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The lost traders of Dhaka

  • Published at 06:08 pm December 18th, 2015

The 18th century, Church of the Holy Resurrection, popularly known as, “The Armenian Church” in Armanitola, continues to be a major attraction to tourists in Old Dhaka. That the area of the old city should be named for its historic Armenian community reflects the importance they once had, especially in the trading places of what was, once, at the very heart of this, one of the world’s earliest centres of trade, around the Ganges Delta.

In the middle of the last millennium BCE, Armenians were well established in much of the land that, today, is Syria; in lands that reached from the Mediterranean coast, eastwards to the Caspian Sea, and northward to the Black Sea. All lands, today, are now claimed by Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, amongst others. Described as one of the world’s earliest urbanised people, developing cities early in the last millennium BCE, and arguably as in Aleppo even much earlier, they were also amongst the world’s first “merchant adventurers.”

A 4th century BCE work by the Greek Xenophon, suggests that there were, even in those early times, Armenians familiar with trading routes to India. It is also believed that Alexander, sweeping across the Armenian lands, acquired Armenians as pay-masters within his army, since they were experienced in such advanced financial dealings.                                                                                            Photo: Latif Hossain

Although Alexander failed to reach the deltaic lands that are now the heart of today’s Bangladesh, we might safely assume that the detailed geographic information about the delta, revealed by the Greco Roman cartographer Ptolemy, in his mid second century CE/AD map, owed much to Armenian or Phoenician sources.

As, indeed, did most of the rest of his remarkably accurate cartographical work of the known world, of nearly two thousand years ago. By extension, it seems safe to assume that some of Alexander’s Armenians did not join the retreat of his army, in the face of the gathered forces of Gangaridai, and the extent of the Ganges in flood, in the light of the apparent accuracy of the information.

That another earlier Greco Roman, Strabo, in his work “Geographia” around the turn of the Common Era, as well the unknown authors in the “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea,” published about 50 CE/AD, should have known so much about cargoes traded through the Ganges delta, suggests that Armenians may well have established a presence thereabouts, and usefully shared their knowledge and experience.

It may also be no coincidence that the 3rd century BCE Greek writer Apollonius of Rhodes, rewriting the great Hellenic saga of Jason and the Argonauts should have included in his cast of characters, one, “Datis, a Chieftain of the Gangaridai.” There seems, even three centuries before the Common Era, a well established appreciation of these lands of Bangladesh; and it appears reasonable to suppose that the traders who must have been the source of such familiarity, are likely to have been Armenian.

It is asserted with confidence that such a community could be found in the trading centres of Kerala by the 7th century CE/AD. There is no obvious reason why the same would not be true of what we now know of the trading centres around the Ganges delta, which empirical documentary and archaeological evidence assures us existed hereabouts a thousand years earlier.

It is sometimes said that any genetic study of the origins of the people of today’s Bangladesh would prove them to be amongst the most diverse in the world. And although, today the Armenian community has disappeared from Dhaka, genetic evidence of their history here should not be hard to find. Although, by the mid to late 18th century, it is clear that an Armenian community was well established in Calcutta, since throughout much of the 17th century Dhaka was the administrative centre of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, it seems reasonable to suppose that both Dhaka itself and Murshidabad would have been home also to such communities long before the establishment of one in Calcutta.

It would be surprising if the Armenians, from, at latest, the 7th century CE/AD, when an Armenian merchant named Thomas  Cana arrived in Kerala where “Armenians controlled a large part of the international trade -- particularly in precious stones and quality fabrics,” were not also active in the lands around the Ganges.

And where the opportunities arose, following the arrival of the Mughals and the establishment of the Zaminder class, they even became the princes. Not least in Dhaka, where, through a long period of history, the Armenians played a major role in the vitally important commercial life of what was a hub, and for lengthy periods, the hub of a major international trading centre. The last “dynasty” of Nawabs of Dhaka were probably of Armenian descent.

Great Armenian families, such as the Pogoses, Sarkies, Arathon, and Khoja amongst others, were, certainly major influences in the commercial life of Dhaka up until the growing significance of Calcutta, following the battles of Plassey and Buxar, and the securing by the East India Company of all Diwani rights in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, inevitably saw the relocation of most merchants to Calcutta, as the focus of trade.

A significant player in the nefarious activities that led to the defeat of the young Nawab Siraj ud-Daulla was an Armenian merchant, Khojah Wajid, whose main business seems to have been trade in saltpetre, of which he was, unquestionably, a major intermediary in acquisition and shipping.

However, as the British began to work to secure the goods they sought directly from suppliers, cutting out the merchant middlemen upon whom they had relied for over a century, he found himself arrested by the British, and committed suicide; the British finally secured their access to that all important saltpetre trade, amongst others.

 In 1760, even before the Battle of Buxar that secured their control of all commercial dealings in the three states, the annual value of the saltpetre trade to the Company was, at least,  Rs1,000,000. Incidentally, until his arrest, Wajid had also acquired a monopoly on salt supply, worth somewhat even more than the saltpetre; that the British also acquired, with ultimately disastrous consequences. Perhaps, today, only arms dealing could possibly give any merchant access to such enormous wealth; then again, how else could anyone describe saltpetre dealing at that time.

These were wealthy men of influence, who in Bangladesh, used that influence and wealth in, apart from the development of trade and commerce, also urban development and education.

Perhaps in the fate of Khojah Wajid they learned the hard lesson that involvement in politics, ultimately, was a dangerous game. Certainly, there is no further evidence of anything but good citizenship.