he Indian subcontinent attracted merchants from both within and without the old Indian Ocean trade network. The VOC exchanged silver and gold here for silks, textiles, and pepper. Trading posts were established in the Bay of Bengal (Hooghly), including the Coromandel Coast (Pulicat, Nagapattinam, and further on the Malabar Coast (Cochin), the Konkan and in Gujurat (Surat). Consequently, in each coastal region of India, detailed records of social, political, and economic dealings were kept.

Surat, the Mughal port to the Indian Ocean

he centre of the Mughal Empire's authority lay in Delhi, deep in India's interior. Its outlets to the sea were Bengal in the east and Gujurat in the west. The Province of Gujarat was a bright jewel in the Mughal crown. Its major port, Surat, represented an enormous source of wealth for Akbar and his successors on the Mughal throne. In order to enjoy trading rights, the European trading companies had to make large tributary payments to the Mughal emperors on a regular basis. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the ports at Surat, Ahmadabad, Cambay, and Broach were crucial connections within the Arabian seas and important markets for oxidental and oriental goods. Here the westerners bartered European, African, and Japanese luxury goods for indigo, sugar, textiles and other goods from Gujarat and the interior. Beautiful and seemingly endless Sindhi textiles and other luxury exports were in demand in Iran, Basra and Hormuz, and elsewhere throughout the Indian Ocean trade network.

The great maritime centre of Surat harboured an important merchant community. Their wealth was enormous, and some individual traders possessed as many as fifty ships. Others were engaged in high finance, extending credit to overseas enterprises. No surprise, then, that Surat became the centre of English and Dutch operations in the Arabian Seas region. From there the westerners expanded their interest to Bombay and further down the west coast, in Konkan and north Kanara, where the four ports of Chaul, Dabhol, Goa and Bhatkal served the needs of the Adil Shahi kingkom of Bijapur and the Nizam Shahi kingdom of Ahmadnagar. The growth or decline of these and other ports' fortunes (Calicut) was closely connected to European presence, as English and VOC factory records from Surat, Bombay and Vingurla reveal.


epper was the prime product of western India's Malabar Coast during the early seventeenth century. It was also the backbone of the Portuguese Asian spice trade. The fall of Portuguese Cochin to the Dutch in 1663 was a heavy blow to the Indo-Portuguese spice trade. But for the VOC , Cochin never became profitable, despite the conclusion of several pepper contracts with local princes and the equipping of cruisers to combat smuggling by sea.

Inheriting Portugal's pepper contract also meant inheriting its place among old rivalries on the Malabar Coast. The Dutch, following the example of the Portuguese Estado da India, became involved in the affairs of the Rajas of Cochin and Travancore and other Malabar princes. Costly wars on the Malabar Coast, such as the 1701 engagement with the Raja of Cochin against the Zamorin of Calicut and his allies, adversely affected VOC activities in the region. The Raja of Travancore finally put a stop to Dutch ambitions by soundly defeating the VOC , the Rani of Elayadathu Swaroopam, and their armies at Colachel in 1741. The VOC survived in a reduced capacity on the Malabar Coast until the British finally took possession of Cochin in 1795.

Historians of Malabar India have archival records from the VOC 's 200-year presence in Cochin and its eight outposts at their disposal. The seldom-used VOC sources at the Tamil Nadu Archives in Chennai provide valuable insights into the social and political history of Kerala, and the importance of maritime Malabar for the Arabians Seas region.


he Coromandel Coast had attracted western traders from Roman times. Tamil maritime contacts with the Persians and Arabs were even stronger. Arab merchants sailed to Southeast Asia from the ports of Coromandel, carrying pearls, corals, arecanuts, cardamom, silk and cotton textiles. When the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagara took over Tamil territory, maritime activities with Southeast Asia (Melaka) increased even more.

The Europeans entered the scene at a time when the Vijayanagar kingdom was in decline. This power vacuum allowed the Dutch to negotiate with the Sultan of Golkonda and the nayak or lesser lords directly. These lesser rulers then began leasing entire villages to the VOC . Indian princes traded with the Europeans, taxed them, and employed their military prowess for their own ends, and in turn the Indian villages produced both fine and staple goods for VOC export. Pulicat became the main centre of VOC activities on the Coromandel coast. Bimlipatam, Jagannathapuram, Masulipatnam, and Negapatnam were but a few of the other seventeenth-century VOC settlements dotting India's eastern seaboard. The records produced by these trading posts are as valuable now as their textiles were then. Because of their attention to detail and the bottom line, the expansive VOC archives are indispensable for any village or regional history of southern India.

The Bay of Bengal

he Bay of Bengal was situated, both geographically and commercially, at the heart of the vast intra-Asian trade network. Its trading ports flourished by their South China Sea connections on the one hand, and their Indian Ocean connections on the other. Southeast Asian producers had long demanded quality Indian textiles in return for their spices. Numerous Persian traders frequented the Bay's ports in search for profits. As a distinct trading zone with its specific cultural characteristics, the Bay of Bengal was therefore of immense importance for any European trading enterprise. To successfully develop its spice trade in island Southeast Asia, the VOC needed to participate along this essential axis of intra-Asian trade, the Maluku - India connection.

Trade settlements along the Hooghly River and throughout the Ganges Delta drew Asian and European traders to participate in the trade in raw silk and textiles, saltpetre, opium and slaves. In the 1630s the VOC began opening trading posts along the Ganges, eventually centring itself at Chinsura on the right bank of the Hooghly. With no fewer than a dozen trading posts along the Ganges from Agra to Patna, the VOC was the most important foreign commercial presence in Bengal until the British took over in the course of the eighteenth century.

Using VOC sources, Indian historians have been able to reconstruct the trading complex of Mughal Bengal. Bengal at times accounted for half of the VOC cargo to Japan and much of the total export to Europe. Bengal was the pre-eminent world exporter of raw silk and textiles during the 17th century and an indispensable importer of Japanese silver and Indonesian spices as well. Largely unstudied, the VOC -Hooghly records are of immense importance to improve our understanding of the strategic importance of the Bay's trading and political centres.

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