‘Playful are these boats of the pirates/harmads, they marched, keeping time as it were, with the motion of the waves! Like the vultures that hovered the sea, they marched flapping their wings of sail.’
The above lines are from the ballad of Nuranneha and the Grave, believed to have been composed during the seventeenth century in eastern Bengal. It narrates the tale of the star-crossed lovers Nuranneha and Malek. A significant episode in the story of the young couple is the raid of the harmads (pirates) on their isle, which leads to their captivity. Only because of the retaliation by a group of fishermen, the couple is, after much trouble, able to make their escape.
This ballad, along with numerous others, provides vivid descriptions of the frequent raids and plunder carried out by the harmads on the coastal communities of eastern Bengal.
The root of the word harmad sheds light on their identity. The term is a colloquial distortion of the Portuguese and Spanish word ‘armada’, fleet of warships. In Bengal, it came to be synonymous with slave-raiding Portuguese. The attacks were carried out essentially by Portuguese privateers and adventurers from their flotillas, often in collaboration with the Moghs or the Arakenese.
The story of Portuguese presence in early modern Bengal (approximately, 1526–1858), however, was much more multifaceted than simply their piratical activities, which dominate the popular memory of the region.
The Early Years
Vasco Da Gama’s arrival on May 20, 1498, near Calicut, on the western coast of India, marks the beginning of Portugal’s involvement in India. Portugal’s primary objective was to procure spices from India and monopolise their import to Europe.
During the early years of their presence, and particularly under the governorship of Afonso de Albuquerque (1509–14), the Portuguese successfully established a chain of fortresses along the coast, and a regular patrolling fleet was introduced to ensure Portuguese monopoly over the region’s trade. On the western coast, they successively established their bases in Cochin (1502), Cananore (1505), Goa (1510), Calicut (1513), Kollam (1519), Chaul (1521), Bassein and Diu (1534). Additionally, a system of licences, or cartazes, was introduced in the ports of the western coast to sustain their singular ownership. By the mid-sixteenth century, the Portuguese had successfully entrenched themselves on the coast of western India, with Goa serving as their headquarters.
East of the Cape of Comorin, the Bay of Bengal region or the eastern coast of India, initially did not fall within the direct purview of the Portuguese Crown in India. Scholars argue that it was Albuquerque’s capture of Melaka in 1511 that set of the process of creation of a second pattern of Portuguese activity on the east of Cape of Comorin. Yet the first to make the daring voyage to Bengal were the private Lusitanian traders, essentially trader-settlers who came to be known as casados. The Crown itself entered the fray in 1516, when an official Portuguese fleet under Fernao Peres de Andrade was sent to explore the Bay of Bengal region. Since that fleet also had the business of carrying an ambassador to China, de Andrade dispatched to Bengal a representative, Joao Coelho, who reached Chittagong successfully.
Coelho remained in Bengal till 1518, when the first official envoy of the Portuguese governor, under D. Joao de Silveira, arrived to secure trading rights. Silveira’s embassy, however, was not well received by the Bengal king at Gaur/Gauda, for their earlier capture of two Bengali ships going to Cambay. Though Silveira’s venture ended on quite a violent note, scholars agree that it marked the beginning of the regular carreira de Bengala, sent annually to Bengal by the Portuguese. By the 1530s, Bengal had become a centre of Portuguese trading activity with periodic official embassies to Gaur, yielding mixed results.
The mid-1530s marked significant changes in the Luso-Bengal relationship. An initial phase of offensive between the Sultan of Bengal, Mahmud Shah, and the Portuguese in the region was rapidly succeeded by collaboration between the two as the Bengal sultan faced attack from the Afghan Sher Shah Suri in 1535–36. In the subsequent war, Mahmud Shah enlisted the help of Martim Affonso de Mello and the available Portuguese forces, which ensured his victory.
In return, the sultan allowed the Portuguese to build factories in Bengal, besides conferring the right to collect customs duties at the two chief ports of Bengal, Chittagong and Satgoan, upon Nuno Fernandes Freire and Joao Correa, chiefs of the custom houses of Chittagong and Satgaon, respectively. Interestingly, both of these were personal grants made to individuals, which is reflective of the limited Portuguese official presence in the region, which in due course would become negligible.
