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Historiographical Context

K.N. Chaudhuri’s seminal quantitative work in The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company (1978) remains the most comprehensive body of statistics detailing the overall level of the Company’s imports and exports between 1660 and 1760. Thanks to Chaudhuri we have detailed tables showing the import and export values, and quantities, of the principal commodities the EIC traded in. He also calculated overall import and export levels in terms of weight and invoice value for this period, using the Company’s commerce journals (BL, IOR L/AG/1/6).

Huw Bowen’s more recent work, compiled in his East India Company Trade and Domestic Financial Statistics, 1755-1838 dataset (2007) extended Chaudhuri’s research into a later period. Bowen’s dataset contains statistics on the volume and value of the Company's trade in silver and commodities between Britain and Asia, providing information on a range of different commodities including textiles, tea, and metals. The data details the changing value, volume, and geographical structure of the East India Company’s overseas trade for the period when the Company began to exert imperial control over large parts of the Indian subcontinent. Until the appearance of Bowen’s dataset, quantitative data on the Company’s trade derived from original papers had only been available for the years before 1760. Bowen also made use of the Company’s ‘commerce journals’ to build the database.

We therefore have valuable and extensive information on the Company’s exports and imports over a substantial period, covering both India and China. We know much less about what was actually ordered by the Company in the lists sent out to their Asian establishments every year. Very often, what was ordered differed quite considerably from what was in fact received in London on homeward shipping; Chaudhuri recognised this inexact relationship between Company orders and Company imports. This discrepancy is discussed in more detail below. The Europe’s Asian Centuries database therefore provides important information regarding what Asian goods the Company desired, and what they believed were rising commodities. The database can be used to discern the changing composition of Asian goods the Company ordered, both in terms of commodity type and geographical origin, and reveals when new kinds of goods appeared in the Company’s portfolio of commodities. It also draws attention to the wide range of different types and qualities of each sort of commodities the Company ordered. We envisage the database will be useful for historians seeking information on the shifting commercial realities of Eurasian trade, on the challenges associated with procuring Asian luxury goods for European markets, and on changing fashions. Comparing our database with existing work on the Company’s imports also has the potential to shed further light on how effectively the Asian factories were able to deliver what goods were ordered.