Portuguese settlement in Chittagong, in Bangladesh

Chittagong (Xatigan in Portuguese), the second largest city and main port of Bangladesh, was home to a thriving trading post of the Portuguese Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Chittagong (Xatigan in Portuguese), the second largest city and main port of Bangladesh, was home to a thriving trading post of the Portuguese Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Portuguese first arrived in Chittagong around 1528  and left in 1666 after the Mughal conquest. It was the first European colonial enclave in the historic region of Bengal.

Chittagong was the largest seaport in the Sultanate of Bengal, which was termed as the “Shahi Bangalah” (Imperial Bengal) in Persian and Bengali. The Portuguese referred to the port city as Porto Grande de Bengala, which meant the “the Grand Harbor of Bengal”. The term was often simplified as Porto Grande.

On 9 May 1512, a fleet of four ships commanded by João da Silveira from the Estado da India arrived in Chittagong fromGoa. They were followed by several embassies from the Kingdom of Portugal to the Sultanate of Bengal, then reputed as the wealthiest region in the Indian subcontinent. He set up the first Portuguese factory in Bengal at Chittagong in 1517. Traders from Portuguese Malacca, Bombay and Ceylon also frequented the region.

Some sources indicate that Joao Coelho had arrived in Chittagong before João da Silveira. Many Malaccan Portuguese had come to the Bengal before Silveira in Moorishships as traders. Moreover, some of the Portuguese settled in Pipli (present day Orissa) in 1514 and had visited Western Bengal.

In 1528, the Sultan of Bengal permitted the Portuguese to establish factories and customs houses in the Port of Chittagong. A fort and naval base was established in Firingi Bandar. The settlement grew into the most prominent Eurasian port on the Bay of Bengal during the Age of Discovery. The cartaz system was introduced and required all ships in the area to purchase naval trading licenses from the Portuguese. In 1590, the Portuguese conquered the nearby islands of Sandwip under the leadership of António de Sousa Godinho. In 1602, the Sandwip island of Chittagong was conquered by the Portuguese from Kedar Rai of Sripur.

Portuguese pirates, named Gonjalves and Carvalho, ruled the island of Sandwip for several years. Each year about 300 salt loaded ships sailed for Liverpool from Sandwip. Sandwip was very famous for its ship-building and salt industries at that time. In 1616, after the arrival of Delwar Khan, a high-ranking Mughal naval officer, the Portuguese pirates were driven away from Sandwip and Delwar Khan ruled the island independently for about 50 years.

The harbor of Chittagong became the most important port to the Portuguese because of its location, navigational facilities and safe anchorage. The port is very close to the mouth of the Meghna which was the principal route to the Royal capital of Gouda.

Evidently the Portuguese found Chittagong a congenial place to live tn. By the end of the sixteenth century. The Chittagong port had emerged as a thriving port which attracted both unofficial Portuguese trade and settlement. According to a 1567 note of Caesar Federeci, every year thirty or thirty five ships, great and small, anchored in Chittagong port. In 1598 CE there lived about 2,500 Portuguese and Eurasians in Chittagong and Arakan.

The increased commercial presence included bureaucrats, merchants, missionaries, soldiers, adventurers, sailors and pirates. The enclave had a highly laissez-faire administration led by traders. Slave trade andpiracy flourished. Major traded products included fine silk, cotton muslin textiles, bullion, spices, rice, timber, salt and gunpowder.

A painting indicating the battle between the Portuguese and the Mughals inKarnaphuli River in 1666.

The Roman Catholic Church was established in Bengal during Portuguese rule in Chittagong. The port city was the seat of the first Vicar Apostolic of Bengal. The Portuguese also encouraged intermarriage with the local population.

In 1615, the Portuguese Navy defeated an Arakanese-Dutch VOC fleet near the port city.

