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The Eighteenth-Century Social Order in Surat: A Reply and an Excursus on the Riots of 1788 and 1795

  • Lakshmi Subramanian (a1)


The Banias of eighteenth-century Surat, whom Michelguglielmo Torri earlier treated with indifference if not innocence, have invited his wrath since they were brought into focus by the publication of my essay on the Banias and the Surat riot of 1795. In his ‘rejoinder’ to my article, he seeks to wish away their existence altogether (to him there was no specific Bania community, the term merely signifying traders of all communities engaged in the profession of brokerage), and seeks to provide what he regards as an ‘alternative’ explanation of the Muslim–Bania riot of 1795. the Muslim-Bania riot of 1795. It shall be my purpose in this reply to show that his alternative explanation is neither an alternative nor even an explanation, and is based on a basic confusion in his mind about the Banias as well as the principal sources of tension in the social structure of Surat. I shall treat two main subjects in this reply to his misdirected criticisms. First, I shall present some original indigenous material as well as European documentation to further clarify the identity, position and role of the Banias, whom Irfan Habib in a recent article has identified as the most important trading group in the trading world of seventeenth and eighteenth-century India. It is also my purpose to show how the social order of Surat operated under stress by presenting some archival material, the existence of which Torri seems to be completely unaware of, on the Parsi-Muslim riot of 1788.



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1 The Banias are altogether overlooked in his earlier articles: Torri, Michelguglielmo, ‘In the Deep Blue Sea: Surat and its Merchant Class during the Dyarchic Era (1759–1800)’, The Indian Economic and Social History Review xix, 3 and 4 (0712 1982) pp. 267–99; Michelguglielmo, Torri, ‘Social Groups and the Redistribution of Commercial Wealth: The Customs Houses of Surat (1759–1800)’, Studies in History I, I (New Series, 1985).

2 Lakshmi, Subramanian, ‘Capital and Crowd in a Declining Asian Port City. The Anglo–Bania Order and the Surat Riots of 1795’, Modern Asian Studies (henceforth MAS) 19, 2 (1985), pp. 205–37.

3 Torii, M., ‘Surat during the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century. What Kind of Social Order?—A Rejoinder to Lakshmi Subramanian’, MAS 21, 4 (1987), pp. 679710 (henceforth Surat).

4 I am indebted to Dr B. L. Bhadani, Professor Ashin Dasgupta, Ms. Jeanne Openshaw and Shri Basudeb Chattopadhyay for their help in making this reply.

5 Irfan, Habib, ‘Indian Merchant Communities during the Seventeenth Century’. Paper presented at the Conference on Merchant Empires, Minneapolis, USA, October 1987.

6 Torri, M., ‘Surat’, p. 708, fn. 107.

7 Ibid., p. 683.

8 Ibid., p. 680. See fn. 3. Also see p. 689 where Torn says that the ‘Banias … were only a part of a quarrelsome community including, besides the Hindus, Sunni and Bohra Muslims, Parsis, Armenians and Jews.…’. This is a confusing sentence where he suggests, although does not quite say, that Bohras were also Banias. Earlier on, however, he is more definite when he approvingly quotes Heber referring to the Bohras as Banias; see p. 680.

9 It is well known that the Bohra Muslims were originally Hindus but even the Hindu Bohras are clearly distinguished from the Banias in the seventeenth-century Indian sources. Thus enumerating the castes in a suburban village of Jodhpur, Muhanota Nainasi wrote around 1668: ‘Rajput, Bohra and Bania are settled’.Nainasi, Muhanota, Marwad ra Parganam ri Vigat, ed. Narayansingh, Bhati (Jodhpur, 1968), vol. l, p. 191.

10 Subramanian, Lakshmi, ‘Banias and the British: The Role of Indigenous Credit in the Process of Imperial Expansion in Western India in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century’, MAS 21, 3 (07 1987).

11 The Vaishnav and Jain Sects within the Bania caste have been identified by Walker as respectively the Meshris and the Shravaks. I shall refer to this in detail as well as other European sources subsequently. Walker of Bowland Papers 17801830 (Acc 2228), National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, Letters, Reports and Papers, Histories (hereafter, Walker of Bowland Papers), ‘An Account of Castes and Professions in Gujarat’, vol. I.

