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Greeks, The


Greeks, The Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine Empire and the subsequent Turkish occupation of Greece and the Balkans in the late 15th and early 16th centuries forced upon the Greeks a harsh servitude under an alien imperialism which threatened their culture. Fortunately for them their Turkish masters despised commercial occupations and this enabled many Greeks to achieve relative prosperity under the banner of trade. In fact, almost the entire commercial activity of the Ottoman Empire was in the hands of Greeks and Armenians in the 18th and 19th centuries. Greek merchants dominated the trade of the Mediterranean and the Levant and thrust tentacles into Central Europe and Russia. Eventually the most daring of them found their way to India in the 18th Century.

The earliest record of a 'Modern', commercial Greek presence in India is to be found in the Latin Memorial tablets of two Greek merchants in the Catholic Cathedral of Calcutta- the dates of their deaths in this city are given as 1713 and 1728. Some Greeks arrived overland through Persia and Afghanistan but many more chose the sea route via the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. They came from the Greek Diaspora- from Asia Minor, from the Aegean and Ionian Islands, from mainland Greece but especially from the Thracian city of Philippopolis (now called Plovdiv and lying within Bulgaria). They settled chiefly in Dhaka and in Calcutta. It is difficult to be precise about their numbers but between 1770 and 1800 there were probably about two hundred or more Greeks in Dhaka and Narayanganj and somewhat less in Calcutta.

The great majority was engaged in trade. At the outset they were exporters of Dhaka cloth to Europe and the Levant via Basra but towards the beginning of the 19th century they were ousted from this trade by the competition of the English east india company and they sought compensation in the inland trade of Bengal. They traded in salt and other native products and some were engaged in the manufacture of chunam (lime).

Alexios Argyree Panaghiotis (his name later anglicized by his descendants as 'Panioty') was the first recognized head of the Greek community in Bengal. Born in Philippopolis he came to India in 1750 and in 1771 was sent by Warren hastings on a diplomatic mission to Cairo to obtain permission for British merchants to trade in Egypt. His work successfully accomplished, he was given permission by Hastings to build a Greek church in Amratollah Street in Calcutta. He eventually shifted his commercial operations to Dhaka where he died in 1777.

His son Alexander Panioty, who was an extensive trader in salt between Narayanganj and Chittagong, continued his work and started a lime manufactory in Sylhet. Alexios Argyree and his son were the chief agents in ensuring the presence of the Greek Orthodox Church in Bengal for they arranged with the Archbishop of Sinai to send monks from the monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai to serve the spiritual needs of Greeks in Dhaka and Calcutta. The Greek Church of the Transfiguration in Amratollah Street, Calcutta was consecrated in 1782 and another church was opened in Dhaka in 1812. In these early days the best-known Greek Orthodox priest in Calcutta was the dynamic father Constantine Parthenios from Corfu whom Zoffany took as his model for Christ in his painting of the 'Last Supper' which hangs in the Anglican church of St. John in Calcutta.

From about 1820 to 1840 the economic prosperity of Dacca and Narayanganj declined largely as a result of the competition of the Lancashire cotton industry and the fortunes of the Greek community there declined with them. In the last quarter of the 19th century the London-based Greek firm of Ralli Brothers constructed a memorial at Ramna in Dhaka to the memory of these early merchants. This Memorial contains ten gravestones of Greek merchants, some of their wives and one Greek priest who died between 1800 and 1860 and was built in the style of a classical Greek temple. It has been moved subsequently from its original site to one near the Teacher-Student Centre of Dhaka University. Most of the inscriptions are in classical Greek but some are in English.

The Calcutta Greek community was centred on its church in Amratollah Street. From 1818 to 1842 its doyen was a merchant from Epirus, Constantine Partazes, who traded with Constantinople and built a Greek school in Calcutta for the community's children to give them the elements of their religion, language and culture. In this work a fellow Epirot, Peter Protopapas, ably seconded him. A small number of Greeks took advantage of the advance of British power into the area of Agra and Oudh and set up as merchants and shopkeepers in Cawnpore, Meerut, Karnaul and Delhi.

As the 19th century progressed and opportunities for individual entrepreneurs in trade declined, the offspring of the first generation of Greek merchants turned to other forms of employment. Even towards the end of the 18th century, a few adventurous spirits became mercenary soldiers. Two examples of this trend can be seen in the cases of Count Alexander Ghika and Adam George. The former hailed from a prominent Phanariot family of Constantinople, and served as a high-ranking officer in the army of the Maratha chief, Ambajee from 1796 to 1802. The latter was his contemporary, and in 1791 enlisted in the force of the famous Savoyard soldier, Benoit de Boigne, serving Scindhia of Gwalior, and became the commander of a troop of cavalry.

