসে বেলুন অন্যদিকে যেতে থাকায় জিনেট প্যারাসুট লাফ দিলে সেই প্যারাসুট রমনা উদ্যান এর উঁচু গাছের সাথে লেগে তিনি ঝুলতে থাকেন, এবং সেখান থেকে নিরাপদে নামার জন্য দড়িসহ অন্যান্য সরঞ্জাম আনতে বলেন। কিন্তু সেখানে উপস্থিত একজন অতি মূর্খ গোয়াঢ় ইংরেজ পুলিশ তার বদলে তিনটি বাঁশের সাহায্যে তাকে জোর করে নামতে বলেন এবং খানিকটা নামার পর বাঁশ ভেঙ্গে সেই উঁচু জায়গা থেকে পড়ে তিনি মারা যান।

স্থপতি শামীম আমিনুর রহমানের প্রথম বই ছিল ২০০০ সালে প্রকাশিত ‘ঢাকার প্রথম আকাশচারী ভানতাসেল'। মূলত সেই বইটি পড়ে গতকাল নারিন্দা ক্রিশ্চিয়ান কবরস্থানে খুঁজে বের করলাম এ দুঃসাহসী তরুণীর শেষ বিশ্রামস্থলটি।

কোন নামফলক নেই।

The unnamed grave of Jeanette Van Tassel at the Dhaka Christian Cemetery, and the book ‘Dhaka's first aeronaut Van Tassel’ by Shamim Aminur Rahman. Image by Onu Tareq. Used with permission.

Dhaka [Editor's note: formerly known as Dacca] was first seen from above by a young American woman from a unique height. On March 16, 1892, she ascended [6000 feet] to the sky in a balloon. Khwaja Ahsanullah, a Nawab [the title of the head of largest Muslim Zamindar in British Bengal and Assam] of Dhaka brought a troupe from the USA paying Indian Rs. 10,000 to fly balloons in the skies of Dhaka. Twenty Four-year-old Jeanette Van Tassel had the experience of being onboard a balloon about 300 times, and she jumped around 40 times from the balloon and landed with the help of a parachute. Her 41st and the last parachute jump was on that fateful day. A sudden gush of wind pushed Jeanette’s descending balloon away from the direction of the drop point [the roof of Ahsan Manzil]. Noticing the danger, Jeanette jumped and deployed the parachute. She continued to drift away due to the wind and she ended up landing on a tree in the nearby Ramna gardens. While hanging from a tall tree in the park, she requested people to bring ropes and other equipment so that she could come down safely. However, a very arrogant British police insisted Jeanette get down with the help of bamboo poles instead. While attempting to descent, one bamboo pole broke and she fell down from a high branch and got severely injured. She died a couple of days later in a hospital.

The book ‘Dhaka's First Aeronaut Van Tassel’ was published by architect Shamim Aminur Rahman in 2000. After reading that book, I wanted to find the last resting place of this adventurous young woman here in the Dhaka Christian Cemetery in Narinda.

The grave had no headstone.

Who was Jeanette?

Jeanette Van Tassel was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the USA. She became famous in 1888 when she became the first female parachute jumper in Los Angeles. She was part of “Professor” Park Van Tassel‘s troupe from Indiana. Park Van Tassel is revered as an aeronautical pioneer from the US.

Ershad Ahmed, a retired civil engineer wrote in his blog Dhaka Daily Photo:

Park Van Tassel's balloon flying exploits began in his hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, on July 4, 1882. Over the next ten years, his team's travelling show took him throughout the western U.S., Hawaii, Australia, and eventually to Dhaka (now in Bangladesh).

A photo that is said to be of Jeanette Van Tassel. Some claim that this is the image of Jenny Rumary van Tassel, who might have been the mother of balloonist Jeanette Van Tassel. Image via Wikipedia. Public domain.

There is no photograph in the name of Jeanette Van Tassel available anywhere, only of a Jenny Rumary van Tassel. Some claim that she was Jeanette's mother, who is said to have accompanied her to Dhaka. Another report claims that her mother died before the event and Jeanette's name before her marriage was Jeanette Rumary and her father's name was George John Rumary.

Many reports describe Park Van Tassel, who was also in Dhaka, as her husband; however, others claim that he was neither Jeanette's husband nor father—all of his troupe members took the professional name “Van Tassel.”

Larry Lehmer, a writer in Des Moines, Iowa wrote in his blog:

Jeanette has variously been described as the wife of Park Van Tassel, the daughter of Jenny Rumary Van Tassel, a recent bride and in her late 20s. Regardless of her relationship with Park Van Tassel, she carried the family name and was said to have performed in many countries with the Van Tassel troupe.

How one researcher dug up history:

Architect and writer Shamim Aminur Rahman wrote in the Bangla Daily Prothom Alo in 2015 about the eight years of research he undertook to write the Bengali book ‘Dhaka's first aeronaut Van Tassel.’ He first learnt about the Van Tassel's exploits in Dhaka from a journal kept by Ganiur Raja, the son of mystic poet and songwriter Hason Raja from Sylhet. Here is an excerpt from the English translation of the article:

The full story of Jeanette Van Tassel was not written anywhere. [..] I had to gradually build up her story by collecting pieces of information from different sources. [..]

The news of Jeanette's death was published in the Bengal Times on March 19, 1892.

The news of Jeanette's death was published in the Bengal Times on March 19, 1892. Image via Public Domain.

On 1 August 1989, an event took place by accident. Khaza Halim, an offspring of Dhaka’s Nawab family, had an old photograph of Dhaka in his possession which I came across. This photo is about a big half-swollen balloon surrounded by some Dhaka dwellers and Europeans. From this photo, we can find strong proof of the description of Ganiur Raja. [..] I went to the St Thomas Church in old Dhaka. There, I searched in their old death register. After searching a lot, Jeanette’s name and the date of her death were found. [..]

I went to the manuscript department of Dhaka University. I started searching the microfilms of contemporary newspapers reserved over there. The story started forming.[..]

Jeanette's grave in the Dhaka Christian Cemetery will soon be forgotten if it is not marked and maintained. Shamim Aminur Rahman holds that, in the interest of Bangladesh's history, Jeanette's grave should be protected and be given a headstone so that visitors can remember and pay their respects to the first monument of victory in the sky in Bangladesh.

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