12 This is mentioned by Nesfield, John in his Brief View of the Caste System of the North Western Provinces and Oudh (Allahabad, 1885), pp. 32September3. p. 119.

13 Torri, , ‘Surat’, p. 692 fn. 49, p. 705. Torri, who transliterates ‘Cuttaree’ as ‘Kathri’, obviously does not have a clue to proper caste names.

14 Subramanian, , ‘Banias and the British’, p. 475.

15 Torri, , ‘Surat’, p. 705, fn. 93.

16 The Book of Duarte Barbosa 1510–1518, translated from the Portuguese text by Dames, M. L., (Printed for the Hakluyt Society 1918), vol. I, p. 112.

17 Public Department Diary (henceforth PDD) no. 114A of 1795, pp. 114–15.

18 Banarasidas, Ardha Kathanaka, ed. Nathuram, Premi, 2nd rev. edn (Bombay, 1957); Nainasi, Muhanota, Marward ra Parganam ri Vigat, ed. Bhati, Narayansingh (Jodpur, 1968); Gaekwad's Oriental Series no. XLIII, Mirat-i-Ahmadi (supplement), translated from the Persian by Nawab, Syed Ali and Charles Norman Seddon (Baroda, 1928).

19 There is no English translation of Muhanota Nainasi's Khyata (Chronicle) and the Hindi translation of Muhanota Nainasi's ri Khyata leaves out the gazetteer attached to the Khyata under the title Marwad ra Parganam ri Vigal. There is now a full English translation of Banarasidas' autobiography in verse: Lath, Mukund, Half a Tale. A Study of the Interrelationship between Autobiography and History (Jaipur, 1981). As this is a free and not literal and exact translation, the historian has no alternative but to look at the original for the exact use of terms.

20 Nainasi, M., Marwad ra Parganam ri Vigat, vol. I, p. 211, 214.

21 Ibid., p. 83ff.

22 On adding up I reach the figure 558 and not 669.

23 Turkish Artillery Corps.

24 Great bankers and merchants, literally ‘great men’.

25 Mirat, p. 116.

26 Ibid., p. 138.

27 The story of the Oswal conversion to Jainism is narrated on pages 138–9.

28 Walker of Bowland Papers, ‘Account of Castes and Professions’, vol. I.

29 Unpublished French manuscript, La manière de négotier dans les Indes Orientales dediée à mes chers amis Et Confrères Les Engagés de la Royalle Compagnye de Frence (Written by Roques at a time not later than 1678), partially translated in Ray, Indrani, ‘Of Trade and Traders in Seventeenth Century India: An unpublished French Memoir by Georges Roques’, The Indian Historical Review 9, 1–2, pp. 74120.

30 Ibid., p. 100.

31 Ibid., pp. 77, 86.

32 Ibid., p. 85.

33 Ibid., p. 85.

34 Ibid., p. 84.

35 Ibid., p. 86.

36 Ibid., pp. 869, 96–9.

37 Ibid., pp. 97–8.

38 Here, the author obviously exaggerates. As Irfan Habib observes, ‘The Banyas are spread over most of Northern India and a large part of the Deccan where they have dominated the commercial world. Only in Punjab proper did the rival caste of the Khatris [the strange Kathris of Torri] keep them at bay; and they did not penetrate Southern India]. Habib, ‘Indian Merchant Communities during the Seventeenth Century’.

39 The use of the term in the latter and broader sense occurs in Nesfield's 1885 account of the trading castes of Hindustan, whom he graded into six divisions in ascending order of social respectability: I Banjara (Forest traders); II Kunjra (Greengrocer); III Bhunja (Grain parcher); IV Five castes of pedlers and retailers who seldom kept regular shops—Raunia, Kuta, Bilwar, Bhurtia, Lohia; V Seven castes of traders who kept regular shops and dealt in large quantities of grain, spices, perfumes and cloth—Kasondhan, Kasarbani, Vishnoi, Rastogi, Unaya, Orh and Maheswari; VI Five castes of bankers, moneylenders and wholesalers—Dhusar, Agrahari, Agarwala, Bohra, Khatri. All but the first three—Banjara, Kunjra and Bhunja (who had no claim to Vaishya status)—wore the sacred thread and were known by the generic term of Bania which meant shopkeeper or merchant. Nesfield, Brief View (see fn. 12).

