Bandel: A Jewel of the Portuguese in Bengal

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Did you know that after they founded major cities on India’s west coast, the Portuguese lost no time venturing east? Discover the curious story of Bandel, a prosperous port town near Kolkata that refused to be defeated.

Apart from its name and being home to the oldest Christian church in West Bengal, there is nothing about Bandel that says ‘Portuguese’. And yet this port town on the Hooghly River was a jewel of the colonial Portuguese, a town whose story is so quirky that it’s hard to believe it is fact, not folklore.

Bandel is just 52 km north of Kolkata, on the west bank of the Hooghly, and it derives its name from the Bengali word ‘bondor', which means ‘port’. After they famously arrived in Calicut in 1498 CE, the Portuguese established major settlements such as Goa, Daman, Diu and Kochi on India’s west coast. So what were they doing so far east, in Bengal?

Portuguese colonies and settlements in India | Wikimedia Commons
Portuguese colonies and settlements in India | Wikimedia Commons

A maritime power whose wont it was to explore and trade, the Portuguese lost no time expanding their presence in India after their arrival in the subcontinent. They first came to Bengal in the early 16th century, when private trader-settlers began to explore the Bay of Bengal area after sailing south and then east around Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari).

They soon became notorious for their frequent raids, plundering and slave trading. Evidence of this can be found in Bengali ballads of the time, which include the word ‘harmad’, a colloquial distortion of the Portuguese and Spanish word ‘armada’, which is a fleet of warships.

Afonso de Albuquerque | Wikimedia Commons
Afonso de Albuquerque | Wikimedia Commons

Their plundering, raiding and piracy in the Bay of Bengal gave way to settled trading operations only after Portuguese Viceroy of India, Afonso de Albuquerque captured Malacca in 1511 CE. By the 1560s, trading operations had been extended to South-East Asia and China, effectively linking the west coast of India with the rest of Asia and China.

Capture of Malacca 1511 | Wikimedia Commons
Capture of Malacca 1511 | Wikimedia Commons

A Deal With The Sultan

In his book, History of the Portuguese in Bengal (1919), historian Joachim Joseph A Campos explains that this period of expansion was initially tumultuous as Portuguese traders often clashed with the Sultan of Bengal, Mahmud Shah. Tensions eased when the Sultan collaborated with them to repel attacks from the Afghan ruler of Delhi, Sher Shah Suri, in 1535-36 CE. In return, the Sultan allowed the Portuguese to build trading posts in Bengal, and even granted them the right to collect duties at the two chief ports of Bengal – Satgaon or Saptagram (present-day Hooghly District) and Chittagong (now in Bangladesh).

To leverage this opportunity, the Portuguese needed to establish a settlement near the prosperous port of Satgaon, and they founded Bandel just north of the trading centre of Hooghly. Bandel’s proximity to Satgaon turned it into a thriving town, and it was used by European traders as a stopover point, on their way to the bustling port of Satgaon.

Satgaon, Hooghly | Wikimedia Commons
Satgaon, Hooghly | Wikimedia Commons

Also contributing to Bandel’s growth was the rise of Hooghly, which too was developed by the Portuguese after Mughal Emperor Akbar granted a farman and allowed them to build a city there. But the rise of Hooghly was Satgaon’s downfall and, by 1565 CE, Satgaon’s status as a major prosperous port began to fade, as mentioned in contemporary sources such as Inayat Khan’s Shahjahannama. Compounding Satgaon’s decline was the gradual silting of the harbour, which made shipping here unviable.

But even if Satgaon suffered, Bandel prospered as Hooghly thrived. It wasn’t long before the entire Hooghly-Chinsurah region, which included Bandel, became a major centre of operations for the Portuguese, who monopolised the trade in salt and tobacco. They also traded in textiles, spices, rice, timber and gunpowder.

Bandel Church near the Hooghly River | British Library
Bandel Church near the Hooghly River | British Library

Apart from traders, Christian missionaries too played a vital role in the growth of this region. Although we don't know exactly when they began to arrive, the Portuguese King granted the Bengal mission to the Augustinian Order in 1599 CE. The order built the Basilica of the Holy Rosary, now famous as the ‘Bandel Church’. It is the oldest Christian convent and church in Bengal and a shrine closely linked to the story of Bandel.

