Even before the British East India Company joined other European settlers in the Bengal Subah in 1612, the Armenians had already established commercial settlements in Bengal, extending as far out as Benares and Patna much before the city of Calcutta was established.
Written by Neha Banka | Kolkata
The Armenians only came to Calcutta in August 1690, although historical records indicate the community had settled in the Indian subcontinent since at least the 8th century. Even before the British East India Company joined other European settlers in the Bengal Subah in 1612, the Armenians had already established commercial settlements in Bengal, extending as far out as Benares and Patna much before the city of Calcutta was established.
Eight decades later, when British East India Company employee Job Charnock combined the villages of Sutanuti, Gobindapur and Kalikata along the banks of the Hooghly river to form the city of Calcutta, he invited the Armenians to this new urban settlement, perhaps as a return for the favours that the community had provided when the East India Company had first reached Bengal. In his book ‘History of the Armenians in India from the Earliest Times to the Present Day’, published in 1895, Mesrovb Jacob Seth writes that the community was first settled in Syedabad, a commercial suburb of Murshidabad, when the British first arrived in Bengal. Also read |Why India is special to Armenians: Their land of prosperity
“At Syedabad the Armenians rendered valuable services to the Hon’ble East India Company during the eventful year 1756, when Holwell and his fellow-captives were taken to Murshidabad after the tragedy of the historical Black Hole of Calcutta,” writes Seth. The Armenian in Syedabad, particularly Agah Manuel Satoor, “treated the hapless captives with much kindness, sympathising with them as fellow-Christians in a foreign land.”
What is less well-known is that it was the Armenian community that helped Charnock acquire the zamindari rights for the settlement that eventually became Calcutta. The British East India Company had learned soon after their arrival in Bengal, that the Armenian community would be indispensable in the fulfillment of the company’s socio-economic agendas and made efforts to maintain amicable relations with the community.
Seth points to an entry in the writings of William Bolts, a Dutch-born British employee of the East India Company who wrote a book titled ‘Considerations on India Affairs’ (1772), that explains how the company viewed the Armenian community which had been well-established in Syedabad by the time the British had arrived.
“The Armenians, who have ever been a great commercial body in Hindustan, have also long had considerable settlements in Bengal, particularly at Syedabad. Their commerce was likewise established by the Mogul’s finnan whereby the duties on the two principal articles of their trade, piece-goods and raw silk, were fixed at three-and-a-half per cent,” writes Bolt.
When the Armenians first arrived in Calcutta, they settled in the area now known as ‘Armenian Street’, a narrow street in central Kolkata. In 1688, the Armenians built the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth on one end of the street and it was around this church that the Armenian community set up their homes and businesses in the city.
There isn’t much known about what the area around Armenian Street looked like when the community first settled here, but in his book ‘Calcutta in the Olden Time: Its Localities & Its People’ (1852), James Long provides some details. “The Armenians are among the oldest residents, and their quarter attracts by its antique air, constructed with conspicuous modern buildings in Calcutta,” Long writes.
The community’s commercial success allowed them to invest in the building of schools, chapels and other public spaces, mostly for the Armenians in the city. When the 18th-century Armenian Apostolic church burned down, it was rebuilt in the same location in 1724 by philanthropist Agha Jakob Nazar. In their writings, both Seth and Long have meticulously detailed all the ways in which the community found favour with the British East India Company, which in part helped them become enormously successful.
“The Armenians, like the Jews, were famous for their mercantile zeal, and in the early days, were much employed by the English as the Gomasthas—they are to be commended for their always having retained the oriental dress—they never had much intercourse with the English,” writes Long. Gomasthas were agents of the British East India Company, who signed bonds with locals to deliver goods to the Company and were appointed by the Company. Also read |The Armenian and Pondicherry connections with Potoler Dolma
The community did not remain limited to the neighbourhoods around Armenian Street, but over the years shifted out to other parts of the city and were instrumental in the redevelopment of some of the city’s most iconic neighbourhoods and the buildings that continue to stand there. Park Street’s mansions, which today house a mix of residential apartments and commercial enterprises, are some of the most visible examples of the community’s contributions to the city’s architectural landscape.
Historian P. Thankappan Nair writes in his book ‘A History of Calcutta’s Streets’ (1987) that according to an entry in the Calcutta Municipal Gazette of April 1958, it appears that the city’s Municipal Corporation had been considering the renaming of Armenian Street, with a proposal for it to be named Akshay Kumar Mullick Street. That proposal did not materialise and the street retains its original name. It is unclear who Mullick was or even what his contributions to the city of Calcutta were, for the municipal corporation to consider renaming an entire street after him, especially one that is among the city’s oldest neighbourhoods and of importance to the Armenian community here.
There is little on Armenian Street that reflects the community’s history today. The street has been overtaken by shops and hawkers who have set up their wares wherever they find space on the pavement. But upon entering the church complex, the chaos fades away behind its thick white walls. For the dwindling Armenian community, it is this church and the 200-year-old Armenian College & Philanthropic Academy on Mirza Ghalib Street that is helping keep the community’s unique cultural traditions alive