Wealth of Bengal before colonial plunder (site of originary accumulation)

Salahuddin Ahmad lists the economic abundance of Bengal, citing Manouchi, the personal physician of Aurangjeb, and Clive, victor of Plassey against Suraj, and at Chandernagor against the French. Ahmad notes fertility of the land, availability of minerals, diamonds, iron, agriculural development, great river systems, irrigation and cultivation, grains, fruits, flowers, sugar-cane, betel, coconut:

‘Referring to the people of Bengal, Marco Polo says, “They grow cotton, in which they derive a great-trade” (Yule, Marco Polo, n. 115). Fruits like mango (amra), bread-fruit (panasa), pomgranate (dalimya), plantain, bassia latifolia (madhuka), date (kharjura), citron (vija ) and figs (parkati) were also widely cultivated. Barnier (1656-1668) writes on Agricultural system of Bengal in his travel account “One can see numerous canals from Rajmahal to the sea. These have been dug with hard labour for river traffic and irrigation”. Chinese traveler Yuan Chwang gives a vivid description of Agriculture in Bengal. He points to the generation of wealth through Agriculture, Crops, fruits and flower were growth in plenty’ (Ahmad, S 2005:9)

Crafts, textiles, salt, pottery, metals, jewellery, stone and wood works, ship-building, Ivory carving, trade – Roman Gold through to Chinese silks from Yunnan (Ahmad 2005:18).

Food stuff featuring in any discussion of Bengal should not be a surprise, though it is interesting to note the Portuguese influence on Bengali cuisine, at Hooghly after 1578, with special skills in baking and pastries, and in ways less regulated than the term ‘settlement’ implies, some Portuguese ‘became plunderers and pirates’. This suggests a convergence of cooking and plunder that would be echoed years later in the sumptuous on-board meals of the East India line ships, noted by Thomas Twining – ‘an abundance and variety, which surprised me, consisting of many joints of mutton and pork, variously dressed, curries and pillaus, chickens, ducks and on Sundays turkeys and hams’ (quoted in Bowen, McAleer and Blyth 2011:118).

The Portuguese at Hooghly did not just feast at table,[1] but brought with a sweet tooth perhaps perfectly suited to Bengal, as:

‘in alliance with the Arakanese and Moghs, a semi-tribal Buddhist people who lived around Chittagong. Known as Feringhi (from the Arab word “Frank”, once applied to the Crusaders), these [Portuguese] brigands reaped a reign of terror over the rivers and swamps of eastern Bengal. These Moghs were to play an interesting role in culinary history. For centuries they had worked as deckhands and cooks on Arab ships trading with Southeast Asia. The Portuguese continued this tradition by employing the Moghs as cooks and they quickly learned the culinary arts of their masters, becoming skilled confectioners and bakers’ (Sen 2010:3-4)

After Clive, through his agent George Bogle, according to North Bengal University History Professor Arabinda Deb, Warren Hastings accepts trade with China via Tibet and Bhutan, concluding a treaty with the Deba Raja of Bhutan in 1775 for trade in betel, sandal, indigo and tobacco (Deb 1984:18)


[1] ‘The Portuguese language remained a lingua franca in Bengal at late as the 18th century. Clive, who could never give an order in any native language, was said to speak fluent Portuguese. The first three books printed in the Bengali language were printed in Latin characters in Lisbon in 1743, and it was a Portuguese who composed the first Bengali prose work and the first Bengali grammar and dictionary. In Modern Bengali, articles of common use, items used in Christian services, and plants often go by their Portuguese names; e.g., ag-bent (holy water), alpin (pin), altar (altar), ananas (pineapple), balti (bucket), bispa (bishop), botel (bottle), spanj (sponge), girja (church), tamak (tobacco), piyara (pear), ata (custard apple), veranda, etc. Other Portuguese words have passed into the English language, including caste, peon, padre, papaya, plantain, cobra, mosquito, pomfret, and palmyra. (Sen 2010:4). Sen includes an impressive two-page table of imported foodstuffs.

Refs:

Ahmad Salahuddin 2005 ‘Rise and Decline of the Economy of Bengal’ Asian Affairs, Vol. 27, No. 3 : 5-26, July – September.

Bowen, Huw, John McAleer and Robert J. Blyth 2011 Monsoon Traders: The maritime world of the East India Company London: Scala Pubnlishers

Deb, Arabinda 1984 ‘Tibet and Bengal; A Study in Trade Policy and Trade Pattern 1775-1785’ Bulletin of Tibetology (New Series) No 3: 17-32.

Sen, Colleen 2010 ‘The Portuguese Influence on Bengali Cuisine’ at Food on the Move: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1996’ 14 pages – available at http://www.colleensen.com/pdf/portuguese_influence.pdf – accessed April 2 2013.

 

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