Eighteen months ago, H S Debnath, the deputy director of the Botanical Survey of India, stumbled upon rare volumes of intricate designs and weaving techniques while breaking open a locked cupboard – British locks no less, he adds. The find, he says, consists of two series of volumes, in sets of 18 and 12, dating back to 1866, titled, Textile Manufactures and Costumes of the People of India. Together, the volumes present nearly 2000 fabric designs, complete with their length, breadth, weight, place and price specifications, as well as detailed archival material on weaving patterns, techniques and processes, with a companion volume on natural dyes. The whole project reflects the British zeal for detailed study, possibly undertaken, Debnath says, as an administrative enterprise to map agrarian patterns and output in the wake of famines. How the volumes ended up in almirahs in the Industrial section of the Indian Museum in Calcutta, where the Botanical Survey has its offices, remains anybody’s guess.
Whatever the answer, Debnath’s find excited many. “Indian textiles had never been documented before, as it has traditionally been a father-to-son communication,” says Kasturi Gupta Menon, the honourary president of the Crafts Council of India. Menon feels that such documentation can find a practical application today, if the designs are taken to weavers to be revived. Debnath says that efforts are now underway to digitise the entire collection, and to see “if the material can be commercially applied, especially for the country’s ailing handloom sector”. Finds such as Debnath’s open up fascinating windows into an era when Indian textile products dominated the imagination and commerce of merchant traders from Central Asia and the Mediterranean to the remoter landscape of the Netherlands, bringing them to ports in the Deccan, Coromandel and Bengal.
Globalisation in India has today become synonymous with back offices and call centres. In such places, tens of thousands of young adults in the Subcontinent attend to employers and customers in Europe and the United States. But much as the West would like to believe that it invented globalisation by connecting businesses and offices throughout the world using technologically advanced communications systems, it is Southasia that has been a hub of global commerce for centuries. According to a 2003 World Bank study, Asia’s share of global trade from the 11th until the 18th century (the beginnings of the industrial revolution in England) stood at an average of 70 percent, with Southasia accounting for a major chunk. The paper goes on to assess that, in 1000 AD, Asia’s share of the world’s GDP was 70 percent, versus just nine percent for Western Europe.
On the misoom
History has seen multiple forms of globalisation. And whatever may fuel this process – cultural globalisation represented by blue jeans and rock bands, or economic globalisation by way of multinational trade – no race or nation has ever remained in complete isolation. If today it is the Internet that largely drives and facilitates globalisation, it was ships and the sea that did so in earlier days. If it is the Western world’s quest for cheap labour and skills that drives global commerce today, it was exotic products – pepper, cinnamon, silk, cotton and textured fabrics – for which Persian, Arab and Chinese merchants risked uncharted seas for two millennia.
India’s trade with the Roman and other civilisations, mainly in coveted spices and textiles, goes back to before the beginnings of the Christian era. While the spice trade is traditionally ascribed to the Malabar Coast, it was the ancient ports on the Subcontinent’s east coast, in Tamil Nadu and Bengal, that long constituted the hub for trade in rice and quality textiles, paid for in bullion. Ports at Tamluk (in modern-day West Bengal) and Chittagong (in modern-day Bangladesh) saw heavy maritime trade, attracting Phoenicians, Arabs, Persians and Chinese. Europeans did not enter the picture until the 15th century, and maritime trade was long controlled largely by the Arabs and Persians, who sailed to India to trade on the misoom, or monsoon winds. Thanks to Vasco da Gama the Portuguese were the first European settlers in India, and the first to trade directly with Western Europe. They built on their strength of having colonised much of the Malabar and, later, on their outposts in Bengal – in Hooghly – and Chittagong.
The Europeans were about to come en masse, however. The discovery of the sea route to India during the Renaissance period, via the Cape of Good Hope, prompted European merchants to undertake sea journeys to the Orient, in search of spices and textiles. During the course of setting out to join the global trade, they initiated the process of colonialism. Predating the colonial period, Hooghly trade, based on barter, is the oldest form of trade, interconnecting markets and the natural movement of goods and services. (Colonialism, on the other hand, denotes the expansion of economic power of a single country, which controls its trade globally through monopoly and by captive markets created through military might and suppression of national self-determination.) European outposts were established in Southasia from the 16th to the 18th centuries, primarily in Kerala, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Bengal. By the 17th century, the river port at Hooghly – the distributary of the Ganga en route to the Bay of Bengal – would become dominant. Ultimately, it would play a decisive role in the 18th and 19th centuries, when battle for control and supremacy amongst the foreign powers was ramped up in this area.
