Bengali Arrack and Bouleponge: A Glimpse into the Savage Lifestyle of European Naval Merchants and their Crew in the 17th Century Mughal Empire

Bengali Arrack and Bouleponge: A Glimpse into the Savage Lifestyle of European Naval Merchants and their Crew in the 17th Century Mughal Empire

A brief history of the liquor industry in the 17th Century Mughal Empire and its interactions with the European trading merchants reveals a rather stark picture

THOMAS ROE, THE ARTFUL BRITSH AMBASSADOR in Jahangir’s court did not take a long time to net his affections owing to a rather spiritual reason. One of the hinges upon which the dark art of diplomacy rests is the diplomat’s acuity in grasping the vices of his target. With Jahangir, it was liquor. Rivers of it. Which is what Roe brought to his court: crates and crates of red wine. And conquered Jahangir, which literally means “world-conqueror.” Roe then tutored the Badshah in the subject titled, “What beere (beer) was? How made?” Swimming happily in this sea inhabited by alien spirits, Jahangir gave permission to the East India Company to open a factory in Surat. It would be both blessed and protected by the Mughal Empire.

Jahangir was not the first nor would be the last of Sultan-sized alcoholics. He was both an epic representative and an inheritor of this drunken tradition dating back almost to the history of Islam itself. In fact, unhinged binge drinking is one of the paramount markers of the Muslim history of medieval India. The Sultans swam in these perfervid spirituous waters and their cup-bearers—politely known as the nobility—were their uninhibited playmates. Liquor and the aphrodisiac industry constituted the two major economic engines of Muslim empires in India, especially the Mughal Empire.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Thomas Roe in Jahangir's Court</p></div>

Thomas Roe in Jahangir's Court

Arguably, in Jahangir’s time, the alcohol industry had exploded into epidemic proportions, a fact recorded by all the early European pirates who had begun to sully India in trickles with their boorish manners, Christian bigotry, rowdy behavior, slummy lifestyle, and introduced an appalling range of morbid venereal and other diseases.

Much before Jahangir took over the throne in Agra, the Portuguese had devastated Malabar and had reduced Gomantaka into a smoldering wreckage populated by thousands of Hindu dead bodies and shattered temples. The Dutch had also made impressive inroads in areas as widespread as Bengal, Cholamandalam, Malabar, Surat, and Sri Lanka. The French joined the Indian party slightly later.

Without exception, all these Europeans left behind copious and extravagant records of their experiences in India…with India and Indians. Broadly speaking, these records cover three major commercial theatres of that era fabled for their wealth, activity, and social life: Bengal, Machilipatnam, and Surat. Bengal and Surat, especially, were in the wrought iron-thrall of the Mughal Empire. These European chronicles, travelogues, reminiscences and even official reports largely describe life in these thriving cities, dominated by that misnomer known as Muslim culture. While ambassadors like Thomas Roe, describe the socio-political, economic and geographical details, lower-ranking officials, captains of ships, merchants, and missionaries add supplementary details. Overall, they reveal a rather comprehensive panorama of what Indian society had become under Mughal rule.

Heart of Darkness

IN THIS ESSAY, we consider just one pixel from this panorama and see what it divulges to us. This is the selfsame, sprawling liquor industry.

But the European side of these chronicles should also be weighed uniformly because they unwittingly, but clearly betray information about the sort of unvarnished scumbags that sailed on these occidental ships. The lowest ranking seamen and deck hands were dregs of their native societies. Their lifestyle included bawdy behavior, manic alcoholism, rampant whoring, deranged violence and street hooliganism. Their captains typically exhibited a willful blindness towards this criminality but stepped in to whip them into submission only when these excesses turned intolerably excessive. That is a polite way of saying, “this is beginning to hurt business.” The punishment had its genesis in money, not conscience. Joseph Conrad’s acclaimed Heart of Darkness is perhaps the most brutal but the most accurate depiction of this conscience-free colonial plunder whose inevitable accomplice was wanton mass murder.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A 17th Century Dutch Settlement in Bengal</p></div>

A 17th Century Dutch Settlement in Bengal

Muslim Society during Mughal Rule

The middle and upper echelons manning the European ships naturally interacted with their compatriots in the Muslim society of Mughal Empire. Their experience with this world made them want more of it.

Then there were the pious chroniclers as well. For much of its history, it was mandatory for every vessel of the East India Company to have a chaplain on board. Thus, a ship named Benjamin that sailed from Gravesend, England in the late seventeenth century, carried a chaplain named Ovington who travelled for a fair bit in Western India. The following is a slice of a slice of his eyewitness account of the typical behavior of the upper-class Muslim society of the Mughal period:

…the Mahometan Principles indulge an extraordinary Liberty [in the matters of] Women, [they] strictly prohibit the tasting of…Liquor. The Moors [Muslims] here, as in other Kingdoms, practise the Use of Concubines, according as their Fortunes and Abilities can reach… they fancy not only an impunity to themselves, but something of Merit, by propagating the number and increase of the Faithful… In the Families of Men of Fortune and Estates, some,…NOTWITHSTANDING THEIR PROPHET, THRO’ WHOSE PROHIBITION THEY ARE RESTRAIN’D FROM WINE, WILL YET PRIVATELY BE AS LICENTIOUS THEREIN…AND MANY OF THEM TAKE THE LIBERTY OF MIXING DUTRA [DATTURA] AND WATER TOGETHER TO DRINK, WITHOUT ANY PRIVACY OR FEAR, WHICH WILL INTOXICATE ALMOST TO MADNESS, when they gulp it freely; and this sometimes puts them beyond their Native tender Deportment, and forces them upon suddain [sudden] Bold Attempts. ’Tis commonly observ’d concerning this Herb Dutra [Dattura], that whatever Humour [temperament or emotion] prevails in any person at the time of his drinking it to Excess, that Temper continues with him in the highest pitch, ’till the inebriating quality abates. If he is Melancholy, he is then rais’d to the utmost degree of Sadness; If Amorous, he is all Love and Flame…

