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     Volume 7 Issue 19 | May 9, 2008 |

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In Retrospect

Rev. Howard Malcom's travel to Chittagong

Abdul Mannan

Portuguese traders were the first Europeans to come to Eastern India. Historically Portugal being situated on the Atlantic was a sea faring nation. However, the arrival of Portuguese in India, especially Eastern India, was facilitated through the Arab traders. In 1517, with the help of Arab traders, a Portuguese trader named Joao Coelho arrived in Chittagong aboard a ship that belonged to an Arab trader named Gromelle. According to the historians Joa Coelho was the first European to have come to Chittagong. For next two hundred years trade in Eastern India was practically monopolised by the Portuguese traders. After the battle of Palasey in 1757 the English traders started to arrive in Chittagong in greater numbers. The entry of Portuguese in any country normally followed a common pattern. First came the traders, followed by the Jesuit priests. The priests would normally be Roman Catholic. Their main task would be to preach their religion (Christianity) and convert the local poor people into their faith.

Seeing the success of the Portuguese priests, American priests also started to arrive in India towards the beginning of nineteenth century. These priests would normally belong to Protestant church and was based in Boston. They would set up bases in different parts of India and try to imitate the success of the Portuguese priests. Senior priests were often sent from Boston to visit and inspect the activities of their missions based in different parts of the world. One such visitor to India was Rev. Howard Malcom who set sail from Boston Harbour in the month of September 1835. The ship sailed on Wednesday September 23, 1835. After calling in the ports of West Africa, Western India, Arakan it reached Calcutta in the month of November 1836. Wherever the ship berthed Rev. Malcom disembarked and visited the area and called upon the American missions. On November 27 Rev. Malcom left Calcutta for Chittagong. Except coming by sea there was no other easy route to come to Chittagong. The ship took 15 days to reach Chittagong port. After his return to Boston Rev. Malcom published his travel diary in the form of a memoir in 1839 titled 'Travels in South-Eastern Asia, embracing Hindustan, Malaya, Siam and China; with notices of Numerous Missionary Stations, and a full account of The Burman Empire.' The diary was published in London by Charles Tilt, Fleet Street. In those days publishing industry of London was far superior than those existing in USA. Most American authors would want their books published from London.

Rev. Malcom gave a very interesting account of Chittagong in his diary. He writes 'this town lies about ten miles from the mouth of the river, (Karnafuly) on the right bank, and is the head-quarters of a Company's (East India Company) regiment, and the civil officers of the province.' Rev. Johannes, who had been staying there for the previous sixteen years, received Rev. Malcom in Chittagong. Rev. Johannes also arranged for Rev. Malcom's travel to the interior of the Chittagong town. Chittagong was also known as Islamabad, writes Rev. Malcom. The town was situated 'on and among abrupt hills, which furnish beautiful sites for mansions of the English, some of which command a view of the sea. The natives live along the valleys, among plantain, olive, mango, orange, and almond trees, with neat gardens of esculents. The streets are in good order, and the bazaar abundantly supplied with every sort of domestic and foreign produce.' Rev. Malcom recorded the town having only 12000 inhabitants. Adjacent to the town were many villages with affluent people records Rev. Malcolm. What impressed Rev. Malcom was the language, the mode of building, and the general aspect of everything was according to him was Bengalee. The traders of Chittagong would own 300 vessels, each having a capacity of 40 to 100 tons and these vessels were based in Chittagong. Besides, the port had berthing facilities for foreign vessels as well.

Rice and salt were exported from Chittagong. Rev. Malcom writes boats of 'indescribable construction' berthed in the port. These vessels mostly from Maldives would carry cowries, tortoise-shell, cumela, cocoa-nuts and coir for rope making. On return they would carry rice and other household items notes Rev. Malcom. Rev. Malcom saw Rev. Johannes conducting his service in English and Bengalee. He was very fluent in both languages. His predecessor Rev. Peacock established a very large school in 1818. Rev. Johannes would spend considerable amount of time in the school, set up by his predecessor. Practically all the students of the school were converted Christians.

Rev. Johannes would take Rev. Malcom regularly to the local bazaar to meet local people and talk to them. Sometimes both would try to convert one or two. Though the inhabitants would give them a patient hearing it was very difficult to convert them. Rev. Malcom writes they 'seemed firm in their own faith.' One day 'a Mussulman Yogee passing by, smeared with cow dung and Ganges mud,' gave a very patient hearing to both the priests and finally declared that their religion was good for them and his religion was good for him. Both the priests were surprised by the strong belief of the Yogee in his faith.

When Rev. Malcom was visiting Chittagong, the town already had 2000 Portuguese inhabitants. They had two churches. Their priests had no knowledge of either English or Bangla. They would preach in Latin and most of those who attended the service of the Portuguese understood little. Rev. Malcom found the locals to be very tolerant to the religious views of other faith. The town was 120 miles long and 60 miles wide. Most of Chittagong was fertile, and rice and salt were the principal commodities of export. Salt was abundantly used for curing fish (<>shutki<>). The inhabitants were generally poor, writes Rev. Malcom but the Company (East India) annually collected 1,200,000 rupees as revenue from the district.

How long Rev. Howard Malcom stayed in Chittagong is not recorded in his memoir.

One fine day Rev. Malcom boarded a medium sized vessel bound for Akyab. On way his vessel entered the Cruscool River. On the banks was a Mogh village having about 600 houses. Rev. Malcom broke journey at Cox's Bazaar before setting off for Akyab.

Professor Abdul Mannan is a former Vice-chancellor of Chittagong University. Currently he teaches at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008