Monday, January 7, 2013

Trade and Commerce of Bengal Medieval Period

Medieval Period Bengal had a flourishing trade and commerce in the Medieval period. With the establishment of Muslim rule in Bengal, substantial quantities of treasure were imported in exchange for locally manufactured goods. There is evidence that as early as 1415, Chinese missions imported gold and silver into the region, in addition to satins, silks and porcelain. Another Chinese visitor observed a decade later that long-distance traders in Bengal settled their accounts with silvertankas.
The pattern continued throughout the next century. The Venetian traveller Caesar de Fredericki wrote in 1569 that the merchants from Pegu (Burma) brought to Bengal only 'silver and gold, and no other merchandise'. In fact, the monetisation of Bengal economy and its integration with markets throughout the Indian Ocean gave a strong stimulus to the delta's export-manufacturing sectors. Though at the dawn of the Muslim encounter in the tenth century, textiles were already prominent among locally manufactured goods, the volume and variety of textiles produced and exported increased dramatically after the conquest. In the late 13th century Marco Polo noted the commercial importance of Bengali cotton and in 1345 Ibn Batuta admired the fine Muslins of Bengal.
Cotton textiles and rice were Bengal's chief export commodities in the medieval period. In the late 16th century rice was exported from two principal seaports, Chittagong in the east and Satgaon in the west, throughout the Indian Ocean rim, to points as far west as Goa and as far east as the Moluccas in Southeast Asia. Ralph Fitch wrote in the 1580s that 'great store of cotton' was exported from Bengal as also rice 'wherewith they serve all India, Ceylon, Pegu, Malacca, Sumatra and many other places'. But the most impressive evidence in this regard comes from Pyrard de Laval, who, after visiting Chittagong around 1607, wrote that there is such a quantity of rice that, besides supplying the whole country, it is exported to all parts of India, as well as to Goa and Malabar, as to Sumatra, Moluccas, and all the islands of Sunda, to all of which lands Bengal is a nursing mother. The export of surplus rice continued under the Mughals and actually it increased. Manrique noted in 1629 that every year over a hundred vessels laden with rice and other foodstuff left Bengal ports for overseas export. However, the eastward export of rice declined from around the 1670s.
The production of cash crops, especially cotton and silk, flourished throughout the delta in the Mughal period. The most important centres of cotton production were located around Dhaka and along a corridor in western Bengal extending from Malda in the north through Kasimbazar to Hughli and Midnapur in the south. In 1586 ralph fitch remarked that in Sonargaon the best and the finest cloth was made of cotton which was the best in the whole of India. The Mughal connection also made Bengal a major producer for the imperial court's voracious appetite for luxury goods. This was especially so in the case of raw silk, the major centre of production of which was located in and around Kasimbazar.
Bengal's agricultural and manufacturing boom coincided not only with the consolidation of Mughal power in the province but also with the growth in overland and maritime trade that linked Bengal even more closely to the world economy. Earlier in the twilight years of the Sultanate, Portuguese merchants came into the Bay of Bengal and established trading stations in both Chittagong and Satgaon in the mid-1530s. In the last two decades of the sixteenth century during the Mughal push into the heart of the delta, the Portuguese established the major port of Hughli, built up their community in Chittagong, and established mercantile colonies in and around Dhaka. Although the Portuguese never replaced Asian merchants in Bengal's maritime trade as is often supposed, the appearance of European merchants in the 16th century certainly stimulated demand for Bengali manufactures, which served to accelerate local production of those goods.
Till the middle of the 16th century, Satgaon was the most important port. According to poet Mukundaram, it used to attract so much foreign trade that the merchants of Satgaon did not have to leave their town and could earn fortune just staying home as 'the outside world came to them' for trade. As the chief mart of Bengal, Satgaon attracted merchants from different parts of India and diverse other countries. It was the chief emporium of Portuguese trade since 1537, known as 'porto piqueno'. Even in 1569 Caesar de Fredericki found Satgaon 'a remarkable faire citie' from where every year thirty or thirty-five big and small ships, laden with diverse commodities, went to various places.
But the historic port of Satgaon began to decline mainly due to the silting of the river Saraswati that made navigation extremely difficult. Hence not only the Portuguese but the local traders too left Satgaon and settled in Hughli, which took the place of Satgaon as the principal port of Bengal and remained so till the middle of the 18th century. Even the inland trade was mostly diverted to Hughli, though Satgaon remained the royal port and the seat of the governor and the imperial customs house till 1632, when Hughli took its place officially as the royal port.
The Hughli port flourished with amazing rapidity under the portuguese. It soon rose to the position of the 'richest, the most flourishing and the most populous' of the various 'bandels' or trading ports in Bengal. It became the common emporium of trade where, as Fr John Cabral wrote in 1533, the vessels of India (Portuguese India), China, Malacca and Manila repaired in great numbers. He also mentioned that not only the 'natives of the country, but also Hindustanis, the Mogols, the Persians and the armenians came there to fetch goods'. Van Linschoten and Ralph Fitch noted Hughli's flourishing trade in the 1580s. The ain-i-akbari, completed in 1596-97, states that Hughli was a more important port than Satgaon.
