Bangladesh, to the interested observer, may seem akin to a splendidly colourful tapestry. Close inspection reveals some extraordinarily rich threads comprising the vibrant image. Few nations in the world can compete with a history of wealth, trade, natural endeavour, indigenous resources, lush environment, and constant political change and enrichment.
It comes as no surprise to find that, throughout the ages, the peoples of these lands around the delta of three great Asian rivers have both grown their own empires, and been indispensable to the growth of others, including the greatest empire the world has ever seen -- the century-and-a-half British Empire.
It offers real pleasure to anyone interested in history and heritage -- such a valuable magnet in today’s international tourism business -- to not only stand at a distance and admire, but also to stand closer and trace some of those threads of the kaleidoscope of inheritance.
We have no real evidence, beyond about five centuries of the histories written in Europe’s Classical Ages, to enable us to be sure of the extent of the invasion of the north Indian sub-continent by the 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great. He was the first, and arguably least, successful of the foreign invaders with an eye on the wealth of these lands.
Similarly, the second major invasion by armies from beyond the protective barrier of the Caucasian and Himalayan mountain ranges, by the Khilji, is thinly documented. The Khilji, probably descendants of Alexander’s army, left in Kandahar in Afghanistan, and converted to Islam. They first raided across India in the 13th century, and arrived to settle early in the 14th century, fleeing in the face of the Mongol advance across their homelands.
Possibly, it was the experience of their earlier raids, delivering up, almost certainly, the enormous wealth of Buddhist Vihara and Hindu Temples experience, that led them to settle in the rich centres of agriculture and trade around the Ganges delta. What we can easily believe is that they found the area around Panam City of today, located close by the conjunction of the three great rivers, the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna, a good location for controlling revenue collection.
The arrival of the Mughals, from the Turkic lands that had been medieval Persia, and their struggles to take and consolidate a hold of these same rich lands of the delta, referred to by the sixth Mughal Emperor Auranzeb as “the Paradise of Nations” for its wealth and trade, is far better documented. The stages of their almost titanic struggle to defeat both the freedom fighters, such as Isa Khan, and Pradapaditya, perhaps the greatest of the Baro-Bhuyan of Bengal, as well as the difficult, often water-logged, terrain of the deltaic lands, are not difficult to trace.
Unsurprisingly, as the most recent lands even further developed in literature and learning, it is the European invasion that is best documented. Perhaps that would be better expressed as invasions, since so many European nations, independently and usually in great rivalry, participated. And, of course, the Portuguese were the vanguard of this European advance.
The arrival of Vasco da Gama in the Indian sub-continent in 1498 led these evolving invasions, and the eventual conquest by the British, as the first European merchant adventurer to open an oceanic route between Europe and India. At least the first direct route for European traders since the closure of the ancient canal from the Nile to the Red Sea, by which we may believe that Phoenician sailors may possibly have reached the same destination in the late centuries BCE, and the early centuries of the Common Era.
We should not be surprised that it did not take long for this Portuguese-sponsored explorer to appreciate that woven cloth originated most plentifully in the north east corner, the lands around the Ganges delta. No doubt the Portuguese also rapidly appreciated that this great entrepot was well connected to the valuables of Asia, especially spices, gems, and precious metals. They arrived in Chittagong about 30 years after their first arrival in the sub-continent.
It is fair to attribute to the fifth son of the Portuguese King, John 1st, Prince Henry, subsequently known as “the Navigator,” the surge in Portuguese adventuring for trade. To him is credited the initiation of what has become known as “the Age of Discoveries.”
In fact, the mercantile adventures he patronised and supported merely re-opened direct trade between European nations and places in the east that had flourished nearly 2,000 years earlier, but had relied, for the previous millennium, largely on middle-men of the Middle East.
The focus of his adventuring, initially, was the Atlantic, with its islands, such as the Azores, and the west coast of Africa.
Clearly an excellent administrator, in 1434 he established the Casa de Ceuta, to focus on North African trade, initially on the city of Ceuta that he had persuaded his father to conquer. There followed the “Casa de Arguim,” and then the, “Casa da Guine,” to administer his monopoly of the development of further African trade.
This became the pattern established for the development of such Portuguese trading adventures, and following da Gama’s first voyage to India, “Casa de India” was established in 1506. A pattern emulated by the English nearly a century later, as such establishments in the City of London as “the Baltic Exchange” suggests.
Initially, like subsequent Europeans, establishing themselves on the west coast with Goa, eventually the last Portuguese toe-hold in the sub-continent, established in 1510, and only finally annexed into India in 1962, it did not take the Portuguese long to realise that Bengal held most promise.
They arrived in the ancient port of Chittagong that they called Xatigan around 1528. They were to remain as a politically significant presence, throughout the period of Arakan over lordship, until the Bengali re-conquest in 1666.
In many ways, these earliest of Europeans have left a more enduring, and perhaps more fondly recalled, impression, than all the Danes, Dutch, Belgians, French, German, and British put together.
From the “Portuguese eyes,” grey, green, and blue, so lovingly identified even by the most devout Muslims, in the smiling brown faces of so many of the inhabitants, especially south of Chittagong, to the brick-built gothic structures of historic Roman Catholic Cathedrals, and to the large number of descendants bearing Portuguese names with which many indigenous peoples were endowed on their conversion or intermarriage with Portuguese who never went home, echoes of their presence can be seen and read everywhere, today.
Such 16th century travellers as Ralph Fitch, the English merchant, were impressed by evidence of the work and influence of these first adventurers. And few local histories, from the 16th century onwards, do not involve participation of Portuguese soldiers, often as mercenaries in local armies, tradesmen, traders, pirates, and, perhaps above all, ship-builders.
Although, when the English first arrived, the homeland of the Portuguese, traditionally England’s oldest ally, was under the rule of the Spanish king, one of England’s greatest foes, architect of the infamous Spanish Armada of 1588, there seems little doubt that the ancient friendship may have survived politically, if not when it came to competition for trade.
Renegade Portuguese may well have taken to a level of piracy, especially in alliance with the Arakanese who had also been driven out of their original host city in Chittagong, that put them firmly at odds with the highly commercial interests of the East India Company.
Eventually, however, they seemed to have been fairly well-assimilated into British rule. It comes as no surprise to find that, speaking no local languages, Portuguese is said to have been the language in which Clive communicated with the native troops under his command.
Ultimately, perhaps, it is the Portuguese who came to trade, rather than conquer, who have found the softest spot in the hearts of today’s people of Bangladesh when the extraordinarily rich heritage of the nation is considered.