It is difficult to separate trade and politics in India. This is one association that has remained intriguing with people constantly searching for answers on where, when did it evolve and which of the two benefit the most. Books on their link make for interesting reading.
Radhika Seshan’s Trade and Politics on the Coromandel Coast — Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries belongs to this category. It is a book for those who while reading history look for stories beyond those about conquests, rise and fall of kingdoms, valour and vanity.
An account of trade, traders and trading, the book, which the author describes as a “fairly extensive version of a doctoral thesis” that she submitted many years ago, is an attempt to portray issues of the time and the response of the people to the changes. A serious reading material, the book, provides interesting insights into the way the trade influenced the powers that be and shaped the course of the country’s history.
The book raises various questions that need to be asked, the author says in the introduction titled ‘The Time has Come’. These range from what the trading world of the south India merchant was like, to what extent did it continue to include the Bay of Bengal littoral as a whole in the 17th century, what was the hinterland within which they operated, what were the networks…? What changed in all this, and to what extent, in the course of the 17th century?
“The 18th century has traditionally been seen as the century of changes — in economic terms, in the idea of the decline of prosperity, in political terms, of course, in the decline of the Mughals, the Anglo-French rivalry and the final success of the British; and in social terms, especially with regard to the Permanent Settlement and its impact.”
In the process of highlighting the developments, the book also contests preconceptions, especially the one that portrays Indians as being unconcerned with the material world and preoccupied with matters concerning only spiritual/metaphysical/philosophical. Not only did the people trade, but were also enterprising. The book presents the Coromandel, from the time when it was renowned mainly for cotton cloth to it becoming the centre for the world’s famous silks. It takes us through different reigns, the growing foreign influence and amid these the role of the traders.
Many of the decisions, including those that laid the foundations of modern day cities, were connected to the interests of trade, signifying the association. “Issues of productivity, whether of trade or artisanal production or peasant production were of equal importance to both traders and ruling class, for these were the sources of income. For the state, it may have been termed revenue, and for the merchant, profit — but the bottom line is that it was income. Both the groups would undoubtedly have been interested in, at the very least, maintaining the level of income, if not increasing it.”
The real change in the form of closer ties between trade and politics came with Europeans. They did come as traders, but in the Indian context, found it increasingly difficult to function without a political hold. Spices, and textiles were the key drivers of trade initially and India, due to its pivot position between Africa and South East Asia could not be ignored. The Asian trading world came to be essentially centred around India.
The book traces the strategies adopted by the Portugese, the Dutch and the English, starting with their emphasis on setting up “factories” along the coast of India. “These factories had, of course, nothing to do with modern factories, being merely warehouses for the goods that were collected prior to being shipped to Europe.” What makes for interesting reading is the survival instinct of the traders, amid the growing political turbulence, frequent wars between the rulers, greater instability, and competition among various companies.
Apart from traders, some of whom not only made it big in business but also occupied positions of influence in the society the life of the working class, such as weavers and dhobis, how the Indian economy was linked to the world market have been discussed in the book.
While discussing the 17th century, the author says: “Much more than earlier, the Indian economy was tied into world market conditions, and so was susceptible to its fluctuations.” While discussing a plethora of issues, the book throws considerable light on the genesis of present day Madras.
TRADE AND POLITICS ON THE COROMANDEL COAST — 17th and Early 18th Centuries: Radhika Seshan; Primus Books, Virat Bhavan, Mukherjee Nagar Commercial Complex, Delhi-110009. Rs. 695.