Journal:Indian Church History Review


Portuguese Settlements in North-East India
(Courtsey: Dr. David Reid Syiemlieh)
 

Introduction

Of several Portuguese settlements in Northeast India, three stood out prominently for their location, purpose, size, disappearance or their continuation. These communities were located at Rangamati on the Bengal frontier of the Mughal empire in Goalpara; Bondashil on the river Barak in Cachar, and Mariamnagar in Agartala, Tripura. All three started out as settlements of Portuguese mercenaries. The offspring of the early settlers were referred to as the Filhos de Indos by the Portuguese and as the Firingis1 by the Indians. There may have also been some converts to Christianity from among the later generations of Firingis.

 

The Portuguese were in many ways different from the other Europeans that came out to the Orient. They were not mere travellers and traders. Many of those who came out to the east, stayed on for several years at a stretch. Some remained for a lifetime. Since they were rarely accompanied by their women, the majority of those who remained in India took Indian wives. They, along with the children, invariably took the faith of the Portuguese. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, this community either grew in number and significance as was the case in southern and western India, or remained in small clusters as in Bengal and its hinterland. It was this particular aspect of population growth in the Portuguese expansion overseas which differentiated it from the pattern of the French, British, Dutch and other European colonial societies. In course of time, the territories formerly under the Estado de India were to have a sizeable population of Portuguese descent. Despite the Portuguese political eclipse, they had a tremendous social impact although it grew up in mixed tradition.2

 

Three Portuguese Settlements

Rangamati

 

The early Portuguese who came to the southern, western and eastern parts of India had trade and commerce as their primary concern. Instead, those who came to India in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and that too in large numbers, moved further north as mercenaries, specializing themselves as cannoniers.3 The early account of travelers to the Mughal frontier with Assam do not mention any Firingi settlement. Ralph Fitch, an Englishman who resided for some time in Cooch Behar in 1586, and Fathers Stephen Cacella and John Cabral entering Assam in 1626 in search of a route to China, make no mention of any Christian or Portuguese communities beyond the Mughal frontier.4

          Some years later, in 1635, mention is made of a Firingi being arrested for straying into the Ahom territory and shooting a vulture.5 By the turn of the 17th century there appear many references to a sizeable Christian community, in all probability of Portuguese Firingi origin, at Rangamati. The chronicle of 1682, of the Augustinian Friars of Bandel near Hoogly in Bengal, has an entry on a Christian community numbering some 7000 at Rangamati.6 Frey Sicardo, an Augustinian priest who travelled to this frontier to attend to the spiritual needs of the Catholics, makes reference to another outpost that records refer to as Hossumpur or Ossumpur, which is described as being close to Rangamati.7

 

          The  Portuguese Padroado missionaries made frequent visits to Rangamati, Hossumpur and Sylhet where the Firingis had settled in Chiroto, and to Bondashil and Mariamnagar.8 Occasionally a Bishop visited the Christians as in 1712-1715, when Bishop Laynes of Mylapore, accompanied by Fr. Barbier, made a visitation to the Augustinian parishes in Bengal. In the early 1714, the two started for Rangamati. The Indo Portuguese Correspondence records the event :

 

Rangamati is a town situated on the northern border of the Mogul Empire, 26 North latitude. It was then a common saying in Bengal that of two persons going to Rangamati, one at least must die in the place. This, however, did not deter the Catholic missionaries who thought nothing better could happen to them than death, while discharging their duties. They seemed to have travelled on the Megna and Brahmaputra. On the fifth or sixth day they went ashore for twenty-four hours at Hossompur, and exclusively Christian station where there was a church dedicated to St. Niholas de Tolentino. The country north of this is a desert and the climate is very unhealthy. During the twenty-five days they remained at Rangamati, the Bishop administered confirmation to upward of a thousand persons.9

 

 Bondashil/Badarpur

 

Further to the east where Bengal abutted on Cachar was another village of Portuguese descendant. The village of Bondashil, derived from Bond (= close) and Shill (= rock), on the south bank of the river Barak, was a mile distant from the more historic Badarpur. Just as the early history of Rangamati and Hossumpur is shrouded in mystery, so too, nothing definite is known to how and why the Christians of Bondashil came to stay and serve in Cachar. The tradition still prevalent among the people is that their ancestors had earlier served the principality of Sardhana under the dashing German adventurer Reihand and his charming wife Begum Sumru. Sardhana’s army of 5000 men was at one time put under the disposal of the Mughal emperor. When the Mughal Empire collapsed, a group of these soldiers may have left to secure military service as mercenaries in Sylhet and with the Cachar Raja.10

