Om Prakash*

The existence of an extensive and sophisticated network of maritime trade in Asia before the arrival of the Europeans at the end of the fifteenth century is well-known. Traditionally, what one could perhaps describe as trade along the "great arc of Asian Trade" embraced the Persian Gulf in the northwest of the arc and Japan in the northeast. The principal natural divisions of the huge area traversed were the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. A considerable amount of trade would seem to have been carried on within, as well as across these divisions. By far the longest distance was covered by the route that connected the port of Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea to that of Canton in the South China Sea. There is evidence to suggest that this route was in regular use from at least the seventh century on. The principal group which had initiated trade on this route was that of the Persian merchants. From about the ninth century, however, this group was supplanted, by and large, by Arab merchants. It would seem that sometime during the twelfth century, Chinese junks also began operating on this route. There is evidence that the Chinese merchants established commercial contacts with places such as Ceylon, Quilon on the Malabar coast, and with Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. The Chinese participation on the route would appear to have reached important levels by the early years of the fifteenth century. Between 1404 and 1433, a series of six commercial-cum-naval expeditions were despatched from China under the command of Admiral Cheng Ho. But in 1433, the Chinese authorities abruptly withdrew from these ventures and there is no record of these long distance voyages ever having been resumed. The precise circumstances behind this development are not quite clear, but it would seem that the depredations of pirates infesting the China Sea and the criticism that the profit earned was not sufficiently attractive contributed to the decision of the Chinese authorities. In the meantime, the Arabs had also gradually pulled out of this long-distance route.

Whatever the reasons behind the Chinese and the Arab withdrawal from long distance trade, it signalled a basic alteration in the organizational structure of the Asian trading network. The new structure was based on the segmentation of the great arc of Asian trade into the three divisions mentioned earlier - the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. The ports of Cambay/Calicut and Malacca which had until then served essentially as victualling and stopping points on the long route between the Middle East and China now became terminal ports. The Arabs, the Persians and the Turks and so on now restricted their operations to crossing the Arabian Sea to Cambay/Calicut, while the Chinese similarly stopped sailing west of Malacca. The intermediate zone from the western and the eastern coast of India across the Bay of Bengal to Malacca was now overwhelmingly dominated by Indian merchants, by far the most important group amongst whom was that of the Gujarati merchants. The role in this framework of emporia ports providing an assured market in both goods brought in, as well as those sought after by the visiting ships, besides offering facilities such as anchorage, warehousing and banking, cannot be over-emphasized. Perhaps the most important of such emporia ports was that of Malacca, which during the course of the fifteenth century became a truly major centre of international exchange and a meeting point of traders from the East and West.

To what extent was this structure of trade modified by the arrival of the Portuguese in Asian waters at the close of the fifteenth century? At one level, the change was quite profound. For the first time in the history of Asian trade, the unfettered and absolute freedom of navigation on the high seas was compromised by the Portuguese practice of requiring Asian vessels to obtain their permission before sailing, in the form of a document called the cartaz. This document required the vessel to call at Portuguese controlled ports and to refrain from trading in particular commodities declared as monopoly goods by the Portuguese. The critical element that enabled the Portuguese to do this was the almost total absence of naval capability with the Asian princes and potentates of the period. While at an institutional level, this clearly was a development of major importance, one should hasten to add that the distorting effects of this innovation in reorienting the direction of Asian merchants' trade or reducing its overall volume were by no means of great significance.

The other point that needs to be made in relation to the Portuguese is that it is not always realized that in addition to their Euro-Asian trade, the Portuguese also carried on a fairly large amount of trade within Asia. Indeed, beginning as early as the period of Afonso de Albuquerque (1509-1515), the intra-Asian trade of the Portuguese was considerably larger in value and substantially more lucrative than the trade between Goa and Lisbon. Luís Filipe F. R. Thomaz has pointed out that even in respect of an item such as cloves, of the total amount bought by the crown factors, less than a third found its way to Lisbon, the rest being sold in places such as China, Burma, Indonesia, India and Persia. 1It is, however, important to emphasize that the extensive Portuguese network of intra-Asian trade grew essentially along the lines defined by the pre-existent commercial network. Indeed, the initial decades of Portuguese participation in intra-Asian trade were marked by a remarkable degree of cooperation and collaboration between the agents of the Portuguese crown and the Indian Keling merchants settled at Malacca. The duration of the crown participation in intra-Asian trade was comparatively brief. From the second half of the sixteenth century on, the involvement of the crown in Asian trade was confined essentially to the grant of benefit as reward for services rendered. Thus was born the so-called system of concession voyages. A 'concession' conferred on the grantee the right to make a voyage between two points between the Indian Ocean and/or the China Sea, in his own shipping. It was under the aegis of this system that the 'Great Ship of Amacon', made famous by Charles Boxer, made its annual trip from Goa to Malacca and on to Nagasaki via Macao. It is worth noting that the 'Great Ship' had restored, in however small a measure, the tradition of long-distance Asian maritime trade traversing all the three segments of the great arc of Asian trade. Quite apart from the concession system, individual Portuguese merchants also carried on a substantial amount of trade both under the control and patronage of the Estado and outside of it. The former category included officials of the Estado such as the Viceroy, clergymen, the Casados moradores (married settlers) and others. The group carrying on its trade outside the jurisdiction of the Estado was derisively referred to as Chatins.