40 Forbes, A. K., Ras Mala, 2 vols (Oxford, 1924), vol. II, p. 237.

41 Malcolm, John, Memoir on Central India (London, 1824), vol. II, p. 159.

42 Ibid., p. 160.

43 Forbes, Ras Mala, pp. 248–50.

44 Walker of Bowland Papers, ‘Account of Castes and Professions’.

45 James Mill defined the Banyan as follows: ‘The term Banyan is used in Bengal to denote the native who manages the money concerns of the European and sometimes serves him as an interpretor’. Mill, James, History of British India (fifth edn.London, n.d.), vol. I, p. 28. Earlier Bolts had the following understanding of the Bengali Banian: ‘A Banyan is a person by whom English gentlemen in general transact all their business. He is interpretor, head book-keeper, head secretary, head broker, supplier of cash and cash keeper and in general also secret-keeper. He conducts all the trades of his master’. Bolts, William, Considerations on Indian Affairs (London, 1772), p. 282. It is this type of Banian who was familiar to Heber and he was usually a Brahman or Kayastha, seldom a Bania by caste.

46 Surat Factory Diary (henceforth SFD).

47 Ibid.

48 Walker, ‘Account of Castes and Professions’.

49 Lakshmi, Subramanian, ‘The Castle Revolution of 1759 and the Banias of Surat: Changing British–Indian Relationships in Western India’, in Tripathi, Dwijendra (ed.), State and Business in India: A Historical Perspective (Ahmedabad, 1987).

50 PDD no. 32(I) of 1759, Spencer's, John letter dated 11 January 1759, pp. 101ff.

51 PDD no. 25(I) of 1752, pp. 189–90.

52 SFD no. 9 of 17511752, p. 333. Bombay's letter to Surat received on 4 June 1752.

53 SFD no. 10 of 17521753, pp. 86–7. Consultation of the Surat Council of 29 November 1752.

54 SFD no. 10 of 17521753, pp. 84–5. Consultation of the Surat Council of 25 November 1752.

55 PDD no. 25 (II) of 1752, pp. 386–7. Letter dated 4 December from Surat received by the Bombay Council on 11 December.

56 Torri argues that during the campaign the merchants showed ‘an utter lack of direction’, as to whom to support, and that their only role in it was a vain attempt to mediate between the Sidi and the English. See Torri, ‘Surat’, p. 687. He is quite incorrect in stressing their ambivalence, for he omits to mention that in the document which he adduces in proof of this, it is mentioned that the merchants sent two delegates to the English at the gates of Surat and affirmed ‘that the hearts of the trading interests were with us’ [i.e. the English]. See SFD no. 14 (I) of 1759, p. 220.

57 Secret and Political Dept Diary (henceforth SPDD) no. 4 of 1758, p. 24. Letter from Surat dated 22 January 1758 received by Bombay on 27 January 1758.

58 Ibid., p. 25. Committee Meeting of 28 January 1758.

59 Ibid., p. 26.

60 SPDD no. 4 of 1758 p. 33. Letter from Surat dated 11 February 1758 received by Bombay on 17 February 1758. Incidentally, Torri accuses me of being ‘unaware of the existence or the relevance of the Secret proceedings’. On the contrary, it is he who seems to be unaware of the relevance, possibly for convenience, of the above extract from the Secret Proceedings which runs contrary to his argument.

61 PDD no. 114A of 1795 pp. 139–40. Letter from the Chief to the Nawab in reply dated 16 08 1795.

62 See map given in my ‘Banias and the British’, p. 481.

63 Torri, , ‘Surat’, p. 693 n. 53.

64 PDD no. 119 of 1796 p. 364; letter from Fort William dated 11 July 1796 and read by the Bombay Council on 11 August 1796.