The Sacking of Bandel

The establishment of the church and the subsequent decades saw the further growth of Bandel. But it all came crashing down in 1632 CE, when Hooghly was sacked by the forces of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The sacking has been recorded in many contemporary sources such as Padshahnama by Abd al-HamidLahori and Shahjahannama. The entire settlement of Bandel was set on fire and the Portuguese had to burn down the Bandel Church while retreating.

Siege of Hooghly 1632 | Royal Collection Trust
Siege of Hooghly 1632 | Royal Collection Trust

In her research paper titled Portuguese in Bengal: A History Beyond Slavery (2019), Deepashree Dutta has written that there are many theories to explain why Shah Jahan ordered such a brutal act. The persecution of Christians in many parts of Mughal India by Shah Jahan, the betrayal of a Portuguese official to the court of Shah Jahan, the Portuguese supplying men and ammunition to the then neighbouring Kingdom of Arakan, and the increasing prosperity of Bandel are cited as some of the reasons.

Another contributing factor was the burgeoning slave trade, which apparently led to the capture of some Mughal women by Portuguese slave ships near Dhaka. But it was probably a combination of these factors that led to the siege of Hooghly in 1632 CE.

Shah Jahan ordered the Nawab of Dhaka to march to Bandel and “put it to fire and sword”. The siege continued for three months, with combat on land and on the river. With Bandel and Hooghly razed, it seemed that the mercantile presence of the Portuguese in Bengal was at an end. But that wasn’t meant to be.

Rising From The Ashes

In a complete reversal of fortune, the Portuguese were able to return to Bandel and Hooghly and re-establish their town, just nine months after the siege ended! This was due to a new farman granted by Shah Jahan to the Portuguese. It granted 777 bighas of rent-free land to the Augustinian priests and the Christians of the Bandel church in 1633 CE, with 17 accompanying religious and commercial privileges.

Historians have struggled to understand why Shah Jahan gave such generous concessions to the same people he had expelled less than a year earlier. The popular tradition recorded in many modern sources says that the farman was obtained as a consequence of a miracle worked by Friar Julio da Cruz in Agra, before Shah Jahan’s very eyes but we may never know exactly why Shah Jahan granted the farman.

Mast of a Portuguese Ship at Bandel Church | Wikimedia Commons
Mast of a Portuguese Ship at Bandel Church | Wikimedia Commons

The Portuguese soon re-established Hooghly and Bandel. While passing through Bengal, French physician and traveller, Francois Bernier notes that in 1665-66 CE, Hooghly alone was home to 8,000-9,000 Christians. The subsequent decades saw the Portuguese presence grow even more, with the Augustinian Church exerting significant influence. The Bandel Church, which had been burnt down, was rebuilt north of its previous location, where it stands even today, although the current structure dates to the early 20th century.

Other Colonial Powers Arrive

Then, in the mid-17th century, the Dutch and later the English began exerting their influence over the region. The Portuguese in Hooghly gradually became Anglicized. They soon got increasingly assimilated with the local populace and got dispersed. They made new alliances with their competitors and Bandel began to lose its sheen. Also, as Kolkata rose to commercial and political significance under the British, Hooghly gradually declined as a major trading hub and faded into obscurity. Bandel met the same fate.

This is how the region of the Hooghly River delta became home to a significant population of Portuguese traders, clergymen, adventurers and raiders. While they often caused havoc and turmoil, they also contributed greatly to the economic and political life of the region.

Near Bandel, near Hooghly River | British Library
Near Bandel, near Hooghly River | British Library

Today Bandel looks like any other small town in West Bengal, with narrow winding alleys and crowded markets. There isn’t much to remind you of its glorious commercial past and the role it played in the prosperity of the region. The only reminder is the Bandel Church, a sentinel to an almost-forgotten chapter in Bengal’s history.

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