The province of Bengal comprises both a section of the Indo-Gangetic plain and a delta region. Its position on the eastern coast of the Indian subcontinent make it a key region for Indian Ocean trade.
The maritime trade of Bengal centered on the eastern half of the Bay of Bengal. For the greater part of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Bengal’s principal ports, Satgaon and Chittagong and subsequently Hugli, maintained significant trading connections with Burma, Malacca, and Acheh. A second set of trade routes connected Bengal with Sri Lanka, Maldives, and the Malabar Coast, while a third, subsidiary route connected Bengal with Gujarat and West Asia. Equally significant was Bengal’s coastal trade with the Coromandel, which relied on annual imports of Bengal grain.
The principal exports in the coastal and overseas traffic of Bengal were a range of manufactured goods and agricultural products—textiles, rice, wheat, gram, sugar, opium, clarified butter, and saltpeter. In return, Bengal imported spices, camphor, porcelain, silk, sandalwood, ivory, metals, conch shells, and cowries, the last of which circulated as an important medium in Bengal’s monetary transactions. It was with the advent of the Portuguese in the sixteenth century that Bengal entered the web of Euro-Asian exchanges that were to become central to the region’s economy. Portuguese involvement in the trade of the Bay of Bengal began after the capture of Malacca in 1511, although it was only in the 1560s that private Portuguese initiative made an appreciable impact on the region’s maritime profile. The Portuguese operated from Chittagong and Hugli, the latter of which was taken over by the Mughals in 1642.
The context for Bengal’s expanding maritime trade in the seventeenth century was provided on the one hand by the political stability of Mughal rule (1575–1717) and on the other by the operations of the North European trading companies in the Indian Ocean. The integration of Bengal within the larger trading system of Mughal India, the acceleration of commercial contacts between Bengal and West Asia, and the increasing participation of Mughal officials in Bengal’s overseas and coastal trade meant that the Bengal merchants (local as well as domiciled) were able to take a larger share in the trade of the western Indian Ocean.
The importance of Bengal’s textiles and silk in the markets of Southeast Asia and Japan encouraged the English and Dutch East India Companies to enter into the commercial economy of Bengal. By the middle decades of the century, the Dutch and English, largely in response to the pressures of the spice trade in Southeast Asia, were participating in the intra-Asian trade of the Indian Ocean in a big way and had established a number of factories and settlements in Hugli, Balasore, and Pipli. The result was an expanding demand for Bengal textiles, silk, opium, sugar, and rice in the markets of Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, and the Coromandel. In return, Bengal imported huge volumes of metal and bullion, which helped service the monetary system of the region.
The volume of Bengal’s trade handled by the Europeans increased very substantially from the second quarter of the seventeenth century, with the Dutch enjoying a decided advantage over their rivals until the second quarter of the eighteenth century. Quantitative estimates available for the value and volume of European exports from Bengal suggest that these increased from an average of 100,000 rupees in the 1640s to 3 million at the end of the century. The historian Om Prakash estimates that Dutch exports from Bengal went up from 100,000 ruprees in the 1640s to 3 million in 1720. We do not have corresponding figures for the trade carried on by Asian and Indian merchants, whose operations we know were extensive. We do have some figures for Indian shipping directed from the Bengal ports of Hugli and Balasore, and these suggest that the strength of Bengal shipping was around eighty–to a hundred–odd ships of 200-ton capacity.
By the latter decades of the seventeenth century, there was a qualitative change in the Euro-Asian trade, which had important implications for Bengal’s maritime economy. The increasing popularity of Bengal’s textiles and raw silk in the European market meant that Bengal became by far the most important region for the trade of the European Companies. Bengal’s textiles accounted for the majority of the European Companies’ exports into Europe. At the same time, the increasing importance of the private trade of the English Company’s agents in Bengal indicated quite clearly that Bengal was a region where the struggle for control would be fierce.
The early colonial policies of the European East India Companies had important effects on the maritime trade of Bengal. The enforcement of the pass system that the Portuguese had initiated meant that Indian merchants were compelled to take passes and call at specified ports and pay custom duties before proceeding to the destinations enumerated in their documents. The pass system was intended to both generate revenues and restrict Indian shipping to certain routes. Thus, while the opening up of new markets for Bengal goods in Asia by the European Companies represented a net addition to the volume of total exports from Bengal, monopoly restriction imposed on certain routes like the Bengal–Sri Lanka sector and the Bengal–Malay/ Indonesian archipelago routes had a baneful effect.
It was, however, only in the eighteenth century that the European Companies and European markets began to assume a critical role in the workings of Bengal’s maritime economy. Until then, Indian merchant shipping appears to have survived the European intrusion. What set the stage for the decline of Bengal’s eastward trade was the Mughal state officials’ withdrawal from overseas trade. Following this, the first half of the eighteenth century witnessed a huge expansion in the value of Indo-European trade carried out by the English and French East India Companies (at the expense of the Dutch, who began losing momentum). What underscored the English and French ventures was the expansion and ramifications of private trading activity by Company agents, who traded extensively in the country trade of Asia and who, in pursuit of their private ventures, articulated an aggressive political strategy against local merchants and rulers. Between 1707 and 1740, Calcutta emerged as the premier port of Bengal and the seat of English shipping and trade. The unprecedented expansion of English private trade had two important consequences. On the one hand, it displaced Hugli and the Asian merchants from the Indian Ocean trade, and on the other, it cut into the operations of the Dutch trading company. The private merchants’ trade embraced both the westward and eastward segments of Bengal’s maritime traffic. European shipping, and in particular English shipping, absorbed virtually the bulk of the freight trade and it became common for private traders to carry Indian merchants’ goods in addition to their own. Among the reasons for English success were the relative security of English shipping against piracy and the greater seaworthiness of English vessels. The Calcutta fleet, numbering about twenty ships around 1715 doubled in the 1720s and 1730s and displaced the Dutch, as well as local merchants, from the Persian Gulf and Red Sea routes. The decline of Hugli followed inevitably, as the traditional trading structure with its node in Surat went under in the aftermath of Mughal decline and the unrestrained expansion of English private trade.
Between 1740 and 1757, the English Company steadily expanded its trade and political agenda and engineered the infamous Plassey conspiracy (1757), which gave them vital control over the political system. Plassey brought in its wake an unprecedented expansion of English private trade. Company agents abused the newly acquired political privileges to make deep inroads into the internal trade of Bengal. Simultaneously, there was a perceptible shift in Bengal’s trading orientation; the decline of markets in West Asia combined with the increasing popularity of Indian raw cotton and opium in Chinese and Southeast Asian markets encouraged English private traders to look east once more. The shift to the east embodied a new era in Bengal’s maritime trade as it became increasingly subordinated to the imperatives of new, multilateral trading arrangements that accompanied the formalization of British colonial power in India.