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European Commercial Enterprise in Pre-Colonial India
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European traders first appeared in India at the end of the fifteenth century and began exporting goods to Europe as well as to other parts of Asia. In a detailed analysis of the trading operations of European corporate enterprises such as the English and Dutch East India Companies, as well as those of private European traders, this book considers how, over a span of three centuries, the Indian economy expanded and was integrated into the pre-modern world economy as a result of these interactions. The book also describes how this essentially market-determined commercial encounter changed in the latter half of the eighteenth century as the colonial relationship between Britain and the subcontinent was established. By bringing together and examining the existing literature, the author provides a fascinating overview of the impact of European trade on the pre-modern Indian economy which will be of value to students of Indian, European and colonial history.


"Analyzes European trading operations in precolonial India." Journal of Economic Literature

"...a very valuable work." Douglas E. Haynes, Pacific Affairs

"...a scholarly and informative survey....a clear picture of the Indian economic structure in the pre-colonial period..." The International History Review

"...this is an amazingly erudite and encompassing book, which ably serves its primary function of offering a survey of the first three centuries of Indo-European commerce..." John Adams, Eh.Net

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  • 1 - India in the Indian Ocean trade, circa 1500
    pp 8-22
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    An analysis of the structure and the mechanics of the early modern Indian Ocean trade, alternatively referred to as Asian trade, ought perhaps to start with a recognition of the simple fact that this trade transgressed the boundaries of both the Indian Ocean and Asia. Around the time that the Europeans' participation in the maritime trade of India started, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, India occupied a position of key importance in the structure of Indian Ocean trade. Of the three principal segments of this trade, the Western Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea, the first two were dominated by India. In the course of the fifteenth century, Malacca became a truly major centre of international exchange and a meeting point of traders from the East and the West.
  • 2 - The Portuguese in India, 1500–1640
    pp 23-71
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    The arrival of three Portuguese ships under the charge of Vasco da Gama marked the inauguration of a new era in the history of Euro-Asian contacts in general and of trade between the two continents in particular. In keeping with the traditional composition of the Asian imports into Europe, the principal item sought by the Portuguese Crown in Asia was spices, overwhelmingly pepper, though some other goods were also procured. The attempt at monopolizing the spice trade was unambiguous. It called for a total exclusion of Asian shipping from the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, the instructions to Pedro Alvares Cabral, in charge of the first major commercial voyage to India that left Lisbon in March 1500. As far as the Indian maritime merchant was concerned, the Portuguese intrusion into the western Indian Ocean at the end of the fifteenth century initially created a situation of utter chaos.
  • 3 - The European trading companies: exports from Europe and the generation of purchasing power in Asia
    pp 72-110
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    The early years of the seventeenth century mark the value of the seaborne trade between Asia and Europe. The major company engaged in the Euro-Asian trade was the English East India Company. The only other East India Company to be constituted in the first half of the seventeenth century was the Genoese Compagnia Genovese delle Indie Orientali founded in 1647. The French East India Company was of importance only between about 1725 and 1770 and the Danish Asiatic Company over the last quarter of the eighteenth and the first few years of the nineteenth century. In fact, from the early years of the seventeenth century the Dutch were the undoubted masters of the European bullion trade and Amsterdam the leading world centre of the trade in precious metals. The Dutch pattern of involvement in intra-Asian trade, on the other hand, had a logic involving the forging of important new commercial links across the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
  • 4 - The companies in India: the politics and the economics of trade
    pp 111-174
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    In the case of the Dutch East India Company, the phase until about 1680 was basically one where the importance of the Indian trade was derived chiefly from its role in the Company's intra-Asian trade. It is noted that the Dutch East India Company was the first northern European corporate enterprise to establish factories in India. The process was started on the Coromandel coast with the establishment of a factory at Petapuli on the northern segment of the coast in 1606. This chapter considers the absence of coercion in the relationship between the Indian political authorities and the northern European trading companies. This was by and true for all Indian regions other than the Malabar coast until the rise to power of the English East India Company in Bengal. The rise of a number of port cities on both the east and the west coasts of India can be directly attributed to the commercial operations of the European trading companies.
  • 5 - Euro-Asian and intra-Asian trade: the phase of Dutch domination, 1600–1680
    pp 175-210
