By Wil O. Dijk


The VOCís seventeenth century trade with Burma is a heretofore little known aspect of the Dutch East India Companyís inter-Asian commerce. Their Burma trade was based on Indian textiles, particularly the cheaper, coarser varieties from the Choromandel Coast much favoured by the commoner people who could well afford an occasional length of imported Indian cloth, as indicated by newly available data.



The demand for the products of Indian looms was enormous, almost from time immemorial, or so it seems. There were piece goods as well as articles of apparel, such as lungis, shawls cummerbunds and turbans. Indian cloth was skilfully woven and coloured in dyes that were fast to washing. Some had a fabulous lustre polished to a sheen. These high quality textiles were much sought after and had been traded for centuries throughout Asia and beyond. Most came in a wide range, from super fine to very coarse. The wealthy coveted fabrics of a delicate softness with complex patterns or trimmed with decorative gold designs, while the common folk were happy enough with coarser cloth for daily wear.


The Dutch stumbled upon this ancient inter-Asian trade quite by accident. They had made their way from Holland to the distant ďSpice IslandsĒ merely to discover that the spices they wanted could only be had in exchange for Indian cotton textiles, particularly from Choromandel. Arriving on Indiaís east coast, the Dutch chanced upon the highly lucrative, textile-based trade across the Bay of Bengal to countries such as Burma.


The VOCís main interest in Burma was as an import market. At no time did the Dutch go there with silver or gold to procure Burmese goods. Rather, their cargoes to Burma were chiefly made up of large assortments of medium to coarse Indian cloth, often made to order in Choromandel and Bengal specifically for the Burmese market. Indian red cotton yarn was a key commodity of trade as well.


To have a clear understanding of the role of textiles in seventeenth century Burmese society, it is important to realize that two distinct categories of cloth fulfilled important functions in quite separate worlds. The first category, consisting of luxurious and costly fabrics, belonged to the courtly, elite world of kings and courtiers where gifts were offered and favours bestowed. The second category, made up of coarse, cheap common grades of textiles, was traded in the rather more prosaic, dusty world of shops and marketplaces where merchants drove a hard bargain. These simple everyday cotton textiles, geared to the needs of the man in the street, were the mainstay of the VOCís Burma trade.


The delicate, costly textiles that made up the first category were a key element in elite display. During Burmaís festivals, in particular, the nobility were arrayed in sumptuous garments: velvet skirts with gossamer mantles or stately robes with wide sleeves and gold chains. Throughout their years in Burma, the Dutch too came bearing gifts of luxurious fabrics such as Persian and Chinese satins, silks, damasks, brocades and velvets, Dutch silver, gold, scarlet, green, and black laken as well as the most exquisite of the Indian textiles, including delicate bethilles, cattawany-calmcaris, cattawany-talpony and painted calmcaris. The Burmese paid exceedingly close attention to the quality, colour and measurements of these materials. For instance, Dutch laken intended for the King was required to have a length of 3 to 4 covids (one covid being on average 40 cm, the distance from the tip of the middle finger to the elbow; the forearm) rather than 6, seeing that close to 4 covids went into His Majestyís robes. The King had also let it be known that he preferred scarlet to black.


The Burmese were just as exacting about the quality and sizes of the second category of textiles Ė the simple commercial cloth that changed hands in the rather more mundane world of merchants and markets. They demanded that all the piece goods that made up a single bale be identical. Furthermore, each piece of painted moorees must have a width of at least 1Ĺ and a length of 16 covids, while chiavonis, bethilles, mulmul and the like should be 32 covids long. These precise measurements were crucial since, for example, exactly four men's lungis could be made from a single 32-covid piece.


