Francois Bernier Came to Dhaka
To Europeans, Chinese and the Arabs the sub-continent of India was always a land of mystery and riches. Historically India was not only a favoured destination for traders from these regions it was also a favoured destination for many travellers as well. Chinese travellers like Fa Hsien (402), Hiuen Tsang (638), came to India either to collect writings of Buddha or get a glimpse of its riches and the mysteries and experience its versatile and exotic rituals. Then there were European travellers who came either in search of adventure or engage in personal trade. Some of them later recorded their travels in details which subsequently formed an excellent source of knowledge about life and events during their travels in different parts of the Indian sub-continent. Notable among them are Sebastian Manrique (Travels of Fray Sebastian Manrique, 1629-1648), Francois Bernier (Travels in the Mogul Empire, 1656-1668), Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (Travels in India, Published 1676), Jean-Baptiste Chardin (The Travels of Sir John Chardin in Persia and the Orient, 1711), Marco Polo (The Million, late 13th. century). And then there was the great traveller from Tanzier in West Africa, Ibne Battuta who came to India (1333).
Not all travellers came to Bengal. Some did. Francois Bernier was one such notable who not only travelled to Bengal twice within a short span, but mentioned in his memories about the governor Shahista Khan of Bengal, its abundant riches and the menacing Portuguese pirates of Chittagong.
Francois Bernier (1625-1688) was a French physician and traveller. For twelve years he was the personal physician of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. A son of farmers, Bernier studied medicine in a speed-course at the famous Faculte de Montpellier of France for three months and was awarded a medical degree providing he did not practice medicine on French national territory. He developed a taste of travel and realising that he could not practice medicine in France he set out on his twelve-year journey to the East, at 36 years of age. After travelling to Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Arabia and Ethiopia in 1658 he disembarked at Surat in Gujrat, India. For a short while he served as Mughal emperor Shahjahan's eldest son Dara Shikoh's physician and later was installed as a medical doctor in the court of Aurangzeb, the last of the great Mughal emperors. With Aurangzeb he travelled to Kashmir (1664-65) and he was the first European to do so and shared the breathtaking beauty of Kashmir the 'Paradise on Earth' with the fellow Europeans when he published his memoirs in French in 1699. After his return from Kashmir, he travelled around India on his own, meeting briefly with another great traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier in Bengal. In 1666 he parted with Tavernier and returned to France in 1669 via Persia to publish his classic travel memoir in 1670 entitled 'Memoirs by the Sieur Bernier on the Empire of the Great Mogol' (Travels in the Mogul Empire, 1656-68). Before the publication of the book, Bernier obtained a license from the King of France to protect his book from unauthorised copying (Copyright).
Comparing Bengal with Egypt Bernier writes 'Egypt has been represented in every age as the finest and most fruitful country in the world, and even our modern writers deny that there is any other land so peculiarly favoured by nature: but the knowledge I have acquired of Bengale, during two visits paid to that kingdom, inclines me to believe that the pre-eminence ascribed to Egypt is rather due to Bengale. The latter country produces rice in such abundance that it supplies not only the neighbouring but remote states. It is carried up the Ganges as far as Patna, and exported by sea to Maslipatam and many other ports on the coast of Koromandel. It is also sent to foreign
the Maldives. Bengale abounds likewise in sugar, with which it supplies the kingdoms of Golkonda and the Karnatic, where very little is grown, Arabia and Mesopotamia, through the towns of Moka and Bassora, and even Persia, by way of Bender-Abbasi. Bengale likewise is celebrated for its sweetmeats, especially in places inhabited by Portuguese, who are skilful in the art of preparing them.' Bernier was surprised to see Bengal make such wonderful cloth, especially silk, and as Calcutta was yet to be born, the production of cloth and silk would take place in Hoogly and Dacca. He writes 'there is in Bengale such a quantity of cotton and silks, that the kingdom may be called the common storehouse for those two kinds of merchandise.' Bernier was overwhelmed by the beauty of the local women and the country and comments 'the rich exuberance of the country, together with the beauty and amiable disposition of the native women, has given rise to a proverb in common use among the Portuguese, English, and Dutch, the Kingdom of Bengale has a hundred gates open for entrance, but not one for departure.'
