the english turn to india -- 10/19/21

Today's selection -- from Merchant Kings by Stephen R. Bown. In the 1600s, the English ceded dominance of the Spice Islands to the Dutch, and instead, in a monumental decision, changed its focus to the silks, indigo dye, cotton textiles, and saltpetre of India. In fact, it was saltpetre from India that fueled the European wars of the late 1600s and 1700s:

"The new king, Charles II, issued a new royal charter to the [English East India Company], giving it extraordinary pow­ers it had never possessed before -- empowering it to wage war, administer justice, engage in diplomacy with foreign princes, acquire territories, raise and command armies and capture and plunder ships violating its monopoly. Like the VOC, the English East India Company had now acquired many of the powers of a state. Its mandate, however, was to deploy these new powers in the service of the shareholders rather than of the state. Though only a fraction of the VOC's size, the English company was now effectively a state within a state -- at least, it could operate this way outside Europe.

"The company prudently decided against pursuing a new pri­vate commercial war against the VOC in the Spice Islands and instead refocused on India, where it had enjoyed modest success. Spices would no longer be the primary goal of the enterprise­ access to cheap spices direct from the source was controlled by the VOC, whereas India offered new and valuable commodities such as silks, indigo dye, cotton textiles and saltpetre, the vital ingredient in gunpowder that was in perpetual short supply in Europe and would drive the company's fortunes for over a cen­tury. Surat officially became the company's new headquarters, and the few remaining personnel in Bantam were transferred to Surat. Not that conflict between England and the Dutch Republic had ceased -- only a few years later, in 1664, Rich­ard Nicolls commanded Pieter Stuyvesant and the Dutch West India Company to hand over the city and port of New Amster­dam to English troops.

Saltpetre used for gunpowder was one of the major trade goods of the company

"Throughout the remainder of the seventeenth century, the English company's trade and profits were modest but steady, and they increased with its time in India. By the early eighteenth century, the company had established three distinct 'presiden­cies' in the Indian subcontinent: at Surat along the northwest coast, Madras along the central east coast and Calcutta in the northeast. The VOC had a strong presence in India, but the subcontinent was enormous and the Dutch company had no capacity to monopolize the commerce or even to war against its rivals. Although the two companies were engaged in some intrigue and squabbling over access to saltpetre, this was not direct warfare, as had occurred over spices.

"Saltpetre -- crystals formed in the earth from bacterial action on animal dung and urine, with the assistance of heat­-formed with particular vigour in the sewage-sodden soils of the agricultural heartland of Bengal, around Calcutta, where the extraordinary heat and prolonged dry season produced great quantities of the highest quality. 'East India,' according to one seventeenth-century merchant, 'gloryeth as much in this [salt­petre] as in its spices.' By the end of the seventeenth century India was the primary source of supply for almost all of Europe, and by the eighteenth century many European companies had agents, warehouses and social or commercial relationships with the various saltpetre producers in India. Because of its heavy weight, saltpetre was used as ballast before ships set sail, and their other valuable cargo was piled on top.

"Indian saltpetre to a large extent fuelled most of the Euro­pean wars from the mid-seventeenth century through the eighteenth century. In Rival Empires of Trade in the Orient, 1600-1800, Holden Furber writes that throughout the second half of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth century the English East India Company's 'sales, with their steadily rising receipts from Bengal saltpetre, reflected an ever more warlike Europe.' The historian Jagadish Narayan Sarkar comments in the Indian Historical Qarterly that 'saltpetre was so much in demand in England that there was a standing order from the Company's authorities there for an annual supply.' In spite of the wild price fluctuations for saltpetre (depending on the state of war), the English and Dutch companies reaped vast profits from their mercantile activities and paid huge dividends to their shareholders and taxes to their respective governments."



Stephen R. Bown


Merchant Kings


Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2009, Stephen R. Bown


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