 

Meanwhile, the Burmese had entered Assam and planned a campaign to expand into Bengal via the Cachar state.  Raja Govinda Chandra appealed to the East India Company for help. Portuguese soldiers from Sylhet were sent in 1823-1824 to assist the Cachar Raja. These mercenaries entrenched themselves in Badarpur where a fort stood, and stayed further advance of the Burmese. When the Raja was restored as ruler, he rewarded the Christians by giving them land at Baniyachong in Sylhet. Some of the Firingis settled down at the new site; however, the larger umber remained on a Bondashil and gave it its distinctive feature.11

 

The earliest record of a priest visiting Bondashil was that of Freycinon in 1844.12 Then for many years, this community did not have any priest to minister to them till the Holy Cross Congregation included Sylhet and Cachar within their ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Their first priest to be ordained in Dacca, Fr. Benoit Adolphe Mercier, made a number of visits to Bondashil. Travelling upstream by boat from Dacca, he would continue his pastoral mission with visits to Cherrapunji, Shillong and Gauhati. Records show that he made a journey in 1860.13 The next year he accompanied Bishop Dufal of East Bengal to Bondashil and Sylhet where they admitted converts to the Catholic faith.14 Fr. Mercier was again in Bondashil in 1864 when he officiated at the marriage of John Anton and Maria Filghera. The ceremony took place on 23rd July 1864.15 The French priest made the circuit once more in 1868. His confreres, Frs. Aime Marie Fourmond and Bonnet, continued these visits in 1868 and 1869. In 1870 Fr. Fourmond took up permanent residence at Bondashil.16

 

Mariamnagar

 

Whereas there possibly could have been a connection between the Firingis of Rangamati, Hossumpur, Chiroto and Bondashil, the beginnings of a Portuguese and Catholic settlement at Mariamnagar in Tripura came from other exigencies. The history of this village is fairly well documented. King Amar Manikya first employed the Portuguese mercenaries of Chittagong and Noakhali in his army to ward off the Mughals of Arakan and the Chittagong hills adjoining his state. The state’s capital was then at Udaipur. When the capital was shifted north to Agartala around 1760, these Firingis, by then greatly reduced in number, settled down at cannoniers in the army and as cultivators in the rent-free land given to them. They called their village Mariamnagar.

The first Catholic priest to attend to these Christians was Fr. Ignatius Gomes, and he came in 1683. He writes that “the Christians were not much good, they were little more than baptized Hindus”.17 One hundred and sixty years later, Fr. Barbe, another French priest, who was pastor of Chittagong, discovered this colony of Christians in 1843. None of the villages had seen a priest in their lifetime; yet, “somehow they had kept their faith and baptized their children”. The priest found the community “very happy, and I may say their food is better, their dress more clean and their houses more comfortable than is the case among people who lived under the British flag”. He baptized four persons. He completed the baptism ceremonies for 78 persons who were already baptized. He blessed the marriage of four couples, and  regularized the marriage of fourteen others.18

 

Decline

Rangamati

 

The Christians were at Rangamati for around a century. As soldiers and camp followers they were stationed there to buttress the Mughal campaigns into Assam. As the Mughal influence weakened by the early 18th century, it might not have warranted the continued service of these mercenaries and soldiers. It is suggested that they may have moved elsewhere, probably towards the east. Marco Dell Tomba, writing between 1758 and 1769, mentions that the Portuguese priests who had lived in Rangamati had gone back to Dacca.19 Joseph Tieffenthaler, another priest who refers to the settlement notes that it was “formerly a populous town with a church”.20 The French trader Jean-Baptiste Chevalier21 who made three visits to Assam via Rangamati between April 1755 and May 1757 gives much attention to the place for its strategic location, commercial importance and the fauzdar who conducted its defence and administrative functions. He wrote in his memoir of Rangmati’s “ancient reputation”, its fortress, cannons and the Portuguese soldiers. No details are mentioned because by then the place must have been in decline. The 7000 Firingis could have moved out of Rangamati. Smaller groups remained in that region one of which is mentioned in the account of John M’Cosh. Writing in 1837, he gives a fairly long description of a small society of native Christians of Portuguese descent at Goalpara. They numbered 50 to 60 in all. They adhered to their religion but were not being visited by Catholic priests. M’Cosh found that in dress and habits they are not to be distinguished from the natives. Their occupation was cow feeding, or that of Chuprasses. Feared by the people around them, they were left to themselves. Marriages were not always possible within their community because of their small numbers, and inter-marriages invariably resulted in social exclusion and a further diminishing of their numbers.22

