Sinnappah Arasaratnam*

The expansion of trade and traffic in the Indian Ocean in the course of the seventeenth century and the existence of a strong entrepreneurial class of merchants all over the Indian coastline were features of the commercial history of the region. A study of the activities of merchants in the southern Coromandel region in the second half of the seventeenth century brings out the characteristics of their role in state and society. These decades saw a quickening in the expansion of trade in this region, as in other parts of India, brought about by internal and external factors stimulating the exchange of goods across the ocean. During these years, European participation in trade reached great heights and peaked in the 1680's. It is the aim of this essay to look at some features of this trade flowing out of Coromandel, at the merchant groups which engaged in this trade and finally at the relationship between state, merchants and commerce in this region of India.

This central and south Coromandel coast was a dense region for seaborne trade carried out from a number of ports situated in the indigenous states of the area as well as from numerous European settlements that were growing during this period in their commercial activity. It therefore attracted a large merchant community composed of several castes and of diverse ethnic and linguistic origins who evolved various mechanisms to tap into the trade. These merchant groups were largely from the ports and the hinterland and had operated there for generations. There is also evidence of some migration into the area from the north and from the interior because of the enlarged opportunities for trade. The states of the region were conscious of the opportunities for trade and evolved policies to derive every advantage from it. These policies conform to the pattern of the political nature of commerce in India in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with some adjustments to the specific situation as it existed along this coast. Finally, the European Company states were evolving as political authorities in their enclaves and pursuing political policies to maximize their returns from this trade. There were thus a number of actors in the commercial scene in southeastern India in the second half of the seventeenth century.


By far the most important of these actors were the Indian merchants domiciled in the ports and hinterland districts of the coast. The Hindu merchants of the traditional commercial castes stood out among them numerically and in their territorial spread. Of the ship-owning merchants engaged in overseas voyages on their own behalf, the Telugu chetty castes should be considered the most prominent - komaties, balija chetties and beri chetties. They were from the Krishna-Godavari delta regions of Andhra but had long been settled in the central and southern districts of Chingleput, Arcot and Thanjavur, mainly in the larger ports and in market towns a few miles inland. As with other merchant communities of India, ship-owning and overseas trading was not for them a specialization to the exclusion of other forms of trade. Overseas trade was one of several avenues of commerce they followed and individuals and families moved in and out of these avenues as the situation demanded. These Telugu merchant castes had a remarkable mobility in the period we are studying and had a presence all along the entire Coromandel coast.

The Tamil chetty castes were domiciled in the Tamil-speaking areas of south Coromandel and particularly in Thanjavur, Madurai and Tinnevely. The most prominent of the ship-owners among them were naka-ratthar. There were some beri chetties who had been progressively Tamilised over a long residence in Tamil areas. Tamil ship-owning merchants operated from the ports of Devanampatnam, Cuddalore, Karikal, Nagapatnam and Adirampatnam. Their prime areas of influence were the kingdoms of Thajavur and Madura. They were not a very mobile people, being closely attached to their natal villages and seldom taking up residence in coastal ports, but choosing to operate their businesses through kinsmen or through paid agents of their and other Tamil castes. With them overseas trade was not a specialization, but pursued along with other commercial activities.

Ports of Coromandel (South of Penner River), 17th century.

The profession of trading, whether by sea or by land, was not exclusively caste-bound in South India in this period. There is evidence of a number of castes coming into inland trade and transiting to seaborne trade. There is an economic rationale for members of weaving castes saliyar, kaikolar, seniyar - taking to trade and to the owning and despatch of ships. Likewise cloth painters appeared to have done so and oil-mongers also moved into trade. Again, members of various agricultural castes moved into trade, from the prominent landowning vellalar and mudaliyar to idaiyar (shepherds), kanakapillani (account keepers) and ahamudaiyar. In the ports of the Bay of Madura, the paravar, a community that engaged in fishing, pearl diving and sailing,had emerged as seaborne merchants of some significance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They had taken advantage of their attachment to the Portuguese in the sixteenth century to carve out for themselves certain sectors of the seaborne trade of southern India. The expanding trade in these waters in the seventeenth century enabled them to extend their activities in the coastal and straits trade between India and Sri Lanka and participate in the growth of Tuticorin as a trading mart.