The European participation in Asian trade was increased substantially from the beginning of the seventeenth century on when the Dutch and the English East India Companies made their appearance on the Asian scene. The English East India Company's own involvement in intra-Asian trade was minimal. However, employees of the Company as well as other private Englishmen did participate in intra-Asian trade in their individual capacity. In the course of time, such participation became quantitatively very impressive. After the emergence of the Company as a political power in Bengal in the second half of the eighteenth century, the volume of intra-Asian trade carried on by private Englishmen from the port of Calcutta registered a particularly rapid growth. Like the English Company, the French East India Company, which effectively started operating in Asia only in the closing decades of the seventeenth century, also by and large kept out of intra-Asian trade. The volume of trade carried on by private Frenchmen within Asia would also seem to have been comparatively limited.

The situation, however, was quite different in respect of the Dutch East India Company. Participation in intra-Asian trade was an integral part of the overall trading strategy of the Dutch Company and by about 1630, the Company had become a major trading entity along practically the entire length of the great arc of Asian trade. In addition to being highly profitable, intra-Asian trade provided the Company with a substantial part of the total amount of precious metals it needed to finance the procurement of the return cargo for Holland. Indeed, in 1648, the Directors of the Company described their intra-Asian trade as the "soul of the Company which must be looked after carefully because if the soul decays, the entire body would be destroyed". 2.Note that over the entire period between 1500 and 1800, the Dutch East India Company was the only European trading body to engage in intra-Asian trade as an integral part of its overall trading operations. The Portuguese crown was the only other body to have participated in Asian trade in its official capacity but, as we have already seen, that participation was rather marginal both in terms of the time period over which it lasted and the scale on which it was carried out.

As far as the trade carried on for the personal account of individual Dutchmen was concerned, the employees of the Company could do that only clandestinely since the Company never allowed them to do so legally.That, of course, did not necessarily mean that the volume of the trade carried on by these individuals was insignificant. In fact, in commodities particularly suited to clandestine trade meeting the dual requirement of high value and low bulk, the scale of operation could indeed be very large. One such commodity was Bihar opium smuggled into Batavia. In addition to the Company servants engaged in clandestine intra-Asian trade, there was also the category of the so called 'vry burgers' or free citizens who carried on their trade with Asia legally within a framework of rules and regulations prescribed in this behalf by the Company.

It will thus be seen that over the period 1500-1800, European participation in intra-Asian maritime trade both at the level of the European trading companies as well as private individuals was by no means insignificant. What did such participation entail for the overall volume and value of this trade over time? What was the precise scale of the trading activities of the different components of the European trading interests operating in the area? More importantly, was the growth in the European merchants trade in Asia a net growth or was it at least in part a diversion from the trade carried on earlier by the Asian merchants? These are questions to which we are only now beginning to get the answers. A lot more research needs to be done before anything resembling definitive statements could be made in this regard. Ideally, what one would need is a reconstruction of the actual trade flows along different branches of trade in Asia on the account of various European as well as Asian merchant groups. To what extent is such a reconstruction possible? While it would seem impossible to achieve this on a systematic basis for all the various groups involved, one could perhaps hope for a fair measure of success in respect of at least some of the major groups. Let us look at the European trading groups first. As we noted above, by far the most important of these groups in terms of the volume and value of trade carried on was the Dutch East India Company. Fortunately the trade flows on the account of this Company can be reconstructed almost in full. This is because its documentation preserved at the Algemeen Rijksarchief, The Hague, is peculiarly suited for such a reconstruction. The Asian trading operations of the Company were coordinated from the Eastern Headquarters of the Company at Batavia. The Governor-General and council at Batavia carried on an extensive correspondence with the chief of each of the regional factories all over Asia. As pointed out above, these factories covered the entire length of the great arc of Asian trade beginning with Persia, covering Gujarat and Malabar on the west coast of India, Ceylon, both the western and the eastern littoral of the bay of Bengal, Malaya, the Indonesian archipelago, Taiwan, and finally Japan. The letters and the enclosures to the letters originating at these factories permit a complete view of both the bilateral as well as the multilateral trade carried on from each of the factories. The invoices of the shipments originating at the ports under the jurisdiction of the relevant chief factory are available in the letters from those factories. The letters originating in the factories which received the cargoes facilitate a cross check of the information collected. While in respect of volume a reconstruction of trade originating at each of the Asian ports covered by the Dutch Company network is feasible almost in full, the same is possible only partially as far as the value of the trade carried on is concerned. This is because many of the invoices contained only physical quantities and not the corresponding value figures. Also, in the case of some of the invoices, the regional breakdown of the cargo sent to Batavia is not available. But these problems notwithstanding, a reasonably complete reconstruction of the trade flows on the account of the Company would seem perfectly feasible.