What characterised Portuguese presence in Bengal was clearly initiatives from privateers. Primarily the unofficial—Portuguese privateers, freebooters, convicts and adventurers—came to this region to make their own fortune, away from the stifling official structures located on the west coast of India. This was called their ‘shadow empire’. These privateers began settling in Bengal for numerous reasons, such as to escape judicial action for crimes committed, to evade religious persecution spearheaded by the growing power of the Inquisition, or simply to make more money than that offered by the unreliably paid salary of the estado. However, one can argue that the primary reason for their settlement was the increasing commercial vitality of the region during that period, particularly with the growing importance of intra-Asian trade.
Initially, the casado privateers concerned themselves with bringing pepper from Cochin in exchange for sugar and textile from Bengal. By the 1560s, however, the traders in Bengal extended their operation to Southeast Asia and China, thus effectively linking the west coast with the rest of the Asia and China. In fact, the growth of private trade was so much in Bengal that during the mentioned decade of the 1560s, Crown shipping was completely abandoned in the region. Thus, as Sanjay Subrahmanyam points out, while on the western coast the Portuguese established a militarised, centralised and official presence, a second pattern of Portuguese presence would emerge in the Bay of Bengal region, including Bengal, where the mercantile impulse dominated the military one. The middle and lower nobility and the marginal elements of the Portuguese society were more in evidence in these areas.
Alongside the varied range of privateers, Christian missionaries also frequented the region. It should be noted here that the Church formed an integral part of the Portuguese seaborne empire. This ‘union of faith and empire, of Cross and Crown’ found expression in the institution of Padroado Real, or royal patronage of the Church, overseas. From the very onset, the Portuguese ships brought to India both secular priests and religious priests of missionary orders. By 1533, the diocese of Goa was established, whose boundaries were defined by the Cape of Good Hope in one direction and the kingdom of China in the other.
As far as Bengal is concerned, the exact year from when missionaries began to visit the region is not known. In 1599, however, the Portuguese king granted the Bengal mission to the Augustinian order, though both secular priests as well as those of other orders continued to visit and work in the region. Scholars argue that given the nature of the Portuguese settlement in Bengal, the Christian missionaries and the orders in the region came to form a vital bridge between the privateers and the estado. Yet at the same time, the peripheral nature of the region allowed them to enjoy a surprising degree of autonomy and influence as well.
A more nuanced understanding of the nature and history of Portuguese presence in early modern Bengal requires a study of their engagements centred around the two principal ports of Hooghly, in the western delta, and Chittagong in the south-eastern delta in two subdivisions, since the two regions follow politically disparate trajectories.
Hooghly: The Porto Pequeno
While travelling through the western delta of Bengal in 1515, Portuguese traveller Tom Pires mentions Satgoan or Saptagram as one of the chief trading cities in Bengal. He writes, ‘It has a good port; it has a good entrance. It is a good city and rich, where there are many merchants’.
From ancient times, the chief port and emporium of trade on the western side of Bengal was Satgoan, situated on the banks of the river Saraswati, which branches off from the Hooghly below Tribeni and joins it higher up. In fact, as already noted in 1536, Mahmud Shah had conferred the right to collect customs duties of Satgoan upon Joao Correa, and soon it emerged as a porto pequeno (small port) of the Portuguese.
Satgoan’s status as a porto pequeno was, however, short-lived, since by around 1565 it was taken over by the port of Hooghly, located further downstream. A number of factors contributed to this development. Over time, the harbour of Satgoan began silting and soon it became inconvenient for ships to enter and depart, and the Portuguese are often blamed for this decline. Inayat Khan in the Shahjahannama writes in detail about how the growing number of farangi (European) merchants in the region contributed to the gradual growth of Bandar (port) Hooghly at the cost of Satgoan.
