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How Armenians in Kolkata Helped Britishers Win the Battle of Plassey

On June 23, 1757, the Battle of Plassey led to the unlikely conquest of Bengal by Robert Clive’s army. George Bruce Malleson, in The Decisive Battles of India (1883), described Plassey as the most unheroic English victory. It was “Plassey which necessitated,” wrote Malleson, “the conquest and colonization of the Cape of Good Hope, of Mauritius, the protectorship over Egypt; Plassey which gave to the sons of her middle-classes the finest field for the development of their talent and industry the world has ever known… the conviction of which underlies the thought of every true Englishman.”

It was Plassey, however, that exposed the subcontinent’s internal conflicts, destroying the native dynasties than in power and also the economy of imperial Bengal.

In the early 18th century, India was a gigantic cesspool of business interests torn between European powers, native rulers, and the local or migrant merchants — all of them prowling about the hunting grounds of opium, saltpetre, textiles, spices, and bullion. In 1756, anticipating French and Dutch fortifications in Bengal, the English began reinforcing troops at Fort William, their ramparts in Calcutta. Siraj ud-Daulah, the last independent Nawab of Bengal, had just succeeded to the throne, after his grandfather Ali Vardi Khan. Infuriated, he asked the English to stop their fortifications, and when they ignored him, Siraj ud-Daulah attacked the fort and its neighbouring church.

On June 26, 1756, the British forces surrendered, Calcutta was renamed Alinagar, and a mosque was ordered to be built inside the fort. The Nawab captured the British enclave in Cossimbazar, near Murshidabad, and imprisoned many British officers, including a young Warren Hastings.

In Fort William, about 70 officers and soldiers of an English company, which included Indian, Portuguese and Armenian soldiers, were herded into the fort’s small prison. Overnight, 43 of them died due to asphyxiation, in an incident that became infamous as the Black Hole of Calcutta.

One year later, Clive exacted revenge at Plassey. With the help of the Nawab’s uncle, Mir Jaffar, and local moneylenders, the Jagat Seths, Siraj ud-Daulah was betrayed. The formidable Bengal army of about 60,000 soldiers, 300 cannons and 300 elephants outnumbered Clive’s forces of 3,000 by 20 times and yet ended up deserting or surrendering. The battle was lost by soldiers who did not fight and won by generals or subedars, not exactly gallant.

In 1756, as Calcutta burned from Fort William to Fulta, Emin arrived in London, working his way as a lascar

‘The Plassey Plunder,’ as the aftermath of the battle came to be known, had the English navy and army each receiving a tribute of £275,000 (about £32 million today). The Company annually received from Jaffar — who supplanted Siraj ud-Daulah in Bengal — £3 million (about £308 million), between 1757 and 1760. As a clerk in Madras, Clive’s annual salary was £5, with £40 for expenses. When he returned to England in 1767, he was ‘Clive of India,’ with a trade revenue of £4 million, more enormous than any European kingdom then, and had a personal jagir of £34,567 (£3.5 million today). Clive’s father and he purchased seats in the British Parliament, and a peerage in Ireland, where his County Clare estate was renamed ‘Plassey’ for the new Baron Clive.

The Armenians of Bengal

All the histories of Plassey usually only recount Clive’s coalition with Jaffar, the Jagat Seths, and Omichand. But another major force to reckon with in Bengal then were the Armenians. Without them, the victory at Plassey would have been a mirage for Clive and the Company, especially after the bedlam of 1756.

Three prominent Armenians of this time were Khoja Wajid, the Bengal merchant who supported Robert Clive but was later arrested on suspicion that he had shown allegiance to the French; Joseph Emin, the adventurer who traveled to London and for a decade remained a talked-about figure among the English nobility, and Khoja Petrus Aratoon, an ally of the English Company, who may well have gone on to succeed Mir Qasim as the Nawab of Bengal but for his assassination in 1763.

A century marked by religious intolerance and forced conversion of Armenians to Catholicism and Islam, exacerbated by the Afghan invasion of the 1720s, and the pillaging armies of Nadir Shah in the 1740s had led to a mass exodus of Armenians from Persia, Turkey, and Afghanistan into India. Almost every native power or European company of the time strategically ushered Armenians to their side to jointly explore Asian opportunities.

Akbar exempted Armenians from taxes on their trade with the Persian Gulf. The Armenians settled in Surat (Gujarat) in the 16th century, and in Chinsurah (West Bengal) in the late 17th century. In 1665, they were allowed to form a settlement in Saidabad, in Murshidabad district of Bengal, after a royal farmaan was issued by Aurangzeb. Besides Murshidabad, Surat and Benares assumed robust identities as towns of silk crafts due to Armenian trade.

Armenian Street, Armanitola, and Armenian Ghat came up in 18th century Calcutta to the rhythms of Armenian vessels lumbering between India, Persia, Turkey, and China. Built-in 1734 by Huzoorimal, Armenian Ghat was the site of the first ticket reservation room of the East India Railway Company between 1854 and 1857. Between 1873 and 1902, the Calcutta Tramway Company ran a meter-gauge horse-drawn tram service between Sealdah and Armenian Ghat.

By the 20th century, there were about 25,000 Armenians in India, and about 1,000 Armenians in Calcutta alone, more than one-fourth of the population of 3,200 British settlers in the city.