As in other parts of India, Muslim merchant communities of the south were prominent in overseas trade. South of the Penner river, a Tamil Muslim community, referred to in contemporary records as Chulias, controlled a large share of the long-distance and most of the coastal trade. They were descendants of Arab settler-merchants of the southern ports of Arcot and Thanjavur and of the Madura Bay. They had by now developed distinct Arabic-Tamil Islamic cultural characteristics that separated them from the Golconda Muslims of the north and Bijapur Muslims of the interior. In our period the two sub-groups, the Marakkayar and Lebbes, developed a speciality in overseas trade. The major ports for their fleets were Cuddalore, Porto Novo, Karikal, Nagore and Adirampatnam, and Kilkarai and Thondy in the Bay of Madura. In contrast to the Hindu merchant communities referred to above, the Chulias lived in urban settlements in the major ports which were the home of their shipping fleet. They gradually spread out into the major Southeast Asian ports with which they traded, establishing small colonies in these ports to facilitate the transaction of business in distant regions. 1

Two other communities of merchants could be considered as having become part of the Coromandel commercial scene in this period. The first of these were the Portuguese and Indo-Portuguese settled in Nagapatnam, Porto Novo and San Thome. After the conquest of Nagapatnam by the Dutch in 1658, they moved to Porto Novo and San Thome. San Thome fell to the king of Golconda in 1664 and the Portuguese colony moved largely to Madras, but a few continued at Porto Novo which had risen in the last quarter of the seventeenth century into a major port of the region. While most of the Portuguese colony were of meagre means and lived as tradesmen, artisans and labourers, there were a few substantial merchants and ship-owners among them. Those of Porto Novo appear to have been of this category and, when the French planted themselves at Pondichery, they operated from this port as well. 2 The second group were Armenians who moved, in the course of the seventeenth century, to the Coromandel ports of Masulipatnam, Madras and Porto Novo.

The Armenians were, of course, a great trading people with extensive Indian Ocean contacts. They took advantage of the expanding trade opportunities in Coromandel in the second half of the seventeenth century to participate especially in the eastward trade of these ports to Southeast Asia, the Philippines and China.


There is a continuity in the main lines of trade pursued from Coromandel in our period but there were also changes of emphasis and scale caused by new factors that emerged. The most important of these was the trade of the European companies which changed the course of trade in specific directions. Then there were events taking place in the trading partner states and territories to which adjustments had to be made. Finally, there were changes in the producing and consuming hinterlands of the major Coromandel ports and in state policies towards trade. Through all this, however, there was no fundamental alteration in the eastward direction of long-distance trade of Coromandel and in the north-south coastal trade and across the straits to the island of Sri Lanka.

The trade to Southeast Asia was the staple of Coromandel's long distance trade, especially to the ports of south Coromandel. By the middle decades of the century this trade was well set along clear routes and terminal points. It was moving southwards, away from Paleacat which showed a decline in the second half of the century and towards Devanampatnam, Pondichery, Cuddalore, Porto Novo and Nagore. Coromandel textiles penetrated deep into Southeast Asian markets in the seventeenth century, through already established trade centres of Acheh, Melaka, Makassar and Bantam and from these to interior markets of Sumatra, Java, the Moluccas and the Malay peninsula. A growth area for the export of Coromandel textiles was the kingdoms of mainland Southeast Asia: Arakkan, Pegu, Tenasserim, Ayuthya. The trade to Burmese and Siamese ports of Mrauk-u, Syriam, Mergui, Tavoy, Tenasserim and Ayuthya appears to have expanded in the second half of the seventeenth century. Coromandel textile producers had geared themselves to the Southeast Asian markets, manufacturing goods in response to the particular tastes of the various regions. By far the most voluminous exports were the coarse weaves from staple cotton that could be used as articles of clothing affordable by the poorer sections of society. When these were dyed in bright colours and made into dresses suitable for wear by men and women, they had a brisk demand in Southeast Asia. To suit more affluent tastes, there were printed cotton cloths called chintz with delightful floral and geometric patterns and the finer varieties of muslins in which Coromandel exports competed with those of Gujarat and Bengal. By this time, varieties of textiles bearing Southeast Asian regional geographic names had made their appearance in the weaving villages and everyone in the trade was familiar with the demands of the different parts of southeast Asia.

Textiles, while forming the largest trade commodity in volume and value, were not the only export. There was a list of other exports that the ships carried. Rice was carried in substantial quantity to Acheh and the Sumatran ports and to Melaka and the Malay ports. Steel manufactured in the Salem districts and from the Deccan was exported in moderate quantity. Indigo, hides, rock-fish skins were among other goods exported. At times there was a trade in slaves, taken direct from Coromandel or re-exported from Burma and Arakkan. The export of slaves from Coromandel was linked to the incidence of famine and destitution in any part of this region when families would offer themselves for sale in the ports to avoid starvation. The major slave market in Southeast Asia was Acheh where the shortage of manpower to work the tin mines made this a profitable trade.