The third probable reason for the rise of Hooghly was Akbar’s farman to the Portuguese, which officially allowed them to build a city there. Sebastian Manrique, Portuguese traveller and missionary, notes in his account that Emperor Akbar, on becoming aware of the vast scale of trade conducted by the Portuguese from Bengal, summoned the Portuguese merchants from Hooghly to his court. Hence, a deputation led by the merchant Pedro Tavares, along with two Jesuit priests, went to Fatehpur Sikri. A direct aftermath of this meeting was the farman of 1578–80, which allowed the Portuguese to choose the site of construction of their proposed settlement in Hooghly and also granted them some adjoining lands to support their establishment. The emperor’s order further granted full religious liberty to the Portuguese, with freedom to preach Christianity, build churches and even baptise gentiles with their consent. It gave significant legitimacy to the Portuguese settlement in Hooghly, since, initially, the port was established by private traders, adventurers and smugglers.
By the end of the 16th century, Hooghly was a flourishing bandar with the lion’s share of its trade in the hands of the Portuguese. Their merchants had extensive trading relations with the Malabar Coast, Southeast Asia and China. From China, among other goods, they imported a large amount of textile and ‘worked silk’, including brocades, velvets, and taffetas. Another very lucrative part of their trade was in commodities forbidden by the Portuguese Crown—cloves, nutmeg and mace from the Molucca Islands and Banda, camphor from Borneo, cinnamon from Ceylon and pepper from Malabar. The Portuguese from Hooghly also exported a large number of commodities, of which rice was the most important. The vast scale of the Portuguese trade from Hooghly can be gauged from the fact that they annually paid 10,000 tankas to the Mughal government. Notably, they also engaged in the notorious but highly profitable slave trade with their counterparts in the eastern delta as well as the Moghs (Arakanese).
In 1599, the Augustinians in Hooghly built the Covent of Sam Nicoleu de Tolentino, attached to the Church of our Lady Rosary. Thus, by the mid-seventeenth century, Jesuit missionary John Cabral described Hooghly as the richest and the most flourishing trading port of Bengal.
The Sacking of Hooghly and its Aftermath
The watershed in the history of Portuguese Hooghly is the sacking of the port by Shah Jahan’s forces in 1632. This incident had caught significant attention during the time, and there are multiple accounts of the incident both in Persian and Portuguese sources. Mughal chronicles, Lahori’s Padshahnama, and Inayat Khan’s Shahjahanama provide us accounts of this event. In fact, the siege was illustrated by the imperial artists in the manuscript of Padshahnama, now at the Royal Library, Windsor Castle. As far as the Portuguese are concerned, their official chronicles give scant attention to the event. In contrast, the missionaries working in Bengal provide us detailed descriptions of the event.
All the sources enumerate several reasons that made Shah Jahan call for the siege. Briefly they are: a Portuguese individual Manoel Tavares’s betrayal of Shah Jahan at the time of his revolt against his father, the failure of the Bandel of Hooghly to send an embassy to the court at the ascension of Shah Jahan, the news that the Portuguese in Hooghly were supplying men and ammunitions to the Mogo king (the king of Arakan), and the increasing prosperity of Bandel.
However, Manrique, in his account mentions the burgeoning slave trade of the region that led to the capture of some Mughal ladies by the Portuguese slave ships (gelias) near Dhaka as one of the immediate cause for the siege. The Persian chronicles, similarly, ascribe much of the blame not only to the Portuguese slave traders but also the Christian missionaries of the region.
The emperor asked the Nawab of Dhaka to march to Bandel and ‘put it to fire and sword.’ The siege commenced on June 24, 1632, with the arrival of the nawab’s fleet at the Hooghly River, which was followed by the arrival of the army on the 26th. The siege would continue for three months, with intermittent combats, both on land and at sea.
Jesuit priest Cabral provides us a detailed and graphic eyewitness account of the siege and combats. There were also several attempts at negotiations in the course of the siege. When the third such attempt failed, the Portuguese decided to flee by sea on September 24, 1632. On realising this, the nawab’s troop launched a full-fledged attack. They occupied Bandel and set it on fire. In the course of the struggle, many were killed on both sides and some were taken captive.
In the immediate aftermath of the siege, some, including Cabral, were able to flee and take refuge in a nearby island, but, Friar Manrique’s account informs us that 400 people were taken captive to the Mughal court at Agra. The captured included the Augustinian priests Father Prior Fray Antonio de Christo and Francisco de la Encarncion. Manrique gives us a detailed account of the prisoners, particularly the two priests’ time in Agra, the imprisonment and hardships they underwent, their narrow escape from execution, and refusal to convert to Islam on the sultan’s offer. The account also states that it was due to the efforts of de Christo that the Portuguese prisoners were able to escape from the city, though the priest himself remained there for nine years in imprisonment.
