The Europeans came to Bengal to trade, being attracted by its prosperity. Many British businessmen and employees of the East India Company made their fortune by investing in the famous limestone business in Sylhet. However, Greek merchants set foot in Sylhet before the British did.
The limestone hills in that area were then under the control of different hill tribes. The Greeks established good relations with the tribes, including the Khasias.
But the situation began to get complicated as soon as the East India company obtained the Diwani (right to collect tax), which engendered conflicts among various parties, including the Greek merchants, the company, local zamindars, hill tribes and Bengalis over the control of various trade routes, forests and mineral resources in the hills and plainland.
Arrival of Greeks in Bengal
People of the Ottoman Empire got the opportunity to work as interpreters and ambassadors to various European embassies under a treaty with France in 1740. As a result, Greeks, Jews and Armenians started to come to India with the European traders as interpreters. They were regarded as lower caste Europeans by the British and even by the Indians.
Meanwhile, various ethnic groups under Ottoman rule started revolting during that time and their relations with Russia became hostile. Greece was still not an independent country. The migration of Greeks to India increased in that period due to this political instability.
The Greeks began trading in Bengal through the Greek merchant Alexios Argyree, who was given employment as an Arabic interpreter and ambassador at an East India Company ship in 1770. The company successfully obtained formal approval to trade in the Suez region in Cairo with the help of Argyree.
In 1772, Warren Hastings became the Governor of Bengal. He gave permission to Argyree to establish a church in Kolkata. However, Argyree died in 1777 before the construction of the church.
Argyree expanded commercial activities from Kolkata to the then East Bengal and made huge properties in Dhaka and Bakerganj. After his death, his eldest son, Alexander Panioty, took over the business. Paniotti was born in 1750 in Philippopolis and came to Bengal in 1771. He helped his father's business expand in Bengal and led the Greek traders in lime business in Sylhet.
The social system of Sylhet
The influence of the British in Bengal increased after the defeat of Nawab Sirajuddaula in the Battle of Plassey. The East India Company gained the Diwani of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha in 1765 during the reign of Mir Jafar. Sylhet was then under Bengal. However, the company was only responsible for revenue collection, and power was still in the hands of Muslim faujdars.
According to historian David Laden, it was not possible to spread colonial power that much in Sylhet due to its geographical features and floods. A large part of the area used to remain under water until the change of the course of the Brahmaputra River following the earthquake of 1787. Besides, the British failed to advance outside the Sylhet region due to the resistance of the Khasias and other hill tribes.
The social system of Sylhet was then liberal as social and marital relations were normal between Bengalis and Khasias. The Greeks and other foreigners could easily become part of this society due to its liberal character. After a dispute with the Greeks and the Khasias, the British followed a 'divide and rule' policy in this region by demarcating the borders of Bengal. As a result, many years of ethnic diversity were lost.
The limestone of Sylhet, famous in India for its high quality, could not be found anywhere else in the country. The East India Company mentioned the limestone of Sylhet in the treaty with Mir Jafar and Mir Qasim. But before the British, the Greeks and Armenians had invested in the limestone mines.
Miners used to extract limestone from different mines in different years. They used to select the mines depending on availability of transport facilities. The stones were broken by iron shovels and stored in the mountainside. They were transported by boats during the rainy season. The limestones then were processed through using various techniques and sent from Sylhet to Dhaka and Kolkata. The traders used make double profits even after paying all the taxes, wages of the labourers and other officials. Very few businesses could offer more profit than this one during in those days.
Lime business of Robert Lindsay
Robert Lindsay came to India in 1776. After a stay in Dhaka for two and a half years, he was sent to Sylhet as a resident and collector of the company. He held this position for more than ten years.
The autobiography of Robert Lindsay gives an account of the limestone business in Sylhet. He wrote that after his arrival in Sylhet, the local Khasias revolted.
Lindsay entered the lime business in the hope of making a profit. In his autobiography, he wrote, "After searching for lime, I came to know that the Greeks, Armenians and other lower Europeans have been trading lime to a limited extent. I thought that I could do monopoly business in this sector as I had a much more favourable position than they did."
Lindsay's idea was not unreasonable. Within a few days, he earned a profit in the lime business. During the Nawabi period, cowrie was introduced as money in the Sylhet region and Lindsay used to collect and export limestone with cowrie. Within six months, silver coins were introduced as money.
However, the limestone hills were not in the possession of the British. They were under the control of different tribes, who leased mountains to the Greeks and Armenians. When Lindsay wanted to lease limestone hills, the leaders of these tribes sat with him to discuss the issue in Pandua.