Imports to Coromandel from Southeast Asia were equally diverse. Pepper and spices were good import commodities, though Sumatran pepper had to compete with Malabar pepper brought overland and in the coastal trade. Spices were not sold in large quantities in south Coromandel as they were in Golconda. Tin was a lucrative import and was in great demand throughout the region. So was copper which was brought from Burma and Siam, before the Dutch introduced direct imports from Japan. Elephants and horses were profitable imports. Elephants were brought in large numbers from Acheh, Kedah, Burma and Siam and horses from Acheh. Aromatic woods such as sandalwood and agil wood had a ready market as had other soft woods. The various dyes and gums from Southeast Asian forests had numerous uses in Indian manufacture. The balance of exports over imports was repatriated in the form of bullion gold and gold dust -or minted gold specie of Southeast Asia. A variety of Chinese goods - porcelain, woodwork, radix china, tea - were bought in intermediary Southeast Asian ports.

Coromandel merchants had to adjust to major changes in the trade to southeast Asia in this period. The total conquest of the spice islands by the Dutch by the 1640's, the conquest of Melaka in 1641, Makassar in 1666 and Bantam in 1684 forced the merchants to re-route their trade by the closure of those markets in which they had traded freely for many decades. By the end of the century, the very lucrative Javanese market had been closed to Indian exporters and preserved exclusively for the Dutch East India Company. In adjusting to these events, Coromandel merchants showed great resilience and adaptability. There was a general drift in trade towards the northern regions, to the Malay states of the peninsula and to the mainland states of Burma and Siam. Another area of redirection was to go beyond Dutch zones of control and on to the Philippines, making whatever alliances were necessary with Europeans, especially Portuguese, and Armenians. A further strategy was to pay the high tariffs imposed by the Dutch and trade within the Dutch system. 3

A second trading system that Coromandel merchants participated in was the coastal trade which itself was of two types. There were the long distance coastal voyages to Orissa and Bengal and in the other direction to Malabar, Kanara and even as far as Surat. And there were the short distance hops to the innumerable ports along the east coast and the Bay of Madura, and south Malabar. The primary function of this coastal trade was to make available to Coromandel cheap food grains and other items of food from Bengal, Orissa and Andhra as well as fine silks and muslins from Bengal for consumption by the wealthy. In return the cheaper coarse cotton goods of Coromandel found a market in Bengal. The trade to Malabar and Kanara was more diverse, comprising several items of popular consumption. Pepper, areca nuts, coconuts, copra and coir ropes from Malabar and Kanara were used extensively in the Coromandel region. In return went rice and paddy, textiles, salt and opium brought from Bengal. This trade was hardly affected when Malabar was under Portuguese dominance and, after Dutch conquest in the 1660's, despite efforts by them to control it, it continued throughout the period. A characteristic of the trade between Malabar and Coromandel was that it could be carried out both by land and by sea. Whenever the sea route was obstructed, as it was sometimes by the Dutch, the land route through the lower western Ghats was more extensively used.

A third important trade route of Coromandel was to Sri Lanka, both through the Straits for small vessels and through open seas for the larger ones. This was a vital trade link for both the regions - southern India and the island - and took in articles of basic consumption by the common people. Sri Lanka during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was in deficit for its rice supply and relied on imports. Coromandel, being the closest producing area, was a major supplier. Hundreds of small boats and barges would make this short voyage immediately after harvest in Thanjavur and Madura. Sri Lanka's demands in cotton textiles were also supplied from Coromandel. Other consumables exported were salt, sesame oil and other vegetable oils, and palm sugar. In return Coromandel imported from Sri Lanka large quantities of areca nuts, coconuts and coconut produce, wood, especially from the palmyrah tree, precious stones and elephants. Cinnamon, a desired commodity of Sri Lanka in world trade, was not in great demand in Coromandel, which secured cheaper varieties of this commodity from Malabar. Under the Portuguese this trade was permitted and encouraged, subject to the imposition of customs duties. The Dutch, who replaced the Portuguese in the island in 1658, attempted to force this trade under their control but failed dismally. 4

Both the coastal trade and the Indo-Sri Lankan trade were in the hands of Chetty, Chulia and Parava merchants of the Coromandel and Madura ports. The shipping ranged from small one-masted boats to large three-masted ships capable of taking up to 100 tons. Most of the trade was of the peddling variety, in owner-operated vessels, calling at a variety of ports to the east and west of the island, as the situation demanded. Most of the merchants gradually established small settlements of kinsmen in the island's ports with whom they dealt in partnerships or agencies. Many merchants travelled into the interior to buy and sell goods in small lots and some had contacts with the King of Kandy and the nobles of the kingdom to whom they supplied luxury goods produced in Coromandel. The number of vessels and merchants taking part in this trade was so large that its total volume made a major impact on the economy of the two regions.

