The first traders
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.
Arrival of the British
There is evidence in art and literature of the arrival of Bengali children as servants in London in the mid-17th century. However, British influence in the area of Bengal really began in 1690 when Job Charnock of the East India Company took out leases on three villages on the banks of the Hooghly River as trading posts. One of these villages was called Kolikata. It would eventually become one of the most important cities in the British Empire.
|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.
These seamen had been called 'Lascarim' by the Portuguese. The British initially described these men as 'Black Portuguese', but later adopted the Portuguese name, changing it to 'Lascar'. They called all Asian seamen Lascars.
|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.
The first tea plantations
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.
Growth of the industry
The Selheti-speaking people were initially employed as pickers on the British tea plantations. The Calcutta Tea Auction was started in 1861 and by 1881 a Calcutta Tea Traders Association was formed. But the tea had to be transported to the docks at Calcutta for auctioning and shipment to Britain. While the Muslim Selheti-speaking women worked as tea-pickers, the men started working the boats on the Jumna, Meghna and Hooghly Rivers, transporting the tea downriver to Calcutta.
|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.