Most of the second and third generations of Bengal Greeks took up employment as uncovenanted officials in the Bengal Administration of the east india company and later of the Crown. The most successful of these men was Demetrius Panioty (a direct descendant of Alexios Argyree Panaghiotis). In 1849 he obtained employment as a Writer in the Bengal Secretariat, was transferred in 1853 to the Durbar Department of the Governor General and in 1880 became Assistant Private Secretary to the Viceroy, lord ripon. In this capacity he served several Viceroys until his death in Simla in 1895. After his death the Imperial Government erected a monumental fountain to his memory on the Maidan in Calcutta. His wife Persine acted as a Hindustani interpreter to the Vicereine, Lady Dufferin, in her contacts with the wives and female relations of Indian princes.

Probably the most famous of the early Bengal Greeks was the distinguished Sanskrit scholar, Demetrius Galanos of Athens who arrived at Calcutta in 1786 to take up the post of a teacher in the Greek school. He rapidly acquired an excellent knowledge of English, Persian, Urdu and Sanskrit. To further his expertise in Sanskrit he moved to Benares in 1792 where he adopted the lifestyle of a Brahmin, studied under a Brahmin teacher, Satoul Singh and embarked on a series of translations of Sanskrit texts into Greek. He died in Benares in 1833 and was buried in the English cemetery. He is acknowledged today as one of the foremost European Sanskrit scholars and his translations of the ancient texts are internationally famous.

By the mid-19th century the small-scale commercial ventures of the first Greek traders had almost come to an end. Large European firms with Head Offices in Europe now handled most of the commerce in India and on a scale that was never attained by the early Greek merchants. That the Greek trading presence in India did not die out but rather expanded was due to the operations of several London-based Greek trading Companies and in particular, to the most famous of them, Ralli Brothers, who opened their first Indian branch in 1851 at 15 Lal Bazaar, Calcutta.

Its founder was the remarkable businessman, Pandius Rallis whose family hailed from the Aegean Island of Chios. He established Ralli Brothers in London in 1826 and so skillfully did he handle its affairs that it rapidly became a powerful firm owning its own ships and transporting thousands of tons of cereals, foodstuffs, spices and other commodities from the Near East to Europe. From its base in Calcutta it extended its operations all over Northern India including, from 1882, Narayanganj, where it owned a jute mill and had two steam launches moored at its wharves. From Bengal Ralli Brothers exported huge quantities of jute to the UK, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Italy, Russia and the USA. It also traded extensively in wheat, pulse, linseed, poppyseed, sesame, rice, saltpetre, shellac, jaggery, castor oil, turmeric, ginger, India rubber catch and borax.

At the end of the 19th century, besides Ralli Brothers, there were several other Greek trading firms operating in Calcutta: Ralli and Mavrojani, Argenti Sechiari, Agelesto Sagrandi, Schlizzi and Co, Petrocochino Bros, Tamv-aco and Co, Georgiardi and Co, N Valetta and Co, Giffo and Co, Pallachi and Co, Vlasto and Co and Nicachi and Co. A scrutiny of the marriages made by the Rallis with other Greek families reveals that Greek commercial activity in Bengal was dominated by a close-knit clan of noble families from the island of Chios, related by marriage.

In addition to trading firms there were in the early years of the 20th century three large firms of Greek tobacconists in Calcutta: Theo Vafiadis (a Greek from Cairo) at 4 Dalhousie Square, SZ Andricopoulos at 10 Dalhousie Square and P-isti and Pelekanos at 104 Clive St. These Greek firms gave employment to a very large number of Greeks either in Calcutta or the mofussil. These men were not, in the main, like the old Greek merchant families who settled permanently in Bengal because most of them returned to Greece at the end of their working lives.

Before and after the First World War the Greek contribution to European social life in Calcutta was considerable and at least one Greek from this community achieved some fame in the outside world. Marie Nicachi, born in Calcutta in 1888, brought up and educated there, was an exceptionally gifted professional violinist whose performances were enthusiastically applauded by Calcutta audiences. In 1910 she embarked on a professional tour of Europe and gave recitals in all its major capitals, playing before the Emperor Franz Josef of Austria in Vienna and before Czar Nicholas II and his Czarina in St. Petersburg. When the First World War broke out she returned to her family home in Corfu where, between the wars, she delighted local and foreign celebrities with the virtuosity of her performances.

The Second World War marked the terminus of Greek commercial activity in Bengal. The independence of India and Pakistan and the partition of Bengal between them created a new commercial climate and in these conditions Ralli Brothers and most of the other Greek firms gradually ceased trading. The days of grandeur between 1850 and 1950 have passed away. [Paul Byron Norris]

Bibliography Timotheos Catsiyannis, Pardias Stephen Rallis, 1793-1865, London, 1986; Paul Byron Norris, Ulysses in the Raj, London, 1992; Helen Abadzi, 'The Dhaka University Greek Gravestones and the Greek Community', Journal of The Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 40, 1, Dhaka, 1995.