When the Europeans began to arrive in India, Saptagram, on the Hooghly-Saraswati River, was one of the busiest ports in the region. Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Moroccan scholar, wrote highly of the quality of the textiles and rice available in the area. Marco Polo, who never visited Bengal, nonetheless mentioned the commercial importance of Bengal cotton in his writings; as did the Venetian, Caesar de Fredericki, who did visit in 1567. Bengal’s emergence as a major centre for the global textiles trade was pushed by both inherent and external factors. The presence of well-established traditional weaving skills in the area was, naturally, critical.
Just as important, however, was geography. Saptagram’s strategic location on the Bay of Bengal allowed for sea routes to the Far East; down the coast, via Coromandel to Sri Lanka; and, by rounding Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari), to the Malabar Coast and then on to the Mediterranean. Its topography as a riverine delta made it possible to establish both sea and upstream river ports, the latter of which offered a route to Bengal’s northern hinterland – to the silk-production centre at Malda-Murshidabad-Cassimbazar areas and, on the eastern side, in present-day Bangladesh, to cotton- and muslin-producing areas. In turn, this connected maritime traders to India’s North and Northeast, providing an overland exit point to the borders of Nepal, Burma and China, and the ancient silk route of Central Asia.
Saptagram first emerged as the Subcontinent’s busiest inland harbour after the port at Tamluk silted up in the 9th century. Thereafter, it maintained this status until 1632, when the Saraswati River (which flowed out of the Hooghly at Triveni, a few miles up from Calcutta, joining it again a few miles downstream) began to dry up. As a direct consequence, European trading outposts around Saptagram shifted to the west bank of the Hooghly, in the process creating a line of settlements down the river. The district of Hooghly became the site for urban European settlements, as well as the first conglomerate – the East India Company. This district became the forerunner to Calcutta, the premier mercantile city east of the Suez, which served as the headquarters for the East India Company. All in all, this represented a major departure from the earlier form of trade, in which Arab, Chinese and European junks would come, load and, business concluded, be on their way, returning again when the winds turned favourable.
It was the Portuguese who introduced the word almirah to the Bengali lexicon, and also the potato and green chilly, which subsequently became staples of Bengali diet. They were the first settlers in Bandel, granted permission to build a settlement near Saptagram by Emperor Akbar in 1535. Under them, the Hooghly port, which had replaced Saptagram as the port of the local nawab in 1632, flourished rapidly. According to source material, Hooghly is the modern name given by the Portuguese for the region, supposedly derived from the then-prevailing Hogla.
An idea of the value of Portuguese trade in Bengal can be deduced from old records. Bengali historians calculate that Portuguese traders paid over 100,000 rupees every year as customs duties to the Mughals, at a rate of 2.5 percent on the value of goods exported and imported. In other words, the annual turnover of their trade in Bengal was around four million rupees – considerable for that time. This flourishing trade began to decline by the middle of the 17th century, however, following the attack on the Portuguese by the Mughal governor of Bengal at the time, Quasim Khan Jwini. He was acting on the instructions of Emperor Shah Jahan, who had come to regard the foreigners with disfavour due to a perception of political disorder in their settlements, as well as moral degeneration and risk of Portuguese piracy on the Bengal seas.
It was almost a century later that the Dutch and English arrived in Hooghly to set up their own outposts. The early years were difficult for these settlers, and it took time for independent merchant traders to make inroads. After all, like the Portuguese, some of these were considered no better than pirates by the local rulers. But the latter nonetheless enlisted their help in fighting local wars against political rivals, and rewarded them by providing firmans (royal decrees) that permitted trade, sometimes duty free. This then became the accepted business practice: the application for and granting of firmans for the right to trade and to establish a settlement; and, in response, the provision of expensive gifts or cash to the local ruler or nawab.
Conflicts arose when Mughal emperors, who then ruled much of what was India, issued their own firmans, thus inevitably angering local governors and satraps. Some rulers perceived their own trade as turning uncompetitive, because the English – in violation of their duty-free privileges, which covered only the export-import trade – extended the privilege to inland or domestic trade, where they quickly prospered at the cost of local merchants. This led to skirmishes between the English and the successive nawabs, forcing the English to shift base to the opposite bank of the Hooghly in 1651, to establish Calcutta in 1690 and subsequently fortify it. This, in turn, led to battle, as Siraj-ud-Daulah attacked the Calcutta settlement in 1756, the year of his ascension, on the grounds of unauthorised fortification of Fort William, illegal private trade and abuse of firmans by the company servants. He defeated the British, only to lose a year later, which put the whole of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa in British hands, paving the way for colonial rule.