65 Torri, ‘Surat’, pp. 690–4.

66 As the other signatories are not there, there is no means of determining whether the rest of the signatories were all Muslims or not. The Public Department Diaries in question mention that all merchants, owners of ships, Moormen, Armenians and Gentoos, met the Surat Chief to voice their grievances. The proceedings do not mention, however, that the Petition was actually signed by all these merchants, and Torn himself does not claim this. It seems he is under the impression that the Petition was a judicial document which required the seals of ‘Syeds, Qazis and Shaikhs’ at the top. It was not. It was simply a Petition forwarded by three Syeds, a petition stating both material and religious grievances (pertaining to Muslims).

67 The Chief's Minute on the subject of the representation from Musalman merchants interested in trade from Surat to the Gulfs'. PDD 16 September 1796 also mentions a petition by Mulna, Willioddeen (p. 2325), a representation from Taar Chellaby (of the premier Turkish merchant family of the Chellabis) and the Nawab's shipowning slave and Vakil, Sidy Mufta (pp. 2326, 2332), a petition to Tahar Chellaby and a few Arab agents in Surat for owners of Dows and Dingys annually visiting the port from the Gulfs (p. 2338), and a petition of 22 merchants who from their signature are obviously all Muslims (p. 2328).

68 PDD 16 September 1796, p. 2339. Unfortunately the text of the petition is not given and there is no way of knowing whether the merchants emphasized the matter of the Haj.

69 Nowhere in my article, however, did I say ‘aggressiveness of the Muslims’ or ‘aggressive religious ethos’. These are Torn's own constructions.

70 PDD 18 September 1770, pp. 68–9.

71 Ibid.

72 Ibid.

73 Ibid. Also see report of Robert Erskine, Collector of Surat, 5 November 1759, PDD no. 33 (II) of 1759, pp. 342–5. Favoured merchants paid customs on the market prices of their goods and not on the higher fixed prices imposed on the rest of the merchants.

74 On 10 January 1772, the Surat Chief informed the Council that the city continued to remain in a state blockade. On 24 December 1771, the Marathas had sent an ultimatum to the Nawab demanding immediate payment of their arrears and insisted on stationing their men at the collection centres. After prolonged negotiations, on 15 January 1772 the Council met to observe that the blockade had been called off. See SFD no. 660 of 1772, p. 5, pp. 811.

75 Torri, ‘Surat’, pp. 698–9.

76 PDD no. 49 26 June 1767, Consultation, p. 34.

77 Ibid., pp. 34–5.

78 Ibid., pp. 767. Letter from Surat dated 15 July received by the Bombay Council on 20 July 1767.

79 PDD no. 49 of 1767, p. 77. Letter from Surat dated 15 July 1767.

80 Ibid., p. 129. Letter from Surat dated 23 August 1767 and received by the Bombay Council on 3 September.

81 Ibid., pp. 129–30.

82 PDD no. 49 of 1767, p. 142. Letter signed to Surat on 10 September 1767.

83 PDD no. 50(II) of 1768, pp. 337–8. Letter from Surat dated 30 May 1768 and received by Bombay on 2 June 1768.

84 Ibid., pp. 382–3. Letter from Surat dated 23 June and received by Bombay on 28 June 1768.

85 PDD no. 51 of 1768, p. 310. Letter from Surat dated 22 December 1768 and received by the Bombay Council on 26 December 1768.

86 PDD no. 54 of 1769, p. 183. Consultation Meeting of the Bombay Council of 19 December 1769.

87 Ibid., p. 302. Letter from Surat dated 11 November 1769 and received by the Bombay Council on 15 November 1769.

88 SFD no. 657 of 1770. Consultation of the Surat Council of 2 June 1770.

89 SFD no. 657 of 1770, pp. 55ff.

90 Ibid.

91 Ibid., pp. 51ff. Report of the Committee.

92 Ibid., pp. 52ff.

93 Ibid., Consultation of 28 September 1770.

94 Returns and Statements: External and Internal Commerce 18021803. This contains an exhaustive Report on the want of a sufficient circulation medium to answer the accumulated wants of an extensive commerce.

