Goa in India’s economic history

India in the world economy

India, the world, and its economy: where does Goa figure?

India has been far more globalised for far longer than one would think.  From remote centuries, its long coastline has “afforded India convenient access to Asia and Africa as well as trading partnerships formed in the exchange of commodities ranging from textiles to military technology and from opium to indigo”.
This reminder starts off the work by economic historian at the London School of Economics and Political Science Dr.  Tirthankar Roy.  Amidst times of the collapsing rupees, it comes as an interesting reminder of the wider canvas.
Word-pictures are painted of diverse periods, sometimes overlapping.  Roy covers the “ports and hinterlands” till the year 1200, “receding land frontiers” from 1200 to 1700, and the Indian Ocean trade between 1500-1800, trade migration and investment (in two chapters, stretching over the periods 1800-1850, and 1850-1920).
Closer to our times, it also touches on colonialism and development (1860-1920), depression and decolonization (1920-1950), from trade to aid (1950-1980), and a return to the market (1980-2010).  The interpretations of the economics of war and the rise of nationalism in 20th century India is particularly insightful, specially when World War I is contrasted with World War II and its effects.  A concluding chapter is titled ‘A New India?’ (with the question-mark) while an introduction places India in the  context of global history.
Roy reminds us that cross-cultural exchanges of goods and ideas “by means of trade, conquest, migration, and investment forms an important part of human history”.
Yet, most writing on Indian economic history “emanates from region-bound scholarship” and has been “preoccupied with issues of land control and land revenue”, says this book.  Its author cites the pioneering works of William Moreland (1868-1938) and the mathematician, statistician, Marxist historian, and polymath D.D.Kossambi, of Goan origin incidentally.  Moreland was a British historian and specialist in the economic history of 16th and 17th century.
Given the tendency to often overlook Goa from studies of India, one was keen to see what references would figure in a volume of this kind.  There were quite a few.
For instance, for some time in history, the ancient trading zones in India formed around two critical resources: a navigable river, and a port located on the estuary of the river or near it.  The physical link between sea and land was achieved more by rivers than roads.
It is no coincidence that trade happened from places linked to the hinterland by efficient rivers, Roy writes.  This was true of Old Goa on the Mandovi too.  So was the case with Cambay (on the river Mahi), Surat (Tapi), Broach (Narmada), Arikamedu (Ponnaiyar), Tamralipti (Rupnarayan), Saptagram (Saraswati), Masaulipatnam (Krishna delta), Hooghly (Bhagirathi), Balasore (Budibalang, Subarnarekha), Sonargaon (Shitalakhya), and Kollam/Quilon.
Later, with the coming of the Europeans, there were other contrasts emerging too.  The Europeans “arrived in Asia with navigational experience acquired in the Atlantic.  They held a more global understanding of the markets for Asian goods than did the Asians themselves.” Also,in 1600, Europeans built ships, on average, larger in size than Indian ships, and with greater cargo capacity, widening the gap.
Western Europe’s growing participation in the Indian Ocean “was revolutionary on many fronts”.  But it was not their “raw violence”, amidst their keenness to establish a spice monopoly, which made the difference.  “The European gun-ships served little long-term political or economic purpose,” comments Roy.  Instead, he feels the “technological and institutional effects” of the European arrival were more critical.
On ship building there was “considerable learning”.  Indo-European trade brought new institutions into the Asian trading world.  English and Dutch East India Companies were much larger in scape and better able to weather risks.
There are other links to tiny Goa, its people and the Konkan which emerge in this insightful economic history of the wider region.
Along the text, Roy credits Kosambi with “offering the first major statement” in the big debate in ancient economic history, and conducted in the 1970s.  Kossambi argued that “feudalism” happened at the cost of commercialisation.  Buddhism, and maybe Jainism, had been religions patronised by the mobile merchant, according to Kossambi.  The monasteries, in turn, may have helped the states to collected taxes on trade.
Kossambi has also been quoted saying, “The inevitable counterpart of the caravan merchant…  was the new armed feudal landlord who squeezed a greater surplus from the land by force.”
Elsewhere in the book (p.68), Roy refers to the start of an early modern “world system” in the western Indian Ocean, from the 13th century.  The Mamluk sultans of Egypt successfully played a mediating role in trade between Asia and Europe in the 14th/15th centuries.  Merchants from Venice and Genoa operated a smaller alternative bridge via the Black Sea and overland across Persia.  “Ports on the Konkan and Malabar, notably Cambay, connected the Red Sea on the western side, with East Africa, South Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and South East Asia.
Besides Cambay, Roy looks at the importance of Surat. The Portuguese incidentally saw Surat as a threat to their designs to control the West Asian trade, and therefore sacked the port city in 1530.
Of interest to us here, Roy comments, “In the sixteenth century, the Portuguese enterprise operated from Goa, Cambay, Cochin, and Bengal.  A century later, the Dutch and the English avoided sites where the chance of a direct confrontation with the Portuguese was increased.  Initially, the Dutch and the English operated from Surat and Masaulipatnam….  ” Later, in the second half of the seventeenth century, the English moved their base to Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta.
From p. 81 to 86, a section specially looks at ‘The Portuguese enterprise’.  The story begins in 1415 at Ceuta, a port city on the northwestern corner of the African continent.  From there we learn of “one of the poorest nations in Europe” whose people however “strong navigation skills”.
Oddly enough, their vessels’ small size (Vasco da Gama’s India trip included ships that were barely 200-250 tons) helped longer expeditions by requiring frequent stops.  “In this fashion, the Portuguese extended their presence from Ceuta to Tangier, Madeira, Cape Verde, Guinea, Senegal and Ghana between 1415 and 1480.”
Other interesting tid-bits of relevance to understanding our own local history:
  • The Portuguese Crown took a great interest in the trade and made the trade by the Cape route a monopoly of the Casa da India, a Crown trading firm.
  • The main interest of the Case da India was in trading as much Indonesian spices as possible without mediation.
  • In a section on Vijayanagar, the important state that emerged between the 14th and early 16th century, Roy notes that it is well known for having sponsored and depended on long-distance trade.  Land-locked, the Vijayanagar state policy to control the coast had much to do with who controlled the import of horses from Persia.  So, he writes, in the last half century of its rule, Vijayanagar even maintained cooperative relations with the newly-formed Portuguese settlements, its new neighbour then.  This helped them access the seacoast.
  • By the mid 16th century, manuscripts make “plentiful references” to Portuguese pirates who inhabited islands off the eastern seaboard.  Around 1530, Portuguese traders first visited Saptagram and started trading there.  In a decade when it became impossible to maneuver their large ships to the port, they formed their settlement at Betore, further south on the west bank of the Bhagirathi, and brought smaller boats up to Saptagram.
  • Indo-European trade laid the foundation for a new economic order in Asia and in Europe, Roy argues.  He says: “Asian goods created new consumer markets in Europe.  Asian trade had a formative effect on the world’s money markets.  In the 18th century, the European desire to maintain the supply of Asian goods contributed to the motivation to colonize.”
Both at the level of details, and while it paints in broad brush-strokes, this is an interesting and useful book.  Besides the interest it has to the reader in a place like Goa, it also does an impressive job of unravelling the economic forces that shape Indian history.
India in the World Economy: From Antiquity to the Present
Tirthankar Roy
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi
2012 first published. 2013 first South Asian edition.
ISBN: 978-1-107-03639-0 (Hb)
288 + xiv pp
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About fredericknoronha

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