In 1608, Captain William Hawkins with his ship Hector reached Surat. He brought with him a letter from James I, King of England, to the Mughal court of Jahangir requesting permission to do business in India. Father Pinheiro and the Portuguese authorities did their best to prevent Hawkins from reaching the Mughal court, but did not succeed. Jahangir accepted the gifts Hawkins brought for him and gave Hawkins a very favourable reception in 1609. As Hawkins knew the Turki language well, he conversed with the emperor in that language without the aid of an interpreter. Pleased with Hawkins, Jahangir appointed him as a mansabdar of 400 at a salary of Rs 30,000 (apparently, he never received it). Hawkins was also married to the daughter of an Armenian Christian named Mubarak Shah (Mubarikesha).

The grant of trading facilities to the English offended the Portuguese. However, after negotiations, a truce was established between the Portuguese and the Mughal emperor. The Portuguese stopped the English ships from entering the port of Surat. A baffled Hawkins left the Mughal court in 1611, unable to counter the Portuguese intrigues or check the vacillating Mughal policies. However, in November 1612, the English ship Dragon under Captain Best along with a little ship, the Osiander, successfully fought a Portuguese fleet. Jahangir, who had no navy worth its name, learnt of the English success and was greatly impressed.

The Portuguese acts of piracy also resulted in conflict with the imperial Mughal government. In 1613, the Portuguese offended Jahangir by capturing Mughal ships, imprisoning many Muslims, and plundering the cargoes. An enraged Jahangir ordered Muqarrab Khan, who was then in charge of Surat, to obtain compensation. However, it was during the reign of Shah Jahan, that the advantages which the Portuguese enjoyed in the Mughal court were lost forever. Also lost were the hopes of converting the royal family and Mughal India to Christianity, a hope that the Portuguese held because of the welcome accorded to them and their religion by Akbar and Jahangir.

Capture of Hooghly

On the basis of an imperial farman circa 1579, the Portuguese had settled down on a river bank which was a short distance from Satgaon in Bengal to carry on their trading activities. Over the years, they strengthened their position by constructing big buildings which led to the migration of the trade from Satgaon to the new port known as Hooghly. They monopolised the manufacture of salt, built a custom house of their own and started enforcing strictly the levy of duty on tobacco, which had become an important article of trade since its introduction at the beginning of the 17th century.

The Portuguese not only made money as traders but also started a cruel slave trade by purchasing or seizing Hindu and Muslim children, whom they brought up as Christians. In the course of their nefarious activities, they seized two slave girls of Mumtaz Mahal. On June 24, 1632, the Mughal siege of Hooghly began, ending in its capture three months later. Shah Jahan ordered the Bengal governor Qasim Khan to take action against the Portuguese. The siege of Hooghly finally led to the Portuguese fleeing. The Mughals suffered a loss of 1,000 men, but also took 400 prisoners to Agra. The prisoners were offered the option to convert to Islam or become slaves. The persecution of Christians continued for some time after which it died down gradually.

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Vishal Singh


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