Published by EH.NET (May 2005)

Om Prakash, Bullion for Goods: European and Indian Merchants in the Indian Ocean Trade, 1500-1800. Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 2004. 426 pp. Rs 850 (hardbound), ISBN: 8173045380.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lakshmi Subramanian, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.

This is a collection of essays written at various times and published over forty years in different journals. As such, therefore, it is a convenient assemblage and useful as a reference guide for students and scholars working on Maritime India in the pre- and early colonial period. The introduction, presumably written for this edition and collection, offers little that is new by way of interpretive insight or of synthesizing new research that has subsequently informed the configurations of Indian maritime history. It is, therefore, disappointing for those who are familiar with Om Prakash’s work, especially as the conclusions and formulations in many of the papers are repetitive and carried over without any revision.

Prakash’s principal contributions to the field of Indian maritime history have been in the systematic exploration of the Dutch colonial archive to tease out the complexities of the Indo-European encounter in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The region that he has studies in detail is Bengal and the focus has been on the workings of the Dutch Company in the country trade of the Indian Ocean. This has, however, not resulted in an undue emphasis on the European factor — in no way has his work been a reinvocation of the older Euro-centric perspective on the trade of the Indian Ocean. Instead, what Prakash has done is to explore very elaborately the workings of the Indian economy in the pre-colonial period and suggest broad formulations regarding the effects of European trade on the economy and indigenous enterprise and manufacture. The ‘Bullion for Goods’ pattern, which he has described at great length, had important implications for the Indian economy, even if some of these were neutralized by the existing system of Mughal taxation that skimmed off extra earnings by manufacturing groups.

The collection underscores the importance of global flows in the seventeenth-century world of the Indian Ocean, when the New World, Europe and Asia were drawn into the vortex of world trade — the connecting links being provided by American silver, European demand for cloth and spices and South Asian supplies of cloth at competitive prices. South Asia enjoyed a key position in this trading network, and the resilience of its merchant groups in deflecting the European efforts at monopolizing the carrying trade in the Indian Ocean was impressive. The advent of the North European in Asian waters was crucial in enhancing the contours of Maritime Asia — new markets in Southeast Asia represented an addition to the existing levels of trade and commercial activity. The one significant advantage that the Dutch enjoyed in the seventeenth century was its exclusive right to trade with Japan — a connection that brought in large quantities of precious metal.

The best chapters in the book deal with silver flows, bullion transfers and the working of the monetary system. Why the Indian economy, specifically Bengal, failed to respond to the bullion inflow with a price revolution has been a tantalizing question that historians have agonized over. The author addresses this question succinctly and draws attention to the fact that despite the increases in productivity and employment, demand was not matched by supply and it was the growing imbalance between demand and supply that created the price rise in a situation of overall stability in the prices of wage goods.

The reinforcement of India’s trading links with Southeast Asia forms the theme of a couple of essays, as the author details the nature of interest and investment by South Asian merchants and Southeast Asian royalty. Drawing on European documentation, which mentions almost absent mindedly the participations of the rulers of Siam and Sumatra, he elaborates on the interest of Southeast Asian rulers in much the same ways as other scholars working on the subject have done. We are told that the King of Siam had extensive trading interests, that Kling merchants were well represented in several Southeast Asian polities and that there were occasional altercations between rulers, merchants and Europeans. This is not a major revelation — we have had numerous such ad hoc notices — a fact that derives from the nature of documentation that is accessible and from the South Asian centric view of Southeast Asia. It is, perhaps, time that we worked in closer collaboration with Southeast Asian scholarship and explored larger issues relating to the nature of polities, the structure of commercial organization and the nature of the Indian presence in the region more closely, going beyond the predictable export manifest lists and the token mention of merchants in Southeast Asian courts. This, I hasten to add, is an attempt at being self-critical and not to put the onus on the author for what seems a South Asian bias in an understanding of the Indian Ocean trade.

Lakshmi Subramanian is Senior Fellow in History at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Calcutta. She is the author of Indigenous Capital and Imperial Expansion: Bombay, Surat and the West Coast (Oxford University Press, 1996) and Medieval Seafarers (Roli Books, 1999).