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More on the Idea behind the Workshop

Material Encounters of the East India Companies 1600-1830

Questions for the Workshop from the Trading Eurasia Project Team

One ambition with the workshop “Material Encounters of the East India Companies” is to facilitate the crucial exchange between historians interested in the development of a consumer market for Asian goods in Europe and experts on specific goods traded by East India Companies. Historians often forget the extent to which curators can provide central information and new insights based on their background in material culture. We are very happy with our line-up of specialists and we are really looking forward to hearing your papers.

However, we also thought it might be helpful if we gave you an idea about the issues we are particularly interested in addressing at the workshop, hoping this can provide some guidance for those giving papers and contributing to the discussion. We would like to take the chance to introduce some of the key areas of interest that come up in our current research. More information about the project can also be found on our web page (Europe’s Asian Centuries:Ttrading Eurasia

Collecting the Companies: Global and Transnational Perspectives

The histories of the East India Companies have largely been written as national or imperial histories. Focusing on material culture and trade such traditional approaches can become problematic; e.g. national narratives often fail to address the fact that the companies were competing for the same goods in Asia and that they sold their goods to overlapping markets in Europe. New materials, techniques and designs circulated within Europe and Asia and shaped local markets. We are keen to learn more about these movements and entanglements, influences and transformations. The starting point for this session is that the purchase and consumption of East India goods needs to be understood against a transnational backdrop.

A good example is how the Danish and the Swedish East India Companies re-exported large quantities of the goods they procured (between 70% and 90%). Moreover, in 1772 the Danish authorities made the trade with India free (while the Asiatic Company continued to have a monopoly over the Chinese market). A large number of European merchants (not only Danes) started to use Copenhagen as their entrepot, again with the aim of re-exporting goods.

The large quantities of goods re-exported illustrate the extent to which these smaller East India Companies were to a high degree trading with a larger European market in mind. We still know very little about the dissemination of Asian luxuries to markets in continental Europe. More research has to be done on the re-export from places like Copenhagen, Bordeaux and London.

With this in mind we want to study the market for East India goods as a transnational phenomenon within a global setting. Rather than thinking about the Companies as separate units sending out ships to China and India, in order to bring home a supply for their local markets we want to think about European merchants competing with different Asian markets over the purchase of goods they thought would sell best in Europe. At the same time, they responded to regional differences in taste and managed to establish sophisticated markets across Europe for specific objects and designs.


Turning to our panel of experts on the different East India Companies and the goods they brought in: we are particularly interested to know if we can identify the end consumer of an object by looking at its design. For example, is it possible to delineate differences in the usage and design of East India goods that suggests the existence of geographically separated markets?

To add a social historical dimension to this, were the goods aimed at the lower income consumers decorated in a “Pan-European” style, while perhaps the objects consumed by wealthier consumers differentiated according to the taste of a specific national elite?

What in the archives and collections of museums can be used to illuminate transnational movements of goods which might have been overlooked in wake of more national histories?

East and West dialogue: Transfer of Knowledge and Design

Large amounts of goods were brought over from the East. In this session we want to focus on the designs and the different qualities of these goods. One ambition here is to bring together histories of singular objects, imported from Asia (histories that often emphasis the uniqueness of an object) with a history of the East India trade that focuses on quantity and quality specifications. There seems to be a tension between conflicting goals in the East India trade, especially for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. On the one hand, there was a need for standardisation and quality control that could facilitate the mechanics of trade but on the other hand, the East India Companies also aimed at (establishing) new fashions and novel goods that would ensure their profits.

One ambition is to find out more about what the Companies had in mind when ordering goods, and if it is possible to detect the rise of more specific consumer groups and consumer demands by looking at the import of specific qualities and designs. This also raises a series of questions about the ability of Asian manufacturers to provide for changing European fashions, to alter dimensions and designs of their products.

Existing research on the import of porcelain suggests a way forward in thinking about these issues. The orders the British supercargoes received from Europe to buy porcelain were sometimes surprisingly crude; the quantities ordered were specified in “tons” (i.e. the weight) of cups and saucers. Turning our attention to other goods, most importantly perhaps textiles, we wonder if it is possible to read the market by looking at their specific designs and qualities.


Are there some textile designs/qualities which, like “blue and white” china, became a generic ware, a bulk cargo, produced without much attention to specific designs?

The porcelain trade also illustrates how certain designs travelled, “the Lady with the Parasol”, is one example of a design that originated in the Netherlands, but became so popular that the other companies (then the VOC) came to order it as well. It even moved to other porcelain producing areas (Japan) where it became appropriated into a wider repertoire of decorative designs. Are there similar examples of textile designs travelling between Europe and Asian and within Asia?

Is it possible to establish a chronology of change in designs/quality and what would such a chronology tell us about the dialogue between East and West?

The Private Trade: luxury and bulk purchases

Private trade with Asia is hard to trace in the archives of the East India Companies. In contrast to the Company trade material, private trade accounts were not systematically collected and conserved. Still, the collections of museums across Europe and the United States are filled with objects of exceptional beauty that were brought in mostly on private accounts, as gifts, souvenirs or as private commissions.

In this session we want to focus on how private trade can enrich our understanding of the consumption of goods from Asia. Comparing the private trade to the Company trade offers opportunities to study the development of markets and trends. Generally the assumption seems to be that the Companies imported goods that sold to the broader markets, while the private trade focused on the top end of the market or even individual people, something that suggests only a small market share. But there are indications that the private trade was much more important than this, e.g. in the Swedish case where the value of the private trade varied between 21% and 41% of the total cargo, with different members of the crew (on board) and staff (at home) being allocated different amounts of space on each journey. In the case of the British Company London China dealers frequently mediated between clients who wanted to order porcelain with specific designs, and members of the crew of the Indiamen sailing to China. The former, who carried out orders, were responsible for their execution and transport home.  This was no simple task for commanders, supercargoes or ship’s carpenters. Personal taste and experience was as important as to have the right network of suppliers, agents and partners both in Europe and in Asia. Relatively recent studies that focus on the so-called privilege trade as well as on illicit trading activities suggest the need for a reevaluation of the overall impact of private trade between Asia and Europe.

We can assume that the private trade was a large part of the whole trade and was an activity in which many had an interest, not only those who travelled on the ships but also a whole network of Company servants, retailers and clients. This raises a series of questions relating to the goods that came from Asia.


What can objects in museums and collections tell us about the practice and extent of privately traded goods and how it changed over time?

Did privately imported top-end-of-the-market products transform consumption, e.g. did such items trigger import of cheaper copies organised by the companies?