Interestingly, hardly a year after the siege, the Portuguese came back and reestablished themselves in Hooghly. This was made possible by a farman granted by Shah Jahan himself. The order stated that the Mughal emperor had granted 777 bighas of rent-free land to the Augustinian fathers and Christians of the Bandel church of Hooghly in the year 1633, with 17 accompanying religious and commercial privileges.
Many scholars have wondered why Shah Jahan, after so much of animosity, made the grant. The Portuguese community in Hooghly quickly resettled itself. Berneir, while travelling to Bengal in 1665–66, writes that the Jesuits and Augustinians had assured him that ‘Ogouli [Hooghly] alone contains from eight to nine thousand Christians.’ In fact, the period between the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries has even more evidence of Portuguese presence in the port town, with, especially, the Augustinian Church exerting significant power.
Given the unofficial nature of the settlement, as the Dutch, and then the English, began exerting their influence over the region from the early 18th century, the Portuguese in Hooghly went through a process of gradual anglicisation. With new and more profitable opportunities, Portuguese made alliances with their new competitors, got more dispersed, and the porto pequeno lost its former glory.
Chittagong, the Porto Grande and the Deltaic Ports
‘The country is large and fertile; on the side washed by the sea, where the Ganges flows in to the ocean, it breaks up into many islands, being intersected by many rivers, commonly called ‘gangas’, because the people hold strongly that they are arms and mouth of the Ganges.’
Friar Nicholas Pimenta wrote this in 1600, describing the unique topography of the south-eastern delta of Bengal. Characterised by dissecting rivers, islands, sandbars and shifting coastlands, the delta can be best described as a geography in motion. So, the Portuguese in the region came to be centred not only around Chittagong’s porto grande (the great port) but also the smaller deltaic ports of Bakla, Sripur, Loricul, Dianga and Sandwip, which served as operational bases for them.
After the early sixteenth century, the Portuguese, both privateers and state-sponsored vessels, arrived at Chittagong, the most important port of Bengal. By 1535, they had acquired the right to establish a custom house there.
For a better understanding of the nature of Portuguese presence in the region, one needs to consider the political configuration of the region. Unlike the western delta of Bengal, which was firmly under the Mughals by 1574–75, the south-eastern delta remained an area of contestation among numerous political actors. There were the dispossessed Afghan lords of the west and the 12 Bengal lords (bara bhuyans) who had carved out enclaves or little kingdoms for themselves in the delta. The other important political actor in the south-eastern delta region was the Mog, or the Arakanese kingdom, who, by 1553–54, had established control over Chittagong, which it held on to for a century. And with the presence of the sultanate of Bengal in the first half of the sixteenth century and the appearance of the Mughals by the second half, a triangular contestation of power continued in the region. Under this condition, Portuguese privateers and renegades established mutually beneficial relations with the small kinglets as well as the Arakanese king, who allowed them to settle in their lands, conduct trade and, at times, even granted them tribute in exchange for mercenary services and benefits that could be reaped out of the existing Portuguese trading networks. Their mercenary services and naval skills became valuable assets in the politically volatile environment of the delta. Thus, the king of Arakan, among other things, delegated the Portuguese at Chittagong the civil administration and commercial affairs of his frontier region to ensure military assistance.
We get plenty of references of Portuguese serving in the armies of the local lords and the Mughals as well. This eagerness on the part of the power holders of the south-eastern delta region also finds expression with the arrival of the Jesuit Pimenta mission in the region from 1598 onwards. During the early years of their arrival (1598–99), the letters of the Jesuit missionaries narrate the enthusiastic reception, patronage and farmans to build churches and proselytise that they received from the three local Hindu rajas, namely Pratapaditya of Chandecan, Kedar Rai of Sripur and Ramchandra Ray of Bacala, and also the Arakanese king.
