Friday, March 9, 2018

Armenians in Dhaka

Armenians in Dhaka
Pogose School
The Armenians most probably came to Bengal before any other European merchants and played an important part in the export-import business of not only Bengal but also the whole of India. But, it was in Bengal where they were most active. They reached Bengal-Bihar in the early 17th century if not earlier, as there are inscriptions (now preserved in Kolkata Museum) which were found in Bihar dating from the 1630–1640s.

The Armenians settled in present day Armanitola—the name of the locality still bearing reminiscences of their presence. They were at first a small community but were unmatched in textile trading, and in some cases had monopoly in the saltpetre, betel nut, opium and salt trades. According to John Taylor (who was the Commercial Resident of Dhaka in 1800), in 1747, Armenians were the largest exporters of cloth from Dhaka, far ahead of English, Dutch or French. With their profits and huge resources, they became very influential and rich; their affluence resulted in the construction of a church of their own and other private mansions.

©Sakib Ahmed

The Armenians were famous as merchants from ancient times and their guiding philosophy was to get involved with any business which brought profit. They brought the jute business here in the second half of the 19th century and were pioneers in the jute trade. Names of 12 eminent merchants of Bengal engaged in jute trading in Dhaka and Narayanganj in the late 19th and early 20th century can be found. Some of the most prominent were Abraham Pogose, Margar David, J C Sarkies, M Catchatoor, A Thomas, J G N Pogose, Michael Sarkies and P Aratoon. Among them, M David & Co sometimes bypassed Kolkata to export jute directly to London through Chittagong. They owned 12 motor launches for carrying goods. Other than the jute trade, Armenians were also involved in internal trading and local logistical support because of their huge trade network.

 ©Dhrubo Alam

The Armenians were always in competition with the English so they had to explore many businesses and at one time they even started to buy Zamidaris, unlike in other places in India. There were only three Armenian zamindars between 1836–38, paying more than 1,000 rupees a year, but their number grew rapidly in the latter half of that century. Families of Michael, Sarkies, Aratoon, Stephens, Lazarus among others became zamindars. Khoja Michael, Aratoon and Lucas were the zamindars of South Shahbazpur (Bhola), Pargana Hussain Shahi and Doulat Khan respectively.

The Armenian community contributed a lot to the civil society and the life of the city. Nicholas Pogose in the early 19th century established the Pogose School, which was one of the only three English schools in Dhaka back then. He was also a founding member of the Dhaka Municipality (established in 1864) and served as one of the nine commissioners between 1874–75. Furthermore, they had a big impact not only in Dhaka but also neighbouring towns including Narayanganj and Mymensingh. 

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