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Markets in eighteenth century Bengal economy


Tilottama Mukherjee
Indian Economic Social History Review 2011 48: 143
DOI: 10.1177/001946461104800201
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Markets in eighteenth century


Bengal economy
Tilottama Mukherjee
Department of History, Jadavpur University, Kolkata
This article explores the emergence, functioning and growth of markets in early modern Bengal
and suggests the existence of decentralised interlinked exchange sites whose numbers increased
over the course of the eighteenth century, with founders from diverse social groups and clearly
delineated rules about establishment and resolution of conflict. Markets were both extensive
as well as efficient with panoply of market regulations to ensure the smooth functioning of
these sites. Investment made by different strata of society, guiding principles determining the
spatial and temporal distribution of market places, the pervasive and robust service industry, internal consumption and mercantile penetration, in agriculture as well as other sectors,
consolidated the process of commercialisation and shaped the provincial economy. A differentiated merchant community, with differing scales of operation, area and profit margin,
serviced this economy. Both the indigenous and the early Company state were beneficiaries
of the taxes but they were not the prime movers. The Nizamat of Bengal played a facilitating
role in the smooth functioning of the market places, but the state even in the later part of the
eighteenth century did not or could not act as the sole unilateral arbiter of all that was happening in the economic sphere.
Keywords: market, eighteenth century, Bengal, economy, Nizamat

Eighteenth century markets in Eastern India were integrated into the sub continental and international trading networks and a dense and articulated system of
rural markets. Far from isolated or parasitic locations of lite consumption, cities
Acknowledgements: Grateful thanks to C.A. Bayly, Rajat Datta and Yogesh Sharma for their suggestions, comments and encouragement over the years, and to the anonymous referee for her/his
interventions. Thanks are also due to the staff of the British Library, the Cambridge University
Library, the West Bengal State Archives and the National Archives of India. The Commonwealth
Scholarship Commission provided funding for this research. The usual disclaimers apply.

The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 48, 2 (2011): 14376
SAGE Los Angeles/London/New Delhi/Singapore/Washington DC
DOI: 10.1177/001946461104800201

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144 / TILOTTAMA MUKHERJEE

and towns of Bengal were not entities that managed to extricate themselves from
what went on in the countryside; rather they were deeply implicated in market
systems that embraced both town and country. The Nizamat and the landed proprietors implicitly recognised the importance of mercantile activity and the impetus
that the proliferation of markets gave to the regional economy and hence ensured
that these sites remained rational. Even peasants, at the lowest level, formed a
part of this highly commercialised complex. Most of the monarchs, nazims and
other important functionaries were as publicly solicitous of the prosperity of interstate trade and internal commercial prosperity as they were for revenues that they
secured from agriculture. Their public posture obviously reflected that profound,
self-interested commitment to this trade. Alivardi Khan asserted that merchants
are the kingdoms benefactors, their imports and exports are an advantage to all
men.1 There was a widespread belief shared also by the English East India
Company that the more trade flourishes in a country, the better able will its inhabitants be to pay the Prince his Revenue.2 Merchants, trade and commerce
were vital and this perception was reflected in ballads, court literature, folk tales
and even found its way on the terracotta panels of temples. In the Mangalkavyas,
a typical genre of narrative ballads woven around local deities, one significant
line reads, wealth lies in commerce, half of that in agriculture; service with the
sovereign entails much trouble and all the householders agree that begging is the
most worthless of professions.3
Bengal experienced a long-term elaboration and expansion of the economy in
the eighteenth century, marked by urbanisation and commercial growth. Considering the great emphasis placed on the market by recent scholarship, we still
know remarkably little about the development of markets in the eighteenth century
or about the basic practices of market exchange. This article will study the distributive system, the chain of markets with the focus on the hats, (periodic small
rural market), ganjs (permanent local grain market) and bazars (permanent markets) of Bengalbut for the sake of convenience, the term market will be used to
denote these spaces of exchangeand the factors and processes associated with
its inception and growth as sites and networks of trade and commercial transactions.
The evidence here suggests the existence of decentralised marketing systems,
interlinked laterally rather than vertically, a plethora of markets increasing over
the course of the eighteenth century, with founders from diverse social groups
and clearly delineated rules about establishment and resolution of conflict. Both
the indigenous and the Company government were beneficiaries of the taxes, but
1
National Archives of India (NAI), Home Department Public Branch (Home Public), Vol. 1,
9 Jan. 1749, p. 73.
2
West Bengal State Archives (WBSA), Board of Trade-Commercial (BOT-Comm.), Vol. 10, 22
March 1777, p. 586.
3
Bharatchandra, Annadamangal, p. 78.

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Markets in eighteenth century Bengal economy / 145

they were not the prime movers or vectors of this highly resilient economy. The
fiscal necessity and political presence was not absent, rather in some way it was
pervasive, however the states presence was more in the form of a facilitating and
co-ordinating entity rather than a sole unilateral arbiter of all that was happening
in the economic sphere. A differentiated merchant community existed, with differing scale of operations, area and profit margin. Hard work and frugality, reliance
on family and kinship networks, at the same time religiosity and conspicuous
consumption were the features of this mercantile society. There was a huge array
of commodities that were produced, traded and consumed. The connections with
other parts of the subcontinent were important, the interconnectedness of the Bengal
economy making it a significant player in the subcontinents economy. It was a
consuming society, it was market oriented, although there were regional variations
with patches of both growth and decline.
Markets
Economic processes, as Polyani stated, were embedded in society.4 Subrahmanyam
has criticised some of Polyanis and Neales formulations for evidence of markets,
price fluctuations and dynamic rural society in early modern India does not bear
out their propositions.5 The study of the markets of early modern India has gathered
momentum in the last two decades.6 However, very few writings on Bengal have
analysed the workings of these spaces of exchange and purveyors of commercial
impulses in the economy. Except for Rajat Datta, Kumkum Chatterjee and the
cultural interpretations of David Curley and Sudipta Sen, scholars have either
ignored or inadequately addressed these issues.7 Even those who have worked on
some of the biggest internal industry of the period, such as the textile industry
have depicted the Bengal economy as subsistence oriented, with distribution
through traditional system of reciprocal exchange and limited exchange through
hats.8 Much of the evidence in the following pages will substantiate what Chatterjee
and Datta have shown in their monographs. Where this article differs the most
from their formulations is in charting the independent autonomous trajectory of
these institutions and projecting a decentralised yet resilient economy. The elaborate hierarchy that Chatterjee and Curley see as characteristic of this economy
4

Polyani, The Economy as an Instituted Process, pp. 24369.


Subrahmanyam, Merchants, Markets and the State, pp. 46.
6
See for instances the various articles in Subrahmanyam, Merchants, Markets and the State.
7
Rajat Datta, Rural Bengal: Social Structure and Agrarian Economy in Late Eighteenth Century,
Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 1990. Also Rajat Datta, Society, Economy and the Market;
Chatterjee, Merchants, Politics and Society; Sudipta Sen, Conquest of Marketplaces: Exchange,
Authority and Conflict in Early Colonial North India, Ph.D. thesis, University of Chicago, 1994.
Also Sudipta Sen, Empire of Free Trade; David Curley, Rulers and Merchants in the late Eighteenth
Century Bengal, Ph.D. thesis, University of Chicago, 1980. Also David Curley, Poetry and History.
8
Hossain, The Company Weavers of Bengal, p. xi.
5

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146 / TILOTTAMA MUKHERJEE

appears to be present in some instances. Dattas conception of producers and


small traders caught between the mill of coercive state revenue extraction and big
merchant domination appears to have been a trend in only certain areas. It was
because of the decentralised nature of these markets, that they were able to survive
in the eighteenth century despite the significant political changes occurring in the
later decades. The role of exchange, markets and consumption has been underestimated in relation to the overemphasis put on revenue extraction and the parasitic
role of towns as evidenced from Morelands monographs to works that are more
recent. This article attempts to address this bias in the historiography by focusing
on the role of individual initiative in the formation and functioning of markets
and generation of demand. It is undeniable that there was market contact in the
late eighteenth century, in the sense that peasants went to market in order to sell
produce to pay state revenues. It is difficult to believe, however, that commercialisation was also not market oriented,9 determined by different parties parlaying
of their interests in their context of a relatively free negotiation process. Peasants,
traders and intermediaries did not only approach the market because of institutional
pressure of revenues.
Ubiquitous and of all sizes, the markets were the chief feature in the economic
terrain of Bengal. It appears from the evidence that the interlocking spatial system
of central places was applicable to the Indian case.10 A loose hierarchy of markets
did exist tying the village to the city. According to Plattner,11 trade is drawn towards
a particular site, when markets become regular, adequate and secure and when
integration of a region occurs economically, politically and socially. Regional
integration comes from investment in infrastructure, which includes sufficient
and reasonably priced transport systems,12 political integration and individuals
who are knowledgeable about trade. These basic criteria were certainly present in
the early modern Bengal economy. One can discern much wider participation of
people from different strata of society.
Founders of Markets
Markets were founded at all levels of political authority in Bengal; they were
located according to various factors, including local topography, arterial trade
routes, light regulatory or taxation regimes and previous patterns of movement
for military or pilgrimage purposes. Much of previous historical work has supposed
9
As Jan de Vries states for Asia. See idem., The Industrious Revolutions in the East and West,
Session 25Labour-Intensive Industrialisation in Global History: Asian Experiences and Comparative
Perspectives. Paper Presented to the XIII International Economic History Congress, Buenos Aires,
26 July 2002, pp. 7, 9.
10
Skinner, Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China.
11
Plattner, Markets and Marketplaces, pp. 18182.
12
Mukherjee, Of Rivers and Roads, pp. 1542.