Thus, by the early seventeenth century, as Radhika Chadha points out, the Portuguese in the south-eastern delta had two kinds of settlements. The first were the larger and the relatively long-lasting ones like Chittagong, Dianga, Chandecan, Sripur, Sandwip and Syriam, which had their own churches and residences for the Jesuit fathers. The second were the seasonal and functional settlements like Chargin and Anga.
The Portuguese-Arakanese alliance engaged in slave trade along coastal Bengal, as it was a lucrative venture. Portuguese privateers, given their thirst to make money and their maritime skills, actively pursued it. By the end of the sixteenth century, while the legitimate exchanges happened around Hooghly, Chittagong became essentially associated with human trafficking.
The Island of Sundiva and the Fall
The days of Portuguese alliance with both the kingdom of Arakan as well as the local rajas were numbered. Father Andrew Boves wrote as early as in November 25, 1599, ‘all things in this country are more changeable than the moon, and we live under a sword hanging from a hair, so that every day we are with one foot on land and the other in a boat, ready to take flight.’
Things escalated when, in 1602, Domingo Carvalho, a Portuguese captain, taking advantage of the ongoing conflict between the Mughals and the ruler of Sirpur, Kedar Ray, seized the latter’s salt-trading island of Sandwip or Sundiva. Carvalho was one of Ray’s Portuguese employees, which further riled up the residents of the island. The foreigner had to take the help of Emanuel de Matos, another Portuguese captain at Dianga, and his force to suppress the rebellion. So, Carvalho had to equally split the island with de Matos. This increasing power of the ‘invaders’ became a threat to the Arakanese king, who, in alliance with Ray, launched an attack on the Portuguese of Chittagong in November 1602.
In the ensuing war between the Portuguese and the Arakanese, the Portuguese under Carvalho gained victory. The matter, however, did not end there. In 1603, the Arakanese king launched a second assault on Chittagong, with a bigger force. Carvalho was betrayed and beheaded by a former Portuguese ally, Raja Pratapaditya of Chandecan.
In 1609, the Portuguese, under the leadership of Sebastiao Goncalves Tibau, one of the foremost pirates in Bengal, reestablished their control over Sundiva. He continued to rule the island for the next eight years. The viceroy of Goa at that time sought to bring Tibau under the umbrella of Estado da India. He established a relation of convenience with the Portuguese state while often simultaneously allying with the Arakan king. This, Radhika Chadha argues, shows the confidence and power that he came to command in seventeenth-century Bengal. Tibau was defeated in 1615 by his Arakan counterpart, who then took control of the island.
Another noteworthy Portuguese privateer who came to command significant power during the same period was Filipe de Brito e Nicote, who ruled Syriam in Pegu for 13 years.
Thus, the south-eastern delta region of early modern Bengal became home to a significant population of Portuguese privateers, adventurers and renegades, who were seeking opportunities outside the control of the Portuguese state. These privateers while wreaking havoc on coastal Bengal through slave raids, also significantly contributed to the economic and political life of the region, and, even if for short periods, individual Portuguese men commanded territorial units and significant power in the region.
From the eighteenth century onward, the diverse Portuguese population, their descendants and the Luso-Indians of Bengal, gradually got subsumed by the expanding British Empire in the region. Yet, a closer look at both West Bengal and Bangladesh’s culture and memory even today reveals remnants of their legacy, though in a much muted form.
 Sen, ed., Eastern Bengal Ballads, 45.
 Pachuau, ‘Implantation of Christainity on the West Coast of India,’ 48.
 Casados refer to married Portuguese citizens, whose wives were often Indian by origin.
 The carreira de Bengala or the carreira system represented a compromise between the Crown and private trading interests, where the crown’s share was limited to providing the vessel and control over greater part of the cargo share. Post 1518, annual voyages of carreiras to Bengal, became an established feature. The route followed by these carreira vessels appears to have been from Goa via Coromandal to Bengal.
 Subrahmanyam,‘Notes on the sixteenth century Bengal trade,’ 272.
 Malekandathil, ‘Maritime India: Trade, Religion and Polity in the Indian Ocean,’ 167.
 Term coined by George Winus in ‘The “‘Shadow Empire”’ of Goa in the Bay of Bengal’.
