The Mercantile Network of Surat | From Mughal Era to Modernity

When it comes to India, it has been stated that all Europeans of the so-called ‘colonial era’ first came to Surat. They would then go on to seek permission from the Mughal Emperor to give them rights to trade from Surat as well as the rest of India.

The negotiations of Sir Thomas Roe are discussed in detail. When speaking of the rise and fall of the British in India, scholars tend to divide the story into five phases: the beginning, the formation, the rise to supremacy, the establishment of colonial rule and lastly the creation of a centre of power.

While the ports–and by extension the coastal cities–played a significant role in ‘the beginning’ phase of the journey, with time, this journey would stretch inland as well. The overland and sea routes complemented each other. These routes were used by a multitude of different people–from migrants to pilgrims to merchants as well as foreign travellers.

Early in the 17th century, the French merchant and traveller Jean-Baptiste Tavernier made six voyages to India. Tavernier was a diamond merchant and pioneer of the diamond trade with India who covered, by his own account, 180,000 miles over the course of forty years and six voyages.

Although he is best known for the discovery and sale of the 118-carat blue diamond that he subsequently sold to Louis XIV of France, (which was stolen in 1792 and re-emerged in London as The Hope Diamond), his writings show that he was a keen observer of his time as well as a remarkable cultural anthropologist.

Production was one aspect of India’s trade, but its produce could not have been transported or traded without the merchants. There were strong networks of merchants and financiers that existed across India. The need for brokers to actually supply the goods required for lading the ships destined for Europe were felt quite early on.

There were two very clear aspects of this transaction: firstly, the English had to borrow money from the local merchants; and secondly, that there were well-established patterns regarding the transfer of money from one place to another; with commissions to be charged based on the sum and distance. The services of brokers were also utilised for other things that were not directly concerned with the supply of goods, for instance, negotiating with the local bureaucracy.

There were thus two types of networks that were in existence–firstly, the physical ones that were used by merchants, pilgrims and so on; as well as the less tangible connections which consisted of people. The networks of trade and traders were long-standing and well-established. The British did not have any networks of their own and could only gain access to the market through the merchants and brokers that they contacted in Surat and in other ports.

Surat was the most prosperous port in the Mughal empire. While it was a populous city during the Mughal era, it also hosted a large transient population, especially during the monsoon season, when ships could come and go from the ports without danger. During these periods, the city’s population would swell considerably.

While a lot has changed since those days, you could still conclude that a lot has not. These days, Surat, which is world famous for its diamond cutting and polishing, is known as the Diamond City of India. The city is home to various engineering plants like Essar, Larsen and Toubro and RIL. In 2019, Surat won the Netexplo Smart Cities Award 2019 with UNESCO in the resilience category.

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