Trade in Medieval Bengal

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. 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.

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.

The export of surplus rice continued under the Mughals and actually it increased. 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. 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.

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.

Till the middle of the 16th century, Satgaon was the most important port. 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’.

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.

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.

The articles imported by the Portuguese 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.

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.

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’.

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.

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.

Src: Excerpts from Banglapedia

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