 Chadha, ‘Merchants, Renegades and Padres,’ 4.
 Malekandathil, ‘Maritime India: Trade, Religion and Polity in the Indian Ocean,’ 169.
 Subrahmanyan, ‘The Portuguese Empire in Asia: 1500–1700,’ 78.
 Boxer, ‘The Portuguese Seaborne Empire.’
 The secular priests were, notably, those who constituted the clergy that made up the Church hierarchy while the religious priests were those who owed their roots to the monastic traditions. The basic difference between the secular and the religious was in the nature of the vows they took. The religious orders who primarily came to India were the Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians and the Jesuits.
 Chadha, ‘Merchants, Renegades and Padres,’ 169.
 Charney, ‘Priests, Portuguese, and Religious Change,’ 7.
 Pires, ‘The Suma Oriental of Tome Pires,’ 91.
 Campos, ‘History of the Portuguese in Bengal,’ 22.
 Khan, ‘The Shahjahannama,’ 85.
 Chadha, ‘Merchants, Renegades and Padres,’ 144.
 The exact year of Akbar’s farman to the Portuguese remains unknown.
 Chadha, ‘Merchants, Renegades and Padres,’ 145.
 Campos, ‘History of the Portuguese in Bengal.’
 Malekandathil, ‘The Mughal, the Portuguese and the Indian Ocean,’ 186.
 Chadha, ‘Merchants, Renegades and Padres,’ 148.
 Campos, ‘History of the Portuguese in Bengal,’ 56.
 Cabral, ‘The Fall of Hugli,’ 90.
 ibid., 92.
 ibid., 110.
 Manrique, ‘The Fall of Hugli.’
 Curiously only one copy of Shah Jahan’s farman survives, a Portuguese copy of early nineteenth century, titled ‘Copy of the Farman of the seventeen privileges of the baixa in Persian language and together with the same in Portuguese’. The original copy is claimed to have been lost in 1756, when Siraj ud Daulah besieged the English in Hooghly and sacked Bandel.
 Biker, ‘Collec̹ão de tratados e concertos de pazes que o Estado da India portugueza.’
 Bernier, ‘Travels in the Mogul Empire,’ 165.
 Chadha, ‘Merchants, Renegades and Padres,’ 165.
 Pimeota, ‘Annual Letter to the General of the Society of Jesus in Rome,’ 54.
 Chadha, ‘Big Generals in Little Kingdoms,’ 45.
 ibid., 42.
 ibid., 45.
 Boves, ‘Letter of Fr Andrew Boves, S.J., to the General of the Society of Jesus in Rome, Chittagong,’ 1599.
 Chadha, ‘Big Generals in Little Kingdoms,’ 51.
Boves, Andrew Fr. Letter of Fr Andrew Boves, S.J., to the General of the Society of Jesus in Rome, Chittagong, 25. 1. 1. 1599, translated by Fr Rosten, Hosten Collection, Vidyajyoti Library, Delhi, Cardboard box titled Bengal XVI, XVII.
Biker, J.F.J. Collec̹ão de tratados e concertos de pazes que o Estado da India portugueza, vol. XII. Lisbon, 1886.
Bernier, Francois. Travels in the Mogul Empire: 1656–63. Translated by Irving Broke, annotated by Archibald Constable, Second Edition Revised. London: Oxford University Press, 1916.
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———. ‘Big Generals in Little Kingdoms: The Portuguese Settlements of Chittagong and Sandwip, 1530–1640,’ In Portuguese Presence in India during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, edited by Yogesh Sharma and José Leal Ferreira, 38–57. Delhi: Viva Books Private Limited, 2008.
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Hosten, H, tr. ‘Fr. Pimenta's Annual letter of Margao, 1.2.1601.’ Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (New Series), XXII, no. 1: 83–107.
———. ‘Jesuit Letters from Bengal, Arakan and Burma 1599–1600.’ Bengal Past and Present, XXX, Part I (July–Sept, 1925): 53–76.
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Manrique, Fr Sebastiao. ‘The Fall of Hugli.’ In The Catholic Herald of India 16 (1918): 294–457.
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———. Improvising Empire: Portuguese Trade and Settlement in the Bay of Bengal, 1500–1700. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990.
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