SHORES WITHOUT END
Indian subcontinent attracted merchants from both within and
without the old Indian Ocean trade network. The VOC
exchanged silver and gold here for silks, textiles, and pepper.
Trading posts were established in the Bay of Bengal (Hooghly),
including the Coromandel Coast (Pulicat, Nagapattinam, and
further on the Malabar Coast (Cochin), the Konkan and in Gujurat
(Surat). Consequently, in each coastal region of India, detailed
records of social, political, and economic dealings were kept.
Surat, the Mughal port to the Indian Ocean
centre of the Mughal Empire's authority lay in Delhi, deep
in India's interior. Its outlets to the sea were Bengal in
the east and Gujurat in the west. The Province of Gujarat
was a bright jewel in the Mughal crown. Its major port, Surat,
represented an enormous source of wealth for Akbar and his
successors on the Mughal throne. In order to enjoy trading
rights, the European trading companies had to make large tributary
payments to the Mughal emperors on a regular basis. Throughout
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the ports at Surat,
Ahmadabad, Cambay, and Broach were crucial connections within
the Arabian seas and important markets for oxidental and oriental
goods. Here the westerners bartered European, African, and
Japanese luxury goods for indigo, sugar, textiles and other
goods from Gujarat and the interior. Beautiful and seemingly
endless Sindhi textiles and other luxury exports were in demand
in Iran, Basra and Hormuz, and elsewhere throughout the Indian
Ocean trade network.
The great maritime centre of Surat harboured an important
merchant community. Their wealth was enormous, and some individual
traders possessed as many as fifty ships. Others were engaged
in high finance, extending credit to overseas enterprises.
No surprise, then, that Surat became the centre of English
and Dutch operations in the Arabian Seas region. From there
the westerners expanded their interest to Bombay and further
down the west coast, in Konkan and north Kanara, where the
four ports of Chaul, Dabhol, Goa and Bhatkal served the needs
of the Adil Shahi kingkom of Bijapur and the Nizam Shahi kingdom
of Ahmadnagar. The growth or decline of these and other ports'
fortunes (Calicut) was closely connected to European presence,
as English and VOC factory records
from Surat, Bombay and Vingurla reveal.
was the prime product of western India's Malabar Coast during
the early seventeenth century. It was also the backbone of
the Portuguese Asian spice trade. The fall of Portuguese Cochin
to the Dutch in 1663 was a heavy blow to the Indo-Portuguese
spice trade. But for the VOC , Cochin
never became profitable, despite the conclusion of several
pepper contracts with local princes and the equipping of cruisers
to combat smuggling by sea.
Inheriting Portugal's pepper contract also meant inheriting
its place among old rivalries on the Malabar Coast. The Dutch,
following the example of the Portuguese Estado da India, became
involved in the affairs of the Rajas of Cochin and Travancore
and other Malabar princes. Costly wars on the Malabar Coast,
such as the 1701 engagement with the Raja of Cochin against
the Zamorin of Calicut and his allies, adversely affected
VOC activities in the region. The
Raja of Travancore finally put a stop to Dutch ambitions by
soundly defeating the VOC , the Rani
of Elayadathu Swaroopam, and their armies at Colachel in 1741.
The VOC survived in a reduced capacity
on the Malabar Coast until the British finally took possession
of Cochin in 1795.
Historians of Malabar India have archival records
from the VOC 's 200-year presence
in Cochin and its eight outposts at their disposal. The seldom-used
VOC sources at the Tamil Nadu Archives
in Chennai provide valuable insights into the social and political
history of Kerala, and the importance of maritime Malabar
for the Arabians Seas region.
Coromandel Coast had attracted western traders from Roman
times. Tamil maritime contacts with the Persians and Arabs
were even stronger. Arab merchants sailed to Southeast Asia
from the ports of Coromandel, carrying pearls, corals, arecanuts,
cardamom, silk and cotton textiles. When the Hindu kingdom
of Vijayanagara took over Tamil territory, maritime activities
with Southeast Asia (Melaka) increased even more.
The Europeans entered the scene at a time when the
Vijayanagar kingdom was in decline. This power vacuum allowed
the Dutch to negotiate with the Sultan of Golkonda and the
nayak or lesser lords directly. These lesser rulers then began
leasing entire villages to the VOC
. Indian princes traded with the Europeans, taxed them, and
employed their military prowess for their own ends, and in
turn the Indian villages produced both fine and staple goods
for VOC export. Pulicat became the
main centre of VOC activities on
the Coromandel coast. Bimlipatam, Jagannathapuram, Masulipatnam,
and Negapatnam were but a few of the other seventeenth-century
VOC settlements dotting India's eastern
seaboard. The records produced by these trading posts are
as valuable now as their textiles were then. Because of their
attention to detail and the bottom line, the expansive VOC
archives are indispensable for any village or regional history
of southern India.
The Bay of Bengal
Bay of Bengal was situated, both geographically and commercially,
at the heart of the vast intra-Asian trade network. Its trading
ports flourished by their South China Sea connections on the
one hand, and their Indian Ocean connections on the other.
Southeast Asian producers had long demanded quality Indian
textiles in return for their spices. Numerous Persian traders
frequented the Bay's ports in search for profits. As a distinct
trading zone with its specific cultural characteristics, the
Bay of Bengal was therefore of immense importance for any
European trading enterprise. To successfully develop its spice
trade in island Southeast Asia, the VOC
needed to participate along this essential axis of intra-Asian
trade, the Maluku - India connection.
Trade settlements along the Hooghly River and throughout
the Ganges Delta drew Asian and European traders to participate
in the trade in raw silk and textiles, saltpetre, opium and
slaves. In the 1630s the VOC began
opening trading posts along the Ganges, eventually centring
itself at Chinsura on the right bank of the Hooghly. With
no fewer than a dozen trading posts along the Ganges from
Agra to Patna, the VOC was the most
important foreign commercial presence in Bengal until the
British took over in the course of the eighteenth century.
Using VOC sources, Indian
historians have been able to reconstruct the trading complex
of Mughal Bengal. Bengal at times accounted for half of the
VOC cargo to Japan and much of the
total export to Europe. Bengal was the pre-eminent world exporter
of raw silk and textiles during the 17th century and an indispensable
importer of Japanese silver and Indonesian spices as well.
Largely unstudied, the VOC -Hooghly
records are of immense importance to improve our understanding
of the strategic importance of the Bay's trading and political