Saptagram’s fame spread quickly. In 1591, a British merchant and traveller named Ralph Fitch brought London news of the exciting possibilities of Eastern commerce, which led to several merchant trading groups petitioning Queen Elizabeth for a royal charter to trade in the region. The charter was granted in 1600 and, with the establishment of what was to become the British East India Company in London, others followed.
The Dutch East India Company was set up by the Dutch government in 1602, at a time when Amsterdam was Europe’s commercial capital. Its initial infrastructure was constructed in 1651 at Golghat, also on the Hooghly. This was only an outpost, however. It was not until 1690 – the same year that Job Charnock founded Calcutta – that Golghat was converted into the larger, fortified settlement at Chinsurah, close to Chandernagore, where Dutch mansions survive to this day. A decade after the Dutch landed in Hooghly, the French East India Company was established, in 1664, by Louis XIV, on a firman given by Aurangzeb in 1666. The French town of Chandernagore was established later, when a French entrepreneur by the name of Duplessis landed there in 1673. Finally, Danish India found its corner in Serampore between 1755 and 1845, which the Danish called Frederiksnagore. Some of its elegance is still represented today by the beautifully maintained Serampore College on the riverside.
These settlements were miniaturised European countries in form, with their own administration and laws. Each settlement had a palatial residence, usually the governor’s or chief administrator’s; at least one church (in the process, attracting many converts); a school and college, residential buildings, warehouses and factories. For security, all of these were often enclosed within a fort. The important thing about these settlements was that they had become instrumental in the rise of local merchant families – men who founded their businesses by acting as agents for the French or the Danes, or as suppliers and intermediaries, or by way of contributing their own particular skills. Initially, the Danes depended on their ‘factors’, or agents, for the supply of silk and cotton fabrics, even sourcing merchandise from other European traders for export. Eventually, however, they began to buy their goods directly from producers. The incentives they offered to artisans and local producers of silk and cotton ultimately helped develop the industry across the entire region. This was in contrast to English trade practices, the sole objective of which was to destroy the quality of indigenous cotton and silk handloom and muslin, which had been the backbone of Bengal’s foreign trade since Roman times.
At that time, European trade was comprised of no fewer than 20 items: rice, oil, ghee, sugar, long paper, hemp, cordage, salt cloth, raw silk, silk fabrics, salt petre, opium, turmeric, ginghams, beeswax, cotton, lac, indigo and spice. But it was silk and cotton fabrics, in their basic and many-textured forms, that drove the trade. In 1734, M Dupleix, the director of the French East India Company’s Chandernagore settlement, exhorted local producers to produce as much textile as they could, saying that he would personally undertake the marketing of the fabrics. In addition to local produce, items from various other parts of India – for instance, calico, a cotton cloth produced in Kerala – was brought to Hooghly to be exported by European merchants; it was probably housed at a place called Kalighata, which may have given its name to Calcutta.
Bengal’s ascendance over the Coromandel Coast in maritime textile trade in the early 17th and 18th centuries was a result of the complexities of trade at the time. The Coromandel Coast (along present-day Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh) had been an important centre for the textile trade, especially for basic cottons, since the first century AD. As the story goes, independent Dutch merchants who were already trading in the East Indies by the 16th century were asked to pay for the spices they bought in Indian calico or textiles, rather than in silver. The desperate search for more spices beyond the Malabar Coast led the Dutch to the Spice Islands in the Far East, mainly Java and Sumatra, and it was only a matter of time before the English followed suit. In the Spice Islands, the Dutch discovered that Indian calicos were in great demand – again, even greater than silver. Hence, the hunt was on to procure calicos, cottons, textiles and fabrics, eventually accounting for as much as 40 percent of the Dutch Asian trade. Here, too, the English were of like mind.
