Armenian community of Dhaka
In the early part of 18th Century, Armenians settled in Dhaka, then one of the commercial centres in Bengal. They initially built a chapel and cemetery at Tejgaon, five miles from Dhaka. The oldest tombstone is “Avetis” an Armenian merchant who died on 15 August 1714.
Apart from Dhaka there was a significant Armenian presence in Saidabad (a suburb of the capital Murshidabad), Hoogli, Kolkata, Chinsura, Patna and Kasimbazar. A neighborhood in Dhaka - Armanitola - bears their name; there the Church of the Holy Resurrection and the cemetery established by the community in 1781 stand as major landmarks. The records of Church of the Holy Resurrection list over 200 deaths between 1833-1918, over 250 baptisms and over 50 marriages. Their assertive presence, however, began to decline from the beginning of British rule. Michael Joseph Martin (Mikel Housep Martirossian) is reported to have been the last Armenian in Dhaka.
Armenians played a major role in the commercial life of Dhaka, led by the Pogoses, Agacy, Michael, Stephen, Joakim, Sarkies, Arathon (also spelled as Aratun), Coja (also spelled Khojah) and Manook (also spelled as Manuk) families. Khwaja Hafizullah, a merchant prince, laid the foundations for the Dhaka Nawab Family by accumulating wealth by doing business with Greek and Armenian merchants. This trend was followed by his nephew and the first Nawab of the family Khwaja Alimullah. Parts of the gardens of Shahbag, Ruplal House (a major landmark in the old part of Dhaka) and the land where Bangabhaban stands belonged to Armenian zamindars (landlords). There is still a Manuk House inside Bangabhaban, bearing the name of the original owner's family.
They also played a major role as patrons of education and urban development in Dhaka. The Pogose School, the first private school in the country, was founded by JG Nicholas Pogose, a merchant and a zamindar. P Arathon was the headmaster of the Normal School. According to the Dhaka Prakash, a newspaper of his time, students in his school scored better in examinations than students of other normal schools in Bengal, including the one in Hoogli. Margar David, Mackertich Abraham George, Michael Sarkies, Abraham Lucas, M Highcazony, A S Mackertich, Tigran Nahapiet, Thaddeus Nahapiet, M.J. Catchhatoor, Joseph Lazarus, and M David were other prominent Armenians of Dhaka.
After Safavid rulers conquered Eastern Armenia in the Caucasus, Shah Abbas deported about 300,000 Armenian traders specialized in inter-Euroasiatic trade to Isfahan and New Julfa. From there these traders first came to Bengal following the footsteps of Persian adventurers, and in the course established their own trading community there, recognized as such by the Mughal government since late 17th century. They were mostly engaged in export trade paying a duty of 3.5% to the government. The Nawabs are known to have engaged them to transact their personal businesses openly or clandestinely as well as the European maritime companies, who used them as local representatives and their vakils (spokesperson or pleaders) to the royal courts. It is not known when they came to Dhaka, but on the evidence of dates on tombstones the time is assumed to be before the late 18th century.
In an estimate of the textile export from Dhaka (which was a major textile production center in Bengal) was said to have been 27% in 1747. In the silk market, there are indications that the Armenians were dominant buyers, along with Gujaratis and merchants from Delhi, Agra and Benares. They were prominent in the jute trade.
Initially not all of them lived in Armanitola, but lived in the neighborhoods of Moulavibazaar and Nolgola. Prior to building the church at Armanitola (popularly known as the Armani Church) they worshiped at a small chapel at in the same area, while deceased members of the community were interred at the Roman Catholic Church at Tejgaon, where some of the graves tombstones date back to 1741 to 1795. In 1837 they had built a Clock Tower on the west of the church that fell down in the earthquake of 1897. By 1868, five of the six European zamindars in Dhaka were Armenians - JG Nicholas Pogose, GC Paneati, J Stephan, JT Lucas and W Harney.
Notable Armenians of Bengal
Dhaka was not the only center of Armenian influence in the region, and there were Armenians who rose to prominence for all of Bengal. There is an Armanitola in Kolkata, and an Armanighat as well.
- Khojah Phanoos Kalandar: The earliest noted Armenian who entered into an agreement with the East India Company for using English ships for trade by himself and other members of his community in 1688.
- Khojah Israel Sarhand: A nephew of Khojah Phanoos, he helped the English to secure the Company's Kolkata zamindari from Subadar Azim ush Shan in 1698, and was a vakil (spokesperson) of the Company's Surman Embassy to the Mughal Emperor Farrukh Siyar. He was instrumental in realizing the grand imperial farman (decree) of 1717 granting extraordinary privileges to the Company.
- Khojah Petrus Nicholas: He was court advisor and financier to Nawab Alivardi Khan, and a leader of the Armenian community.
- Khojah Wajid: The most notable Armenian in Bengal (see below)
- Khojah Gregory: Popularly known as Gurgin Khan, he was a brother of Khojah Petruse and a minister to Nawab Mir Qasim as well as the Commander-in-Chief of his army. He is cited by Gholam Hossein in Siyar-ul-Mutakhkherin as the chief of the artillery and the Nwab's principal serviceman. An assassin killed him after the Battle of Giria (August 1763).
- JG Nicholas Pogose: Popularly known as Nicky Pogose, he was a zamindar, a merchant, a partner of the first bank in Bangladesh - Dhaka Bank - and one of nine commissioners of Dhaka Municipality (1874–1875).
A monpolist in the highly profitable saltpetre trade (one of the most important commodities in the export list of the European companies) since 1753, this Armenian merchant conducted most of the negotiations between the Company and Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah. Conducting his trading from Hugli, he dominated the commercial scene of Bangal as one of the merchant princes along with Mahtab Chand and Sawaroop Chand known as the two Jagat Sayts (bankers of the world), as well as Omichand. Son of Khojah Mahmet Fazel, an influential Armenian merchant in the mid 18th century, he obtained footholds in the durbar of the Nawab as a vakil for his community in 1740s and eventually rose to be a member of the Nawab's inner-circle.
He had extensive business transactions with the French, the Dutch and the English. At one point, Jean Law de Lauriston, the chief of the French factory at Kasim Bazar pointed out that Wajid wanted to be on good terms with everybody. He owned at least six ships - Salamat Ressan, Salamat Manzil, Mobarak, Gensamer, Medina Baksh and Mubarak Manzil - traveling from Hoogli to Jeddah, Mocha, Basra, Surat and Masulipatnam.
After the Battle of Plassey, he obtained a parwana (decree) from Mir Jafar, the new Nawab, "for the entire possession of the saltpetre trade at Patna", which he promised to use in assistance to the Company in procuring salt at the cheapest rate, provided they "assisted him in return to make the Dutch purchase from him". The Company took over his saltpetre empire in 1758, which grew to generate an annual revenue of Rs. 1 million in 1773. In 1759, he was captured and jailed by the Company, where he poisoned himself. After his death, Khoajah Petruse Aratoon took over as leader of the Armenian community in Bengal.
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