95 Torri speculates (despite disclaiming to do so) as to the reason for the ‘queer chronological sommersault’ (sic p. 705) where by I used a report on the judicial system in Surat in 1795 to describe the situation in the 1730s and 1740s. He could have laid his speculations at rest by recalling that the autonomous Nawabi system in Surat dates from Teg Bakht Khan's assumption of power in 1733, and by recognizing that I was describing, in general terms, the system that prevailed between 1733 and 1795. Though he does in fact recognize this, he ‘pretends’ not to do so, for the childlike pleasure of pointing out that the Nawab's younger brother was not even born in 1733 proves too tempting to resist (p. 705, fn. 92). Nor does he deny himself the pleasure of pointing out that I have ‘forgotten’ to mention (p. 705) the participation of the Hindus in the Nawab's darbar and adalat. He forgets that if I had done so, he would have missed the opportunity to stress this elementary and well known fact.

96 SFD no. 670 of 1778, pp. 258–9. Letter written to the Bombay Council dated 14 December 1778.

97 White, David L., ‘Parsis as Entrepreneurs in Eighteenth Century India: The Rustam Manock Family and the Parsi Community of Surat and Bombay’. Ph.D. dessertation of the University of Virginia, 1979.

98 SFD no. 656 of 1767–68, pp. 128–9. Deputation of the Dutch.

99 Ibid., p. 130.

100 Ibid., p. 139.

101 Ibid., p. 160. Consultation of 27 May 1768. pp. 161–2, for report of the English.

102 Ibid.

103 Ibid., pp. 189ff.

104 Ibid., pp. 174ff.

105 Ibid., p. 169. Letter from Bombay received by the Surat Council on 15 June 1768.

106 Ibid.

107 SFD no. 680 of 1788, pp. 356–7. Consulation Meeting of the Surat Council of 6 November 1788.

108 Ibid., pp. 424–5. Report of the Committee (instituted to enquire into causes and motives of the Riot) read by the Surat Council on 2 December 1788.

109 Ibid.

110 Ibid. Quoting this, Torri says, to my surprise, ‘unfortunately, the above quotation represents, more or less, all we know on the causes of the 1788 riot’ (p. 708, fn. 107). I shall proceed to demonstrate that had he read the document carefully, he could have added a great deal more to his knowledge.

111 Ibid., pp. 426–7. Interrogation of Rustam Jasoo. Incidentally, Berchar Narsey and Shankar Mangal, both Hindus, came up with a different version regarding the origins of the quarrel. They maintained that the Parsis had been found eve-teasing some Hindu women performing the Garba. One thing led to another and they were somewhat severely reprimanded by two Muslim brothers which led to the street scuffle of 2 November and later to the riot of 4 November 1788. Ibid., p. 460. Depositors of Berchar Narsay and Shankar Mangal.

112 Ibid., pp. 426–7. Interrogation of Rustam Jasoo.

113 Ibid.

114 Ibid.

115 Ibid.

116 Ibid., pp. 430–1. Information of Rustamji Manakji.

117 Ibid.

118 Ibid., pp. 444–5. Deposition of Abdur Rahim.

119 Ibid., pp. 430–1. Information of Rustamji Manakji.

120 Ibid., pp. 432–3.

121 Ibid., p. 427.

122 The total strength of the rioters in Sciad Muhammed Ibrahim's view was three to four thousand. See Ibid., pp. 457–8. Evidence of Sciad Muhammed Ibrahim.