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    The position around 1680 which marked the end of the first phase of the European companies' trading activities in Asia, the two giants including the Dutch and the English between themselves accounted for practically the entire Company trade. The Dutch East India Company's trade on the Coromandel coast registered a significant increase over the seventeenth century. Sri Lanka, Malabar and Persia were the other places in Asia to which the Company sent Bengal goods. The exports to Coromandel and Sri Lanka included textiles, raw silk and provisions such as rice, sugar, long pepper, wheat and clarified butter. The most important commodity the English Company procured in India was, of course, textiles for both its intra-Asian as well as its Euro-Asian trade. Besides the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English, the only other European enterprise active in Asia over the first three quarters of the seventeenth century was the Danish East India Company.
  • 6 - The VOC and the growing competition by the English and the French, 1680–1740
    pp 211-267
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    The last two decades of the seventeenth and the early part of the eighteenth century marked a major qualitative change in the Dutch East India Company's trade between Asia and Europe. Between 1708 and 1715, the average value of the textile exports from Coromandel per annum approximated two million florins. As far as textiles were concerned, Gujarat had its share in the fastgrowing European market for Indian textiles. In a memorandum submitted in 1741, Van Imhoff had argued that the Company's trade in the factories west of Malacca had been compared very unfavourably with that carried on by its competitors such as the English and the French. Traditionally, a considerable amount of trade was carried on between the ports in Bengal, the Coromandel coast, Malabar and the Kanara coast on the one hand, and those in Sri Lanka on the other. In 1670, the VOC monopolized the Sri Lanka trade in all major commodities, the only exception being rice.
  • 7 - The supremacy of the English East India Company, 1740–1800
    pp 268-314
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    A major circumstance contributing to the unprecedented growth in the English trade was the wresting of political authority by the Company in Bengal, the most important region of its trade, between 1757 and 1765. Bengal continued to be by far the most important area of operation for both the Dutch and the English East India companies. The English Company no doubt had acquired a special position in the region, but on nowhere near the scale it had been able to do in Bengal. The French presence on the coast had at best a nuisance value. The available data do not permit a precise division of the value of the textiles exported by the Company from Coromandel between the European and the Asian markets. The Dutch connection with Malabar came to an end in the 1790s. From 1792, the factors at Cochin were trying to sell the Company's establishments to the raja of Travancore.
  • 8 - European trade and the Indian economy
    pp 315-336
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    The principal distinguishing feature of Euro-Asian trade in the early modern period was its bullion-based character. The fact that the rate of growth of the Europeans' demand for goods such as textiles and raw silk was almost always greater than the rate at which their output increased turned the market increasingly into a sellers' market. Quite apart from the implications of European trade for real variables such as income, output and employment, there was an important range of issues in the monetary domain which were affected by this trade. A significant feature of the Mughal Indian economy was the rise of banking firms all over the empire dealing in extremely sophisticated instruments of credit. A colonial pattern of trade with agricultural and other raw materials together from the colony to the metropolitan world in exchange for finished manufactured goods produced on the machine did not emerge in the case of India.
  • 9 - Conclusion
    pp 337-351
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    The principal agencies instrumental in the running of the Euro-Asian commercial network in the early modern period were the European corporate enterprises, the Portuguese Estado da India in the sixteenth, and the Dutch, the English and the French East India companies in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. The seventeenth century was marked by a fundamental change in the character of the Euro-Asian commercial encounter. Textiles from Coromandel and Gujarat were indispensable for the procurement of pepper and other spices in the Indonesian archipelago, while raw silk from Bengal was the principal item exported to Japan. In the case of the Dutch East India Company, over the greater part of the century the importance of the Indian trade was derived chiefly from its role in the Company's intra-Asian trade. The second half of the eighteenth century witnessed a fundamental alteration in the nature of the Indo-European encounter.
  • Bibliographic Essay
    pp 352-365
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    This bibliography presents a list of titles that help the reader to understand the geographical explorations of European commercial enterprise in pre-colonial India. The lists of titles are alphabetical by authors, and each author's titles are listed chronologically. The article presented focuses on topics such as French and the minor companies, Indian merchants in the Indian Ocean trade. The seventeenth century was marked by a fundamental change in the character of the Euro-Asian commercial encounter. Textiles from Coromandel and Gujarat were indispensable for the procurement of pepper and other spices in the Indonesian archipelago, while raw silk from Bengal was the principal item exported to Japan. The second half of the eighteenth century witnessed a fundamental alteration in the nature of the Indo-European encounter. The article also explores the rise of coastal sites in India in a colonial context and emphasizes the structure of textile production and procurement in Bengal.


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