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Markets in eighteenth century Bengal economy / 147

that markets sprang up because of tributary revenue collection by landowners; in


paying their rent, peasants would be forced to start trading their production
surpluses on a market. To some extent, however, evidence of the diversity and
sophistication of trade pathways suggests that this account needs to be balanced
by a counter-vailing emphasis on the spontaneity of markets, which were created
at junctions where contractors or owners revenue or regulatory regimes were
comparatively light. By the onset of the eighteenth century, a finely tuned trading
network existed comprising both thousands of small transactions and bulk trading
by indigenous traders and Asian merchants as well as European Companies. A
diverse range of people, ranging from Nazims and other nobles, down to landed
proprietors, fakirs and merchants themselves, besides the Company, could initiate
licensed markets. Although it was not rare for the ultimate guarantor of the market
and collector of taxes to be the initiator, the system was rarely state-led in that
sense. The competing array of markets thus established, vying for the trade of the
region, imparted vigour to the marketing system that was sufficient in itself to
circumvent the heaviest forms of imposition of taxes and other rents.
The ruling lite played a full role in the chartering of markets. Documentary
evidence also demonstrated landed rulers and their officials acted as participating investors, subordinate to market principles, as well as fiscal beneficiaries and
guarantors. For instance, Munni Begum in 1180 B.S. (1773) established Atchah
ganj on ground that had been in the possession of the different subahdars (governors) of Bengal from the time of the Nizamat of Alivardi Khan. She also founded
the ganjs of Mozutachgunge, 13 Bibiganj (1769), Umdahganj (1777) and
Umraoganj (1778).14 The Nazims seem to have been particularly active in commercialising the exchange of commodities around their capital city Murshidabad.
What is perhaps most notable about these investments in ganjs on the part of
nobles is that they increasingly took place at a time when their political power
was being usurped by that of the Company. As other sources of income became
less lucrative or less reliable, the gentry turned to trade in order to boost their revenues; in addition, faced with the aggressive Company incursions in terms of
buying up claims, there was a need for the Nazims to make a manifest show of
their wealth and influence. Various members of ruling families even involved
13
WBSA, Revenue Department-Sayer, (Revenue-Dept.-Sayer), Original Consultations (O.C.),
22 May 1795, No. 4, pp. 1(b)2.
14
Around 1706 Nawab Jafar Khan founded Jaffarganj; Bubboo Begum held it since 1758 as a
family asset. Nawab Kasim Ali Khan originally set up Makhbarahganj in 1760-61. Bubbergung
was first established in 1194 B.S. (1787) on the orders of Nawab Mubarak ud daula, while Nawab
Jafar Ali Khan obtained permission for Mubarakganj in 1167 or 1168 B.S. (17601). WBSA, Revenue
Dept-Sayer, O.C., 22 May 1795, No. 4, pp. 13(b). For detailed lists of markets in Murshidabad,
their aristocratic founders, and net produce see WBSA, Revenue-Dept-Sayer, O.C., 14 Feb. 1794,
No. 2. WBSA, Board of Revenue (BOR) at Fort William, Vol. 24, 7 Sept. 1787, pp. 22223. See also
Sudipta Sen, Conquest of Marketplaces, pp. 5860.

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themselves in manufacturing and retailing liquor. Mubarak-ud-daula and his family


in particular dealt widely in toddy and spirituous liquors.15 A reconstruction of
their activities in this period would see these rulers, in spite of themselves, acting
almost as capitalists. Throughout the late eighteenth century, the Nazims tried to
maintain a lavish and ostentatious lifestyle. Display of all kinds was important in
advertising political and financial solvency, whatever the facts of their declining
revenue-bases and political redundancy. These forms of expenditure, trade and
market making represented a significant part of the regional economy.16
It is necessarily a simplification to assert that the Nizamat and landed proprietors interest in trade began when they were first confronted with organised
competition from the Company. Even in the earlier part of the century, rulers
were deeply concerned with the organisation of commerce or the revenues deriving
from trade, making efforts to remove obstacles in the paths of merchants, forging
certain routes and improving law and order. This benign supervision also allowed
them to attempt to regulate trade, particularly insofar as they appreciated its networks as the hidden armature holding together the component parts of a region.
In the eyes of the Nazims, the prosperity trade would bring to Bengal stood to
benefit not simply participating individuals or classes, but the area at large and
crucially, the coffers of the state treasury. The evidence from the Riyazu-s-Salatin
may suggest a greater degree of involvement, though not intrusive intervention,
than has traditionally been alleged in the historiography of the regions history.17
In giving their grace to the foundation of markets through sanads (official deeds),
the Nazims were content to set nirkh or price rates in the bazars at the prices that
the vendors generally regulated on their own, as subsequently confirmed by the
market supervisors (or daroga-i-bazar) official seal.18 Any form of collective
selling designed to charge travellers an artificially high price was detrimental to
the market holders interests; the market official was there to ensure dependent
farmers did not associate themselves in an unfair system or escaped paying the
dues and revenues. The Nazims allocated rights of monopoly in the trade of certain
commodities, particularly betel nut, to traders in return for a fee; other contractors
could also pay for the exclusive right of levy on certain classes of goods when the
ruler did not extract this.19 More than market-economic forces were at work in the

15
WBSA, Revenue Dept-Sayer, O.C., 31 Dec. 1790, No. 2. Among the list of owners, Mubarak
ud daula, Nawab Begum, Bubboe Begum, Mohammad Reza Khan, Raja Rajballabh, Jagath Seth
and Kanto Babu are mentioned. Also see Datta, Society, Economy and the Market, p. 202.
16
See Mukherjee, The Co-ordinating State and the Economy, pp. 397425.
17
Ghulam Hussain Salim, Riyazu-s-Salatin, pp. 28081.
18
Datta, Society, Economy and the Market, p. 200.
19
Oriental and India Office Collections, British Library (OIOC), Bengal Revenue Consultations
(BRC), P/51/50, 24 Oct. 1789. Datta, Society, Economy and the Market, pp. 20002.

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choice of which traded commodities a Nazim sought to prescribe. During this


earlier period of landed involvement, besides interesting themselves in marketplaces, the gentry had built bridges, chauks, roads and sarais (hostelry).20
While ganjs were primarily set up for pecuniary gain, Nazims and landed proprietors at all time might expend some part of the sair (taxes other than land
revenue) collected from bazars on matters of religion.21 There are many examples
of this close intermeshing of the economic and the religious spheres in archives
documenting, for instance, the disbursement of the revenues collected from
Bullubgunge in worship of Bindrabund Chunder22 or the management of the
Kalighat temple.23 This interaction has been dealt in some detail elsewhere.24
Zamindars and talukdars reputation and wealth was such that the Nizamat,
and later the Company, were in principle prepared to grant their requests for market
foundations without requiring any guarantee in the event of non-payment.25 As
Datta also notes in Jessore, the zamindars subdivided the hats into various shares,
allowing many partners each (having) a share in the haut (hat) and paying their
revenue in distinct tahoods (contracts) or engagements...26 This distinctive form
of shared ownership allowed zamindars to leverage their authority and capital,
however small, into a position where it could accrue value. Chatterjee cites comparable evidence from Bihar showing how the readiness of landowners to enter
into joint enterprises both boosted their income and threatened to erode their status
insofar as it was based on prerogatives other than financial.27 Conflicts between
owners arose over boundaries, fresh lands between rivers, ganjs, rights to fisheries
and other benefits.28
Bengal of this period was characterised by extremely fluid processes for the
conversion of all sectors of societys social capital into financial capital, and vice
versa; as in the above case, impoverished zamindars sought to parlay their status
into wealth, while analogously fakirs figured heavily as commercial agents enjoying an exemption from certain risks and expectations on account of their calling.
According to contemporary observers, holy men possessed immense authority

20
Mukherjee, The Co-ordinating State and the Economy, p. 399. Idem., Of Rivers and Roads,
pp. 2425.
21
WBSA, Committee of Revenue, Vol. 24, 20 March 1783, pp. 43840.
22
Examples of officers associated with the wealth management of large families setting up hats
and bazars are numerous. WBSA, Revenue Dept-Sayer, O.C., 11 July 1794, No. 2.
23
OIOC, Bengal Sudder Dewanny Adawlut, P/153/37, 4 Aug. 1773.
24
Mukherjee, The Economic Dimensions of Pilgrimage, pp. 195232.
25
Datta, Society, Economy and the Market, p. 167.
26
OIOC, BRC, P/52/14, 7 July 1790. WBSA, Board of Revenue-Sayer (BOR-Sayer), Vol. 1,
5 July 1790, p. 363.
27
Chatterjee, Merchants, Politics and Society, pp. 5859, 132.
28
WBSA, Provincial Council of Revenue Murshidabad, (PCRM), Vol. 1, 3 Jan. 1773.

