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Key Trends

There are a number of important shifts in the composition of the Company’s imports over the seventeenth and eighteenth century that are well known, and have been much discussed in the existing literature. Our database has the potential to shed new light on a number of these. The outcome of some preliminary analysis is discussed below.

While Surat and Bantam were the most prominent ports for English East India Company trade in the seventeenth century, it was Bengal that became the most important centre of trade in the eighteenth century, overtaking both Madras and Bombay. The proportion of the Company’s Asian imports that came from Bengal reached forty-seven per cent by 1700, and as much as fifty to sixty per cent after 1726. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the focus of East India Company trade shifted to China. Tea became particularly important in the latter half of the eighteenth century and replaced textiles as the primary Asian commodity imported. This growth of the China trade resulted in a slight decline in Bengal’s share of imports into England. In 1717, the first year tea was regularly imported, it accounted for just seven per cent of the Company’s Asian goods. By 1747, tea reached twenty per cent of the total, and in 1760 it was no less than forty per cent. A concrete figure for the amount of tea ordered is difficult to derive due to the large number of orders without specified quantities. Our database nevertheless reveals that the Company ordered around 26,465 peculs of tea in the period 1721-26, rising to 73,200 peculs for the 1746-1750 period. This latter figure also excludes several orders where the Company simply instructed the Canton supercargoes to buy up as much tea as could be procured.

The Company’s move towards goods from eastern India can be clearly discerned from our database. Our initial work compiling summary tables and charts has focused on textile piece goods as these can easily be compared across different areas, and because they constituted the major part of the Company’s annual order from Asia. The Company ordered the vast majority (nearly sixty per cent over this period) of its piece goods from Calcutta. The proportion of piece goods ordered from Bengal also increased over the eighteenth century, generally at the expense of Bombay. The overall amount of piece goods ordered from Bombay fell from a high of 930,000 in the 1717-1721 period to just 376,600 in the 1747-1751 period. Forty-seven per cent of all piece goods ordered were ordered from Bengal in the period 1707-1711, rising to sixty-six per cent 1747-1751. The proportion of piece goods ordered from Madras stayed generally between twenty and thirty per cent across the period. Whilst these changes are well known, the level of detail in our database allows a closer focus on the particular types of piece goods that were ordered from each of the Indian presidencies, how this changes over time, and which goods remained in high demand even in years where overall demand was depressed.

Another important trend in the Company’s trade that has been much discussed in existing scholarship is the increasing ‘specialisation’ of the EIC in terms of its growing focus on just a few principal commodities over the course of the eighteenth century. Certainly, when looking at piece goods orders, and the myriad different types and qualities, early eighteenth century orders appear to have been extremely diverse in their composition. There was a wide range of different types of piece goods ordered from both Bombay and Madras in the first few years of the period. The Company came to focus on guinea stuffs, chints, niccannes, and Anjengo textiles from Bombay, and longcloth and salampores from Madras, by the 1740s and 1750s. The range of different types of piece goods ordered from Bengal remained extensive however (comprising over 50 kinds of textiles, and myriad sizes and qualities) including well-known goods such as ‘seersuckers’, ‘taffaties’, ‘romalls’, ‘sannoes’, ‘gurrahs’ and ‘chints’. Moreover, our database draws attention to the immense range of different types and quality gradations within each of these categories of piece goods. As an example, whilst the Company’s Madras orders came to predominantly focus on salampores and longcloth, a much broader range of different types of these goods were ordered towards the middle of the eighteenth century. The Company asked for just five different types of Madras longcloth in 1707, compared with ten different kinds in 1715, and twenty-two in 1751. Four different kinds of salampores were ordered in 1707, compared to sixteen in 1752.

Further quantitative work on the raw data contained in our database promises to yield interesting questions and new perspectives on the East India Company’s system of trade in the eighteenth century.