|Dhaka, or Dacca, under British rule in 1861. Painting by Frederick William Alexander de Fabeck in 1861.|
A LOOK AT THE GREEK MIGRATION TO INDIA IN THE MID-EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
Published in The National Herald, February 6-12, 2016 Issue
Authored by Stavros T. Stavridis
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During the 17th and 18th centuries, Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, Armenian, and later Greek merchants went to India seeking economic and trade opportunities.
The Greeks established small vibrant communities in Kolkatta (Calcutta) and Dhaka (the capital city of Bangladesh), with the Greek Orthodox Church being the central point where young Greeks could learn their language, history, and culture. They maintained and preserved their ethnic identity and heritage in an alien and sometimes hostile environment.
Greek merchants controlled trade in the Mediterranean and Levant, which served as a springboard for them to seek new markets in Russia and Eastern Europe. The brave and adventurous Greeks who made their way to India in the 18th century came from every corner of Greece and Asia Minor.
It appears from two grave sites with Greek inscriptions that Greeks may have arrived in India during the early 1700s. These individuals were lured by the prospects of making their fortunes through trade in cloth, salt, lime, and native products. Many of these early Greeks came from Phillipopolis (now known as Plovdiv located in present-day Bulgaria).
Panayiotis A. Argyree (also known as Hatzi Alexis) anglicized his name to Panioty and was regarded as the first head of Greek community in Bengal. He arrived in Bengal in 1750 and acted as an interpreter for Captain Cudbeth Thornhill. In 1771, Warren Hastings sent Panioty on an official diplomatic mission to Egypt "to obtain permission for British merchants to trade in Egypt." He succeeded in his mission and Hastings gave permission to proceed to construct a Greek church in Calcutta. Panioty "shifted his commercial operations to Dhaka where he died in 1777."
Greek merchants combined business activity with shipping and must have possessed a substantial fleet of ships in Bengal to engage in trade in the region. In 1792, certain Greek merchants of Calcutta and Dhaka wrote to Secretary General E. Hay requesting permission of the British Government "[to] have cannons on their ships for protection." However, this request was declined by London as they did not want foreigners possessing such weapons for security reasons. Argyree left funds in his estate that was used by his family to purchase land and for the erection of a Greek Church in Calcutta, which amounted to 30,000 rupees. Besides Argyree's contribution, other Greeks donated money towards the construction of the church. When British Governor General Warren Hastings learned of this, he "placed his name at the head of the subscription for two thousand rupees." It might be argued that Hastings may have been sympathetic towards the Greeks in Calcutta.
Hastings was impeached on charges of corruption in the British Parliament and the Greek merchants and clergy never forgot his generosity. In 1788, they signed a petition addressed to the Court of Directors of the East India Company in support of Hastings. Their petition was included in the minutes of the trial, whether it helped his defense or not is difficult to gauge buy certainly could not have harmed him either. The trial ran from 1788-95 where it received extensive coverage in the Times of London and finally was found not guilty of all charges laid against him. It should be noted the East India Company controlled a large swathe of the Indian sub-continent backed up with a private army, which maintained law and order and also carried out administrative functions.
Argyree and his son, Alexander Panioty worked tirelessly to ensure that the Greek Orthodox Church in Bengal remained strong to meet the spiritual needs of the Greek communities in Calcutta and Dhaka.
On February 21, 1774, seven Greek merchants: George Baraktaroglou, Hatzi Alexis Argyree, Argyrees Angelee, Georgios Manolakee Arikoglou, Constantinos Georgiou, Theocharees Georgiou and Michalis Andrreou of Calcutta addressed a letter to the Archbishop of Sinai requesting a clergyman be sent out to minister to the Greek community. Greek Orthodox churches, Transfiguration of Christ of Mt. Tabor and St. Thomas were consecrated in Calcutta and Dhaka in 1782 and 1812 respectively., A Greek church conducted divine service in Calcutta in 1772 with "occasionally performed there by the few Greeks in the settlement since the year 1769."
The first Greek priest to arrive in Calcutta, Constantinos Parthenios in 1775 was born in Corfu. Originally a monk from Mt Sinai who conducted the divine liturgy until his death in 1803. Other clergies who followed were Nicophoros Ananias, Father Gabriel, Ambrosius Ghimouschanales, Joseph of Zakynthos and Archimandrite Athanasios Alexiou, Nathaniel of Siphnos who conducted the Divine Liturgy in Dhaka died in 1810. Gregorios of Siphnos was the first clergyman sent by Greek Patriarch in Constantinople to perform the first liturgy in the newly constructed church in Dhaka in 1812.
During the period 1818-42, two Epirotes, Constantine Pantazes and Peter Protopapas, were two very important figures who contributed to the Greek community of Calcutta. The former was a merchant who arrived in Calcutta in 1818 who previously had been involved in the trade in Agra (located in the northern Indian State of Uttar Pradesh) between 1795 and 1818. He was also regarded as the community leader in Calcutta between 1818 and 1842 and maintained contact with the Patriarch of Constantinople and Archbishop of Sinai. The latter merchant arrived in Bengal sometime between 1818 and 1821.
While Greek merchants were doing well in Calcutta, so too were their compatriots in Dhaka for a time. It appears the first Greeks settled in Dhaka around 1772, with trade expanding rom 1800-39 and almost vanishing by 1851. Alexander Panioty was considered the community leader of the tiny Greek community in Dhaka and did everything in his power to maintain his Greek way of life in an alien environment. The names of Greek merchants in Dacca were listed in the Bengal Directory from 1818 onward, which include: Alexander Panioty, Demetrios Elias, Nicholas Kalonas, Lucas Theodoro, George Athanas and Primo and Anthony Foscholo. They were located at Naraingurj, a river close to Dhaka, and a trade center for salt, grain, sugar, ghee, tobacco, metals, timber and lime. An earlier Dhaka listing of `795 showed 37 names but only 11 families had established themselves: Panioty, Lucas, Athanas, Calogreedy, Kalonas, Elias, Foscholo, Mavrody, Esau, and Jordan. The British Civil Surgeon, James Taylor noted there were 12 Greek and Armenian families domiciled in Dhaka in 1838.
By 1850, the descendants of these early Greek merchants had seen their family fortunes dwindle as trading opportunities declined.
Stavros T. Stavridis is an author and historian who lives in Australia and the United States. He specializes in early 20th century Balkan and Middle Eastern history.