The Merchant-Prince Of East Bengal | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 04, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:33 PM, June 04, 2018

The Merchant-Prince Of East Bengal

It was the Dhaka of 1970. Unlike today, it was then a laidback provincial capital city. I was a student at Notre Dame College. History was my forte. On a wintry Sunday, a weekly holiday in those days, I decided to take a leisurely heritage tour of Old Dhaka in the afternoon on a rickshaw. The traffic was sparse. Old Dhaka was easily accessible. I enjoyed looking at the array of century-old buildings that I slowly passed by in Nawabpur and Islampur—a curious medley of hybridised architectural styles. Finally, the rickshaw having skirted around the rabbit warren of Shankharipatti and, thereafter, a maze of circuitous, labyrinthine alleyways arrived at the big wooden gate of the Armenian Apostolic Church of the Holy Resurrection, built in 1781 in Armanitola. The postern gate was slightly ajar. I went in. The kindly, soft spoken elderly Armenian priest with a flowing white beard was ministering to his flock. The church service had ended in the morning, but a few elderly Armenians were still there. The priest spoke to me briefly about the history of the church in English with a heavy accent. There was an ineffable sadness in his rheumy eyes. Perhaps, he was worried about the fast dwindling Armenian worshippers at the church and with it—its ultimate fate! It seemed that he was gazing at a bleak future with grave concern.

However, what attracted my attention in particular was the churchyard, where laid on the ground in neat rows were numerous old Armenian graves. On fairly large-sized slabs of marble and sandstone tombstones, were intricately carved latticed filigree designs including those of exquisite flowers and clinging serpentine vine called Khachkar. The epitaphs were written in Armenian as well as in English. The tombstones cold to the touch, greeted me in eloquent silence. I wondered whose deft hands had sculpted such marvellously unique artistry on stone. In a pensive mood in the mellow sunlight, I thought of the once prosperous Armenian community of Dhaka in the 19th century and, how sadly depleted their numbers were from death and migration overseas. In 1970, there was only a handful of Armenians left in Dhaka. Today, there are none. The last surviving octogenarian Armenian, Michael Joseph Martin (Mikel Housep Martirossian), also the last resident warden of the church, has finally left Dhaka for good.

I have often been intrigued as to how a once vibrant, affluent and prominent community, such as, the Armenians of Dhaka, has simply faded into the mists of time leaving behind very little history. It is also surprising that no Armenian or local historian here, in the intervening 150 years, has ever bothered to comprehensively chronicle their rich history for posterity. Consequently, nothing new or original has been added to the cursory information already available. The occasional write-ups on Dhaka Armenians are thus derivative and culled from a few known sources, albeit woefully meagre as resource/reference material. I, therefore, took it upon myself to trace the descendants of the Dhaka Armenians overseas, to try and re-vision their past and document their connections with old Dhaka, thereby adding something original and credible to their compelling history and that, too, of Dhaka in the 19th century.

My quest to locate the descendants of Dhaka Armenians overseas finally yielded result in 2012, when I was able to compile and write the family history of the Stephen's, once a noteworthy 19th century Armenian family of Old Dhaka. A shorter version of their story was published in The Daily Star entitled, “The Saga of an Armenian family of Old Dhaka”. My romance with the Dhaka Armenians had begun.

My friend Luke David lives in Bristol, England. He is patrilineally descended from the distinguished Armenian family of 19th century old Dhaka, with the surname of David. In brief here is their story.

Luke David's paternal ancestor, his great-great-grandfather Marcar David (1833–1893), an Armenian, was born in Bushehr or Bushire in Persia (Iran), which had for centuries been the main trade centre of Iran because of its thriving port. However, by the time Marcar decided to emigrate to India, the once busy port at Bushehr had already started to lose its position as the primary port of Iran due to shallow anchorage, thereby losing navigability to large sea/ocean-going cargo ships and, consequently faced a steady decline in trade, commerce and job prospects.

In 1854, at the age of 21, Marcar arrived in Calcutta, then an important commercial centre and a bustling port city. At that time, Calcutta had a prosperous Armenian mercantile community. It was also the capital of British India. One of the richest and most influential Armenian business magnate of 19th century Calcutta, Aratoon Apcar, became Marcar's close friend and eventually a trustee on his will.

In Calcutta, Marcar, initially started out as a small trader dealing in essentials like rice, pulses, spices, oil-seeds etc. However, he was a visionary with great ambition and gifted with an astute business acumen. He had closely followed the thriving jute trading in Calcutta in which the Armenians were involved. However, the source of the jute industry originated from East Bengal (Bangladesh), in which the wealthy Dhaka Armenians were not only the pioneering merchants, but also enjoyed a pervasive monopoly. Therefore, he soon relocated to Dhaka with his family and involved himself in the jute business and diligently worked upwards to become the most successful trader in East Bengal, which eventually earned him the enviable sobriquet of the “Merchant-Prince of East Bengal”. His jute-bailing firm of M. David & Co., in Narayanganj along with other successful Armenian firms dealing in jute flourished beyond expectation. Within a decade he had turned fabulously wealthy and, was the first to open up Chittagong port to ship jute goods directly to England, bypassing the port in Calcutta, and thereby greatly reducing the cost of shipment which enhanced his profits manifold.