Besides overseas trade, a great deal of merchant enterprise went into the organization of production of goods and their assemblage for export and in the redistribution inland of import commodities. It was in the organization of production for export that interesting developments took place in this period. The increase in volume of export and specialized demands for various markets necessitated a greater degree of regularity and predictability on commodity production. This applied particularly to textile production and to ancillary crafts of dying and printing. In addition to the traditional markets of Asian trade to which the industry had catered, there was the massive increase in European exports for the European markets which became increasingly specialized and particular in regard to weave, measurement and quality control. In addition, the sheer bulk of orders was such that traditional processes had to be expanded to the utmost to cope with them. In the 1680's, the peak years of European investment in Coromandel, the English East India Company's investment in textiles reached the highest figure for the century, of Rs 2.5 million in 1684. The Dutch had a maximum investment in 1683 of over Rs 4 million and the French were beginning to come into the market from the 1670's. 5

"Punto de Galle", 17th century.

In order to regularize deliveries of such large quantities to match the annual sailing season to Europe, advance orders had to be made months ahead and advances of capital had to be made for the necessary inputs into production. Indian merchants had previously resorted to advance orders as well as to spot buying of standard varieties in the weaving villages for their overseas trade. Now the demand from Europe, both because of its bulk and its specialized nature, called for much more rigorous planning and control. The merchants had not been able to secure any form of control over weaving villages or over the production process, largely because of the social constraints of caste, village autonomy, and the system of land tenure which characterized rural society. Weavers, painters, dyers, washermen, spinners-- all craftsmen engaged in the industry -- jealously guarded their independence from the merchants and even from the state. The existing system of advance orders backed up by advances of cash and/or raw materials was extended to meet the new demands.

The large annual European investment created a new opportunity for Coromandel merchants to specialize in middleman functions, distributing this investment into the weaving village, managing the production process and guaranteeing delivery at the ports of the stipulated goods. Where the merchant could supplement this with his own capital, he had a greater freedom in fixing the price and secured for himself a wider profit margin. For those who were familiar with the industry and had good contacts and influence in the weaving village, it was a lucrative business. For many decades in the seventeenth century, several important merchants combined middleman functions for Europeans with independent business of their own. Thus many merchants who dealt with the English in Madras and Cuddalore and with the Dutch in Paleacat and Nagapatnam, had export businesses of their own to Southeast Asia. But progressively, towards the end of the seventeenth century, as the textile trade of Asia became competitive and as obstacles were put in the way of this trade, even wealthy merchants began to turn more to brokerage business with Europeans and abandoned independent overseas trade. This is seen to be happening particularly among Hindu merchants of south and central Coromandel. Such a switch is accompanied by a physical relocation of these merchants and their families to European enclaves, mainly Madras and in the eighteenth century to Pondichery. 6


The vexed question of the place of merchants in Indian society and their relationship with the state and established authority has been the subject of much recent historiography. Pearson and Das Gupta have pioneered the analysis of merchants as partly within and partly outside the political system. 7 Their studies relate to western India, mainly Gujarat. Subrahmanyam, in a recent study, has highlighted the careers of some individual merchants of the Coromandel coast in the early seventeenth century. He draws attention to the political alliances made by these merchants, in the states of Golconda and the successor states of the Vijayanagar Empire. In one particular case, a merchant appears to have built up considerable military power and sought to direct the course of political events in the state. 8 In the second half of the seventeenth century, there are not many high profile merchants of this sort in central and south Coromandel. Merchantstate relationships seem to have changed, with changing political fortunes. The two Islamic states of Golconda and Bijapur had expanded eastwards up to the Coromandel coast. Consequently, new administrative arrangements had been set up with Golconda military general controlling the coast and hinterland of Paleacat, Madras and Sadraspatnam. Similarly Bijapur military officers administered the southern hinterlands of Cuddalore and Porto Novo. The Nayaks of Thanjavur and Madura and the Thevar of Ramnad were the last Hindu rulers.