A good idea of the extent, composition and direction of the Portuguese trade in Bengal can be gathered from Manrique, who was in Bengal during the hey-days of the Portuguese. The articles imported by them from 'southern India' (ie Sumatra, Borneo, Moluccas, etc) were a large amount of 'worked silks, such as brocades, brocatelles, cloth, velvets, damasks, satins, taffetas, muslins', etc. They also brought cloves, nutmegs and mace from Moluccas and Banda, and highly precious camphor from the Isles of Borneo. From the Maldive islands they imported cowris (sea shells) which were then current in Bengal as small currency, 'chanquo' or bigger shells from Tuticorin and the coast of Tinnevelley, pepper from Malabar and cinnamon from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). They also brought from China great quantities of porcelain, valuable pearls and jewels, many kinds of gift articles such as bedsteads, tables, boxes, chests, writing desks, etc. From the kingdom of 'Salor' and 'Timor' they imported great quantities of sandalwood, both red and white varieties, which in Bengal was a precious commodity.
The Potuguese exported from Bengal a wide variety of merchandise such as cotton goods, gingham made of grass, and silks of various shades as well as sugar, ghee, rice, indigo, long pepper, saltpetre, wax, lac and other articles which were abundant in Bengal. Rice formed one of the chief articles of Portuguese export to other parts of India and the East Indies. Pyrard de Laval observes that when the Bengal ships were behind their time or were lost in the sea, rice 'was fabulously dear and there is cry of famine' in Sumatra, Moluccas, etc.
A rough idea of the value of the Portuguese trade in Bengal could be formed from the fact that they paid over Rs 100,000 yearly as customs duties to the Mughals at the rate of 2.5 per cent on the value of goods exported and imported. In other words, the annual value of their trade in Bengal was around Rs 40 lakhs. So no doubt the Portuguese carried on a very lucrative trade in Bengal and almost monopolised the external as well as coastal trade, while in inland trade they were formidable competitors of the country merchants and other foreigners. But the golden days of the Portuguese trade in Bengal came to an end in 1632 when Shahjahan's governor Qasim Khan captured Hughli after inflicting a crushing defeat on them.
The english and the dutch East India Companies began their Bengal trade from around the middle of the 17th century with the establishment of their factories in Hughli. The french East India Company was founded later and began its operations only in the 1680s. Among other Europeans, the ostend company and the Danish Companies came to Bengal only in the early 18th century and their trade was on a very modest scale. In the early period the European attention focussed mainly on the spice trade and both the Dutch and English wanted to procure spice from the so-called Spice Islands in the eastern archipelago. The companies went to these islands to buy spices with silver obtained from the 'New World'. But to their utter astonishment, they found that it was not silver but cheap and coarse Indian calico that was in demand there. So they turned to India for textiles to exchange for spices in the Indonesian archipelago. First, their attention was drawn to the Coromandel Coast which produced large quantities of cheap and coarse textiles greatly in demand in the Spice Islands. But soon war, famine and political instability rendered the Coromandel trade risky, uncertain and expensive. So the companies eventually turned their attention to Bengal.
Bengal offered particular advantages to the companies. It was the largest producer of coarse and cheap calicoes - much cheaper and of better quality than others. Secondly, Bengal silk was a highly lucrative and profitable commodity for the companies as there was a growing demand for it in Europe, replacing Italian and Persian silk, because of its comparative cheapness and good quality. Moreover a third lucrative item for trade was saltpetre, highly in demand in Europe and which could also be profitably used as ballast for Europe-bound ships. So the Companies began their Bengal trade in right earnest.
It was from around the 1670s that the trade of the companies in Bengal became significant with a boost in the export of raw silk from Bengal. But it was actually the big boom in the export of Bengal textiles from around the early 1680s that revolutionised the pattern of the Asiatic trade of the companies. This was in fact in response to a revolution in the consumer taste in England and Europe where suddenly Indian textiles, especially the textiles from Bengal, had become the irresistible fashion and consequently there followed an unprecedented demand for Bengal textiles. As a result, Bengal became the most dominant partner in the Asiatic trade of the companies and from around the 1680s until the mid-eighteenth century, the Dutch and the English East India Companies played a significant role in Bengal's maritime and international trade. The French company played an important role only in the 1730s when Dupleix was in charge of the company in Bengal. The trade of other European companies was not at all significant compared to that of the Dutch and the English. It was, however, a different story after the battle of palashi (1757). The English company and its servants by virtue of their political and economic control over Bengal began to wipe out all other European and Asian rivals in the Bengal trade and tried to monopolise it for themselves.
