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03 Notable Members of and from the Community

Abraham Jacobs, Jewish Merchant, 1756

Abraham Jacob, of Jewish origin, was involved in the City's history before the first settler, Shalome Cohen, arrived in Calcutta.

By Sudeep Chakravarti

I came by the mention of a Calcutta-based Jewish merchant, Abraham Jacobs, as early as 1756, which I am given to understand is several years before the community is believed to have settled in Calcutta. The mention is recorded in my book Plassey [Aleph Book Company, 2020], a work of history around Battle of Plassey in June 1757, which set the English East India Company on its way to acquire an Indian empire.

This is the first of the mentions. Within two months of the defeat of English East Indian Company at Calcutta and the Black Hole incident, on 22nd August 1756, consultations held on Phoenix, a schooner, by the Bengal Council of the Company at that time exiled to Falta, several miles south of Calcutta along the Hugli river, recorded the following observations. It included a letter of outreach to Bengal’s nawab Siraj-ud-daulah, whose forces had defeated Company forces at Calcutta:

At a Committee, present—

The Hon’ble Roger Drake, Esq.

William Watts, Esq.

Major James Kilpatrick.

John Zephaniah Holwell, Esq. 

Met by appointment of the Board for the better despatch of affairs of the country and for the receiving of intelligence and advice.

The Honorable George Pigot, Esq., and Council at Fort Saint George in their general letter of the 7th instant received the information that they had sent down by the Sea Horse sloop, Captain Oliphant, 120 barrels of ammunition, and that Admiral Watson has consented to the sending down His Majesty’s ship the Bridgewater, which would be despatched in a few days with further supplies of men and ammunition.

Major Kilpatrick on the 15th instant wrote a complimentary letter to the Nabob Surajed Dowla complaining a little of the hard usage of the English Honorable Company, assuring him of his good intentions notwithstanding what had happened, and begging in the mean time, till things were cleared up, that he would treat him at least as a friend, and give orders that our people may be supplied with provisions in a full and friendly manner. This letter to the Nabob he enclosed to Mr. Bisdom, the Dutch Governor, to have it translated into, Persian, but Mr. Bisdom in his answer excuses himself, and advises him to send it up to Mr. Warren Hastings at Cassimbazar, assuring him at the same time in the genteelest and strongest manner that he might command him in every thing unless where his honorable master’s interest interfered.

The consultations also noted an offer of help Major Killpatrick received from the merchant Umachand—‘assuring him of his good intentions and of the desire he had to serve him’—which letter he sent down by Khwaja Petrus Arathoon, another prominent Armenian merchant who helped the exiles, and was usually referred to as ‘Coja Petross’ and sometimes as ‘Armenian Petrus’; and Abraham Jacobs, a Jewish merchant, an agent of the Company and another provider to the exiles.

The next mention of Abraham Jacobs is in a letter from his Armenian colleague Arathoon to the East India Company’s directors in London more than a year after Company forces defeated the forces of Siraj-ud-daulah in the Battle of Plassey in June 1757. The letter (like the previous one, referenced from S.C. Hill’s Bengal in 1756-1757) is reproduced here in its entirety. The letter seeks recognition and benefits for the help the two merchants offered the English during their time of trouble: 

Letter from Petras Arratoon to the Court of Directors, dated  25 January, 1759.

Honourable Sirs, — It is with the most humble submission I assume liberty to address the following narrative to your Honourable Board, to set in a true and faithful light the indefatigable pains, charges, and imminent dangers myself and the persons therein mentioned underwent to relieve the miseries of the English Gentry after they had been extirpated [from] Calcutta by the invasion of the Moors, and refuged on board their ships at Fulta and to be instrumental to bring matters to the happy state they are in at present.

The calamaties and condition the English familys were in on board their ships at Fulta I need not describe, no doubt but the Honourable Company have had a very particular account of their dilemma and sufferings ; I shall proceed to relate how far their deplorable state made impressions on one Abraham Jacobs (a Jew) and myself. The said Abraham Jacobs applyed himself to me with a prospect to join him to endeavour to contribute the English some relief. A proposition of that commiseration and humanity I readily came into, solemnly plighted him my faith to yield them my utmost assistance with all imaginable alacraty, fervency, and fidelity, even to the hazard of my life. Upon this Abraham Jacobs remained in my house at Calcutta disguised in Moor’s habit. We mutually consulted and agreed the first step we were to take was to get the speech of Omichund, and to bring him over to be an instrument to promote our schemes who had great interest with the Moors, and, though Mr. Drake and Council addressed him twice before to no effect, he not so much as giving them an answer...

Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of several groundbreaking and bestselling works of narrative non-fiction (Red Sun, finalist for the Crossword Award in 2009; Highway 39; and Clear. Hold. Build, winner of the Award for Excellence at the Asian Publishing Awards, 2014, and most recently, The Bengalis), novels (Tin Fish, The Avenue of Kings), and short stories.