"The most famous and wealthy city of the Kingdom of Bengal" - these are the words Portuguese historian João de Barros used to describe Chattogram in the 16th century.
From ancient times, this port city has been a center of attraction for the traders due to its natural harbour. No wonder that the East India Company initially wanted it as its Bengal headquarter.
Chattogram could have been the Company's Bengal headquarter, if Job Charnock had not chosen Kolkata. After all, unlike Charnock, many English agents had their eyes on the city for a long time.
However, establishing the Bengal headquarter in Kolkata was not a simple event. In fact, a chain of events prompted it.
For a long time, the East India Company, a British joint stock company "...headquartered in a small office, five windows wide, in London and managed in India by an unstable sociopath--Robert Clive," as described by historian William Dalrymple, had its eyes set on Bengal, the richest province in Mughal India. Bengal province or Subah Bangalah provided 50% of Mughal India's GDP so it was natural that the company felt the necessity of forming a headquarter in Bengal.
Bengal province was the wealthiest and industrially the most developed place in the world. It was known globally for producing exquisite textiles, and shipbuilding. Bengal subah was a major exporter of silk and cotton textile, steel, saltpeter (a principal ingredient of gunpowder) and agriculture and industrial produce in the world. Bengal subah's capital Jahangirnagar, modern day Dhaka, was inhabited by more than a million people. So it was natural that trading nations would be very interested to set up business in this province and try to be the exclusive traders in the region.
Unfortunately, the Mughal Emperor kept on wiping out the British agents from Bengal, time and time again.
However, luck favoured them when Gabriel Boughton, a former surgeon of the Company, saved Emperor Jahangir's severely burnt daughter in January 1644.
A grateful Jahangir permitted East India Company to establish a factory at Pipili, Odisha, as stated in "The Illustrated History of the British Empire in India and the East Vol 3."
Subsequently, the company was allowed to establish factories in Balasore, Odisha and Hooghly, Bengal completely waiving customs duty when Boughton visited the capital at Rajmahal and treated another lady of the palace.
Around 1682, Emperor Aurangzeb provided a special firman to the Company to permanently do business in Bengal. However, disputes soon started to grow between the English and the governor as the parties did not exactly see eye to eye when it came to interpreting the various aspects of the Firman.
Additionally, Shaista Khan, the then-governor of Bengal, imposed an additional tax of 3.5% on the trade of the Company, notwithstanding the Firman obtained earlier. Another incident with the Faujdar of Cossimbazar eventually forced the company to leave Bengal without obtaining cargo.
These events enraged the English and with permission from King James II, Admiral Nicholson was sent with a naval force to attack the port at Chattogram. Their plan was to make Chattogram a fort city for the Company in the eastern region.
They assumed that if the plan was successful, the governor would abandon the city and, additionally, a peace treaty would be offered that would ensure free trade and other economic benefits for the Company.
Job Charnock's folly changed the course of history
In a bid to seize Chattogram, Job Charnock from the Madras division of the Company was ordered to join the expedition with 400 troops.
But in a twist of events, the arrangement went amiss.
Instead of landing in Chattogram, few ships from Charnock's division mistakenly showed up at Hooghly and anchored off the factory in Hooghly. They were later joined by the other troops from Madras.
Upon the arrival of such large troops, Shaista Khan got uncomfortable. He immediately offered a truce.
However, the peace did not stay long as the truce was broken again in October 1686.
Considering Hooghly unsafe, Charnock decided to move downstream to Sutanuti - a small hamlet on the bank of the river Hooghly.
The ships required repairs and their overall situation in Bengal, too, was vulnerable. Consequently, they decided to continue to hold their current position, instead of desiring Chattogram, as Charnock now thought of it as a far-fetched dream.
Charnock and his troops, instead, pleaded for forgiveness and another peace was made at the end of 1686.
In 1687, Shaista Khan's soldiers, however, arrived at Hooghly to drive the Company out of Bengal.
By this time, the English realised the odds well as they were counting the cost of Charnock's lethargy in occupying Chattogram in the first place.
With further realisation that there would be no business until they had a fort in Chattogram, In December 1688, Captain Heath was sent to attack.
But their forays ended in failure. After all these failed attempts, the English agents decided to abandon Bengal as their trading location in the eastern region.
However, one might wonder why they tried to conquer Chattogram so many times.
Professor Muntasir Mamoon opines, "The seaport had been famous for trading since the Portuguese settlement in Chattogram. Forming the Bengal headquarter here would have greatly benefited them."
He continued, "First of all, this would have given them auto access to the port. Secondly, the trade route which was till Arakan or Burma could be expanded further. Additionally, they could use some help from the Magh people and the Portuguese for defense."
Bengal was once again open to the English when Ibrahim Khan invited Charnock after Shaista Khan's retirement. With some negotiation, Charnock returned to Sutanuti on August 24, 1690, to set up headquarters in the place he called Calcutta.
The Chattogram we have today might have looked different if any of the attacks were successful.
It could either have been entirely wrecked or could have all the things the British built in Kolkata. It could have been the capital of British India and history would have been different.
Either way, the saga of Chattogram indeed could have been interesting had the British conquered it for their gains.
Sources used: Da Almeida, Hermione. Indian Renaissance: British Romantic Art And the Prospect of India, H E Busteed Echoes from Old Calcutta (Calcutta) 1908, Bangiya Sabarna Katha Kalishetra Kalikatah by Bhabani Roy Choudhury, Manna Publication.