Various types of painted dooputty and striped and checked piece goods with a length of 18 covids came from Pulicat, Tegenepatnam and Masulipatnam. The men wore these in their entirety draped from the hips down and gathered in thick folds in front in a striking manner. Women, on the other hand, used just one quarter of an 18-covid piece for their lungis, since they did not gather the material about the waist quite as extravagantly as the men. On festive days, the women would dress in lungis made from lengths of calmcaris or cattawany that measured one genil (16 covids long and 2 covids wide). They wore chiavonis with red silk tops entire as it came from the loom on their heads and used it for making cabayas as well when no bethilles or mulmul was available. They made cabayas from Golcondan tampis too and sometimes from Bengali cortis. Tightly woven cloth such as moorees, salempoory and sanen was dyed yellow in Burma and served as monksí habits. The Burmese also used a great deal of locally woven material, but because Burmese looms produced cloth that was only half the width of the Indian product, these pieces needed to be stitched together, resulting in unattractive seams. This above all made the broader Indian fabrics so popular among the populace in general. Burmaís elite on the other hand tended to prize the Indian textiles for their excellent quality and skilful workmanship.


Fine cattawany topped the list of expensive Indian textiles. It varied considerably in price with certain pieces fetching as much as 100 to 140 viss of ganza (one viss equals 3 lbs and ganza is an alloy of copper and tin that, broken into chunks and unstamped, served as Burmaís money Ė two viss of ganza equalling one Dutch guilder) while others sold for a mere 57 viss of ganza, indicative of its wide range in quality. Cattawany-talpony and calmcaris-cattawany were among the most profitable of the Burmese assortment. Since the finer, dearer fabrics were well beyond the general populace's reach, the Dutch imported considerable quantities of textiles that ranged in price from 11 to 17 viss of ganza per piece. However, the VOC ships crossing the Bay of Bengal from the Choromandel Coast to Burma were laden predominantly with common grades of cloth in the lowest price range of 5 to 9 viss of ganza - well within reach of those of modest to small means. The Dutch factors in Burma always placed large orders for materials such as low-priced, tightly woven brandams, guinea cloth and single-ply taffachelas as well as Golcondan dungarees, which is a simple coarse cotton cloth used for clothing by people of meagre means and also for sails of praus and packing material.


Colourfast Indian red cotton yarn was also in great demand in Burma since it was basic to much of the locally woven cloth. The Burmese mixed the imported red yarn with indigenous white yarn and some silk to weave beautiful clothes for the royal family and the nobility. In times of plenty, the people would weave cloth from Indian red and Burmese white and blue yarn for themselves as well, either delicate or coarse, depending upon a personís social status and financial means. But no matter how the Burmese used the imported yarn, the fastness of the red dye was what mattered most.


The VOCís customers in Burma came from all walks of life - from kings to slaves. Dutch records indicate that their clientele included Muslims, Hindus, Armenians, Banyans, Portuguese, Chinese, Siamese, Turks, Peguans and Burmans. Many of the Muslim and Hindu merchants had been born in Burma to parents who traded there. These families had probably settled in Burma permanently many generations before. Local buyers coming in to do business with the Dutch were clearly small- as well as large-scale traders. Some would drop in on a regular basis, spending as little as 50 viss of ganza at any one time, while others came infrequently but would then spend a great deal more, sometimes as much as 3275 viss of ganza.


When correlating the average price of imported textiles with local wages and the cost of daily requirements, it is clear that Burmaís commoner people could well afford an occasional piece of Indian cloth. In fact, when comparing the earning power of the local labour force with that of its Indian counterpart, the Burmese clearly enjoyed a comparatively high standard of living in the seventeenth century, certainly when weighed against economic conditions on the opposite side of the Bay of Bengal. Newly available data proves that in those days wages in Burma were three times higher than in Choromandel, while the price of daily requirements was essentially the same. Even the wildly oscillating price of rice, a major factor in calculating Monsoon Asiaís general cost of living, was comparable.


The VOCís trade in Indian textiles with Burma was profitable throughout. But ultimately, their Burma trade became the victim of a change in Dutch fortunes when, towards the close of the seventeenth century, forces beyond their control brought an era of great prosperity for the Dutch East India Company to an end.


(Mrs) Wil O. Dijk is a PhD candidate at Leiden University in The Netherlands and is researching the Dutch East Asia Company (VOC) in Burma in the seventeenth century.

E-mail: Wil.Dijk@compaqnet.nl.