The first Europeans to trade in the Bengal area of the Indian subcontinent were the Portuguese. They were trading at Chittagong in 1536, but a century later the Bengalis had pushed them out of Chittagong.
The Portuguese settlement at Bandel, on the Hooghly River, just north of Calcutta (or Kolkata) was more permanent, and can still be seen. The Hooghly is part of the Ganges River.
The Hooghly River also attracted merchants from a number of other European countries wanting to trade in indigo, cotton and silk. The Dutch, French and British were the major traders, but there were others from Denmark and Sweden.
|Manufactory and Bazaar, Calcutta House, 1795. © NMM|
The East India Company's crew lists and agreement documents from the 18th century suggest that initially it employed Indo-Portuguese seamen from Bengal and Madras.
|Lascars manning the yards. © NMM|
One shipping document from 1746 lists 21 Indians from Calcutta on an East India Company ship. All of them had Portuguese names. Over the 19th century there was a gradual decrease in the Bengali Indo–Portuguese community as it became increasingly part of the Eurasian community.
In 1823, a Briton called Robert Bruce discovered a local wild variety of tea growing in Assam in northeast India. When the East India Company lost its China monopoly in 1834 it ceased to trade in tea.
During and after the First Opium War (1840-1842) the British found it increasingly difficult to get tea out of China. The Treaty of Nanking in 1842 marked the end of the Opium War. Coincidently, the region of Assam in northeast India was taken by the British from the Burmese in the same year.
Eventually, it was decided to heed the advice of the British botanist and explorer Sir Joseph Banks. Seedlings of the cultivated variety of tea from China were brought to India by Robert Fortune in 1851. They were planted in the same areas where Bruce had seen the wild Indian tea bushes and the British began to develop Sylhet as part of its Assam tea-growing region.
|Shipping on the Hooghly River at Calcutta. © NMM|
|Glory to God in High in Portuguese on a board at the Home for Asiatics in West India Dock Road. © NMM|
Gradually through the 19th century these 'Bengali Lascars' began working on the ocean-going sail and steam ships to London. Muslim seamen from Calcutta appear in the records of the Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital, Greenwich, and at the Strangers Home for Asiatics in the West India Dock Road.