Lindsay was fascinated by the natural beauty of Pandua. But as soon as he sat down for the meeting, he was astonished. Lindsay wrote, "I am shocked to see the inhabitants of this Garden of Eden. Numerous warlords from various parts of the vast hilly kingdom arrived accompanied by their comrades as if they were on the battlefield."
Conflicts between the British, Greeks and locals
Historian David Laden said that the entry of Lindsay into the lime business caused a great deal of chaos in Sylhet as the parties concerned got involved in conflicts with one another over the limestone trade, various trade routes in the hills and plains, over forests and other mineral resources.
In this situation, Alexander Panioty, along with other Greek merchants, raised the issue with the governor general through Father Constantine Parthenios, a priest of the Greek Church in Kolkata. They also complained about Lindsay's personal interests in the lime business.
Warren Hastings was generous to Greek businessmen in his time as governor general. However, he faced impeachment in the British Parliament on charges of corruption and oppression in Bengal. Lord Cornwallis became the governor general in 1786. With the arrival of Cornwallis, the company's attitude toward Greek merchants began to change.
The arrest of Greek officials by East India Company
In 1788, John Wills was appointed as collector in Sylhet, replacing Lindsay. Conflict emerged between Wills and Panioty.
Panioty lived in Dhaka and sent Paoli Strati, a Greek immigrant, to Sylhet as his representative. Paoli leased the Tehli canal from the local zamindar Puroya Raj Shri Ram for 16 rupees per annum. He also got permission to produce lime by extracting limestone from the mines. He employed about 100 workers there. But John Wills had Paoli's workers arrested.
Panioty again informed the new governor general of the matter through the priest of the Greek Church. He alleged that Wills had only allowed a handful of European traders to trade in lime in Sylhet. He was also accused of using the company's troops to evict other traders.
Wills, on the other hand, claimed that although the Mughal government had handed over the Teli Khal to the company, the Khasias had forcibly taken possession of it and leased it to the Greeks. However, little is known about how the conflict was resolved. Shortly afterwards, Paoli was ordered to leave Sylhet. As a result, Panioty suffered huge losses.
Allegations of arms supply to the Khasias against the Greeks
The collectors of the company were annoyed with the Greek merchants as they had good trade relations with the Khasias.
British collectors suspected that the Greeks and other lower-class Europeans would supply guns and other weapons to the Khasias and incite them against the British to resist control of the company.
The collectors often even seized arms from European traders in the hilly areas. They feared that the flames of the Khasia attack would affect the company's rule in Dhaka as well. So they kept a close watch on the Greek merchants. They also feared that these merchants would establish separate colonies by establishing their dominance in the Khasia region.
Suppression of rebellion and demarcation of Bengal
In 1788, the company's fears came true as Bengali and Khasia zamindars, including Ganga Singh, attacked a company office in Pandua.
According to Lindsay's autobiography, Warren Hastings liked Ganga Singh and leased him several parts of Bengal, including Sylhet.
However, the new governor general sent troops to quell Ganga Singh's rebellion. Ganga Singh was arrested in 1790.
According to David Laden, the arrest of Ganga Singh led to major changes in the region. In 1790, the company decided to demarcate Bengal in the north. The boundary of the plain land with the hilly region was also demarcated after that.
According to the new boundaries, the hilly lands came under the control of the Khasias and the plain lands under the control of the company. Through this the social distance of Khasias with Bengalis was also created. The ethnic diversity of the region was lost as the control of the company was established through creating division in the liberal Bengali-Khasia society.
British domination established in lime trade
This new boundary also affected the activities of traders. Wills decided to run all kinds of business in Sylhet under the company. After 1790, all private trade in the Khasia areas was banned. On the other hand, the authority of the plain land in Sylhet, including the power of business registration, was handed over to the collector.
The lime business then required the approval of the collector and the company allowed the extraction of limestone only in Sunamganj and Companyganj. It is believed that Companyganj developed as a focal point of the company's trade relations with the hilly region.
However, the merchants of the plain lands continued to lease mines in the Khasia region. Many British limestone traders also started extracting limestone illegally from those areas with the support of the company.
A new law in 1799 opened up the lime business to everyone, including the Greeks. But the Greeks had already shifted their trade focus to other directions as Alexander Panioty left the lime business and concentrated on the salt business in Narayanganj. At last, the British merchants established their monopoly over the limestone mines in Sylhet. Over time, the presence of the Greeks became a story out of the past in Sylhet.