"The City of Batavia in the island of Java and capital of all the Dutch Factories and settlements in the East India", I. van Ryne, c. de 1655.

The documentation of the Company also contains a certain amount of information on the trade carried on clandestinely by its own servants as well as that carried on legitimately by the 'vry burgers'. The servants used the Company's shipping space without permission besides competing with it in many of the Asian markets. In particular commodities such as opium, this competition often assumed alarming proportions. The senior officials of the Company recorded that the value of opium smuggled in by its servants into Batavia was always large: in an unusually bountiful year such as 1676, the servants managed to smuggle in as much as 140,000 pounds, which was several times the amount imported on the account of the Company. The Company, therefore, kept a sharp eye on this clandestine trade leading to the creation of a set of documents dealing exclusively with this trade. One such document contains a graphic description of the organizational structure of this clandestine trade as carried on from Bengal. 3 In the year 1679, Director Jacob Verburg had founded in the name of his wife a' small company' with the specific purpose of carrying on private trade. To facilitate its operations, two of the shareholders in the 'company' - both nephews of Verburg's wife - were appointed to the key posts of the directorate's fiscal (the law-enforcement officer) and the Hugli factory's warehouse officer, respectively. A rough idea of the magnitude of the profit earned could probably be formed from the fact that at Verburg's death in 1681, his wife carried with her to Holland a fortune running to £600,000. Even the warehouse officer had managed to save a sum of £150,000 over a period of three and a half to four years. This kind of information enables one to form a fairly detailed idea of the range and the scale of the clandestine trade. But what this information does not provide is a detailed quantitative profile of the trade along the lines of the Company's own trade. That must await the possible discovery of private papers of some of the important members of this trading group.

As far as the trade by the 'vry burgers' is concerned, the Company's documents provide two kinds of information. One of these pertains mainly to the rules and regulations prescribed by the company within the framework of which the 'vry burgers' were obliged to operate. The other kind, which enables one to form a broad idea of the composition and the direction of these merchants' trade as well as some idea of the value of trade carried on, is contained in the 'shipping lists' in the documents, to which a reference will be made later.

When one passes from the Dutch, both the Company as well as the private traders, to the other European trading groups - the Portuguese, the English, the French, the Danish and so on, the situation with regard to the availability of the necessary data base is somewhat less satisfactory. The English Company documentation is quite extensive, but since the Company itself did not engage in intra-Asian trade to any significant extent, the usefulness of this documentation for our present purposes consists essentially of the light it throws on the trade of the private English traders, who included the servants of the Company engaged in private trade legally unlike their Dutch counterparts. Quite often, this information enables one to follow the career of some of the more important of these merchants in fairly great detail. Over the last quarter of the seventeenth century, two such merchants operating from the Coromandel coast were Richard Mohun and Robert Freeman. Mohun was the head of the Company's factory at Masulipatnam and was engaged in extensive private trade between Masulipatnam and Acheh. In 1679, he was dismissed from the Company's service for misusing Company funds for private trade, taking commission on goods bought on the account of the Company and so on. But curiously enough, soon thereafter he was allowed to reenter the service of the Company at Madras in the capacity of the head of the Mint. This was done without the approval of London who ordered his dismissal once again when the matter came to their attention. Mohun then left Coromandel and settled down in Acheh, which is where he eventually died. Robert Freeman was also the head of the factory at Masulipatnam and carried on a considerable amount of trade from this port with Acheh and Pegu, in addition to a certain amount of coastal trade in rice. The Company documentation on the private English traders, however, is generally quite weak on quantitative data and it is only occasionally that one can form a sense of the volume and value of trade carried on by these merchants. Robert Freeman is one such case where we know that he owned the Prospect and several other ships. The value of the cargo carried by the Prospect in one trip was put at above 10,000 pagodas. 4