123 Ibid., pp. 426–7. Rustam Jasoo's evidence.

124 Ibid., p. 438. Evidence of Dayaram Vrandavan.

125 Ibid., p. 456. Evidence of Nathu Gasjee.

126 Ibid., pp. 430–1.

127 Ibid., pp. 447, 448, 452–4.

128 Ibid., pp. 448. Evidence of Hafizjee, p. 454. Evidence of Mazuaffar Beg.

129 Ibid., p. 436 report of Mr. Guise.

130 Ibid., pp. 440–1.

131 Ibid., p. 463.

132 Ibid., pp. 424–5.

133 Ibid., pp. 356–7.

134 Ibid., pp. 424–5.

135 Ibid., p. 465. Consultation Meeting of 3 December 1788.

136 Let me assure the reader that this is all Torri has to say on the riot itself. Torri, ‘Surat’, pp. 708–9.

137 Subramanian, , ‘Capital and Crowd’.

138 Torri, ‘Surat’, p. 696.

139 But see, just as an example, the several bits of suggestive material in pp. 230–2 of ‘Capital and Crowd’. These are the testimonies of the Banias who suffered in the riot of 1795. I shall elaborate on the testimony of three of these Bania victims further on. Unfortunately, the British did not record the testimony of the Muslim rioters in such detail, but their actions spoke louder than their words. If it be Torri's argument that the testimony of the Banias who suffered at the hands of the Muslims is not proof of the latters' intense resentment, then I need only cite the actions of the Muslims during the riot, a matter that Torri has avoided in his rejoinder. What has puzzled me most in Torri's procedure is: why offer an ‘alternative explanation’ of the riot without consulting or citing the sources? How does he explain the burning of the account books of the Banias by the Muslims? Is it because he does not have an ‘alternative explanation’ that he never mentions the matter?

140 Torri, ‘Surat’, p. 680.

141 Contrary to Torri, the Banias were clear about the distinction between themselves and other Hindus, and did not admit all Hindu traders to their Mahajan. Thus we find the Bania Mahajan in its petition to the English, after the riot of 1795 speaking of the Mohammedan plunder of ‘the shops of several Banians and Hindu dealers’. PDD no. 114A of 1795, pp. 112–13. That the Muslims, too, were aware of the distinction is evident from the already quoted assurance they gave during the anti-Parsi riot that ‘Banayans and Gentoos had nothing to fear.’;

142 Torri, ‘Surat’, p. 708.

143 Hughes Mearns (1875?).

144 To the English, this was conclusive proof of ‘the palseed state of Government’. PDD no. 115A of 1795, p. 55. Report of the Committee on the Riot.

145 Ibid. Interrogation of the victims—evidence of Kushal Gopal. The Bhandaris were the principal Muslim weaving community.

146 By ‘insignificant’, the Committee did not of course mean inconsequential, but rather the low status and poverty of the Bengali fakirs and the muazzins of the mosques. Chahar Yaree—the four faithful friends.

147 PDD no. 114A of 1795, p. 108. Letter from Surat dated 3 September 1795 and received by the Bombay Council on 11 September 1795.

148 Torri has not taken account of the voluminous evidence given by the rioters, victims and bystanders in delineating the social structure of Surat. Therefore, although I have already given smaller extracts in ‘Capital and Crowd’, I shall give somewhat fuller extracts in view of the persistent ignoring of this important evidence by Torri. It is surprising that after posing the question ‘What kind of social order?’ as regards the late eighteenth-century Surat, he should leave aside these illuminating contemporary perceptions of the Surat citizens themselves.

149 The reference is to Adit Ram Bhat's apprehension of a muazzin who had sneaked into his house, the incident that actually led to the riot of 1795.

150 For the testimonies of Mayaram Narsingdas, Kushal Gopal and Purushottam Hejaramal, see PDD no. 115A of 1795, pp. 99–100ff. Despite excerpts from the evidence of Purushottam Hejaramal and others in ‘Capital and Crowd’, Torri has ignored this material, which establishes the Muslim resentment of the Bania all too clearly, contrary to his assertion that I have not produced ‘any kind of evidence, however sketchy’. As a fellow researcher, I can only express regret that this sort of evidence from the participants themselves, the true view from within which the social historian counts himself lucky to encounter in his sources, is deliberately by passed by Torri. Had he tried to reconstruct the riot and the view point of the participants, he could have probed much deeper into the question he sets himself:, ‘What Kind of Social order?’ But then, his ‘Rejoinder to Lakshmi Subramanian’ might have fallen through.

The Eighteenth-Century Social Order in Surat: A Reply and an Excursus on the Riots of 1788 and 1795

  • Lakshmi Subramanian (a1)


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