 

Bondashil/Badarpur

 

The Bondashil and Mariamnagar communities did not disappear though they just could have. The erosion of the south bank of the Barak over the last century has taken away much of the Bondashil village. Isolated as they were, it was not easy to retain their religion and social customs. There were circumstances and situations which these Firingis could not withstand. In time they adopted the practices of the communities around them. Their religion and social composition limited their marriage contacts to Baniyachong, Mariamnagar and Noakhali. Distilling and the consumption of alcohol brought about their ruin. Cultivation became a secondary profession and in course of time much of their land was sold out. The construction of the Bengal Assam Railway in the early years of this century with a junction at Badarpur offered many of their men a more useful and lucrative occupation.23 It may be reasoned that this changed economic position and the start of a Catholic mission in 1911 close to the village further isolated its people and it was visible in their dress, use of English at home and Bengali with their neighbours.This ‘Christian oasis” as Christopher Becker called it , was ministered by German Salvatorian priests from 1891to 1915. 24

 

Mariamnagar

As the power of the Tripura Raja waned so did the fortunes of the Mariamnagar Christians. They continued to have a position in the army and were authorized to have guns until their place was taken up by country soldiers, Manipuris and Gurkhas. They all but lost the state’s patronage and employment by the middle of the twentieth century. Only one Firingi was in military service till 1947.25 Sambhu C. Mukherjee who was Dewan of Manipur inquired, during his first tour, about the supply of liquor. He leant that the Tripuris produced it at home by fermenting boiled rice, but by far the best drink was made by the Firingis. Mukherjee narrates that among the distillers, only a certain Joakim was worth conversing with. He also learnt that the community was the point of leaving Agartala for good to settle down at Noakhali. Their fortunes were at the lowest ebb and their numbers had been reduced by death. From what had been a thriving community these Christians were reduced to a few struggling families. The Dewan thought them too valuable an element of the population of the state to part with. He advised them to remain, assuring them that he would make their life more comfortable.26

 

Unlike their counterparts in Bondashil, the Firingis of Mariamnagar had gone far ahead in cultural integration with the Bengali society. They spoke Bengali, sang Bengali songs, used musical instruments of the dominant community, dressed like them and also acquired their food habits, though with preference for pork on special occasions. A description of a Firingi marriage in September 1891 does not single it out as being distinct or different from the Bengali marriage ceremony.27 The Firingis, however, were not completely integrated into the dominant community. They retained their religion and historical consciousness. Left on their own, they had still preserved their faith as illustrated in their recitation of the Hail Mary in “a mixture of Bengali and of Portuguese but still the Hail Mary”. 28

 

Conclusion

The different families of Portuguese origin – Lagardo, Marcher, Mendez, Rodrigues, Mendoza, Anthony and Fernandez – of Bondashil (now part of Badarpur) and Mariamnagar are fast losing their roots due to migration in search of employment as well as marriage outside the community. The few remaining families struggle to hold on to their past, well aware that they could be the last of a proud people whose ancestry goes back many centuries.

 

 Notes and references

*“Portuguese Settlements in North East India” in Francis Fernandez and Jose Varickasseril ( eds), Mission A Service of Love: Essays in Honour of George Kottuppallil, SDB,  Sacred Heart Theological College, Shillong, 1998.

 

1.         The name Firinghee “as employed by the natives of India is applied to the Indian-born Portuguese or, when used more generally for Europeans, implies something of hostility or disparagement”. Cf. H. Yule and A.C. Burnell (eds.), Hobson-Jobson, reprint, New Delhi, 1968, p.352.

2.         M.N. Pearson, Coastal Western India: Studies from the Portuguese Records, Concept, XCHR Studies No.2, New Delhi, 1981, p.87.

3.         The Portuguese had found service in the Mughal army since the time of Akbar. On their arrival at Fatehpur Sikri in 1580, the Jesuits found Portuguese residents there. There were 200 Portuguese in the army with which Shah Jahan rebelled against this father in 1624. Cf. Edward Maclagan, The Jesuits and the Great Mogul, London, 1932, p.268.

4.         N.N. Acharyya, “Assam in the Views of Some European Writers” in Benudhar Sharma Commemorative Volume, Kamrupa Anusandhana Samiti, Guwahati, 1987, pp.234-235; 240-241; Travels of Fray Sebastian Manrique 1629-1643. A translation of the Itenerio de Las Missiones Orientales with Introduction and Notes, by Lt. Col. C. Eckford Luard, assisted by Fr. H. Hosten, Oxford, 1927, Vol.2, pp.391-362.

