In the last quarter of the 19th century a section of the intelligentsia raised the demand for a college in Assam. The most vocal among them was Manick Chandra Baruah who went all out to mobilize public opinion in favor of establishing a college. In March 1899 Baruah submitted a memorandum to the government stating: “Assam is the only province which does not have any college. Indeed there is not a single institution worth the name…. a college at Guwahati with an European principal will be better appreciated by the students….” The issue found favor with the press and a number of articles appeared in local newspapers.

Chief Commissioner Henry Johan Stedman Cotton who had so long been in favor of establishing a hostel for Assamese students in Calcutta to facilitate their higher studies, now decided to honor public opinion. A government note (GAD number 7445-46G dated September 29,1899) stated: “The Chief Commissioner has decided to abandon his own scheme. He will endeavour to give effect to evidently the wish of the educated community for the establishment of a local government college…the Chief Commissioner has decided that this local college shall be entertained in Gauhati.” This was in effect the first official resolution for setting up a college in Assam.

It was a major policy decision and needed clearance from Her Majesty’s government. The sanction from the Secretary of State was received on June 20, 1900 and work started in full swing. Land was acquired, and the Public Works Department started construction of the first building, “a spacious and lofty single storey building containing three airy and well-lit classrooms. Besides the principal’s room, the office and two large halls, one of which is a combined laboratory and lecture theatre and the other an examination hall and library.”

Subhrendu Mohan Goswami, assistant engineer, Public Works Department supervised the construction of the college that was named Gauhati Government College.

Henry J S Cotton formally inaugurated the college on May 27, 1901 and three weeks later on June 17, the first student was admitted. G C Bardoloi who attended the inauguration wrote: “It was a gala day, the premises and the compound were beautifully and tastefully decorated. Refreshments were served to the guests. Raja Prabhat Chandra Baruah of Gauripur attended. He brought with him his court musician who played the pakhwaj. A Gorkha chaprasi played on the flute and Sir Henry Cotton seemed to enjoy it, the tunes being English.”

In recognition of the great service rendered by Henry Cotton, the residents of Guwahati at a public meeting on March 26, 1901 -- even before the college was formally opened -- decided to rename the college after him. Recommendations were sent to Government of India which accorded permission vide its circular number 752 dated August 28, 1902. In 1902 thus, the Guwahati Government College officially became Cotton College, the name by which the town’s residents knew it from the very beginning.

The college started with 77 students. Frederick William Sudmerson, senior professor from Bareilly joined as principle as principal along with four professors. Each of the professors taught at least two subjects: Chunilal Dey taught Physics and Chemistry, Paresh Nath Lahiri taught Sanskrit and History, Indu Bhusan Brahmachari taught Mathematic and Logic, Abu Naseer Md Oheed taught Arabic, Persian and Hindustani and principal Sudmerson taught English.

In the first decade of its existence some other teachers joined the faculty - R K Barat, Kunjilal Ramlal, H H Sen, N N Roy, A K Das, BC Sengupta, M Mirfan, V Vedantatirtha Chakravarty, S N Chatterjee, A A Sayeed, P N Bhattacharjee, PC Roy, A T Chatterjee and S C Dutta. As time progressed some of the best talents of Assam like S K Bhuyan, AC Hazarika, B K Barua, B Kakati, SC Rajkhowa, A C Dutta, MN Goswami, HK Barpujari, S N Shamna, Nabakanta Barua, L N Chatterjee, R K Dev Sharma, H C Bhuyan and others became faculty members, adding more sheen to the college’s brilliance.

Cotton College has been an integral part of Assam’s intellectual life and has set new standards of education in eastern India. The college started as a second grade college but was upgraded to first grade in 1909. Honours courses were introduced in English, Mathematics, Chemistry, History, Sanskrit and Philosophy in 1913-14. The same year postgraduate classes in English were introduced and provisions were made for awarding scholarships to students. To ensure accommodation for outstation students separate Hindu and Muslim hostels were constructed within a short time. From 1922 the college also started publishing a tri-monthly magazine called the Cottonian. In 1927-28 the doors of the college were thrown open to female students. By 1933 there were 30 female students on its rolls. Before the girls’ hostel was constructed, outstation female students were accommodation in the ladies hostel was constructed, outstation female students were accommodated in the ladies hostel of the American Baptist Mission at Satribari thanks to the efforts of Dr Tuttle of the Mission.

This great institution of higher learning is indebted to many great teachers who were associated with it. Their dedication and sacrifice have been instrumental in creating this rich heritage. The excellent teacher-student relationship in the college is reflected in the reminiscences of S K Bhuyan. “The late Prof Chunilal Dey… was a simple man and would not distrust anybody. Some students once complained that the heads of the rau fish were gradually becoming absent in the dishes. The cook explained away the situation by saying that the rau fish no longer had any head. Superintendent Prof Dey accepted the explanation as one of the unfathomable mysteries of the universe.” (A Cottonian’s Reminiscences, 1909-11). It is this faith, trust and dedication of the Cotton fraternity that has made the college what it is today.