Coromandel merchants had to adjust to this. Previously some of them had taken out revenue farms along the coast and the hinterland that included ports and weaving and rice-producing villages. Control of these farms conferred important advantages on these merchants in providing privileged access to trade commodities and the ability to supervise production. The access to political and military power which Subrahmanyam notes in the first half of the seventeenth century had noticeably declined in the last decades. This was not because of any diminution in the scale of commercial activities of the merchants but rather because of the redrawing of the political frontiers and power relationships that went on in southern India in this period. The establishment of new structures of authority and administration along these coastal lands meant that merchants had to rebuild their reciprocal relationships with holders of political and military power. In Bijapur, which controlled a large area of their operations, the merchants had to come to terms with Islamic generals and nobles. They did succeed in doing this from the 1650's onwards and carried on their trade from the ports of Devanampatnam, Cuddalore and Porto Novo with the support and protection of these nobles. When the Dutch attempted to obstruct the trade to Southeast Asia, these merchants appealed to the Bijapur state for assistance and for the state's intervention to secure passes to enable safe passage to their ships. The Dutch, who would have ignored the requests of merchants, had to make concessions to state officials who could threaten to obstruct the Dutch Company's lucrative trade in south Coromandel. 9

The merchants' task was made more difficult by the failure of Bijapur to consolidate its control of the eastern Karnatik and the challenge to its hold by the Maratha invasions of 1677. The ports of Porto Novo and Cuddalore and their hinterland came under Maratha administration for some time and the merchants had to deal with new political masters which they did to the best of their ability. The fort of Jinji, from where the Marathas had controlled the coast, fell to the Mughals in 1698 ushering in yet another period of change.

Through all these political changes southern Indian states continued in their awareness of the significance of commerce to the economy and participated in it in various ways. To the north the kingdom of Golconda was strongly involved in trade, from the king himself to various officials lower down the hierarchy, with Masulipatnam as their base. In the southern region, Bijapur divided its commercial involvements between its western and its eastern coastal ports, with the emphasis more to the west than to the east. Nevertheless it was conscious of the importance of the trade from its eastern Coromandel ports. The commander-in-chief of the Bijapur army, Khan-i-Khannan, was a ship-owner trading to Acheh, Malacca and Burmese ports. He asked for and secured passes for his ships from the Dutch. So was his successor Balbulla Khan who controlled the ports of Devanampatnam and Porto Novo and pressured the Dutch into giving him passes. 10 During the period that the Maratha power was installed in Jinji and had control of the coastal ports, again state officials were engaged in trade through Porto Novo and requested Dutch protection for their ships. 11 The Nayaks of Thanjavur and Madura did not themselves own ships and undertake trade but the evidence indicates that they utilized the services of their favourite merchants to invest in trade and trading voyages on their behalf. Like the other rulers they put pressure on European powers to protect the trade of merchants engaged in voyages from ports in their territories.

The states encouraged trade in their dominions by attracting European investment through tariff concessions. All the states referred to above during this period permitted trade settlements of English, Dutch, French and Danish and sometimes gave them exemptions from transit dues. 12 The export trade of the Companies brought vital bullion into the country and enabled the rulers to increase their tax revenues in weaving centres and market towns. The imports brought in vital commodities such as copper, tin, lead, zinc and mercury. States sometimes interfered in trade contacts between merchants and producers to ensure the smooth flow of trade but there was always a limit to such intervention. In one notable case the Maratha subahdar of Porto Novo wanted the English to settle and develop the port of Konimedu in the 1680's. When negotiations between the English and the merchant supplier stalled over prices of goods and the terms of the advances, the subahdar attempted to force the merchants to come to an agreement. 13 The subahdar was anxious that the English invest on a regular basis in the textile trade of the villages of south Arcot so that his revenues from these villages could be enhanced.

It was noted above that, unlike the ruling families of Golconda and the Mughals, the southern rulers did not directly participate in overseas trade by owning ships and sending out voyages. This had a contradictory effect on the merchants. On the one hand, it reduced direct state intervention in the trade process. Both in Golconda and in the Mughal province of Gujarat and Bengal, state involvement in overseas trade had resulted in periods of interference and direction of the market at critical moments to the advantage of the ship-owning ruler. Artificial monopolies in imports and exports were created at these moments. In the south such intervention seldom took place and the trade process was generally free. On the other hand, direct trading by rulers had brought capital into trade, especially in shipping capacity, which was a weakness of southern trade. None of these rulers spent heavily on dockyards and ship construction as did the Mughals and the Golconda rulers. This also explains the absence of the large capital ships of 500 tons and more in the southern trade.