In addition to the European traders, there was the numerically much larger group of Asian merchants of various nationalities engaged in Asian trade. What is the data base on the trading activities of this large and highly variegated group like? Ideally, one would like to have sources such as merchants' account-books, customs house registers and material of that kind. But practically nothing of this kind is known to have survived and one is obliged to fall back once again upon the European Company documentation. Unfortunately, that source is not particularly helpful either save for one major exception. In the rest of this paper, I propose to discuss in some detail this particular source of information. This source is what I have elsewhere described as 'shipping lists' available in the documentation of the Dutch East India Company. These shipping lists are an extremely detailed record of ships arriving at and departing from a whole range of major Asian ports on the account of Asian as well as private European merchants engaged in Asian trade during the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. It might seem somewhat curious that this information should have been collected in such detail over a long period by the Dutch East India Company. But in a sense this was the logical outcome of the Company's enormous stakes in intra-Asian trade. It was vital that the Company kept abreast of what its competitors were doing. Batavia, therefore, had issued standing instructions to establishments all over Asia to complete information from the customs house registers of the ports in their area pertaining to the arrival and the departure of ships on the account of all its Asian and European competitors. The result was the compilation of a massive data-base dealing with the trade of these merchants over a long period of time. As we shall see presently, this data-base is marked by several important limitations. But that fact notwithstanding, there can be no doubt whatever that this is by far the most detailed account available in any language on the trading activities of Asian and private European merchants engaged in intra-Asian trade over the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. Holden Furber, the doyen of researchers in the field, was the first scholar to use these lists several decades ago. Since then, several scholars including myself have used these materials in their work, but there is still an enormous amount of information in these lists waiting to be tapped.

Canton, a view taken from the river, c.1655. From Nieuhoff's book Embassy of the Duch East India Company to the Grand Tarter Chan, 1668.

In order to understand the precise nature and the scope as well as the limitations of the information contained in the shipping lists, we shall take up as a sample the shipping lists pertaining to the ports of Hugli in Bengal and Balasore in Orissa, Dutch trade, both of which were under the jurisdiction of the Company's directorate of Bengal. These shipping lists were completed by the Dutch factors from the toll registers maintained by the Mughal officials of the two ports. The permission to copy from the registers had frequently to be obtained by bribing the concerned officials. The ships covered by the lists included those operated by the various groups of Asian merchants (including the Armenians) as well as those by European private traders - the English, the French, the Danish and the Portuguese. No lists are available for the period between the early 1630's when the Dutch first established a factory in Bengal and 1670. It is not quite clear whether this is because no such lists were prepared during this period or because they have not survived in the Company's documentation. The first list available pertains to the port of Balasore and covers the shipping arriving into the port in the year 1671. For the period until 1721, lists are also available in respect of ships coming into this port during 1682-1685, 1687, 1688, 1697-1701, 1704 and 1705. Available lists of ships departing from Balasore cover the years 1680-84, 1686, 1688, 1697-1702 and 1705. As for the port of Hugli, lists pertaining to ships arriving into the port are available for each year between 1697 and 1721 except for 1703 and 1714. Lists of outgoing vessels are available for the years 1696-1701, 1704-05, 1706, 1716, 1717-18 and 1719-21. 5

The lists contain information for each vessel listed, regarding the name and the type of the vessel, the port of origin/destination and the name of the merchant on whose account the ship was operating, together with the place of his domicile.

Since many of the merchants were also state officials, the office, if any, held by the merchant was also indicated. The lists also included the name of the nakhuda (captain) of the vessel which in some cases was the merchant himself. The name of the agent who might have equipped the ship on behalf of the merchant was also mentioned. Finally, the lists carried an itemized account of the cargo carried aboard the vessel.

The information pertaining to the cargo carried is clearly the most valuable, but at the same time the most problematic area of the entire information contained in the shipping lists. For one thing, the cargo information is not in value terms but only in terms of the quantity of each of the items carried. One is, therefore, obliged to work exclusively in terms of the volume of trade. Even there, one often runs into the problem of the use of a multiplicity of units such as packets, sacks and so on which it is extremely difficult to reduce to a uniform unit. In some extreme cases, the lists only itemize the cargo carried without indicating the physical quantities. What this effectively means is that while the cargo information is extremely useful in forming a precise idea of the composition of the trade and a broad idea of the volume of the trade to and from the port, the information is not precise enough to allow the construction of a time series regarding movements in trade between the port to which the list pertains on the one hand and its partner ports on the other.