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and power and were correspondingly rich in villages, lands and money.29 Where
fakirs saw an opportunity to provide a revenue stream for their religious foundation,
they would often look to inaugurate ganjs; Shah Bassant, the head fakir of the
dargah (saints tomb) of Shah Arzawn, established Shahganj in the suburbs of
Patna in the reign of Farukh Siyar in 1712 on 2 bighas (third of an acre) of
ground bought near the dargah.30 The huge congregations at religious festivities
provided a ready-made market for commercial venues. The annual urs ceremony
of the saints celebrated at the shrines also hosted numerous fairs. In some instances,
religious persons owned the lands and titles of markets, even in what were to
become heavily metropolitan areas: the fakir Tikaram Udasi had the rights to
Durrumtollah bazar in central Calcutta.31 Sanyasis also participated in the silk
trade of Kasimbazar.32
The relatively unconstrained methods of establishing markets in this period
sustained whole networks of social relations extending beyond the interests of
the persons founding places of commerce and their immediate families. Many
markets were made possible through the efforts of retained intermediaries such as
the banias of different collectors, who appropriated a part of the jama (land revenue
demand) for endowing their thakur baries, salaries to some bairagies and rice to
the poor.33 They might also deploy their returns from brahmoter hats in maintaining pandits engaged in the study of the Shastras. A petition by a poor brahmin
pandit stresses his dependence on the hat for his and his students welfare.34
Merchants could also band together to set up a hat.35
Bazars continued to be established in response to local representations
throughout the century, with many subsequently flourishing examples originating
in humble grassroots requests. Bara Bazar and Chota Bazar in the town of
Midnapur began as the formalisation of trading activities carried out between the
coolies employed in the construction of a fort, with the markets scope widening
by degrees to take in the purchasing of various sarkars, the servants of the local
29
Sketches of India, p. 127. For a discussion on the connection of the sanyasis and fakirs with
trade, as well as the relationship between religious philanthropy and the economy, see Mukherjee,
The Economic Dimensions of Pilgrimage, pp. 20812, 21419.
30
WBSA, Comptrolling Committee of Revenue, Vol. 3(A) (typed copy), 8 May 1772, pp. 13233.
31
WBSA, BOR at Fort William, Vol. 17, 29 May 1787, pp. 26263. According to McLeod, the
term Nanak-panthi was used principally for non-Khalsa Sikhs and there were many of them in various
sects in the late eighteenth century. The name Udasi is from the Sanskrit udasin, detachment and was
taken by the followers of Sri Chand (by tradition, 14941612), eldest son of Guru Nanak. McLeod,
Historical Dictionary of Sikhism, pp. 21415. Also see Hardgrave, An Early Portrayal of the Sikhs,
pp. 21327.
32
WBSA, BOT-Comm, Vol. 77, 13 March 1789, p. 318.
33
WBSA, Committee of Revenue, Vol. 9, 8 Nov. 1781, p. 181.
34
WBSA, BOR-Sayer, Vol. 1, 24 May 1790, pp. 13738.
35
WBSA, BOR-Sayer, Vol. 5, 13 June 1792, p. 443.

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English functionaries and different zamindars and vakils (agents).36 Company Officials founded other bazars in Midnapur initially servicing their wants independently.37 Chatterjee notes how Company officials in Bihar continued local bazar
building traditions.38
The city of Calcutta saw a flurry of bazar-founding activity through the late
eighteenth century. Officials often lodged complaints about these encroaching on
the public roads.39 Yet, [the] more bazars there are in Calcutta, the more beneficial it must be to the government and to the public, a contemporary observed.
The former would have received more revenue; moreover, it is an object of real
consequence to the poor of Calcutta will be supplied with the necessaries of life
in greater abundance and at a cheaper rate.40
As the city prospered, private individuals proposed to extend markets beyond
the city, attesting that:
numbers of idle natives, who now crowd the capital, might be drawn from
thence and by applying themselves to the various branches of agriculture, become valuable members of society and by their industry increase the public
revenue.41
Methods of retailers assembling in the city were lawless in that they did not
proceed from a central and successively implemented state plan. They seem to
have been scattered throughout the town of Calcutta, even vending by the roadside
due to the want of proper spots for markets.42 Traders evicted from there continued
to assemble in crowds in bye-lanes and corners where the Company imagined
they at once resumed trade: no sooner [were they] removed from one place that
they assembled in another.43
The bazars, hats and ganjs collectively comprised a sophisticated commercial
economy embracing all levels of society, from the ruling lite whose grants invested new sites to the peasants, weavers and other artisans whose goods supplied
otherwise unsatisfied wants. The economic interest of all these parties, over a
wide number of disputed and contradictory instances, converged on the marketplace as the optimal means of securing their livelihoods, or even bolstering social
position. As English East India Company officials in the late eighteenth century
periodically noted that as there is general freedom of trade the dalals and paikars
36

WBSA, Committee of Revenue, Vol. 9, 8 Nov. 1781, pp. 17778.


Ibid., pp. 17879.
38
Chatterjee, Merchants, Politics and Society, p. 131.
39
See for instance WBSA, Committee of Revenue, Vol. 20, 11 Nov. 1782, pp. 14445.
40
WBSA, BOR at Fort William, Vol. 17, 29 May 1787, pp. 26263.
41
WBSA, BOR-Sayer, Vol. 1, 30 August 1790, p. 613.
42
WBSA, Committee of Revenue, Vol. 30 (typed copy), 31 July 1783, p. 262.
43
Ibid.
37

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brought to the company whatever assortments of textiles they could obtain for
ready money purchases at the markets.44
the markets are open and [the weavers] will sell their cloths where they please
let the Company go to the Markets or establish their Cooties here and if to
chuse [choose] they will bring their cloths to the Cootie for sale and if they do
not they will carry them elsewhere....45
The established general practice appears to have been as follows:
...it is the ancient custom of Mogul Empire, as none could intrude or interfere
on the business of each other, neither could obstruct merchants business with
any means, whatsoever; such were the practice always exercised in this Empire
for the encouragement of Trade in General and for augmenting Peoples livelyhood (livelihood), Governments Revenues and duties in particular.46
Further contemporary documents record,
...in this country the cultivator ...uses his discretion in cultivating what he thinks
best adapted to the nature of the soil, or the demand of the Market. One field
produces sugar, the next wheat, Rice, or Cotton. The Husbandman is nourished
and cloathed (clothed) from his own ground, or, if he thinks it more his interest to sell the whole of his own produce, supplies himself and family with the
necessaries of life from his neighbour, or from the next public market.47
Commercialisation was an effort of different strata of society equally. The privileged social groups, the Nizamat and others, who dominated early modern
Bengal, certainly took advantage of the opportunities markets presented, but could
not alone create the entirety of the regions economic infrastructure. Nor was this
class the principal beneficiary of trade. The mercantile community and the rural
cultivators and artisans, at least in theory, benefited much more, largely through
gaining an initial measure of self-determination in their customers and the voluntaristic forms of social relationships their transactions opened for them. Occasional
references in the archives of the period note the choice and bargaining power
these fractions, otherwise inadequately represented in the historical record, enjoyed. The picture of large-scale penury dominant in our historical writings thus
calls for a reassessment, since the foundation and survival of such large numbers
of local markets is inconceivable without considerable local-level buying and
44

WBSA, BOT-Comm, Vol. II, Pt. I, 1 April 1777, pp. 6163.


WBSA, BOT-Comm, Vol. 60, 4 Sept. 1787, pp. 67.
46
WBSA, BOT-Comm, Vol. 70, 1 Aug. 1788, p. 81.
47
WBSA, BOT-Comm, Vol. 99, 7 Aug. 1792, p. 328.
45

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selling in day-to-day necessities at least. Moreover, the agency of the lower levels
of society exercised itself in a number of spheres related to the formation of a
market economy. They made the roads and rivers into commercial thoroughfares;
their custom determined the success or failure of a newly established market and
their economic initiative plausibly buttressed the state and the other wealthy social
groups. From one perspective, then, the ruling lite was only perceptive enough
to realise the benefits of following the peasants lead.
The prosperity of the country and the ease of convenience of the people obviously requires numerous markets, that the inhabitants may furnish themselves without a distant journey, with the article of consumption they may
require and find a ready sale for their produce and that merchants may find
places of known resort to dispose of their imports and make their purchases
for exportation.48
These were perhaps the principles behind the establishment of markets in the
eighteenth century. Markets emerged around mosques and other religious places.49
The founders made regular payments for charitable purposes, as well as to places
of worship. It appears that the commercial ethos had percolated even here, with
the deity perceived to having fulfilling obligations to look after their devotees.
While the latter kept their part of the bargain by setting up markets and the returns
being expended to look after the up keep of these religious shrines.
The Guiding Principles of Market Foundation
Attempts to establish new markets were calculated, deliberate, pre-meditated acts,
involving several rights and procedures prescribed and enforced by the lite. Hats
and ganjs had to fit into pre-existing regional structures of trade, if they were to
be successful. Those setting up markets also knew that their survival depended
on attracting trade, on a level beyond that of the transactions conducted by local
households. A welter of rules and regulations, governing both days and locations,
hedged about the seemingly simple act of establishing a market. Rural marketplaces
were not self-contained enclaves, catering strictly to a local population; they were
part of larger integrated economic systems, caught up in the gravity of such places
as Chittagong, Rajshahi and even Calcutta.
Founders appealed to a number of arguments in seeking the approval of the
state powers for their initiatives: centrally, they claimed that proposed markets
would draw in outside traders to the area, and thus not merely shift trade from one
local site to another. The very fact that innumerable chaukis (customs or toll station)

48
49

WBSA, BOR-Sayer, Vol. 2, Pt. 1, 13 Sept. 1790, pp. 9394.


WBSA, Revenue Dept-Sayer, O.C., 28 Oct. 1796, No. 1.

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existed along trade routes also reveals the importance of outside traders in the
designs of right-holding markets. From the right holders perspective, the most
lucrative group of market users were visiting traders or those on a regional level.
A petition from the Raja of Birbhum requested the collector of the customs to
station his chaukis at the accustomed places. Tax, in this case, was levied specifically on goods brought into (and leaving) the local economy: the Collector taxed
only the exports of the parganas (subdivision of a district or zamindari) and those
articles for which the trader could not produce a parwana (order), but not the
home consumption of the zamindari.50
The sources suggest that contestations over markets were a regular feature of
early modern Bengal, which illuminate various rules governing their resolution.
For example, the proprietor of Bhawaniganj petitioned the Company for protection on the basis that he had held his hat on Saturdays from time immemorial.
The establishment of a new hat nearby and on the same day by the zamindar of
Hatindah had ruined his market. The petitioner claimed that the landed proprietor
indeed, had physically diverted beoparies or traders and purchasers to his site.
The Company ruled that the second proprietors hat be held on another day.51
Similarly, another appeal sought protection for a hat meeting on Saturdays and
Tuesdays in the zamindari of Kali Shankar Roy. Gokul Ghose of Calcutta had
bought a piece of ground in the village of Gochurn and set up a sair ganj, attracting
the formers custom and constraining its zamindars ability to maintain his
malguzari (land subject to revenue assessment). The Company State set aside
certain (two in this case) days when Gokul Ghosh was prohibited from holding
his rival hat.52 Apart from showing a clear clash of interests between parties, this
example, as well as others,53 illustrates the persistence of the setting-up of new
markets in the early years of the Company rule.
It appears, from the evidence, that proprietors of adjoining sites generally did
not hold markets on the same day. The affected hat owners could redress any contravention of this practice by appealing to the state. According to a contemporary
report:
no haats or public markets for articles of provision shall be held on the same
days in places in vicinity of each other, the week is always divided and certain

50

WBSA, Committee of Revenue, Vol. 7, 3 Sept. 1781, p. 50.