Coromandel was the first choice for a base. But due to prevailing internecine wars and political instability in Cholamandalam, which later came to be called Madras, Hooghly became the focus of the Indian textile trade during the 17th century. At that time, Indian textiles were becoming increasingly fashionable in Europe. In 1690, raw-silk exports from Malda-Murshidabad received a major demand boost from Europe, imparting a fresh impetus to the trade. Bengal silks were gaining over Italian and Chinese silks (an incentive for which could have been the competitive price factor), and cotton was in great demand, especially Dhaka cotton and muslin. For a while, Southasian textiles were a globally booming business.
A ruined tradition
Hooghly’s run of prosperity and free trade did not to last long. Unlike the other European traders, the English merchants and the East India Company had a somewhat different agenda. While profitable trade was the common objective, defeating trade rivals became a major ambition for the English, who likely saw their wars in Europe being continued in the Subcontinent. The British East India Company aimed for monopoly over trade, cutting out its perceived rivals – not just other European traders, but Indian merchants as well. Historians assert that successful indigenous merchants brought as much bullion into the country as their European counterparts through textile exports. During the middle of the 18th century, this was said to account for around ten million rupees annually, nearly 40 percent more than what the other European traders were bringing in at the time. In the process, this trade contributed substantially to the coffers of Hooghly and the main silk-producing district of Murshidabad, from where the nawab ruled over Bengal.
Ironically, it was the proponents of free trade – the British East India Company merchants – who fought for trade monopolies, both in Southasia and at home. The Company restricted English traders from trading independently in India, and a licence issued by the Company was mandatory. Officials also prevented anyone but themselves from selling Indian wares in English markets, except on payment of crippling duties.
Skirmishes apart, the lure of significant trade revenue in Bengal were incentive enough for the British to harness military forces to defeat French ambitions in South India and Chandernagore. The Hooghly port was sacked, burned and looted, and Bengal conquered, all by 1757. This enabled the colonists to annex not just the Murshidabad coffer, one of the richest in the country, but eventually most of Southasia. It was only a matter of time before the Danes were pushed out, and the Dutch unable to compete militarily. The latter eventually conceded their trading rights in India for extensive and exclusive rights in the Spice Islands, leaving the British in sole possession of trade interests in the Subcontinent, with the exception of pockets at Pondicherry and Chandernagore, which became French territories sans political power.
The impact of the English victories on Bengal’s global trade was catastrophic. Post-1757; with increasing colonisation, the character of trade changed completely. By the turn of the 19th century, much of India was under the control of the East India Company, whose arbitrary administrative policies further tightened its grip over the economy and the resources now entirely under the disposal of the English.
From an exporting economy, India became an importing one. Once described by Karl Marx once as “the great workshop of cotton manufacture for the world”, weavers of muslin and cotton were forbidden to produce, with dire consequences to those who resisted. It is rumoured that their thumbs and forefingers were even cut off. With no one to market their products, thanks to British monopoly, the trade soon died out. Raw cotton was now sent out in vast quantities to feed mills in Manchester, at the insistence of the mill owners in newly industrialised England. The role of the East India Company became paramount, as it provided the emerging English working class with employment and a strengthened economy. In turn, the mass produce of the English mills was brought in by the Company to flood Indian markets, after paying only a nominal duty. This ultimately rendered the centuries-old skills uncompetitive, beggaring the artisans and indigenous merchants, devaluing local currency, giving birth to a class of local commission agents who would grow rich at no cost, and destroying the handloom sector forever. In the end, this succeeded in equating Southasia with ‘cheap’, instead of exotically expensive as it once was.
The hangover continues. Present-day globalisation offers nothing more exciting than outsourced businesses to so-called developing countries such as India, which once called the shots in world trade. If it was military might and political acumen that gave the British their empire. Today, it is America, in spite of its present economic lows, that controls the Internet technology that powers e-commerce, and the registrations and patents of most major inventions of recent times, be they by Europeans, Indians, Chinese or Japanese.
History does repeat itself, and though it may be some time before Southasian trade can again hope to reach the previous levels, there is much to be gained in revisiting the past. Although there were attempts to revive the old skills in the handloom sector after Independence, it never did manage to reach its former heights by way of quality or design. Of course, these attempts have not been helped by mill-produced cloth and synthetic fabrics. H S Debnath is, however, optimistic. In the West, he says, there is a fresh interest in Indian textiles. The patterns and designs that his recent discovery provides, particularly those parts relating to natural dyes, have tremendous market value today, he adds, as Western countries are shying away from chemicals and are looking for alternatives. Debnath’s volumes on the Indian textile trade might well set the wheel turning again.
~ Madhumita Bose is a freelance journalist in Calcutta