Any book that gives a minute detail of places and especially when it is about natural scenery mixed with history it gives us much pleasure. It is sometimes our quest to know the ancient rural economy, social life and ethnic relations and above all of the British imperial policy in the southeast region. The book Francis Buchanan in Southeast Bengal (1798): His Journey to Chittagong, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Noakhali and Comilla” edited by Willhem van Schendel is a master piece in the history of travelogue. This volume presents Francis Buchanan’s account of his travels in Aisa. It is the earliest and therefore a significant source of information on 18th century Bengal, Burma and other regions of Asia. Although Buchanan’s account is presented here as a travel diary, it is the diary of a disciplined traveler and is thus seen to represent a sort of art or genre.
Born in Callander, Perthshire, (15 Feb. 1762) Francis Buchanan completed his studies in medicine at the University of Edinburgh (1783), and was then employed as a surgeon on board a man-of-war. Ill health forced him to leave this post, but in 1794, he obtained the post of surgeon with the Bengal Establishment of the East India Company. On the death of his elder brother, Buchanan added his mother's name, Hamilton, to his own in recognition of this inheritance. From 1803 to 1804 he was surgeon to the Governor General of India Lord Wellesley in Calcutta. That’s why he had a vast knowledge over these regions. He died on 15 June, 1829.
The editor of this book Willem van Schendel is professor of Comparative History at Erasmus University Rotterdam. He has been teaching Modern Asian History at the University of Amsterdam since 1996. He is also a senior research fellow at the International Institute of Social History. Among his many publications A History of Bangladesh (2009), Global Blue: Indigo and Espionage in Colonial Bengal (2006) are mentionable.
The editor with his excellent skill has presented the every detail of Buchanan’s journey throughout the aforesaid places. After having made journeys to Asia and the West Indies as a ship’s surgeon, he was appointed as in Bengal. The journey that he made to this region was an assignment of survey under The Board of Trade. This survey was about the rural statistical survey. His trip started on March 2 to May 21, 1798. His style of travel was not that of a high official taking leisurely tour from one government bungalow to the next and ordering informants to his presence. During his travel most of the time he used to live in a tent.
Francis Buchanan’s description of Bengal is not only a source of knowledge of the Asian regions but it was a source of dominance for the British. If we discuss his journey from the perspective of colonialism we can say that this book was a sort of weapon to the British colonial power as it represents social and cultural aspects of the Hill tracts and Burma which are necessary to occupy a place. In this regard Buchanan can be called an emissary of the imperial power or a representative of the European views. This book was a weapon in the sense that if we believe in the adage ‘Knowledge is power’ then the British used the knowledge contained in this book for expansion of their empire. It was easy for the British to expand their realm of power if they had adequate power on the geography, society and culture of the regions they wanted to colonise.
This book is abundant with a lot of native words which have bizarre spellings with interesting pronunciation. For example Curnafoly, Nowacally, seetacoonetc are the mentionable words used here. This book which is like a diary also presents nice picture of ethnic groups of the Hill tracts like Morong, Pankhua, Khami, Lakher amd many more. Another interesting thing but difficult to read is the use of ethnic terms with piculiar spellings like Sagma (Chakma), Kulak Sak, Zeing-dang-sa, Wa-theMroo etc. The readers have to find difficulty and may feel uninterested to read it when they will enter into the journey that began on 29th March because of the usages of ancient Burmese words, and names in English words. But these usages of words indicate that Buchanan had deep sense of ideas of the languages and cultures of these particular areas.
The book will be difficult to read by any reader across the world because of the complex geographical descriptions of some places, indigenous names of the crops and many more. To overcome this problem or before reading this book one should have very sound knowledge over the map of these regions. In this regard, the editor has done a tremendous job by including maps at the beginning of the descriptions of the travels. Credit also goes to the publisher for installing a nice cover page with a map pointing the places Buchanan included in this travel diary. The editor has taken a challenging task to compile the book as he has to put lot more references, explanation of the places, mountains, regions, rivers, waters etc. He has to put glossaries, the index of personal names and titles, ethnic groups and botanical species.
There is a book titled Bangladesh edited by Md. Mahmudur Rahman and A.H.M Abdullah which is almost similar to this book. The book Bangladesh provides encyclopedic information about Bangladesh, its people and their struggles as well as sacrifices for better life, its natural resources and economic opportunities. It also looks at the various development initiatives, achievements over the year, vivid description of the agriculture, industry, infrastructure, technology and nationwide communications network. So these two books present almost the same pictures.
In fine, despite having some problems, the book Francis Buchanan in Southeast Bengal (1798): His Journey to Chittagong, the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Noakhali and Comilla can be included in our high school syllabus as the record of history. It is great source and asset for our knowledge.
Reviewed by Md. Oashimul Bari, Assistant Commissioner and Executive MAgistrate, DC Office, Thakurgaon.