WBSA, Committee of Revenue, Vol. 8, 22 Oct. 1781, pp. 299300.
52
WBSA, Committee of Revenue, Vol. 9, 8 Nov. 1781, pp. 15456. Also see WBSA, Committee
of Revenue, Vol. 24, 20 March 1783, pp. 43032. Committee of Revenue, Vol. 27, 15 May 1783,
pp. 265268.
53
For example- WBSA, BOR at Fort William, Vol. 12, Pt. II, 23 March 1787, p. 389, etc. WBSA,
Committee of Revenue, Vol. 7, 12 Sept. 1781, pp. 22223.
51

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days fixed for each village, such has always been the custom here, that the
inhabitants or purchasers may gather and know the place and day of market in
each village.54
This provision effectively allowed several hats to coexist in the same locality
without cannibalising each others custom. In this way, traders moved between
different area markets, each held two or three times a week and typically selling
different categories of goods. Sources clearly state that the adapted rule in this
country was that:
According to the laws of this country, founded on the strictest principle of
Justice, no new Bazar, Gunge, or Haut can be established within a certain
limited distance of an old one, especially when the site of the new Bazar comes
within the description of the variation of the old one...55
There is evidence that both Company regulation and individual entrepreneurship
envisaged markets as part of larger networks of trade rather than isolated entities
or local services. As institutions, markets facilitated local peoples patterns of
working in giving them a regular time to trade. Rights holders would determine
such times based on the convenience of outside traders, necessarily studying trade
routes and commodity markets. In any periodic market system, a limited number
of days and places can be accommodated and placed within a broader pre-existing
cycle. As the marketing structure filled out, one would suppose that it became
increasingly difficult for a new market to make a niche. The temptation was to
jump the line by capturing the trade of an existing market, to taking over its
position within the established trade network, and hence the increasing conflicts
over markets. Contemporary records also noted, that ganjs were located well within
the zamindari estates, or on the confines of adjoining ones, so as not to counteract the general benefit, but if possible increase it, by rendering it the interest of
rival holders to reduce the duties as low as possible.56
As other scholars have also suggested, the late eighteenth century also saw the
phenomenon of some of these markets meeting with increasing frequency (some
were held two or three times a week; some became daily). Contemporaries frequently observed that flooding in Bengal forced some hats and bazars to be held
for four and, in some places, six months of the year on board of boats.57 In these
areas, volume of trade was possibly great enough to support regular markets. The
establishment of these venues created a closely articulated marketing system
54

WBSA, BOR at Fort William, Vol. 23, 24 August 1787, p. 146.


WBSA, Revenue Dept-Sayer, O.C. 29 August 1794, No. 1. WBSA, Revenue Dept-Sayer, O.C.
29 August 1794, Body Sheet. Also WBSA, BOR-Sayer, Vol. 10, 31 Jan. 1794, pp. 60, 6364.
56
OIOC, Mss. Eur. F 95, fol. 169.
57
See Datta, Society, Economy and the Market, p. 208.
55

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allowing frequent and substantive contact between town and country. Of course,
in larger cities and towns even in earlier periods, markets were held sometimes
twice daily, once before sunrise, and once just before dusk.58 Market frequency
and volume of trade aimed to recoup the rising transaction (transport, agent) costs
that would have been incurred because of the much wider area over which trade
was being conducted in the eighteenth century. Rising costs of this kind may also
have provided a strong incentive to organise markets more efficiently, and to
source commodities directly.
In an integrated system, each market functions within a hierarchically organised
network. Not all markets were equally important and those founded earlier were
likely to have secured a prominent regional position. These were the dominant
markets, able to hold together trading networks by virtue of frequent meetings
(every alternate day in certain localities).59 Shifts in the siting of subsidiary markets, however, should not be considered as a sign of economic weakness. Markets
were rather abandoned, in one example, owing to the establishment of Fakir
haut, and Rajah gunje, an explanation of a competitive system of incentives aiming
to entice traders from one location to another. Such changes were very common
in Bengal, where markets were frequently held away from local habitations, and
where the people very much depended for protection on the caprice, or influence
of the local market proprietor.60 New markets depended on forms of marketing
in attracting traders by word-of-mouth and on the strength of their facilities. Before
granting a bazar sanad, the authorising bodythe Company in this particular
examplewould put up notices; after the expiry of twenty days, in the absence of
objections, it would make the grant.61
Markets in a big city such as Calcutta were dispersed in different localities.
Vendors gathering on the sides of by-streets, a new bylaw removed them from the
principal roads. Repairs to markets also occasioned upheaval.62 Driven underground, markets became informal and mobile; reforming in another location after
the officials drove them away. The trail of dirt that markets were said to bring
from swampy places, was a further nuisance. The unregulated and chaotic situation
of city markets encouraged private traders to petition for the rights to appropriate
space for the sellers of different commodities; site owners assumed the responsibility for cleansing marketplaces of dirt.63 Petitions asked to raise the level of
the earth and to set up a terraced, supported covering, with brick drainage for

58

Laet, The Empire of the Great Mogol, p. 83.


Taylor, A Sketch of the Topography, p. 294.
60
Schendel, Francis Buchanan in Southeast Bengal, p. 102.
61
WBSA, Committee of Revenue, Vol. 7, 12 Sept. 1781, p. 220. WBSA, Committee of Revenue,
Vol. 6, Pt. II, 20 Aug. 1781, p. 391.
62
WBSA, Committee of Revenue, Vol. 30 (typed copy), 31 July 1783, p. 317.
63
Ibid., pp. 26264.
59

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rainwater. Other proposals also mooted an area for the sale of cattle, and a slaughterhouse with its own cleaners.64 Permanent buildings for markets of this sort appear
to have been the exception, with most held in the open, or under temporary sheds,
especially in the villages. The late eighteenth century was a time of extremely
rapid growth for Calcutta, in terms of building, trade and shipping.65
Merchants connected Bengal horizontally, through exchanging the products
of one area with another. Thus, to cite one example, the merchants belonging to
different trading towns surrounding Daudnagar, for instance, bought and carried
ghee, tussar, to the ghats (landing places) at Jumnare and Akbarpur. From there,
after crossing Soan, they continued further westward to Jumore, gathering cloth
and thread in Russie Gunge and conveying it further east.66
The States Role
Indigenous society accepted ruling authorities mandate, whether that of the local
functionaries of the Nizamat, or the Company agents, to legitimise the founding
of markets through sanads (deed of grant). Proper governance procedures were
expected to resolve conflicts and disputes over rights, enforcing customary laws
and damages. Hence, courts and thanas (police station) stationed along highways had a vital role to play in the maintenance of a market system. Not only
could bazars set up outside the authority of the state or in infringement of others
rights be demolished, but the repeated offenders against the law could also be
imprisoned.67
Grants from sovereigns or their delegated representatives, later embodied in
the Company state, could establish hats, ganjs and bazars. The Company state
thought it advisable to leave the exercise of this privilege to landholders in the
early years of its rule, contenting itself with imposing general regulations for prevention of undue exaction of revenue. It would also occasionally interfere to modify
or abolish particular imposts. By the 1790s, the state, at least officially, resumed
the power to impose and collect taxesleading traders to anticipate the suppression of many duties on articles of internal manufactory and consumption,
as well as some exports. However, many of these imposts were not abolished and
many forms of monopoly were not challenged.
From the 1780s, systems of oversight and revenue-collection began to be put
in place to enforce Company, and other proprietors rights. The government
customs-house of Surool, for instance, billeted darogha (police officers) and ten
to twenty peons in each market, chauki, ghat and roadside to demand duties on a

64

Ibid., pp. 26465.