The importance of Bengal in the Asiatic trade of the companies can be seen from the fact that Bengal's share in the average annual value of Asian commodities exported to Holland by the Dutch company was around 40 percent in the early eighteenth century. Again, more than 50 percent of the total value of Dutch textile exports from Asia was in the form of Bengal textiles. Thus Bengal became the most important theatre of the activities of the Dutch company not only in India but the whole of Asia. No different was the case with the English company. The English factors regarded Bengal as 'the flower of the Company's garden' and the 'choicest jewel'.
Between 1650 and 1720, the Dutch were much ahead of the English but thereafter the English trade in Bengal picked up and almost equalled the value of the Dutch exports, although the Dutch trade including the trade to their other Asian factories was still higher than that of the English. The English company's exports to Europe increased substantially from the early 1730s and picked up in the period 1740-45. However it declined marginally in the late 1740s and early 1750s, even though the decline was not very marked compared to the average annual value of the English exports from Bengal in the period from 1730 to 1755, which was around 440,000 Sterling Pounds or a little over Rs 3.5 million. It may be pointed out here that the decline in the English exports in the early 1750s was compensated by the increase in Dutch export in the same period, and as such, so far as Bengal's export trade to Europe as a whole is concerned, there was little noticeable change in the period 1750-55.
In the case of the Dutch, even though their exports to Europe began to decline in the 1720s, it picked up in the early 1730s. In fact the average annual value of Dutch exports to Europe increased steadily through the period from 1730 to 1755. The growth of the Dutch export to Europe was more remarkable in the early 1750s when the English trade declined marginally. The interesting point is that the Dutch trade that was much behind the English trading in the early 1730s nearly equalled the latter in the early 1750. However in this computation Dutch exports include the value of their exports to their settlements, which was on a steady decline from the 1730s. The average annual value of the Dutch export to Europe was around Rs 2.3 million, while the average annual value inclusive of exports to Asian markets stood around Rs 3 million in the first five years of the 1750s.
Here it should be noted that the export of Asian merchants from Bengal in the mid-18th century was much higher than that of the Europeans. The textile export by Asian merchants can be computed at around Rs 9 to 10 million a year while the total export of Bengal textiles by the Europeans did hardly exceed Rs 5 or 6 million. The Asian lead in silk exports is much more spectacular. While the total value of raw silk exported by Asian merchants is estimated at around Rs 5.5 million on an average from 1749 to 1753, and Rs 4.1 million from 1754 to 1758, the average annual value of the total European export of raw silk was only around Rs 0.98 million over the same period. In other words, the Asian share of silk exports from Bengal was 4 to 5 times more than the European share in the pre-Palashi period.
A significant fact in this connection is that all traders and merchants, European or Asian, had to bring in silver or cash to procure export commodities in Bengal. There is evidence that even as early as 1516 Bengali ships carrying local textiles to Burma brought mainly silver back to the delta. In the 1550s the Portuguese found themselves shipping so much treasure to Bengal that the value of the silver currency in Goa actually fluctuated with their sailing seasons to Malacca. Though the companies imported items like broadcloth and woollens as also metals like lead, iron and tin, the volume or value of these was extremely limited. The amount of treasure brought in by the companies can be gauged from the fact that the proportion of precious metals to the total value imported by the Dutch between 1650 and 1720 works out to be 87.5 percent. In the case of the English company this proportion was between 90 and 94 percent in the first two decades of the 18th century. The situation does not seem to have changed to any appreciable extent till Palashi. All the while, the overland import of silver by Asian merchants continued till the British conquest of Bengal.
However, the influx of bullion and specie stopped completely after Palashi when the English investments were financed by the resources of Bengal and the money acquired by the company and its servants through presents, gifts and perquisites. The trade of most of the other European companies shrank considerably after Palashi as the British pursued a policy of wiping out European and Asian rivals. Private British individuals who received bills of exchange in Europe now financed whatever of their trade was left. It should be emphasised here that, contrary to conventional knowledge, the Europeans were not the only importers of bullion, and for that matter, not the largest at that. The Asians whose exports from Bengal were much higher than those of the Europeans also had to bring in silver or cash to pay for their purchases. Hence it was they, and not the Europeans, who were the major importers of bullion to Bengal even in the mid-18th century. [Sushil Chaudhury]
Bibliography  S Chaudhury, Trade and Commercial Organisation in Bengal, 1650-1720,Calcutta, 1975; Om Prakash, The Dutch East India Company and the Economy of Bengal, 1620-1750, Princeton, 1985; S Chaudhury, From Prosperity to Decline - Bengal in the mid-Eighteenth Century, New Delhi, 1995; Om Prakash, European Commercial Enterprise in Pre-Colonial India, Cambridge, 1998; S Chaudhury & M Morineau (ed), Merchants, Companies and Trade - Europe and Asia in the Early Modern Era, Cambridge, 1999.
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