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A Diversified Urbanisation: mini-European Bengal

Portuguese Explorer Vasco Da Gama

Amongst myriad imperialists, the Portuguese were the first to eye the profitable region of Bengal, in as early as the 1520s. Following the Portuguese steps, in came the English, the Dutch, the Danish and finally the French.

The Portuguese, in an expedition led by the naval explorer Vasco da Gama, were the first of all European powers, to have docked at the shores of Calicut (a domain then under the hegemony of the tribal king zamorin) and establish temporary governance by displacing the zamorin in 1502, three years before Dom Francisco de Almeida was officially sworn in as the first Portuguese Viceroy in India (Vice-rei da Índia Portuguesa), bringing along-with himself, as stated in William Logan’s ‘Malabar Manual’, fifteen hundred men on twenty two vessels and instructions to construct four forts at Anjediva, Cannanore, Cochin and Quilon.
Following the Portuguese steps, in came the English, the Dutch, the Danish and finally the French, although with trading rights and privileges of that of a company (the English East India Company, the Dutch East India Company, the Danish East India company and the French East India company respectively) and not under a direct kingly patronage like the Portuguese.
Amongst these imperialists, the Portuguese were the first to eye the profitable region of Bengal, in as early as the 1520s. Then, it was extant as the Sultanate of Shahi Bangla all by itself, the foetal Mughal Empire under Babur still struggling to secure its stands, against vicious oppositions in the north. At its zenith, the boundaries of the imperial territory of Shahi Bangla extended to as far as Jaunpur in the north, Tripura in the west and the Arakan in the east and yet, a presumptive half of the annual revenues of the Sultanate depended upon trading activities of the port of Chittagong. As such, it was way more than expected that the Sultan would heartily grant the Portuguese with exclusive trading rights in the region. And so he did! The first Portuguese factory was set up at Chittagong in 1517, after exchanges of several diplomatic envoys between the Portuguese king and the Sultan of Shahi Bangla, who eventually agreed to their request and ceded a part of Chittagong, in order to help them continue their trading activities without hindrance. In an article titled, “The Portuguese on the Bay of Bengal”, Marco Ramereni details one on how the port-banks soon grew into a garrison and finally into a settlement, with the development of an urbane cultural pattern, the establishment of a naval base and eventually a fort, transforming the Port Grande into one of the major Eurasian ports in the then Indian subcontinent.
Trade continued profitably, besides slave trafficking, relentless piracy and forced conversion of Mussalmans into Christianity, until, as per a brief description from ‘Travels in India’ by French merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, the then Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, angered by the Portuguese resistance to his dominance, expelled the traders in 1666, annexing the port city with the help of a formidable Mughal force led by governor Shaista Khan, as a result of which thousands of people were massacred and the remaining communities moved on to settle in other parts of Bengal, most notable among them being Satgaon (“the Little Haven”), Dhaka and Bandel.
Having lost what was their greatest source of revenue, the Portuguese focus moved on to Hugli-Chuchura, a town settlement they had earlier founded in 1579, under the orders of governor Luís de Ataíde. Ugulim, as it was known to the Portuguese, was a moderately profitable zone, located on the right banks of the river Bhagirathi and composed of fertile alluvial soil, hence forming a part of the Gangetic Delta.
Soon after the Portuguese activities commenced in Chinsurah, they were driven out by the Mughal governor of Bengal, who was enraged with political disturbances in and around the city. Sentenced to death but pardoned and restored to their old position by Shah Jahan, the Portuguese established a church named the Basilica of the Holy Rosary in a piece of land given by Shah Jahan in Bandel, that remains to be the most significant Portuguese monument in the region, having been recognised as a Basilica, by Pope John Paul II, in 1988. A brief but well known history of the church is quoted by the famed historian Evan Cotton, in his work, “Calcutta Old and New” where he states, “the Portuguese church, which is now the great sight of modern Bandel. This, the oldest Christian place of worship in Bengal, India, was founded in 1599, the year in which Queen Elizabeth sanctioned the establishment of the East India Company. It was burnt in the sack of Hooghly by the Moors in 1632, but the keystone with the date 1599 was preserved and built into the gate of the new church erected by John Comes de Soto in 1661. It is dedicated to Nossa Senhora di Rosario and contains a monastery once occupied by Augustinian friars, the last of whom died in 1869… Some 380 bigghahs of land, out of the 777 granted rent-free by Shah Jehan, are still enjoyed… Every November the church is thronged with pilgrims during the Novena of Notre Dame de Bon Voyage.”
Twenty six kilometres away from Chinsurah stood the garrison town of Frederiknagore (modern name: Serampore), a Danish colony. Secured through a firman granted to them by Nawab Alivardi Khan of Bengal in around 1755, the Danes were the ones responsible for the rapid urbanisation of Serampore, establishing factories, godowns, administrative buildings and a bazaar, furthering industrial development focused on cotton and silk and ultimately changing ‘Serampore’ to ‘Frederiknagore’.
However, Danish power waned in India by the early nineteenth century and Frederiknagore was sold to the British by 1845, who took to restoring the former Bengali name and included Rishra and Konnagar within its administrative jurisdictions, besides bringing about the Serampore renaissance, with the introduction of the Serampore mission press, the first printed copy of the Bible in Bengali, papers that included the Friend of India (precursor to the Statesman) and Samachar Darpan, paper mills and the publication of ‘212,000 copies of books in 40 different languages’, with great efforts by the four significant English missionaries that included Joshua Marshman, Hannah Marshman, William Carey, and Willam Ward, even before the English officially established their authority over the region .
Within five kilometres of Chinsurah was another locale called Chandernagore, a French colony and probably one of the most well known non English colonies in the province. History has it that this location was bought by Frenchman Boureau-Deslandes from a Mughal Subahdar for some 40,000 coins (probably in the Mughal currency). Chandernagore came to be well known for it became a renowned trading zone, exports of opium, indigo, silk, rice and rope being very frequent. The French initially set up a trading organisation (consisting of a director and five council members), a fort that was called the Fort D’Orleans and some two hundred houses, built under Governor General Joseph François Dupleix, in the Cartesian grid plan with scientific architectural designs and simple facades, a style that later came to be recognised and practiced as the ‘anonymous design’.
The French Governor’s palace, the Chandernagore Strand, the Sacred Heart Church and the Chandernagore French cemetery are places that ebulliently highlight the French architectural designs in the town, to this day. Although the French indubitably brought about a praiseworthy level of urban development in the city, they could not resist the British war machine in the battle of Chandernagore that broke out in 1757, resulting in the English dominance in the region (although governorship changed hands in 1763 when it was restored to the French but once again in 1794, due to the Napoleonic wars, won back by the British) and the eventual eclipsing of Chandernagore’s importance as a commercial hub, overshadowed by that of the more eminent Calcutta.
(Note to the readers: In this column, I have attempted to provide a generalised but comprehensive detailing of the sequential history of mini-European colonies in Bengal. By ‘mini-European’, I refer to places that came under the hegemony of a European power (either the French, the Dutch, the Danish or the Portuguese) but not the English, since they were, at this particular point of time in history when the incidents took place, the overlords of the entire subcontinent and didn’t focus on the urbanisation centred around a particular city or town in itself.)

Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author and podcaster. He is the recipient of the 2021 Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar, the nation’s highest honour for civilians under 18, for his contributions to art and culture.