WBSA, Committee of Revenue, Vol. 4, Sept. 1783, p. 29.
66
WBSA, Board of Customs, Vol. I, 22 Jan. 1783, p. 45.
67
WBSA, Committee of Revenue, Vol. 16, 5 Aug. 1782, p. 3275.
65

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range of previously exempt commodities, such as thread, salt, garden stuff and
plantain leaves. Disputes between indigenous market founders and the Company
state, or between the proprietors of adjoining lands, could arise for different reasons.68 Many quarrels between zamindaris seem to have centred on traders evasion
of duties. In one case, a petition of gurrah weavers cited precedent in claiming
exemption, saying they habitually bought thread from any market, wove cloth
and delivered it to the Company, at no stage being liable to tax. When the imposition
of duties led to all the market owners closing their respective markets, the petitioners complained,
we are poor people and buy our dayly food in the markets that we may eat,
which being stopped has thrown us into the greatest distress, we used to buy
thread to weave cloth to gain a subsistence, but in consequence of these disturbances no man will bring thread for sale and we cannot furnish ourselves with
that article, we have no way left to sustain life, you are our Protector. Be pleased
to prevent Duties on thread being taken from us, or from those who bring it to
market for sale, or upon such eatables as never before paid duties, we shall
then be able to stay in our habitations and weave cloths and be able to exist.69
The weavers advocacy shows that even the poorest depended on markets for
subsistence. Changes in duties and regulation, therefore, were bound to have a
direct effect on a very large section of the population.
Tolls and Taxes
The common view of states and taxation in late medieval/early modern India is
one of authorities exercising a despotic and exploitative power, although revisionist
writings have done much to modify the traditional view. However, a broad range
of evidence suggests that taxes were relatively light and indeed facilitated the
smooth running of the markets. Based on consent and offering employment to
various functionaries, market duties did not stymie competition, and may have
kept rates of toll relatively low compared to profits. Holders of markets understood
the competitive environment of their own business; poor facilities or services,
and extortionate levies, were likely to prompt traders to vote with their feet. A
petition clearly states, if duties...are demanded more than once, not a single
Beopary will come into the zamindarry....70 They thus sought to increase revenues
through generating greater volumes of trade, rather than increasing charges levied
on a fixed quantity of transacted goods and services. If a sufficient number of
68

WBSA, Committee of Revenue, Vol. 11, Pt II, 14 Jan. 1782, pp. 62022.
WBSA, BOT-Comm, Vol. 28, 4 Sept. 1781, pp. 38688.
70
WBSA, Committee of Revenue, Vol. 7, 3 Sept. 1781, pp. 4850.
69

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Markets in eighteenth century Bengal economy / 159

more profit- or margin-oriented traders could be enticed to the market on a regular


basis, then the resulting revenues might make the effort of collection worthwhile.
The Companys abolition of the miscellaneous dues termed tehbazarree
(tauhbazari) and some other collections in 1790 did not, however, waive the right
of markets land-holders (the proprietors of the ground on which hats and bazars
were held) to collect associated revenues.71 These dues were raised from merchants
in ganjs, bazars and hats under temporary stalls, sheds or in the open street, based
on participation on a certain day in a certain market-site owned by a zamindar.72
Landholders also continued to receive monthly or annual rents from permanent
shops or other buildings.73 Amongst other forms of standing revenue, the tolah
was a duty levied for the purposes of defraying the establishment costs of the hat,
and for paying the salaries of the hats darogha or headman, mutasaddi (accountant
or clerk), sweeper and assembler.74 The rents received for the use of lands, houses,
and shops before 1790 were termed chaundnee (chandnia) in reference to the
actual covering or shelter over a place of sale. Sums of rent owing to these forms
of physical proprietorship were minimal, the majority of the hats being held under
trees. Some ganjs and hats had chaudhuries, whose profits likewise depended
on trade volume.75 As it was quite explicitly stated, they made collections from
moodies and other sellers of goods in the ganjs and attended to the encouragement
and protection of the beoparies.76 Merchants brought their commodities to these
places, which were resorted to in proportion to their confidence of security from
robberies or wanton injury.77 The officers maintained good order in the markets,
prevented the use of fraudulent weights and measures, and the sale of unwholesome articles; they had jurisdiction over all quarrels and questions of theft in the
hat.78 Market holders paid them out of collections. The founders of markets also
deducted the salaries of servants such as the dholia or crier and various peons,
cleaners and factotums. In this way, a network of founders, traders, regulatory
bodies, state ancillaries and private contractors cooperated on the running of trade.
At least in Midnapur, the state assessed the value of the houses of those shopkeepers
and bankers who carried out extensive trade and resided in the bazars.79

71

WBSA, Revenue Dept-Sayer, O.C., 6 Aug. 1790, No. 2.


Ibid. Also Sen, Conquest of Marketplaces, pp. 6768.
73
WBSA, Revenue Dept-Sayer, O.C., 6 Aug. 1790, No. 2.
74
Also see WBSA, Revenue Dept-Sayer, O.C., 3 May 1793, No. 2.
75
WBSA, Committee of Revenue, Vol. 33, 25 Sept. 1783, p. 137.
76
WBSA, Revenue Dept-Sayer, O.C., 3 May 1793, No. 2.
77
WBSA, BOR-Sayer, Vol. 2, Pt. 1, 13 Sept. 1790, p. 95. Also see Chatterjee, Merchants, Politics
and Society, p. 60.
78
K.K. Datta noted that the kotwals maintained law-order in the markets, examined weights
as well as ensured the quality of goods sold and regulated prices of articles. Violators of the standard
rules were severely punished, Alivardi and His Times, p. 175.
79
WBSA, Board of Revenue-Misc., Vol. 250, 27 Oct. 1797, p. 575.
72

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Some scholars have understood local variations in weights and measures80 as a


disincentive to traders, yet evidence suggests markets adopted strategies to circumvent such differences. Large-scale merchants who dealt over a wider area
worked with local variants. As in eighteenth century England, where regional
dealers and middlemen used their own ready reckoners for the conversion of local
measures, merchants in Bengal might have depended on similar devices or employed local intermediaries in assessing regularity of quantity. Indeed, merchants
may have perceived advantages in a multiplicity of measures since it provided
them with the opportunity to enhance margins within transactions.81
A number of levies financed a citys treasury. The state expected the traders to
pay in return for infrastructural facilities and protection. As the detailed list from
Dhaka shows, no commodity fell outside the purview of the principle of tax. Unlike the protests on the introduction of the police tax in the last decade of the
eighteenth century, traders paid up without rancour. Mir bahari in Dhaka generated a sum of `11,470.14 in revenue in the 1790s drawn from various majhis
and dandies. The Mughals had instituted this mahal (ward), and its jurisdiction,
originally confined to the town of Dhaka, had gradually been extended by different
farmers over almost everywhere in Dhaka district. The Company government
abolished the tax in the 1790s.82 Numerous other such sub-specifications of tax
existed.83 The state raised taxes from a wide range of commodities ranging from
tobacco, wood, bamboo and grass meant for thatching, brass and copper utensils,
small looking glasses, ornaments, combs, small hookah snakes, second hand
clothes, swords and plates, to paper.84 Evidently, the arrays of articles were meant
not for the citys grandees, but for much smaller consumers.
The merchant or trading community was highly differentiated as to wealth,
scale of operations, and ability to pay the states taxes. The Companys government
divided the traders in Rajshahi, for instance, into eight categories subject to varying
rates of proposed taxes. (See Table I)
A system of means-based taxation appears to have been in existence in the
early modern period. Rather than having a levelling effect, taxes appear to have
maintained the differences in the various categories, though upward mobility was
still possible.
The very rich merchants in this zamindari (the highest category of the first
class merchants) appear to have paid a large amount of tax. The number of hats,
bazaars and ganjs listed in Rajshahi was considerable, with 142 in the town of
80
The weight varied from place to place both in the number of siccas contained in each seer and
in the number of seers contained in each maund. Ghosal, Economic Transition in the Bengal
Presidency, pp. 17374.
81
Sheldon, et al., Popular Protest, p. 31.
82
WBSA, BOR-Sayer, Vol. 1, 30 August 1790, pp. 59195.
83
Ibid., pp. 595604.
84
Ibid.

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Table I
Categories of Merchants and Taxes in Rajshahi.
Category

` (Per Annum)

1st Class
2nd Class
3rd Class
4th Class
5th Class
6th Class
7th Class
8th Class

120
100
80
60
30
15
6
2

Source: WBSA, Judicial Criminal, Vol. 10, 7 March 1794, pp. 36465.

Natore alone.85 The market structure of Birbhum shows a similar hierarchy of


big and small merchants, generating some `423,938.4 of income in 1794. (See
Table II and Figure 1)
The Companys taxation and governance regime operated integrally. A case
brought before the Committee of Revenue may exemplify patterns of merchant
trade in eighteenth century Bengal. The Committee conducted an inquiry to determine the right of claims made by Bertullah farmers for the deduction of duties
because of a new bazar established by a private trader. Peons had forced fish
sellers to relocate to the new bazar (the mufussil bazar) instead of the Bertullah.
Although the tauhbazari was not levied in the new bazar, the number of retailers
fell as it discouraged sellers from circulating between different sites. Traders would
come from a distance and normally visit five or six different outlets, sell their
stocks quickly and return to their villages.86 The traders apparently cared more
about liberty of movement than differential rates of small tax.
While the Companys attempts at market regulations are described more fully
elsewhere,87 we can briefly sketch the evolution of its policies here. After 1757,
Table II
Categories of Traders in Birbhum
1st Class
Merchants
not Residing
but Trading in
this District
66

2nd Class Merchants


Settled in this
District Whose
Dealings Amount
to `1,000 and Above
10

3rd Class
4th Class
Merchants & Traders
Traders &
Whose Dealings
Shopkeepers
Extend from
Whose Dealings
`100`1,000
Do not Exceed `100
815

4,681

Total
Number of
Merchants
5,572

Source: WBSA, Judicial Criminal, Vol. 14, 22 August 1794, p. 198.


85

WBSA, Judicial Criminal, Vol. 10, 7 March 1794, pp. 36465.


WBSA, Committee of Revenue, Vol. 38, 11 March 1784, p. 226.
87
Mukherjee, Commodities, Trade and the Economy of Bengal, pp. 295345.
86

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Figure 1
Extent of the Dealings of Different Sections of Traders in Birbhum

Source: WBSA, Judicial Criminal, Vol. 14, 22 August 1794, p. 198.

historians have noted that strict Company controls over commodities such as opium
and later indigo and salt, permissive regimes with regard to other categories of
goods.88 The 1773 Regulations for the future establishments and regulation of
Duties of the Country Government set out an ambitious framework for the control of a wide range of items; in practice, though most regulations could be
circumvented.89
The Number of Markets
Market density across late eighteenth century Bengal very clearly increased
towards the end of the century. The rural and urban landscape of the region appears
to have been dotted with hats, bazars and ganjs of different sizes catering to
different classes of people. Hats even found their way into popular ballads.90 The
description of Ganjer hat held regularly three times a week can stand for that of
any hat of that period. The mart was very flourishing and astir with brisk
traffic. People assembled there after crossing the river by ferry. They came to the
market in the morning, hired houses for the day, made purchases, cooked and
spent the nights there before leaving next morning. Hundreds of ferryboats, small
fishing canoes and crowded vessels carried men to the market day and night.
88

Marshall, East Indian Fortunes, p. 243.