kingdoms, principally to the island of Ceylon and
Bernier's arrival in Dhaka coincided with the rule of Bengal by the Mughal Governor Shaista Khan who assumed office of Governorship of Bengal in 1664. During this period, Chittagong was under the rule of Kingdom of Arakan (1571-1666) and a stronghold of the Portuguese traders and pirates. As the rulers of Arakan were always expecting that someday the mighty Mughals would invade and occupy Chittagong from their hold they would often tolerate the excesses of the Portuguese pirates on the condition that when the Mughals did really invade Chittagong, they would fight on the side of the King of Arakan. Portuguese were very good fighting in the seas. The Portuguese who operated from Chittagong during this time did so independently without any control from the Portuguese Governor based in Goa or the King of Portugal. Their control over Chittagong was as a matter of fact total. Bernier writes 'Kingdom of Rakan (Arakan), or Mog, has harboured during many years several Portuguese settlers, a great number of Christian slaves, or half caste Portuguese, and other Franks collected from various parts of the world. The kingdom (Chittagong) was the place of retreat for fugitives from Goa, Ceylon, Cochin, Malacca, and other settlements in the Indies, held formerly by the Portuguese; and no persons were better received than those who had deserted their monasteries, married two or three wives, or committed other great crimes. These people were Christians only in name; the lives led by them were most detestable, massacring or poisoning one another without compunction or remorse, and sometimes assassinating even their priests, who, to confess the truth, were all too often no better than their murderers.
The Portuguese pirates (commonly known as Feringhees) would very often intrude into the Mughal territory, loot and raid settlements and writes Bernier 'often penetrating forty or fifty leagues up the country, surprised and carried away the entire population of villages on market days, and at times when the inhabitants were assembled for the celebration of marriage, or some other festival. The marauders made slaves of their unhappy captives, and burnt whatever could not be removed.' These poor people of Bengal would be sold away by the Portuguese as slaves to the Portuguese of Goa, Ceylon, San Thome, and other places, writes Bernier. By their action the Portuguese pirates at one point of time in fact depopulated a large of area, especially the islands of lower Bengal.
Shaista Khan concluded that enough was enough and decided to invade Chittagong as well as drive out the Portuguese pirates from Bengal. Bernier writes 'Chah-hest in the meantime, had collected a large number of galleasses (light war vessels) and other vessels of considerable tonnage, and threatened (the Pirates) to immediately submit to the Mogol's authority.' Shaista Khan told the pirates that if they submitted to him and switched sides they shall have 'as much land allotted as you may deem necessary, and your pay shall be doubled that which you at present receive.' (From the King of Arakan as protector). Shaista Khan's threat worked. Writes Bernier 'these unworthy Portuguese were one day seized with so strange a panic as to embark in forty or fifty galleasses and sail over to Bengale, (Mughal), and they adopted this measure with so much precipitation that they had scarcely time to take their families and valuable effects on board.' Soon Shaista Khan attacked Chittagong with the help of his new found Portuguese pirate-turned soldiers and by the end of January 1666 Chittagong became the last frontier of the mighty Mughal empire. In praising Shaista Khan for the Chittagong expedition Bernier writes 'in this manner has Chah-hestkan extinguished the power of these scoundrels in Chatigaon; who, I have already said, had depopulated and ruined the whole of Lower Bengale.'
There is debate whether Shaista Khan paid the Portuguese what he promised. Bernier writes as 'an occasion for their service no longer exists; he considers it therefore, quite unnecessary to fulfill a single promise. He suffers month after month to elapse without giving them any pay' declaring that they are traitors, in whom it is folly to confide.' Other accounts narrate the Portuguese were adequately remunerated as promised by Shaista Khan.
Francois Bernier died on September 22, 1688 in Paris. His memoir still is a rich source of information about the richness of India in general and Bengal in particular.
His book on travels made waves throughout society and gained him friendships with Pierre Bayle, Ninon de Lenclos, and other literary figures of Europe. In 1675, John Dryden had a hit with the play Aurang-Zebe, based on the English translation of Bernier's memoir.
Abdul Mannan is a former Vice-chancellor of Chittagong University. Currently he teaches at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. He can be reached at email@example.com. July 28, 2008
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