The Portuguese presence in Chittagong was ultimately ephemeral. The fall of the Bengal Sultanate and the rise of the Arakanese Kingdom of Mrauk U changed the geopolitical landscape. The Portuguese settlement became a major bone of contention between the Mughal Empire, the Kingdom of Mrauk U, the Burmese Empire and the Kingdom of Tripura. The King of Mrauk U massacred 600 members of the Portuguese community in Dianga in 1607. Subsequently, the Portuguese allied with Arakan. Portuguese-Arakanese piracy increased against Mughal Bengal in the 17th century.

The Portuguese were involved in slave business and sold their slaves in Tamluk and Balasore, and in Deccan ports. They carried off the Hindus and Muslims they could seize, pierced the palms of their hands, passed thin strips of cane through the holes, and threw the men huddled together under the decks of their ships. Every day they flung down some uncooked rice to the captives from above, as people fling grain to the fowl. Slaves were sold at Dianga and Pipli, and transported by ship. The Portuguese built a fort at Pipli in 1599 for prisoners brought by the Arakanese.

In 1632 Mughal arms expelled the Portuguese from the Hugli port, owing to Portuguese association with the slave trade, kidnapping and refusal to support Shah Jahan. In 1666, the Mughal viceroy Shaista Khanretook control of Chittagong after defeating the Arakanese in a naval war. The Mughal conquest of Chittagong brought an end to the Portuguese dominance in the port city of more than 130 years. The conquest of the port of Chittagong in was similarly aimed mainly at driving Arakanese slave raiders out of the Bengal.

The Mughals attacked the Arakanese from the jungle with a 6500 man army supported by 288 ships of war hound for the seizure of Chittagong harbor. After three days of battle, the Arakanese surrendered. Chittagong promptly became the capital of the new Government.

This battle involved movement across both land and water. In order to combat the pirates’ skill over water, the Mughals called for the support of Dutch from Batavia. Before the Dutch ships reached the coast of Chittagong, the battle had already ended. In order to carry soldiers, Shaista Khan constructed several large ships and large number of galleys. After the Mughals took Chittagong, the Portuguese moved to the Ferengi Bazaar in Dhaka. Descendants of the Portuguese still reside in these places.

Other settlements

From Chittagong, the Portuguese proceeded to establish settlements in other Bengali ports and cities, notably Satgaon, Bandel and Dhaka. Satgaon became known as Porto Pequeno (Little Haven). Portogola in Old Dhaka hosted the city’s Portuguese community.

Spreading of Christianity

Christianity spread across the Bengal by the Portuguese traders along with the Christian missionaries. Although Christianity had already reached in the Bengal with Thomas the Apostle in 52 BC, the Portuguese set up the first christian churches in Chittagong. The Portuguese merchant, most of whose were Christian, called Chittagong as Porto Grande de Bengala. In 1498, christian explorer Vasco de Gama traveled Bengal.


The descendants of the Portuguese traders in Chittagong are known as Firingis. They live in the areas of Patherghatta and Firingi Bazaar in Old Chittagong. There are a numerous Portuguese loanwords in theBengali language, including many common household terms, particularly in Chittagonian Bengali. The Portuguese brought many exotic fruits, flowers and plants, especially from their South American Brazilian colony. They introduced chillies, delonix regia, guavas, pineapples, papayas and Alfonso mangoes to Bengal.

A Portuguese missionary in British Calcutta published the first book on Bengali grammar. The oldest churches in Bangladesh and West Bengal trace their origins to Portuguese missionary missions which arrived in Chittagong in the 16th century. Most Bangladeshi Christians have Portuguese surnames.

After the independence of Bangladesh, Portugal recognized it on 20 December 1974. Since then, there has been no significant official visits between the two countries. The Portuguese have a great influence on trade, culture, character and language of the people of Chittagong.

Very few physical vestiges of the Portuguese presence are found at present in Chittagong as well as whole Bengal, namely few churches and ruins. Some Geographical place names remain like Dom Manik Islands, Point Palmyras on the Orissa coast, Firingi Bazaar in Dhaka and Chittagong.

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