Home Misc., Vol. 217, pp. 4449, vide Datta, Rural Bengal, pp. 3637.
90
See for instance, Sen, Eastern Bengal Ballads.
89

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Evidence from across the region testifies to the immense number of such sites
of exchange. Burdwan, for instance, had a total of 380 hats, ganjs and bazars,
with net collections of about sicca `52,219 in 1789.91 The zamindars were closely
associated with the foundation of many of these markets. Trilok Chand (11), Tej
Chand (9) and Kirti Chand (4) between themselves established 24 ganjs, hats and
bazars, which they appropriated for religious establishments.92 The figures from
the district of Murshidabad are equally large with the total number of shops or
traders coming to 17,914, many attracting traders visits and temporary residences.93
Contemporary accounts of Murshidabad suggest the city retained its patina of
opulence well into the early nineteenth century, stressing the riches of its palaces,
mosques and bazars.94 Similar data from Dinajpur records receipts from the
malguzari sair mahals for BS 1196 (1789), showing a large number of ganjs.
Jessores 225 hats yielded a total jama of `15,091.15 95; while the annual jama of
the old hats of 24 Parganas amounted to `975.1.96 (see Tables III and IV)
Datta compares the growth of Bengali markets with that in Szechuan province
during the Ching period, when markets increased from 4 in 1622 to 13 in 1875.97
The rising number of venues surely indicates increased commercialisation, and
an increased appetite for goods.98 Variations in figures for markets, though, to
strike a note of caution, could as equally be a function of the increased localisation
of trade as the creation of new forms of demand. This, too, was predetermined by
topography. Many rivers in Dinajpur, for instance, became unnavigable,99 although
Table III
Markets in Dinajpur
Number of Sair Mahals
376

Ganjs

Bazars

Hats

Guzars

Jama (1196/1789)

34

31

265

46

52,424.8

Source: WBSA, BOR-Sayer, Vol. 1, 16 June 1790, p. 239.


91

WBSA, Board of Revenue-Sayer, Vol. 1, 26 July 1790, pp. 48990.


WBSA, BOR-Sayer, Vol. 1, 26 July 1790, pp. 49294. Also see Revenue Dept-Sayer, O.C, No.
2, 25 Aug. 1790, bazar are so exceedingly numerous in this district.
93
WBSA, Judicial Criminal, Vol. 10, 7 March 1794, p. 250. See BOR-at Fort William, Vol. 24, 7
Sept. 1787, pp. 22225 for a list of private ganjs in the city of Murshidabad and the name of the
proprietors. For the annual produce of the la-kharaj sayer or duties of the city and zila of Murshidabad,
see WBSA, BOT-Comm, Vol. 77, 13 March 1789, pp. 311, 315.
94
Sketches of India, p. 9.
95
WBSA, BOR-Sayer, Vol. 1, 5 July 1790, p. 371.
96
WBSA, Revenue Dept-Sayer, O.C., 1 March 1793, No. 2.
97
Skinner, Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China, Vol. 25, No. 2, February 1965,
p. 195. Also see Datta, Society, Economy and the Market, p. 206.
98
WBSA, BOR-Sayer, Vol. 2, Pt. 1, 13 Sept. 1790, p. 96.
99
Shifting rivers had a direct relation with the fortunes of a district. Nowhere is it more apparent
than in Dinajpur. WBSA, Board of Revenue-Grain-Copies of Governor General in Council RevenueGrain, letter dated 15 Oct. 1794, pp. 6972.
92

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Table IV
Number of Market Places in Selected Districts
District

Year

Birbhum
Burdwan
Dhaka
Dinajpur
Jessore
Nadia
Natore (Rajshahi)
Patna
Purnea
Rangpur
Salt Districts
Sylhet
24 Parganas
Total

1765
1770
1778

1770

1132

Number

Year

Number

536
206
69

321

1790
1790
1791
1790
1790
1793
1794

70
380
650
330
225
117
142

37
600
117
2668

1787
1790
1793

Year

1807

1811
1815
1807

Number

635

66
482
591

1774

Source: WBSA, Judicial Criminal, Vol. 10, 7 March 1794, pp. 36465; WBSA, Board of RevenueSayer, Vol. 1, 26 July 1790, pp. 48990; WBSA, BOR-Sayer, Vol. 1, 5 July 1790, p. 334;
Taylor, A Sketch of the Topography and Statistics of Dacca, 1840, p. 203; WBSA, BORSayer, Vol. 1, 16 June 1790, p. 239; WBSA, Revenue Dept-Sayer, O.C., 1 March 1793, No.
2; Datta, Society, Economy and the Market, p. 206; Yang, Bazaar India, p. 223; WBSA,
BOR-Sayer, Vol. 1, 26 May 1790, p. 141; WBSA, Judicial Criminal, Vol. 4, 12 July 1793,
p. 53; WBSA, Comptroller of Salt and Collector of the Salt districtCopies of Correspondence, Statement and accounts relating to the revenue administration of the Salt district
of Tamluk, Hijili and Mahisadal, Vol. 1, 17871788, pp. 6064; Hamilton, The East India
Gazetteer, p. 431.

local reports here suggest the formation of new markets notwithstanding. Scholars
have also posited that the access to the increasing density of such markets were
part of a strategy of risk aversion in the face of chronic climatic and ecological
instability, where the state made little spending in physical infrastructure or public
welfare, perhaps also due to the lack of requisite technology.100 As pointed out
before, the states role in this economy was hardly marginal and the local landed
proprietors too invested heavily in the smooth operation of the agrarian system
and trading network.101 Ruling authorities displayed acumen and interest in maintaining the economic well-being of the region through direct investment, institutional aid and being consumers themselves.
Obviously, all parts of Bengal were not uniformly commercialised. The collector
of Chittagong in 1794 observed that although the district was extensive, inland
commerce was absent. Most inhabitants lived by husbandry alone; petty market
100
David Washbrook , Water, Poverty and Risk in Agrarian India, paper presented in a Workshop
on Writing Economic History of India, IDSK, Kolkata, December 2010.
101
See also Mukherjee, The Co-ordinating State and the Economy.

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Markets in eighteenth century Bengal economy / 165

holders held hats in the open at very small distances from each other throughout
the province. The commercial zone was confined to Islamabad, linked only to a
maritime trade route.102 This uneven state of development may have been due to
the bad state of the roads and bridges from Lakshmipur to Chittagong and from
Chittagong to Comilla, and the lack of alternative water routes.103 The few
Islamabad merchants who carried on trade possessed little property and traded in
articles of little value.104 Reports from Tipperah district speak of Lakshmipur
bandar (316 warehouses and shops) as the residence of the wealthiest traders;
after that, Roypore was the next most important ganj. In another case, many of
the bazars and ganjs in pargana Amberabad were desolate due to variable patterns
of commerce, as noted by the district collector.105 However, records also indicate
a number of goldars (wholesaler), beoparies (trader), kaporiyas (dealer in unbleached cloth), podars (moneychanger), moodies (grocer), and dokandars (shopkeeper) totalling 10,661 according to an assessment in 1795.106
Population
Population growth was perhaps another important factor influencing market formation. Statistical data are hard to come by, but suggest at least that cities experienced an exponential rate of influx and growth. The population estimated for
1789 stood at around 22 million for Bengal and Bihar. Jones estimated it to be
around 24 million. The figures for 1802 veer towards the 27 million mark, including
the zamindari of Benares. The survey found 80,914 raiyats holding leases, 22,324
artificers paying ground rent in 2,784 villages upon 2,531 square miles. Taking
5 per family, Jones estimated more than 203 persons a square mile for the whole
of the Diwani provinces, giving a population of 30,291,051, the area of Bengal
and Bihar being not less than 149,217 square miles.107 For 1801, Hamilton gives
the figures of 39,679,000 for Bengal, Bihar and Benares.108 According to Guha,
the estimated figures for 179092 were 33,149,000 and 35,801,000 in 180002109
while Datta gives the figures of 22 million for 1789, and 27 million for 1800.110
The 1792 figures from Tamluk, a small division in the Salt districts, provide
evidence of a substantial number of people even in places other than the bigger
102
WBSA, Judicial Criminal, Vol. 15, October 1794, pp. 15860. See also Vol. 7, 18 Oct. 1793,
pp. 13341.
103
WBSA, Judicial Criminal, Vol. 23, 7 August 1795, pp. 16162.
104
WBSA, Judicial Criminal, Vol. 2, 31 May 1793, pp. 918.
105
WBSA, Judicial Criminal, Vol. 11, 14 March 1794, pp. 161168.
106
WBSA, BOR-Police, Vol. 1, Pt. 1, 28 April 1795, pp. 3653.
107
On the Population of Bengal, pp. 4142.
108
Hamilton, The East India Gazetteer, p. 190.
109
Guha, Health and Population, p. 39.
110
Datta, Society, Economy and the Market, p. 266.