The smaller Hindu rulers of the south did, however, participate in trade, though the precise mechanics of this participation is unclear. One method was to invest in a venture undertaken by one of the prominent merchants of the kingdom. Another method was to supply trade commodities to merchants out of production of lands under royal ownership and control. This would happen mainly regarding textiles and rice. The rulers, through their officials, would contract to supply merchants with tradeable cloth produced in weaving villages where they had control over the labour of weavers. In the case of rice, the state's share of tax given in kind would be converted into cash by sale to merchants. Thanjavur merchants secured rice supplies for export in this way. Yet another method was to contract to buy imported goods from the merchants for resale or use. Thus copper and tin, bought from the Dutch and from Indian merchants, as well as horses and elephants were traded in by the Nayaks of Thanjavur and Madura. Finally, it appears that, on occasions, rulers launched an entire voyage on their own, presumably managed by a merchant favourite. In this case the entire costs would be borne by the ruler and he would enjoy the entire returns. Rulers had the advantage in these cases of requiring protection from the Europeans which they were granted because of the privileges the Europeans enjoyed in the kingdom. This gave the rulers an advantage over merchants who did not have such influence with the Europeans.


It is always difficult to get sharp profiles of merchants from contemporary records but a few names emerge in the period studied that illustrate some of the points discussed above on the relationship between merchants, Europeans and the state. A very fascinating personality who comes to view in the middle decades of the seventeenth century is Kasi Veeranna who probably belonged to the Telugu komatty caste. He operated all over central Coromandel, sending out ships from Paleacat, Madras, San Thome, Devanampatnam, Tranquebar and other places. He had interests in all these ports but appears to have increasingly made Madras his base in the 1670's. He traded overseas with mainland and island Southeast Asia and also emerged as a major supplier of textiles to European companies. He dealt with the English, Dutch and French. His position as a supplier and redistributor in the hinterland was propped up by his extensive tax farming interests from San Thome to north of Paleacat, including several weaving villages. He was deeply involved in joint investments with senior English officials of Madras, including the English President Streynham Master. His career reveals some of the qualities of merchant entrepreneurship in this period: spreading of risks, versatility of operations, adaptability to changing power balances and the maintenance of coastal and hinterland links. 14

Coming immediately after Kasi Veeranna was Pedda Venkatadiri, showing similarities in operations and some changes reflecting new situations. He was also a ship-owner and overseas merchant to Southeast Asia. He took advantage of the extension of Coromandel trade to Manilla and participated in it. He had close contacts with the Golconda authorities, particularly with the Governor of Ponamalee, Lingappa, which ensured his extensive inland trade in grain and import goods. He was also a revenue farmer of good agricultural and handicraft villages. The change was the greater reliance on the English in the 1680's, partly involuntarily, becoming involved in the murky financial dealings and corruption of English administration in Madras. 15

Towards the very end of the century, there is seen a prominent merchant based in Madras whose family obviously occupied an important position in the commercial life of central Coromandel. Sunku Mutha Rama, a komatty, emerged in the 1690's as one of the most influential merchants in Madras. But his activities were not confined to Madras. He was a prominent supplier of the Dutch East India Company in Sadraspatnam and Nagapatnam and either he or close associates of the family dealt with the French in Pondichery. He must have engaged in overseas and coastal shipping in Madras and other Coromandel ports. He had extensive revenue farms in eastern Karnatak. At a point in his career he seems to have expanded his revenue farming investments and probably controlled a large section of the sunkum or transit duties of Golconda. This seems to have stayed in the family and earned it the title of Sunkuvar and hence the prefix of Sunku to his name. In the Mughal subah of Carnatic, centred in Arcot, he had immense influence and was responsible for money transfers of the Nawab from districts to capital. But increasingly, he became dependent on the English and was sucked into the factional politics of Madras, eventually falling foul of the Governor and ending his days in confinement and near bankruptcy. 16

"St. Thomé", 17th century.

