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Chapter 10 – Commerce

External commerce

Though many articles of luxury are mentioned in Menu, it does not appear that any of them were the produce of foreign countries. Their abundance, however, proves that there was an open trade between the different parts of India. There is one passage in the Code552 in which interest on money lent on risk is said to be fixed bymen well acquainted with sea voyages, or journeys by land.” As the word used in the original for sea is not applicable to any inland waters, the fact may be considered as established, that the Hindus navigated the ocean as early as the age of the Code, but it is probable that their enterprise was confined to a coasting trade. An intercourse with the Mediterranean no doubt took place at a still earlier period; but it is uncertain whether it was carried on by land, or partly by sea; and, in either case, whether the natives of India took a share in it beyond their own limits. It seems not improbable that it was in the hands of the Arabs, and that part crossed the narrow sea from the coast on the west of Sind to Muscat, and then passed through Arabia to Egypt and Syria; while another branch might go by land, or along the coast, to Babylon

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and Persia553. Our first clear accounts of the seas west of India give no signs of trade carried on by Indians in that direction. Nearchus, who commanded Alexander’s fleet (in 326 B. c.), did not meet a single ship in coasting from the Indus to the Euphrates; and expressly says that fishing boats were the only vessels he saw, and those only in particular places, and in small numbers. Even in the Indus, though there were boats, they were few and small; for, by Arrian’s account, Alexander was obliged to build most of his fleet himself, including all the larger vessels, and to man them with sailors from the Mediterranean554. The same author, in enumerating the Indian classes, says of the fourth class (that of tradesman and artizans),of this class also are the ship-builders and the sailors, as many as navigate the rivers555:” from which we may infer that, as far as his knowledge went, there were no Indians employed on the sea.

Trade from the west coast

The next accounts that throw light on the western trade of India are furnished by a writer of the second century before Christ556, whose knowledge only extended to the intercourse between Egypt and the south of Arabia, but who mentions cinnamon and cassia as among the articles imported,

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and who, moreover, expressly states that ships came from India to the ports of Saba (the modern Yemen). From all that appears in this author we should conclude that the trade was entirely in the hands of the Arabs.

It is not till the first century after Christ that we obtain a distinct account of the course of this trade, and a complete enumeration of the commodities which were the objects of it. This is given in thePeriplus of the Erythraean Sea,” apparently the work of an experienced practical sailor in that part of the ocean. He describes the whole coast of the Red Sea, and of the south-east of Arabia; and that of India, from the Indus round Cape Comorin to a point high up on the coast of Coromandel; and gives accounts of the commerce carried on within those limits, and in some places beyond them. From this writer it appears that, nearly until his time, the ships from India continued to cross the mouth of the Persian Gulf, and creep along the shore of Arabia to the mouth of the Red Sea; but that, at a recent period, the Greeks from Egypt, if not all navigators, used to quit the coast soon after leaving the Red Sea, and stretch across the Indian Ocean to the coast of Malabar.

The trade thus carried on was very extensive, but appears to have been conducted by Greeks and Arabs. Arabia is described as a country filled with pilots, sailors, and persons concerned in commercial business; but no mention is made of any

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similar description of persons among the Indians, nor is there any allusion to Indians out of their own country, except that they are mentioned with the Arabs and Greeks, as forming a mixed population, who were settled in small numbers on an island near the mouth of the Red Sea, supposed to be Socotra.

Coasting trade

So much, indeed, were the Arabs the carriers of the Indian trade, that in Pliny’s time their settlers filled the western shores of Ceylon, and were also found established on the coast of Malabar557. But in the same work (the “Periplus”) the Indians are represented as actively engaged in the traffic on their own coast. There were boats at the Indus to receive the cargoes of the ships which were unable to enter the river on account of the bar at its mouth: fishing boats were kept in employ near the opening of the Gulf of Cambay to pilot vessels coming to Barygaza, or Baroch; where, then as now, they were exposed to danger from the extensive banks of mud, and from the rapid rise of the tides. From Baroch, southward, the coast was studded with ports, which the author calls local emporia, and which, we may infer, were visited by vessels employed in the coasting trade; but it is not till the author has got to the coast on the east of Cape Comorin, that he first speaks of large vessels which crossed the Bay of Bengal to the Ganges and to Chryse, which is probably Sumatra, or the Malay peninsula.

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Trade from the east

This last circumstance is in complete accordance with the accounts derived from the east, by which the inhabitants of the coast of Coromandel seem early to have been distinguished by their maritime enter. coast. prise from their countrymen on the west of India.