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cities, with 177,817 residents.111 Contemporary observers noted that Chandernagore


was still very populous in 1803 and had about 50,000 inhabitants.112 Dhakas population also appears to have risen over the late eighteenth century. A French account
places the total population of Calcutta113 at an even higher mark with 1,200,000
inhabitants while a 1823 estimate puts the population at 600,000 and within the
twenty-mile radius, there were around 2,225,000 people.114 In comparison with
some cities in Asia, such as Edo in Japan (with over a million at the beginning of
the eighteenth century),115 the population of Bengals cities, even Calcutta, was
small. Nevertheless, one can place it at the top of a range of other metropolises,
including Kyoto (approx. 350,000), Osaka (380,000), London (480,000 in 1661),
Paris (550,000 in 1700) and Berlin (170,000 in 1800).116 (see Table V)
Table V
Population of Different Towns and Cities of Bengal
City/Town

1790

Burdwan
Calcutta
Chandercona
Chandernagore
Chittagong (dist.)
Dacca
Dinajpur
Gaur
Malda
Murshidabad
Narainganj
Patna
Purnea
Rajmahal

1807
152,000

150,000

150,000

1815
53,000
500,000
18,145
41,377
175,000
180,000
28,000
18,000
18,000
150,000
20,000

150,000
33,000
30,000

Source: Hamilton, The East India Gazetteer, p. 191; WBSA, BOR-Sayer, Vol. 2, Pt. I, 24 Sept.
1790, p. 113; Legoux de Flaix, Essai Historique, Geographique et Politique, tome I,
p. 107; Wallace, Memoirs of India, p. 302.

111
WBSA, Comptroller of Salt and Collector of the Salt district-Copies of Correspondence,
Statement and accounts relating to the revenue administration of the Salt district of Tamluk, Hijili
and Mahisadal, Vol. 4, 17911793, p. 137.
112
Asiaticus, p. 41.
113
Legoux de Flaix, Essai Historique, Geographique, Vol. I, p. 107.
114
Wallace, Memoirs of India, p. 302. Bayly gives the figures of 120,000 for 1750; 200,000 for
1780; and 350,000 for 1820. Bayly, Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire, p. 68.
115
Takeshi Ito, Populism in the Representation of the City: the World of Edo Hitomezu Byobu
(the Bird eyes View of Edo City), paper presented in Traditional Cities Symposium, Cambridge,
July 2003.
116
Ringrose, Capital Cities, Urbanization, and Modernization, pp. 15583, esp. p. 170.

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Population, however, could not determine urbanisation by itself. As Dattas


recent revision of deaths from famine shows,117 briefly falling population levels
too could not do away with the demand for commodities. A rising population
might have provided the incentive without which Bengal might not have adopted
commercial exchange as a central element of economic life. Demand fuelled the
desire to innovate and intensify production levels, offering households a financial
rationale to produce goods for market not directly concerned with their reproduction, or the replenishment of their ordinary wants. By increasing overall
demand in the economy, a rise in population can, other conditions being favourable,
steer a society toward increasing reliance on the market. This orientation towards
the market, however, depends on a distribution of land and capital allowing demand
to broaden at societys base, thus making possible a broad movement towards
commercialisation.118 As Langdon and Masschaele119 note, the reverse could also
be possible. There could be a powerful conjunction between entrepreneurial activity and population growth, and that the former tended to lead the latter.120 Commercial growth created a conducive set of conditions that aided and accelerated
family formation and hence increased population. Rather than daily wages of
individuals, annual incomes of families were more critical.121 Designations of
primary occupations tend to obscure the work performed by women and often
part time, work that was more heavily oriented towards textiles122 in Bengal than
toward other activities involving commodity production. Spinning was done by
women of all castes, both in the town and country, who applied to it with great
industry, when other domestic cares allowed them leisure, particularly the wives
of the raiyats in the mofussil.123 Perhaps it would be mere speculation in the absence of tangible data to suggest that the annual incomes of families in Bengal
too were on the increase.
The connection between demography and commercialisation is not simple.
Some groups (merchants, farmers and landed proprietors) benefited more than
others and used the resulting wealth to entrench or enhance their social positions.
As the value of the markets became apparent, zamindars and other landed proprietors, the Nazims family and other groups increasingly established forums,
asserting rights of revenue-collection.124 For their part, merchants showed a
117

Datta, Society, Economy and the Market, ch. 5.


Masschaele, Peasants, Merchants and Markets, for an excellent overview of markets in medieval
England.
119
Langdon, and Masschaele, Commercial Activity and Population Growth.
120
Ibid., p. 36.
121
Ibid., pp. 39, 41.
122
WBSA, BOT-Comm, Vol. 93, 22 July 1791, pp. 449, 450, 461, 464.
123
Ibid., p. 444.
124
See WBSA. Committee of Revenue, Vol. 40, 28 May 1784, p. 402. Glazier notes that the
indigenous inhabitants of Rangpurthe Hindu and the Muslim women attended the markets and
transacted business to the almost total exclusion of the men. Glazier, The District of Rungpore, p. 5.
118

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168 / TILOTTAMA MUKHERJEE

remarkable degree of understanding of the way markets functioned, trading off


quick returns and sustainable profit growth. Rapid turnover freed up working
capital for further investment. Merchants own accounts and petitions made it
clear their appreciation of their function in the economy: they served as an interface
between local producers and consumers, being subject to competitive pressures
with other venues and tariff structures. Peasants responses to these stimuli were
expressed in decisions regarding manufacture and supply. As consumers themselves, of grain for instance, they sustained a huge network. Estimates from 1794
show that 1,200,000 people were expected to consume 1,400,000 mans of rice in
three months.125 The extensive grain market catering to this section of society has
been well documented in recent years.126 There was also considerable occupational
diversity. The presence of a strong service industry inclusive of groups associated
with textiles, utensils, tobacco, wood, fruits, and merely formal repositories of
exchange-value like silver and shell ornaments, is similarly acknowledged in contemporary accounts.127
Although, the best vantage point from which to view the economic prosperity
occurring over the eighteenth century is provided by the founding of new markets; the exponential rise in the number of fairs, temples, pilgrim centres run on a
commercial footing, pilgrims journeying not only with a religious motive but a
kind of recreational fervour,128 are all indications of the same. Besides, rural demand
for staple items, what has paradoxically not been dealt with by most scholars, is
the urban demand. Records show consumption of a very wide range of articles including arrows, silver laces, baskets, tumblers, ceremonial utensils, cages, brass
pots, ornaments, umbrellas, China, churis, lac bangles, combs, bags, shields,
flowers, glass panes, cheese, paper, pigeons, plates, drugs, sealing wax, fans, fine
mats, fruits, perfumes, ganja, glass, kites, lanterns, shoes, mats, soaps, needles,
caps and a host of other items.129 One can clearly discern that these were low
value commodities, and more importantly, these had to be periodically consumed.
Frequency of consumption, contraction in the gaps between moments of significant
consumption of non-necessary goods and conversion of home-produced items
(cheese for instance) to non-domestically made and purchased is perhaps what is
most notable in the way the eighteenth century consuming preferences evolved.
It is perhaps also necessary to keep in mind that these transitions might have been
short-term and reversible, and voluntarily entered into by the consuming sections
of the society. The legitimate exchange in second hand clothes for instance, sizeable
enough to have a separate duty levied on its sellers,130 serviced the common mans
125

WBSA, BORGrain, Vol. 1, 31 Oct. 1794.


Datta, Society, Economy and the Market.
127
See Mukherjee, Urban Centres and Consumption Patterns.
128
See Mukherjee, Economic Dimensions of Pilgrimage.
129
WBSA, Judicial Criminal, Vol. 9, 14 Feb. 1794, pp. 32132.
130
WBSA, BOR-Sayer, Vol. 1, 30 August 1790, pp. 595604.
126

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Markets in eighteenth century Bengal economy / 169

and womans utilitarian need and also perhaps a desire for transient style. Associated with this kind of trade, were also illicit means of meeting demand, through
thefts. Clothing was a much sought after commodity and possibly the most easily
disposable item.131
Intermediaries and Merchants
At each level of a regional market, however well supplied, was a range of merchants. Various historians, such as Chatterjee, have delineated a sharply defined
hierarchy of merchants.132 The strictness of their division between social classes
of traders and intermediaries may have been much more blurred in practice.133
Larger traders such as the goladars in ganjs liaised with a smaller or subordinate
grouping, the faria, whose local knowledge enabled them to act both independently and as commissioned agents. Their services as intermediaries extended the
reach of larger traders over wider catchment areas while resident in towns or district headquarters. Baladiyas acted as carriers and as merchants vendors in villages.
The role of gumashtas, dalals and paikars was crucial in the procurement process,
granting merchants the necessary levers for controlling both supply and distributory
pathways.134 Large merchants were organised in corporate trade bodies. Under
the guidance of a leader, trade meetings determined strategies, certain business
affairs, prices and community responses to state demands.135 The affiliation of
agents to trade bodies (functional) and caste groupings (classificatory) seems to
have been highly variable and open to negotiation: a merchant independently
operating in a certain area could be an agent of bigger merchants or European
companies elsewhere in the province.
The imputed pyramidical structure of professional merchants has a homology
in the social structure of moneylending. Bhattacharya136 distinguishes three strata
of usury and banking capital. At the lowest level, big and small lenders, including
nakadi mahajans and the athoyar mortgage lender, issued small loans out of capital
borrowed from bigger merchants and mahajans. In the middle, as documented by
Marshall, local moneylenders, changers of money or bankers (sarafs or mahajans)
131

WBSA, Judicial Criminal, Vol. 7, 11 Oct. 1793, pp. 9193.