Prominent merchants of the Chulia Muslim community have markedly different career patterns. They did not move physically to settle in any of the European ports but remained in their traditional homeland ports. Consequently, they do not feature sharply in the European records of the time. Nallabuka Marikkar was a Chulia merchant from Cuddalore and Porto Novo with a shipping fleet domiciled in these ports. His overseas trade was mainly towards Southeast Asia, especially Acheh where he had close contacts with high officials in the administration. His ships traded on their own and freighted goods for other Chulia merchants. 17 Another prominent Chulia merchant, Mokdum Nina, was enticed by the English to settle in Fort St. David, a few miles from Cuddalore, in order to develop this port as the major outlet of the region. It appears that he was seriously considering this, at a time when Maratha administration in the hinterland of Cuddalore and Porto Novo was destabilizing to trade. He seems to have eventually decided not to make this vital move and Fort St. David never surpassed Cuddalore and Porto Novo as the port of outlet for the region. 18

Lastly, a merchant whose career spanned the last quarter of the seventeenth century was Periathamby Marikkar, a Chulia Muslim from Kilakarai on the coast once dominated by the Portuguese as the Fishery Coast. There has been some speculation about his real name and that Perithamby was a title of endearment given him by the Thevar of Ramnad, to whom he was very close in commercial and administrative matters. 19 He was a ship-owning merchant, trading overseas to Coromandel, Bengal, Southeast Asia and probably to the Persian Gulf. He dominated the straits trade between India and Sri Lanka where he had close association with the kings and nobles of Kandy. He had extensive interests in the pearl fishery when it was held, had several boats on contract diving for pearls and annexed a large share of the market of the pearls that were fished out. Likewise, he dominated the market for chanks, a valuable trade commodity in Coromandel and Bengal. 20

The activities of the Dutch in south India and Sri Lanka in the second half of the seventeenth century adversely affected his trading interests and there ensued a prolonged conflict between the Dutch and this merchant and his family. Periathamby was busy taking measures to counter Dutch monopoly control over such commodities as areca nuts, chanks and pearls which were central to his own trade. He found the Thevar a willing ally in this and between them they engaged in a strategy of defying Dutch regulations. The Thevar became increasingly dependent on him and members of his family were appointed to coastal administrative and revenue positions, especially as collectors of port revenues. The scale of his operations can be seen in his offer to buy up the entire produce of areca nuts in Sri Lanka from the Dutch and to deliver 800 to 1,000 tons of rice annually. The total cost of the venture was over Rs 10,0,000. 21 The hostility of the Dutch to him was so great that in a treaty with the Thevar in 1685, one of the articles stipulated that Periathamby and his relatives be removed from office along the coast and should not be appointed in the Thevar's service. Needless to say, this stipulation was not fully observed by the Thevar. 22

During the second half of the seventeenth century, the Coromandel region shared in the exciting developments in commerce and commercial politics that went on in India and the Indian Ocean. The merchants and the states of Coromandel were important actors in the episodes of expansion, disturbance and change that took place in these decades. The merchants were beneficiaries of the expansion of overseas and coastal trade but were also deeply affected by the disturbances that occurred. These disturbances arose from both autochthonous and external factors, factors that had their origins inland and those that arose across the ocean. Internal political changes disturbed a system to which the merchants had become accustomed and from which they were deriving advantages. The changes accelerated towards the last decades of the century, straining merchants' efforts to come to terms with them. External changes came from a great distance in the shape of European involvement in the trade of the Indian Ocean. Some of these changes had beneficial effects, others affected them adversely. The cumulative effect of the internal and external changes was to shake up the placid world of the Coromandel merchant and point to major realignments of commercial links in the eighteenth century.


1. The above study of south Indian merchant groups is based on a variety of evidence, primary and secondary. It is primarily based on records of the English and Dutch East Indian Companies. A number of secondary works, based on this primary evidence, deal with these merchants. Here is a selection: T. Raychaudhuri, Jan Company in Coromandel (Gravenhage, 1962), S. Arasaratnam, Merchants, Companies and Commerce on the Coromandel Coast (New Delhi, 1986), S. Subrahmanyam, The Political Economy of Commerce: Southern India (Cambridge, 1990), S. Arasaratnam, "The Chulia Muslim Merchants in Southeast Asia", Moyen Orient et Océan Indien Vol. 4 (Paris, 1987), pp. 125-43.

2. S. Subrahmanyam, "Staying on: The Portuguese of south Coromandel in the late seventeenth Century", The Indian Economic and Social History Review, xxii 2 (42) (1985), pp. 45-64, Subrahmanyam, Political Economy... passim.

3. These shifts in policy and merchant responses are discussed in S. Arasaratnam, "The Coromandel -Southeast Asia Trade 1650-1700", Journal of Asian History 18, 2 (1986) pp. 113-35.