It is probable, from the nature of the countries which they water, that at the same time when Nearchus saw so little sign of commerce on the Indus, the Ganges may have been covered with boats, as it is at this moment, and as the number of ancient and civilised kingdoms on its shores would lead us to anticipate. The commodities supplied by so rich and extensive a region could not but engage the attention of the less advanced countries in the Deckan; and as the communication between that part of India and the Ganges was interrupted by forests, and plundering tribes, both probably even wilder than they are now, a strong temptation was held out to the sailors on the eastern coast to encounter the lesser danger of making the direct passage over the Bay of Bengal; on which, without being often out of sight of land, they would be beyond the reach of the inhabitants of the shore.

This practice once established, it would be an easy effort to cross the upper part of the bay, and before long, the broadest portion of it also, which is that bounded by the Malay peninsula and Sumatra. But, whatever gave the impulse to the inhabitants of the coast of Coromandel, it is from the north part of that tract that we first hear of

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Indians who sailed boldly into the open sea.

Hindu settlements in Java and other eastern islands

The histories of Java give a distinct account of a numerous body of Hindus from Cling (Calinga), who landed on their island, civilised the inhabitants, and who fixed the date of their arrival by establishing the aera still subsisting, the first year of which fell in the seventy-fifth year before Christ. The truth of this narrative is proved beyond doubt by the numerous and magnificent Hindu remains that still exist in Java, and by the fact that, although the common language is Malay, the sacred language, that of historical and poetical compositions, and of most inscriptions, is a dialect of Shanscrit. The early date is almost as decisively proved by the journal of the Chinese pilgrim in the end of the fourth century, who found Java entirely peopled by Hindus, and who sailed from the Ganges to Ceylon, from Ceylon to Java, and from Java to China, in ships manned by crews professing the Braminical religion558. The Hindu religion in Java was afterwards superseded by that of Budha; but the Indian government subsisted till the end of the fourteenth century; when it was subverted by Mahometan proselytes, converted by Arab missionaries in the course of the preceding century. The island of Bali, close to the east of Java, is still inhabited by Hindus; who have Malay or Tartar features, but profess to be of the four Hindu classes. It is not impossible that they may be so

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descended, notwithstanding the alteration in their features; but it is more probable that their pure descent is a fiction, as we have an example of a still more daring imposture in the poets of Java, who have transferred the whole scene of theMaha Bharat,” with all the cities, kings, and heroes of the Jamna and Ganges, to their own island.

Trade in times subsequent to the Greeks

The accounts of voyagers and travellers in times subsequent to the “Periplus” speak of an extensive commerce with India, but afford no information respecting the part taken in it by the Indians, unless it be by their silence; for while they mention Arab and Chinese ships as frequenting the ports of India, they never allude to any voyage as having been made by a vessel of the latter country559.

Marco Polo, indeed, speaks of pirates on the coast of Malabar, who cruised for the whole summer; but it appears, afterwards, that their practice was to lie at anchor, and consequently close to the shore, only getting under weigh on the approach of a prize. When Vasco da Gama reached the coast of Malabar, he found the trade exclusively in the hands of the Moors, and it was to their rivalry that he and his successors owed most of the opposition they encountered.

The exports from India to the West do not Exports in seem, at the time of thePeriplus,” to have been very different from what they are now: cotton cloth, muslin, and chintz of various kinds; silk cloth

and thread; indigo and other dies; cinnamon and other spices; sugar; diamonds, pearls, emeralds, and many inferior stones; steel; drugs; aromatics; and, sometimes, female slaves.


The imports were – coarse and fine cloth (probably woollen); brass; tin; lead; coral; glass; antimony; some few perfumes not known in the country; wines (of which that from Italy was preferred); together with a considerable quantity of specie and bullion.

Inland trade

The great facility of transport afforded by the Ganges and its numerous branches has been alluded to; but, as few of the other rivers are navigable far from the sea, the internal trade must always have been mostly carried on by land. Oxen would be the principal means of conveyance; but as, from the earliest Hindu times to the decline of the Mogul empire, the great roads were objects of much attention to the government, we may, perhaps, presume that carts were much more in use formerly than of later years.


552. Chap. VIII. 156, 157.

553. Vincent’s Commerce and Navigation of the Ancients, vol. ii. pp. 357–370.

554. See Expeditio Alexandri, book vi. pp. 235, 236., ed. 1704, and Indica, chap. xviii. p. 332. of the same edition.

555. Indica, chap. xii. p. 325.

556. Agatharchides, preserved in Diodorus and Photius. See Vincent’s Commerce and Navigation of the Ancients, vol. ii. p. 25.

557. Vincent’s Commerce and Navigation of the Ancients, vol. ii. p. 283.

558. See Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, No. IX. pp. 136 – 138.

559. See, in particular, Marsden’s Marco Polo, p. 687.

This collection transcribed by Chris Gage
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