Thursday, May 30, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Bangladesh and company

Update : 18 Jun 2016, 06:00 PM

It was probably the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 that finally revived a real interest for European nations in the potential for Eastern trade.

And perhaps, offered a desperately needed opportunity for a rather embattled England to seek new sources of much needed trade, and, maybe above all, explore a major potential source of the gunpowder that was much needed to sustain support for the embattled fellow Protestant Netherlanders, and enrich their own supply to resist what was becoming, clearly, a looming threat to themselves from Catholic Spain.

It is, perhaps, worth noting that, in 1564, preparing for the attempted invasion of Malta, to shore up their naval authority in the Mediterranean, the Ottoman forces, themselves, in one of the instructions issued to regional governors, outlining support required from them, noted: “There is a shortage of gunpowder.”

It is not hard to work out that, if the Ottoman Empire was short of the resource, vulnerable nations of Europe were, surely, even more short.

The Levant Company, formed in London in 1581, reached out across a Mediterranean Sea that had been swept of much of the piracy, patronised by the defeated Ottoman Empire, to establish its main base in Aleppo.

It was the Portuguese, of course, who recognised, after the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1451, by Mehmet 2nd, that the East was likely to remain inaccessible for direct trade for a foreseeable future.

Under the guidance of Prince Henry “the navigator,” the Portuguese, with the authority of the Pope, who had, somewhat speciously, arrogated to himself the right to divide the world between the Spanish and the Portuguese, exploration had already commenced along the coast of Africa, and, in 1498, Vasco da Gama reached the Indian sub-continent, via the south of Africa.

Conditions for trade further deteriorated in the Mediterranean, following the accession to the throne, in 1520, of Suleiman, known as the “Magnificent,” ruling the Ottoman Empire from what became known as the, sublime porte.

Patronising Islamic piratical settlements of Algiers and Tunis, as part of his warfare with, in particular, the Hapsburg Empire of Europe, such trade shrunk further.

Even the Venetians found conditions deteriorating, rapidly, especially as France allied itself with the Ottomans.

Lepanto may not have finally destroyed the Islamic pirates, but the defeat diminished the patronage of the Ottoman rulers, and offered the prospect, after nearly a century, of reasonably safe navigation through the Mediterranean Sea.

By 1581, England, isolated by its religious differences with the Roman Catholic nations of Europe, had established a Company to develop trade with the east, the Levant Company.

In 1583, it was that Company that facilitated, through its newly established factory in Aleppo, the voyage of a company of merchants seeking to head to India.

That company was led by a leather merchant, named Ralph Fitch. By 1585, he had, with the permission of Emperor Akbar, arrived in the region of the Ganges delta.

He certainly spent a great deal of time in the region around the Ganges, and it seems a little difficult to imagine he was simply sightseeing.

Indeed, since leather merchants were amongst the people most familiar with the properties of saltpetre, and refined gunpowder, using Saltpetre in tanning, and their finished product being amongst the safest material for carrying the highly combustible, and readily ruined, finished product, gunpowder, we may well wonder, what, exactly, was his reason for spending so much time hereabouts.

It may be reasonable to consider the relative speed with which Fitch’s report back to London, in 1590, resulted in the setting up of an entirely new trading company, granted, in 1600, a Royal Charter of exclusive rights to trade with India and the east.

In doing so, the Company became, for nearly a century, the de facto rulers of these lands of Bangladesh. Many, no doubt, suffered for it, especially in 1770, but many, also, certainly benefitted

The East India Company, as it was called, began trading, immediately. Indeed, there is even some evidence that the Royal Charter was anticipated by activity at sea, and by 1612, had arrived on the east coast of India.

Around 1620, it had obtained Imperial consent for setting up a trading station at Balasore, in Orissa, as close to the Ganges Delta as it could obtain permission to be.

By the 1630s, the journals of staff and visitors to the Company facilities, including a gunpowder factory set up on the banks of the Ganges, near Patna, write of large cargoes of refined gunpowder and saltpetre being shipped down river to catch the monsoon shipping for passage to England.

It appears that both the Portuguese and Dutch had already taken an interest at Pulicat, close to Madras, before the end of the 16th century, in the refinement of gunpowder.

It seems, however, perhaps as a result of Fitch’s report, that the English were more interested in the lands in and around Bengal as a greater source of supply.

In fact, the first Company factory had been established a little way inland, along the Ganges, at Patna, by 1620. Inevitably, at that time, company trade would probably have passed along the main flow of the Ganges River, through Dhaka.

As far as we can tell from Company records, initial trades may have been in cotton and refined silk cloths.

However, by 1657, the factory at Patna had “increasingly focussed on the collection and refinement of saltpetre into gunpowder,” as well as selling English produced woollen fabrics, mercury, and vermillion dyes.

Within a few decades, the Company had become the contracted supplier of this essential ammunition to the English navy.

That, of course, was the navy that, by 1759, “ruled the seas” by courtesy of its apparently endless supply of gunpowder, at least as much as the nautical skills indigenous to such an island race.

There is no doubt that such luxuries as muslin, silk, indigo dye, musk, and spices also rapidly  developed as cargoes, together with the apparently plentiful diamonds from Orissa, which rapidly became a “go to” for, especially, the private trades permitted to Company staff.

Until the Battle of Plassey, such trades were undertaken by courtesy of the much remunerated Mughal power in the region.

Once that courtesy was imperilled by the independent Nawab of Bengal, as Mughal authority declined, it was, perhaps, inevitable that both the Company, with its own compelling commercial interests at heart, and the very evident support of the English government, should seek to protect its trade.

In doing so, the Company became, for nearly a century, the de facto rulers of these lands of Bangladesh. Many, no doubt, suffered for it, especially in 1770, but many, also, certainly benefitted. Such is the way of political history.

The history of what has become known as “the world’s first corporation,” is, perhaps, in this age of mega corporations, potentially, equally instructive.

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