Ostend Company

Ostend Company was formed according to the idea of the emperor of Austria for commercial operations in the Indian Ocean region after the Treaty of Utrecht. The emperor fixed Ostend as the port of the company in 1714 and authorised it to send ships to the Indian ocean world.

The company got a parwana from murshid quli khan and established a factory at Bankibazar (modern Ichapur) and fortified it with cannons. The english and the dutch bribed the faujdar of hughli, Ahsanullah Khan, to represent to the nawab against the company. The nawab ordered the removal of fortifications. At the refusal of the Ostenders war began despite the attempted mediation by a Kashmiri Muslim merchant of Hughli. From the extant French documents (unpublished), it appears that the event occurred around 1724. The first Ostend ship had reached Balasore in 1719 and Murshid Quli gave the parwana in 1721.

The commerce of the Ostend Company continued despite the hostility of the English and the Dutch. In 1724, the faujdar of Hughli led an attack on the Ostend factory for disobeying state laws and its chief was killed in the attack. Yet the company continued to make purchases in Bengal in 1725 as another ship had come with some funds.

In Europe, at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (1727), the King of Spain while the English abandoned the Austrian emperor and the Dutch raised objections against the operations of the company. It was then decided that the Ostend Company would have an establishment in Bengal but could not send any ship there for seven years.

Khwaja Safar, an armenian merchant, had persuaded the faujdar of Balasore to permit the Ostenders to build a factory there. The English opposed this and the Dutch had offered the faujdar a sum of one-lakh twenty-five thousand rupees to drive out the Ostenders. Meanwhile through sarfaraz khan the Ostenders persuaded the nawab to grant them a parwana on payment of one lakh twenty thousand rupees. They would also pay another one lakh to the Nawab for procuring a farman. The Ostenders paid thirty thousand and deposited seventy thousand rupees with jagat sheth. Murshid Quli gave a shiropa (turban of honour) to the chief of the Ostend Company and issued a parwana two weeks before his death, permitting them to establish a factory at Bankibazar.

In Europe, the Austrian emperor wanted to get out of the Aix-la-chapelle accord and formed a league with Denmark and Sweden. Poland did not join as they were preparing to send two ships to India. The English and the Dutch seized these two ships while Denmark was persuaded to withdraw. The french in Chandernagore gave protection to the Poles. By 1730 the banks of the Hughli were full of European deserters and adventurers, who were first employed by the Danes and later by the Ostend Company. One of the most active of such men was Francois de Schonamille of Antewerp, who declared himself to be the chief of Bankibazar. By that time the Danes had withdrawn and the Austrian emperor had first suspended and then abolished the company, a fact that had remained unknown in Bengal for many years.

Schonamille lived by country trading and often dealt with the English and the Dutch traders. In 1730, he tried to mediate unsuccessfully between the Poles and the Anglo-Dutch cartel in Bengal. Another such self-styled captain was John Combes who declared himself captain of the Ostend Company. He quarrelled with Hume who cautioned restraint and dependence on the nawab against Combes' policy of confrontation. But Combes persuaded the rest of he company officials, although one was not sure whether the projected attacks on Anglo-Dutch shipping would be in the name of the company or in the name of the Polish King. The English and the Dutch, becoming aware of the project, seized the ship. Combes blamed Hume for the delay, who left for Europe in a French ship leaving Schonamille in charge of the factory at Bankibazar.

Despite the Dutch blockade, Ostend ships visited Bengal regularly till 1733 as is evidenced from a letter of Dupleix, although by 1732, the Ostend Company was definitely abolished. Yet a French visitor had found in January 1734 the flag of the emperor of Austria floating at the Ostend factory at Bankibazar. It appears that after seven years from the date of the accord, the English and the Dutch were allowing the Ostend ships to come with the flag of the emperor. At the end of 1735, Dupleix had found that the Ostend Company had no money and no ship. In another French letter of 1739, the situation of the Ostend Company was described as dismal. Till 1744, Schonamille and a few Ostenders lived largely with the help of Danish and Swedish travellers. He blamed the lack of support from Vienna as the chief reason of their plight. But the letter of a Flemish merchant, who visited Bankibazar in 1741, would suggest that there was a good deal of unofficial contact between Ostend and Bankibazar, which had become the principal centre of European adventurers in Bengal.

In 1744, perhaps with Dutch funds, the faujdar of Hughli imposed a fine on Schonamille for his alleged collusion with the Maratha traders. Schonamille denied the accusation, led an attack on the forces of the faujdar and easily routed them. Next the faujdar led a bigger force and Schonamille, escaping to Syrium in Burma, met a violent death. Bankibazar was plundered and the flag of the emperor was hauled down. The Ostend Company, perfectly viable economically, was sacrificed at the altar of high politics.

The Ostend Company concentrated principally in Bengal and China, from where they imported tea to give the English a stiff competition. The Dutch and the French were against them because, from Ostend, they re-exported Indian and Chinese goods at cheaper prices. With moderate operational costs and with few stations, their running costs were far lower than those of other European companies operating in Bengal. Their last flicker came at the end of the eighteenth century, but it was soon extinguished by English domination. [Aniruddha Ray]