Chatterjee, Merchants, Politics and Society, pp. 4149. Also see Curley, Rulers and Merchants
in the Late Eighteenth century Bengal, ch. 3.
133
WBSA, BOT-Comm, Vol. 56, 17 May 1787, pp. 244, 257. Datta, Society, Economy and the
Market, pp. 20607.
134
See Datta, Merchants and Peasants, pp. 379402. Idem., Society, Economy and the Market,
pp. 20810. Also Bhattacharya, Regional Economy, pp. 27375. Chakrabarty, Collaboration and
Resistance, pp. 10529.
135
Datta, Rural Bengal, ch. 4. Curley, Rulers and Merchants in the Late Eighteenth century
Bengal, pp. 7883.
136
Bhattacharya, Regional Economy, pp. 29192. Also see Chatterjee, Merchants, Politics and
Society, p. 48.
132

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made capital available to traders and larger tenants. At the top, the banking families of the Jagath Seths, located in Murshidabad, provided longer lines of credit
to smaller merchants, indebted landed proprietors and even the Nazim and the
Emperor in Delhi.137
The trading community showed a high degree of sophistication about consumption as a driver of shifts in production and prices. In one instance, a salt merchant
clearly indicated that the increased demand for certain necessities (like salt) was
to be attributed either to new rural markets (more distant parts of the country
having been found out), or to a supply-side deficit:
for the merchants real and true interest, as likewise the Companys acquired
revenue depend not upon deriving a large profit upon a small quantity of salt
vended out on high price, but upon quickly getting rid at a moderate advantage the largest quantity the consumption of the country is found capable of
taking off.138
Rates of profit varied with the kind and, as suggested, volumes of goods being
sold. Contemporaries observed profit rates to vary between 1520 per cent, while
Dattas figures show a much higher taking, up to 77 per cent for the sale of rice in
Calcutta in 1794.139 Some sources suggest that the highest profits accrued to
moodies and tobacco sellersdealers in semi-luxuries. Overall, margins of profit
seemed to have been small, ranging from 0.7 to 26.7 per cent in Chitpur, Calcutta140
and between 1 and 31.1 per cent in Tollyganj.141 It would appear that traders had
to be prepared to take temporary losses to earn subsistence levels of income on
other goods or in other times. In times of scarcity, however, those with market
knowledge and economic (or pricing) power seem equally to have had few qualms
about holding the consumer to ransom.142
While the commercial sphere tended to be characterised by rationality, calculation and business competence, these ostensibly modern values were superimposed
upon a background of patronage, extravagance, loyalty and devotion, derived
from persistent traditional modes of social organisation.143 Many wealthy merchants
followed a lavish life style marked by conspicuous consumption. Economic wealth
and social cachet did not command separate spheres, but were partly translatable
into each other: merchants could expend earning on a temple or mosque to earn
religious merit. Banarasidas autobiography shows, the business world operated
on concepts ambivalently drawn from both commercial and pre-commercial
137

Marshall, Bengal: The British Bridgehead, pp. 1415.


WBSA, BOT-Salt, Vol. 7, Pt. II, 27 May 1793, pp. 59092. The letter is written by a Mr P. Seal.
139
Datta, Society, Economy and the Market, pp. 21516.
140
WBSA, Judicial Criminal, Vol. 5, 9 Aug. 1793, pp. 14850.
141
WBSA, Judicial Criminal, Vol. 5, 9 Aug. 1793, pp. 15257.
142
Datta, Society, Economy and the Market, 214-215. Also, ch. 5.
143
Dahl, Trade, Trust and Networks, p. 15.
138

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Markets in eighteenth century Bengal economy / 171

categories: honour, trust, reciprocity and kinship ties.144 Many merchants benefited
from their social ambition and relative freedom from conventionality, embodying
apparently contradictory qualities in the manner of traders of the late medieval
and early modern period.145 Trustworthiness was based on a complex mixture of
notions of honour, perceived reliability (including ideas of professional competence), past record146 and liability to economic or social rewards and sanctions
consequent upon performance;147 it can be seen that these reputational factors
involve specifically, but by no means exclusively, commercial norms.148 This balance of the cultural and commercial also characterises the business dealings of
the contemporary world.149
Most traders appear to have had some kind of education, and many were literate
and numerate, as Banarasidas mentions in his autobiography. The Companys
numerous gumashtas and dalals, as well as the bigger merchants, would have had
well-developed accountancy skills. Basic competency with numbers must have
been relatively widespread in society given the necessity of record keeping on the
part of collectors and functionaries of the chaukis and textile industry, though
many weavers could not write.150 The stimulus for merchant classes to develop
numeracy skills (say, inculcating them in family members) was financial, as various
categories of merchants already enjoyed sufficient power in society.
Dahl differentiates societies according to levels of inter-party trust prevalent
in particular social orders. Large, professionally managed enterprises tend to develop in societies rich in trust, while the premise of suspicion between employers
and employees (or buyers and sellers) produces smaller, family owned companies
(at least in the absence of highly codified forms of contract). In such societies,
most business contacts are found within circles of known or recommended
144
Banarasidas, Ardhakathanaka. Alam and Alavi, A European Experience of the Mughal Orient.
Similarly, for early modern China, Lufrano argues that, in a minimally regulated economic environment containing few regulatory agencies, the mid-level merchant relied upon trust and personal
relations to protect himself and to conduct business successfully. Lufrano, Honourable Merchants,
pp. 10831.
145
Dahl, Trade, Trust and Networks, p. 32.
146
The abstract of the collection of the police tax of Dhaka for September-November 1793 lists
categories of dalals and paikars as creditable dalals and common dalals, and creditable and
common paikars. WBSA, Judicial Criminal, Vol. 9, 14 Feb. 1794, p. 308. The reference is probably
to their wealth too.
147
See Greif, Reputation and Coalitions in Medieval Trade, pp. 85782. During the course of a
court proceeding, one of the witnesses observes that the merchant in the dispute should have conducted himself with propriety: decency and regard to his character as a Merchant. OIOC, Bengal
Law Council, P/166/84, 22 May 1781.
148
See Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation.
149
Offer, Between the gift and the market, pp. 45076.
150
The Company officials noted that, many of the weavers cannot write and are obliged to trust
their memory or have some particular method of theirs for keeping accounts with those pykars they
are employed by. WBSA, BOT-Comm, Vol. 11, Pt. 1, 1 April 1777, p. 61.

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172 / TILOTTAMA MUKHERJEE

people.151 Kinship-based businesses of this kind seemed to have flourished in


Bengal, although business association with non-family members were also common. Like the wealthier bankers and merchants, local men of affairs depended on
networks of trust and faith in building a web of business relationships.
Conclusion
The existence of markets and fairs is related to the availability and size of a surplus
that may be traded freely. There is empirical evidence to support the notion that,
all other things being equal, the number of markets is inversely proportional to
the rate of state intervention by means of taxation in kind. Hence, the apparent
spread of fairs and markets in China during the later Tang period is thought to
reflect both the widespread imposition of monetary taxes and a lapse in state control over local trade. There is much evidence to suggest that the proliferation of
markets in Bengal during the eighteenth century was not a result of forced commercialisation. In the late eighteenth century, the Nazims invested directly in
markets to ratchet their rental income. Commercialisation of royal power152 had
become a feature of the eighteenth century. The indigenous states ensured that
the markets remained rationally organised. On the other hand, the distorting effects
of the Company state had yet to generally affect late-eighteenth century markets.
Economies of scale, demand and supply and lateral linkages characterised this
economy.
Attempts to establish new markets were deliberate, pre-meditated acts by individuals, involving several rights and procedures prescribed and protected by the
ruling lite. The holders knew very well that their hats and ganjs had to fit into
pre-existing regional structures of trade, if they were to be successful and they
were aware that these centres had to attract trade, on a level beyond that conducted
by the local households if they were to justify their creation. There is little evidence
of markets actually dying and most bazars were still enumerated in the populous
category.
There were several guiding norms in the creation of these hats and ganjs. A
new market further to a pre-existing one could be detrimental, but could not be
considered neighbouring and therefore could not be forbidden. Another principal
limiting the extent of a markets monopoly of sales transactions was based on the
timing of potentially conflicting markets.153 Often these markets in eighteenthcentury Bengal were periodic, held on specific day or days of the week. Only
markets with the potential to establish new trade were allowed to get off the ground.
A variety of merchants and traders acted as intermediaries between the producers and the final consumers. Their wealth, geographical area of operation,
151

Dahl, Trade, Trust and Networks, p. 294.


Bayly, Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars.
153
WBSA, Committee of Revenue, Vol. 43, 26 July 1784, pp. 2628.
152

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Markets in eighteenth century Bengal economy / 173

knowledge of local systems, credit worthiness and profit margins varied making
it into a very heterogeneous professional group. Trust and co-operative behaviour
were essential to the operation of business.
The presence of a robust service industry with a number of professional groups
operating especially within larger cities is clearly discernible in the records. The
evidence from Dhaka indicates that besides the groups associated with textiles;
there were a large number of dealers in other commodities. It would not be too
farfetched to suggest that the ancillary industry itself was supporting a very large
number of families. The concentration of large sections of non-agricultural occupations in cities, towns and even countryside, not only shows the great reliance on
the markets for daily items of consumption, but the variety of goods indicates a
wider consumer market. Consumption patterns varied across the different strata
of society.
The presence of the networks, however, did not perhaps overcome market fragmentation and privileged trade axes or significant regional disparities.154 Certain
areas, even though capable of producing a particular crop, would not do so due to
lack of proper systems of communication in the specific area as a 1775 reference
states, as there are no navigable Rivers in that district it is little worth the attention
of the inhabitants to cultivate and the impossibility of exporting it.155 The uneven
development of markets in the region also would indicate this variation across the
region.
Markets and growth of the economy were symbiotic and incremental. Markets
in the late eighteenth century were functioning under pressure from various quarters, but the pace of change varied and its consequences were by no means widely
detrimental. The effects of the company regulations, despite the rhetoric, did not
have the radical transformatory effect. Often, the study of the working of the
economy in eighteenth century Bengal is overshadowed and caught up by what
happened in the political sphere: the English East India Companys many attempts
to intervene, et al. This article has attempted to look at the actual functioning of
the nodes and sites of exchange and the way they developed without seeking to be
caught-up in the throes of the continuity/decline debate, however significant that
might be.
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