A time series can, however, be constructed with reference to the movements in the number of ships to and from the port under reference, along each of the major routes covered. The absence of information regarding the tonnage of the ships operated will, of course introduce a margin of error in the series so constructed.

But the fact that the mix of the types of ships - big and small - operated on a particular route, by and large did not change very much over the period, the margin of error would probably still be within acceptable limits. One, however, needs to be very careful in deciding which of the available lists not to use for this purpose.

This is necessary, because while most of the lists do indeed cover the whole or at least most of the shipping season of the year to which they refer, some do not. In so far as they often contain other useful details, the incomplete lists should by no means be discarded, but they must not be included in the construction of a series since they would not be comparable to the others and their inclusion would vitiate the trends.

I have elsewhere analyzed the movements in trade from the ports of Hugli and Balasore with their major partner ports. 6 Here I would confine myself to a brief analysis of the ways in which the information available in the lists can be used to throw light on certain aspects of the structure of the trade of the Asian merchants as well as that of the European private traders engaged in Asian trade. In the first place, the information regarding the place of domicile of the merchants enables one to distinguish between the branches of trade dominated by merchants from within the region, from those which were controlled essentially by merchants from the partner ports. In the case of Bengal, it turned out that while the trade with southeast Asia, Ceylon and the Maldive islands was overwhelmingly in the hands of the Bengali merchants, that with the ports of Gujarat, the Malabar coast and the Coromandel coast was carried on overwhelmingly by merchants based at these ports. When put together on a larger scale, such information can be extremely helpful in tracing the rise and growth of merchant communities in different parts of Asia.

An analysis of the names of the merchants included in the lists can also provide interesting results. An examination of the names in the Bengal lists, for examples, reveal that of the merchants domiciled in Bengal and engaged in coastal and overseas trade of the region, a majority were immigrants from other regions. By far the most dominant group among the immigrants was that of the Gujarati Shahs who included such major figures as Chintamani Shah and Khemchand Shah. This would suggest that even in the branches of trade dominated by the "Bengali" merchants, the role of the indigenous element would have been important only up to a point.

The information regarding the office, if any, held by the merchant in the Mughal bureaucracy enables one to work out the relative role of the state officials in the overall rhythm of trade from a given region. In the case of Bengal, this turned out to be a fairly important role. More significantly, at the turn of the century, the movements in the shipping traffic handled by this group turned out to be very different from those observed in the case of the ordinary merchants engaged in trade from the region.

The information in the lists concerning the European merchants' trade occasionally also throws light on their relationship with their Asian counterparts. For example, we come across cases of collaboration between a European and a Bengali merchant in financing a voyage jointly. Occasionally, a European merchant used the services of an Indian agent for equipping and despatching ships on his behalf. Other forms that the collaboration took was to use each other's ships for freighting cargo, the use of a European flag by Indian merchants on the payment of a fee, and so on.

In conclusion, one could perhaps maintain that though the field of Asian maritime trade between 1500 and 1800 is still largely an uncharted one, one need not be unduly pessimistic about future possibilities. While there would perhaps continue to be large areas of darkness for want of suitable source material to work on, a more intensive utilization of the European documentation certainly holds good promise.


1. Luís Filipe F. R. Thomaz, "The Portuguese in the seas of the archipelago during the 16th Century", originally published in French in Archipel 18 (1979). Available in translation in Trade and Shipping in the Southern Seas, Selected Readings from Archipel (18) 1979, Paris 1984, pp. 75-91.

2. Letter from the Director of the Dutch East India Company to the Governor General and Council at Batavia, 22.9.1648, Algemeen Rijksarchief. The Hague, K. A. 455, f. 120 verso.

3. This document is available under number K. A. 4468 W48 (VOC 4704), Algemeen Rijksarchief. The Hague.

4. I am grateful to Søren Mentz for drawing my attention to these cases.

5. These lists are available in the Bengal papers of the Overgekomen Brieven en Papieren series in the Company's archives at the Algemeen Rijksarchief. The Hague.

6. See my "Asian Trade and European Impact: A study of the Trade from Bengal 1630-1720", in Blair B. King and M. N. Pearson, The Age of Partnership, Europeans in Asia Before Dominion, The University Press of Hawaii, 1979, pp. 43-70.

*Om Prakash is Professor of Economic History at the Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi. His doctoral thesis was published as The Dutch East India Company and the Economy of Delhi, 1630-1720, Princeton University Press, 1985. Professor Om Prakash has been a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University, the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, Heidelberg University and the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme (Paris). He has also taught at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

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