Reviews

‘Polycoloniality: European Transactions with Bengal’ review: Bengal’s colonial history through the lens of plurality

Contemporary Indian producers of historical knowledge include two major factions. Majoritarian sympathisers of religious victimhood promote pseudo-histories. Countering them are powerful and glitterati historians who also reflag victimhood consensus recounting colonial crimes perpetrated by the British hands. The digital age risks making these battles divisive, disserving and dangerous. This is where Polycoloniality, a study of Bengal under seven European powers, could pave the way for a third wave – of seeing history through the lens of multiculturalism and its impact on the subcontinent.

From the late 13th century to the 19th century, Bengal was under Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, French, Swedish, German and even Russian players, though not all of them occupied ‘colonial’ positions.

Experiments in urbanism

Europe in the previous millennium became interested in Bengal with the Italian writings of Marco Polo and John of Montecorvino, although these authors had most probably never set foot in the state. As we proceed to the 17th century, Bhaduri makes explicit a marginalised thesis. Calcutta — widely held to be built by the British around 1690 — began instead as Portuguese, Dutch and Armenian experiments in urbanism. The Portuguese post at Howrah since the 1560s, the Armenian settlement around Sutanuti since 1620s, and the Dutch colony at Baranagar since 1650s were the cornerstones of Bengal’s capital. Of course, not all Europeans arrived with hearts of gold. Thanks to the slave trade run by Portuguese helmsmen in 16th-17th century India, thousands of Bengalis were dispersed in Europe, including the recently popularised 18th century slave, Zamor, who travelled from Chittagong to France before the French Revolution.

Bengal shares legacies of administration, culture, cuisine and even language with the Portuguese, Dutch, French and Danish. The Portuguese gave Bengal its first brush with print culture, besides early forms of dairy sweetmeats with which it wages cultural battles today with neighbouring States. The first modern colonial college in Bengal was the Hooghly College, built by the Dutch in Chinsurah, in 1812, five years before Presidency College in Calcutta. The first modern ‘colonial’ university, not just in Bengal but in Asia, was built by the Danish as the Senate of Serampore College (University), in 1827, thirty years before British Presidency universities. The French abolished sati and slavery much before the British, and also encouraged Chandernagore’s Vaishnavite pluralism in contrast to Calcutta’s Brahminical attitude. Such obvious facets besides many unknown factors and characters are sustained over 250 pages. Bhaduri’s deceptively readable treatise defies monocolonial and monistic notions of Bengal’s past.

Marquezian possibilities

Manichaeism, the religion that flourished in the 3rd century Sasanian Empire, continues to rear its ugly head dividing social and historical realities into straitjacketed colours of good and evil.

Polycoloniality guides readers towards Marquezian possibilities — magical, multivocal and nonlinear as in the world of the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez — instead of the Manichaean.

Consider the Danes in Bengal. In 1756, Sirajud-Daulah sought Danish support before attacking the British. With little capital and almost no ammunition, the Danes refused, only to be fined ₹25,000 by Siraj. Later, not only did Danish Serampore offer asylum to French refugees fleeing from British tyranny, it also became a bastion of British Baptist missionaries, spearheaded by William Carey. Around this time, Carey also popularised Raja Rammohun Roy in American and British Quaker and Unitarian circles, while the latter was redefining ‘Hinduism’.

That bafflingly rich universe of stories has been obliterated by Company-bashing and Company-bribing—often faces of the same tuppence. Books like Polycoloniality lie at the roots of the simmering substratum of history’s multicultural voices, whose music is bound to explode sooner than later. Bhaduri invites readers and writers to the choir.

Polycoloniality: European Transactions with Bengal; Saugata Bhaduri, Bloomsbury, ₹1,106.

The reviewer is a writer and academic. His latest book is Indians in London: From the Birth of the East India Company to Independent India.


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