5.         Edward Gait, A History of Assam, Calcutta, 1963, pp.115-116.

6.         Cited in T. Menamparampil, Church in Northeast India: A Study, Gauhati, 1974, p.17; F.S. Dowson in “Rangamati: A Christian Community in Northeast India”, in Milton S. Sangma and David R. Syiemlieh (eds.) Essays on Christianity in Northeast India, New Delhi, 1994, attempts a section on Rangamati’s location. Not having access or use of maps of that time he is not able to situate the frontier post. Map no.XVIII of James Rennell’s Memoir of a Map of Hindustan or The Mughal Empire and His Bengal Atlas, edited by B.P. Ambashthya, Patna, 1975, clearly marks Rangamati close to Goalpara. This same map is illustrated in Carte IV of Jean Doloche, Les Adventures de Jean-Baptiste Chevalier dans l’Inde Orientale (1752-1765), Paris, 1984.

7.         See F.S. Downs, op. cit., p.40.

8.         George Kottuppallil, “A Historical Survey of the Catholic Church in Northeast India from 1672 to 1983”, in Centenary of the Catholic Church in Northeast India 1890-1990, Shillong, 1990, Chapter 1.

9.         Fr. Barbier’s visit to Rangamati is reported in The Indo-Portuguese Correspondence, September 30, 1865, vol.1, no.14, p.159. A more detailed note on the location and the fortification of Rangamati was made by Rennel. He wrote: “Rangamatty is at present a small ill built village situated on a range of small hills which form the western bank of the Sunecoss( Sankosh) river and about 2 1/2 miles north west from the Brahmaputra, with which it has a communication by means of the Sunecoss. It has a small mud fort with some few guns mounted on it and I observed about 50 guns from 2 to 4 pounders without. The latitude of the place is 26 0 6’’ north and longitude from Dacca 0 0 20” west.” La Touche, Memoirs of the Asiatic Society of Bengal , vol.(iii), No. 3, pp. 95-248, November 1765.

10.     Christopher Becker, The Catholic Mission in Northeast India 1890-1915, revised and edited by  S. Karotemprel, Sacred Heart Theological College, Shillong, 2007, pp.229-232.

11.     Ibid., pp.102-103. The Assam District Gazetters, vol.2, Sylhet, edited by B.C. Allen, Government of Assam  Calcutta, 1905, pp.91-92, notes that the Christians of Bondashil were given the land in Baniyachong “the process of which enabled them to live in idleness. Quarrels broke out in the small community, their land was gradually sold to the surrounding villages and most of the people now earn their living by domestic service”.

12.     Edmund Geodert, “The Garo Mission”, Part III, Mimeograph, p.57.

13.     Alfred Le Pailleur, “Le Diocese de Chittagong au Bengal”, (Mss), p.140.

14.     Bondashil Baptism Register, entries dated 10-18 October 1861.

15.     Bondashil Marriage Register, entry 1.

16.     Alfred Le Pailleur, op. cit., p.140.

17.     Cited in Edmund Geodert, “The Churches of Dacca”, Mimeograph, p.59.

18.     The Bengal Catholic Herald, no.1, vol.V, 1 July 1843. Barbe’s report of the visit is dated 11 June 1843.

19.     Cited in F.S. Downs, op. cit., p.45.

20.     Ibid., pp.42, 45.

21.     Jean Deloche, op. cit., see the chapters Le Voyage en Assam, Avril 1755-Mai 1757; De Dhaka a la Frontiere de l’assam (14 Juin – 24 Novembre 1755) and Assam 24 Novembre 1755-14 Mai 1756.

22.     John M. Cosh, Topography of Assam, reprint, N. Delhi, 1975, pp.23-24.

23.     C. Becker, op. cit., pp.106-107.

24.     Ibid, chapter x, pp.224-242.

25.     Arnold Fell, “De Vasco de Gama aux Chretiens de Mariamnagar”, Orient, March-April 1959, p.24; Sambhu C. Mukherjee, Travels in Bengal: Calcutta to Independent Tipperrah, Calcutta, 1887, pp.232-234.

26.     Sambhu C. Mukherjee, op. cit., pp.232-234.

27.     Letter of Fr. Michael Philip Fallize to Bishop Louage, Annales de Sainte Joseph, vol.23, no.1 March 1892, pp.16-21. For details of this ceremony, read D.R. Syiemlieh’s “Mariamnagar: Cultural Integration – Social Seclusion”,  North East India History Association, 18th session, Agartala, November, 1997,pp.166-171.

28.     Arnold Fell, op. cit., p.24.