When the European guests of these wealthy Muslim elites had their first taste of this depraved enjoyment, they found it similarly addictive and simply couldn’t get enough. They quaffed down generous draughts of this Dattura-induced poison and indulged in identical behaviour. The pious chaplain writes in an alarmed but restrained tone:

The English and other Europeans sometimes in their pleasant Frolicks, are pleased to divert themselves with these gay Humours and strange Actions, by taking a cheerful [cheerful] Draught or two of this Liquor.

But this drink stood no chance before the mother of them all: the fabled Bengali Arrack (spelled in the primary sources as Arak, Arac), the absolute monarch of liquor in the Mughal Empire. Its Goan cousin stood on a slightly lower rung on the ladder that led to arrack suzerainty.

Bengali Arrack and Bouleponge

The aforementioned European travellers including Ovington describe how Bengali arrack was made: it was distilled from rice, and sometimes from toddy, “the juice of a tree.” But there was a more potent variant of the Bengali arrack. This was a compound-liquor made by distilling black sugar mixed with water. Large chunks of the bark of the Babul tree were then added to this liquid and stirred continuously before it was finally distilled. It was known locally as Jagrey Arak (Jaggery Arrack). This formidable potion was drunk by Europeans in the quantity of what is today known as a “shot.” And they were permanently hooked.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>East India Company Factory, Surat</p></div>

East India Company Factory, Surat

Indeed, Bengali arrack captured the European imagination like a tsunami and they began making creative experiments with it. An august variety of innovative and new brews burst on the scene in a rather short span. The indisputable leader of these brews was something known as Bouleponge, a head-spinning concoction composed of Bengali arrack, molasses, and nutmeg mixed with lemon juice and water. The drink Bouleponge is the Dutch word for Punch (as in Rum Punch). The word actually signified a utensil in which this vinous liquid was brewed and the drink was named after the utensil. Interestingly, Bowle is still the German word for Punch.

Bernier on Bouleponge

In the latter half of the seventeenth century, the famed French traveler and physician Bernier witnessed the devastation that Bouleponge had wreaked in Balasore and its surrounding regions in Bengal.

The second Anglo-Dutch war had erupted in Europe and its consequence in Bengal was the complete halt of both Dutch and British fleets in the Bay of Bengal. Their respective crews dived into barrels of Bouleponge and began to die like flies. When the war was over after a year, the dismayed captains of the ships found that they were “unable to put their vessels to sea.” There was simply not enough crew strength. And so, the captains were forced to whip them into obedience by passing the following strict orders:

  • Crew members should henceforth drink less Punch/Bouleponge

  • A blanket ban on visiting whorehouses, which had resulted in a calamitous outbreak of venereal diseases

  • Complete prohibition on getting daily supplies of Indian tobacco from local dealers

  • Total clampdown on drinking Bengali arac

Bernier declares his verdict on Bouleponge: “ it is pleasant enough to the taste, but most hurtful to body and health.”

Despite this, the Bengali arrack maintained its awesome reputation for almost more than half a millennium thanks again to the sprawling alcohol addiction of the Sultans and their Subedars and Manasbadars and Amirs and other nobles.


The next drink in line judged in terms of its popularity and potency was the ubiquitous toddy. In Ovington’s words, this is the “Palm-tree Juice, which the Moors as well as Europeans drink plentifully.” He testifies to its power as follows: “it is so strong that that it turns the Brain immediately.” He also expresses some compassion for the European sailors who have no option but to drink it because “no Malt drink is made in India.” In the same breath, Ovington sketches a rather unflattering and coarse picture of what toddy did to these low-rung European sailors:

Several Europeans pay [with] their Lives for their immoderate Draughts, and too frankly Carousing these chearful [cheerful] Liquors, with which when once they are inflam’d, it renders them so restless and unruly that… they fancy no place can prove too cool, and so throw themselves upon the ground, where they sleep all Night in the open Fields, and this commonly produces a Flux, of which a multitude die.

Flux was the word for diarrhoea or dysentery.

Closing Notes

CLEARLY, THE FOREGOING NARRATIVE unravelled itself when we examined just one pixel—liquor, from the sweeping historical panorama of the seventeenth-century Mughal Empire and European trading forays into India. It is simultaneously an unravelling and a revelation.

On the Indian side, it is a sure testimony to the historical truth that the Mughal Empire was primarily a force for India’s destruction and for the disintegration of its society spread over an incredibly large geography.

On the European side, it unambiguously demonstrates the semi-barbaric and unscrupulous character of the people, a race of genocidal plunderers, who eventually began to define and teach us civilisation, culture, manners, and even the proper method of eating food.


In a future essay, we will pick up another pixel from the same or a different era and see what stories it can tell us and what lessons we can imbibe from it.

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