For Clive and Company

The rise of the Armenians in Bengal was due to their ability to milk the trade conflicts and monopolies between the European and regional powers. They also decided to anglicize themselves to appease the dominant colonial power.

In 1744, Joseph Emin fled with his family — from Persia and later Afghanistan — joining about 4,000 Armenians in Calcutta. Emin wanted to train in the manners, language, arts, and science of the English. In 1756, as Calcutta burned from Fort William to Fulta, Emin arrived in London, working his way as a lascar. He happened to meet Edmund Burke, who took him under his wing. Emin later copied Burke’s renowned essay, ‘On the Sublime and the Beautiful,’ among other of his works.

The young man found influential patrons in Mrs. Montagu, Sir William Jones, and the Dukes of Northumberland and Cumberland, received military training at Woolwich, and joined the English army against the French. In 1772, Clive, at the behest of Burke, recommended a military promotion for Emin, who returned to Calcutta a little later. With the aid of Montagu, Jones, and 73 subscribers, he published his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Joseph Émïn (1792), at the age of 66.

“Who could have thought,” wrote Burke in a letter to Emin, “the day I met you in St. James’s Park that this kingdom would rule the greater part of India? But kingdoms rise and pass away — emperors are captive and blinded — pedlars become emperors.” Indeed, there were several notorious pedlars and kingmakers in Clive’s Bengal — quite a few of the Armenians. One of them was Khoja Wajid, who held business transactions with the French, English and Dutch while trading with Mocha and Basra. Other noted Armenian merchants were Avak di Aratoon and Khachik di Khojamal. Khoja Petrus Aratoon, another leading Armenian merchant, maintained close links with Saidabad and the Mughal durbar in Murshidabad. His two brothers, Khoja Gregory Aratoon and Khoja Barseek Aratoon were also leading merchants and diplomats in and around Calcutta.

Wajid was the prince of saltpetre trade and trade negotiations in Bengal. Anxious to maintain his monopoly and good relations with the other Europeans, while pretending to act as a diplomatic agent, Wajid suggested involving the French in the mediations between Clive and Siraj. But when the British sacked Hooghly in 1757, Wajid’s businesses were destroyed, and his relationship with the English began to decline. Moreover, Clive suspected him of sympathizing with Siraj and having a hand in French interventions in Bengal. In 1759, Wajid helped Jaffar plot a conspiracy with the Dutch traders against the English. After the fall of the Dutch at the Battle of Chinsurah, Wajid fell out of favor with all Europeans. He was taken into captivity by Clive, where he conveniently killed himself.

In high places

Wajid’s tumble coincided with the rise of Aratoon, who had been strengthening his English ties, inchmeal, for over a decade. After the Black Hole of Calcutta, Aratoon provided provisions for the East India Company garrison. If not for the “humane Armenians”, wrote Indian-Armenian historian Mesrovb Jacob Seth, “British fugitives at Fulta might have been starved to surrender.” Aratoon was employed by Clive as a secret agent during his negotiations with Jaffar for the overthrow of Siraj ud-Daulah in the Plassey Conspiracy — a job that otherwise naturally belonged to Wajid.

Aratoon’s position and influence with Clive rivaled that of Hastings’, who was merely 19 then, a diplomat and Governor-General-in-the-making. Aratoon became a member of the East India Company’s Council in Madras, and turned into an ambassador for the Armenians in Bengal — henceforth characterized by their philanthropy, piety, and steadfast loyalty to British imperial interests.

Before and after Plassey, Armenian aid helped dramatically consolidate British trade and military presence in Bengal. Besides shaping the metropolis of Calcutta, the commercial and diplomatic forays of Indian Armenians also went into rebuilding the colonial epicenter of London, a hundred years after the Great Fire of 1666, with the massive imperial loot of the English Company. Armenian commercial support, for instance, helped build East India House at Leadenhall Street — the headquarters for many years of the world’s first multinational company.

In the many decades of regurgitating our colonial history, we have been guilty of ignoring the very real impact of Armenian influence, trade, diplomacy, and culture on the course of events in India.

Armenians in India: A long history

Nearly seven centuries before Vasco da Gama, a merchant-diplomat named Thomas Cana is said to have been the first Armenian to reach the Kerala coast in 780. Cana traded in spices and muslin cloth and is referred to in local chronicles as Kanaj Tomma or The Merchant Thomas.

The Armenians are described as ‘The Merchant Princes of India’, and according to Indian-Armenian historian Mesrovb Jacob Seth, they were not men of letters but shrewd businessmen. “Their only ambition in life was to amass wealth,” he writes.

It was in Akbar’s reign that the Armenian’s wealth and influence grew. Akbar is not only believed to have had an Armenian queen, but he also had an Armenian doctor and chief justice.

In 1715, it was an Armenian in Farrukhsiyar’s court who helped East India Company get the Grand Firman that first granted them duty-free trading rights in Bengal.

In 1688, it was again an Armenian who first introduced East India Company to the Mughal Court. In return, according to an agreement signed between the Company and Khoja Phanoos Kalandar, the Armenians would get similar trading rights as the English.

The Armenians had settlements in several parts of India, including Agra, Surat, Mumbai, Kanpur, Chinsurah, Chandernagore, Calcutta, Chennai, Gwalior, and Lucknow. They also had a presence in Lahore, Dhaka, and Kabul.

Gauhar Jaan, the famous singer who was one of the first artists to be recorded on a 78 rpm record, was of Armenian origin; her given name was Angelina Yeoward.