While in East Bengal, Marcar David maintained establishments both in Dhaka and Narayanganj, then a busy jute trading centre and river port. It can be presumed with a degree of certainty that in Dhaka he lived in Armanitola, the Armenian quarter in old Dhaka, which still goes by that name. His sisters, Mariam and Sophia and brother Gadarniah were also members of his household for some time. Mariam went on to marry one Melitus, probably a Greek from Dhaka. Sophia married, W L Alexander, whose family had prospered in the shipping business in Calcutta, and had once employed Aratoon Apcar. Sophia and Alexander's son, David Alexander, was last known to have been trading in jute in Dhaka in 1937.

Marcar married Elizabeth Manook (also Manuk) of the renowned Armenian zamindar (feudal landlord) family of Dhaka. The Manook's along with four other Armenian families were prominent zamindars, merchants and philanthropists of 19th century Dhaka.

It is interesting to note Elizabeth David's (née Manook) maternal family lineage. Her ancestor Thomas Frankland Thirkell, an Englishman, married Mary Ann Flouest in Calcutta in 1812. Mary's mother was a Hindustani (Bengali) called Jeanne in Calcutta, while her father, Nicholas Flouest, was a Frenchman. The daughter of Thomas Thirkell and Mary Flouest, named Mary Ann Thirkell, was born in Calcutta in 1813. She married one George Kallonas, a Greek from Dhaka in 1830 and, appears to have moved to Dhaka permanently where their daughter Erin Maria Kallonas was born in 1832. In 1847, Erin, at the tender age of 14, married Callisthan Johannes Manook, then 18 years of age, a scion of the wealthy Armenian Manook family of Dhaka. They had at least six children including Elizabeth Manook (Marcar's wife) born in 1849. Elizabeth's other siblings were her brothers David Manook, George Manook and Gregory Manook and sisters Sophie Manook and Eugenie Manook, who married Peter Nicholas Pogose of the notable Armenian Pogose family of Dhaka.

As already mentioned, Elizabeth Manook married Marcar David in Dhaka. They had eight children of whom six survived into adulthood, while two died at infancy. Sadly, Elizabeth herself died young, aged only 29, of cholera in Dhaka in 1878. Her splendid tomb, is the finest surviving example of a Christian funerary monument in marble in the country. It has a beautifully sculpted full-sized statute of a slightly reclining maiden with closed eyes, seemingly in a mournful state, placed on top of the tomb's plinth. Elizabeth's tomb has remained miraculously intact, having withstood the ravages of time and escaped the cruel hammer of vandals. It can be seen today at the historic Christian Cemetery at Narinda, Wari, in Dhaka. The epitaph inscribed on the plinth of her tomb reads thus:

In affectionate memory of Elizabeth. The wife of Marcar David, who died on 18 November 1878. Aged 29 yrs 8 mths 6 days. Heaven is my home. Llewelyn & Co, Sculptors, Calcutta.

A bereaved Marcar David took his children to London from Dhaka in 1879, a year after the untimely demise of his wife Elizabeth. He had done so to ensure their safety. Diseases which were usually fatal in those days in the tropics impelled him to permanently relocate his children there. Initially he had intended to return to Dhaka from London to carry on with his lucrative businesses. However, it is not exactly clear why he later changed his mind and decided to stay back in London for good.

In London, Marcar and his family settled down in Princes Square, Bayswater. In the meantime, Marcar, who must have carried a substantial amount of wealth from Dhaka, invested wisely and heavily in property in London. He bought the freeholds on approximately 150 houses from Shepherds Bush and Battersea, to Kensington and Paddington. Marcar David died in London in 1893 and is buried in the historic Kensal Green Cemetery there.

Of Marcar's six children the youngest was a son named Markham David (1877–1942). He was born in Dhaka and was moved to London when he was just two years of age. He is the great-grandfather of my friend Luke David. Markham married Celteste Wauton and had three children, sons Charles David, Hugh David and Aubery David. Aubery is the grandfather of Luke David. Markham David settled in Monmouthshire, a historic county in South East Wales. He was awarded the prestigious Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his bravery in World War I, while serving as a Major with the Royal Monmouthshire Engineers. Subsequently, he became the Lord Lieutenant of Monmouthshire, where he died and lies buried.

Markham's son Aubrey David (1903–1967) of Monmouthshire, was a Royal Navy lieutenant commander entrusted with protecting the merchant shipping convoys in the Arctic Ocean during World War II. He had seven children. One of his sons, Antony David (born 1937), is a retired landscape architect who lives near Brecon, Wales. He is the father of Luke David, a TV producer with the BBC in Bristol, England. I am greatly indebted to Luke for his generous help in providing me with vital information on the history of the David family, including the valuable images, without which this feature article would not have been possible.

Waqar A Khan is Founder, Bangladesh Forum for Heritage Studies.

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