4. For a detailed analysis of the Indo-Sri Lankan trade and Dutch policy towards it see S. Arasaratnam, Dutch Power in Ceylon 1658-77 (Amsterdam, 1958), pp. 145-80. S. Arasaratnam, "Dutch commercial policy in Ceylon and its effects on the Indo-Ceylon Trade", The Indian Economic and Social History Review, IV, 2(1967), pp. 109-30.

5. English import figures from Madras in K. N. Chaudhuri, The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company 1660-1760 (Cambridge, 1979), pp. 508-9. For Dutch imports for Coromandel, see Raychaudhuri, Jan Company... pp. 162-3.

6. There is a substantial literature on brokerage functions of merchants in Coromandel: S. Arasaratnam, "Aspects of the role and activities of south Indian merchants", Proceedings of the First International Conference of Tamil Studies. Vol. I (Kuala Lumpur, 1968), pp. 582-96; K. N. Chaudhuri, "The structure of the Indian textile industry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries", The Indian Economic and Social History Review. XI, 2-3 (1976), pp. 127-82; J. J. Brennig, "Chief merchants and European enclaves of seventeenth century Coromandel". Modern Asian Studies, II, 3 (1977) pp. 321-46; S. Arasaratnam, "Indian commercial groups and European traders 1600-1800", South Asia (N. S.) I, 2 (1978), pp. 42-53

7. M. N. Pearson, Merchants and Rulers in Gujarat, (Berkeley, 1976), pp. 92-177. A. Das Gupta, Malabar in Asian trade 1760-1800 (Cambridge, 1967) pp. 103-23, A. Das Gupta, Indian Merchants and the decline of Surat 1700-1740 (Wiesbaden, 1979) pp. 197-239 and passim..

8. S. Subrahmanyam, Political Economy of Commerce...

9. Generale Missiven, Ed. W. Ph. Coolhaas (Gravenhage, 1964) II 10 December 1650, p. 409, 26 January 1652, p. 563, 26 January 1655, p. 793, Generale Missiven III (Gravenhage, 1968), 24 December 1655, p. 28.

10. Generale Missiven III, p. 28, Dag Register. Gehouden in't Casteel Batavia 1628- 1682 (The Hague, 1888-1919), 1664, 12 May 1664.

11. Dag Register 1681, 21 June 1681, Generale Missiven IV (Gravenhage, 1971), 1683, 19 March 1683.

12. Generale Missiven II, 10 December 1650, p. 409, 19 January 1654, p. 714. India Office Library, Factory Records: Cuddalore G/14/3; Public Department: Sundries Vol. 3

13. India Office Library, Factory Records: Cuddalore G/14/1, G/14/2, G/14/3.

14. Evidence on Kasi Veeranna to be found in W. Fawcett, English Factories in India 1670-77, 1678-84 passim, and H. D. Love, Vestiges of Old Madras Vol. I, passim.

15. Fawcett, English Factories in India 1678-84. pp. 25-27, 4749.

16. Despatches to England 29 September 1714, Diary and Consultations Fort St George 1707,7 August 1707, Gov. and Council of Coromandel to Gov. Gen. and Council, 23 April 1715, 26 November 1716, Koloniale Archief 1753 f 244,1779 f 26.

17. India Office Library G/14 /2. Factory Records: Cuddalore, Porto Novo Consultations.

18. Diary and Consultations, Fort St George 1691, 6 July 1691.

19. S. Subrahmanyam and D. Shulman, "Prince of poets and ports: Cihkkati of Kilakkarai c. 1690-1710". Unpublished paper to ASAA Conference, July 1990. For an earlier study of this merchant, see S. Arasaratnam, "A note on Periathamby Marikkar - A seventeenth century commercial magnate", Tamil Culture XI, 1(1964), pp.

20. Governor and Council to Gov. Gen. and Council 3 July 1684. Kol. Arch. 51-57,1285 fos 88-89.

21. Governor and Council to Gov. Gen. and Council 3 July 1684, Kol. Arch. 1285 fos 17-18.

22. Corpus Diplomaticam Neerlando-Indicum (The Hague/Batavia, 1887-1931) III, p. 378

*S. Arasaratnam is Professor of History at the University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales, Australia. He is the author of numerous articles and several books, including Dutch Power in Ceylon, 1658-1687 (Amsterdam, 1958) and, more recently, Merchants, Companies and Commerce on the Coromandel Coast, 1650-1740 (Delhi, OUP, 1986).

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