The ‘City of Gold’ and Its China Connection
Sneh Mahajan
CHINA AND THE MAKING OF BOMBAY by Madhavi Thampi The K.R. Cama Oriental Institute, 2010, 176 pp., 700
June 2010, volume 34, No 6

Critics have complained about the incessant output of books on Bombay/Mumbai. Each book has, obviously, a story to tell. This ‘Maximum City’, which is the second most populated city in the world and the richest city in India today, was a sparsely-populated, sleepy hamlet of mud-houses till the mid-eighteenth century. But, by 1780s, it began to replace Surat as a major port on the western coast of India and, by the end of the nineteenth century, emerged as a thriving metropolis rivalling Calcutta and as the power centre of the British. In this study, Thampi and Saksena argue that this metamorphosis of Bombay was the result of the growth of trade with China from the end of the eighteenth century to early twentieth century. They have also attempted to study how Bombay merchants made their fortunes in China trade and the impact of the emergence of this commercially oriented elite on the cityscape and its culture. The text covering 107 pages, consists, besides, introduction and conclusion, of six chapters.

In addition, there are 28 plates depicting the Bombay traders, the places they frequented and some artifacts. A very interesting and useful part of the book is the Appendix that gives information about some three hundred of these traders along with the names of their firms, relatives, dates of their presence in China, and their activities in Bombay along with the source of information for each of them. A word here about the use of the name ‘Bombay’ would not be out of place. The historian is always faced with the problem of choosing between the new name and the older name of places in the interest of historical authenticity. The authors here have chosen to use Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Canton for what are now known as Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Guangzhou, though they have used new names for places in China less known to their readers.

In this book, two chapters are devoted to the growth of trade in cotton, opium and textile. This trade between western India and China stemmed from the growing demand for Chinese tea in Britain during the eighteenth century. There was little that the British could sell in China. From Bengal, silk and cotton piece-goods, and opium were shipped which proved insufficient to pay for Chinese tea. However, in the 1790s, demand for cotton increased tremendously following a famine in south China which made farmers shift from producing cotton to growing cereals. Cotton was available in plenty in the Yangtse Valley in Central China. But the cost of transporting cotton within China was higher than the cost of shipping cotton from Bombay to China. This was the time when cotton was grown in plenty in Gujarat. Since Surat had declined as a trading port from the middle of the eighteenth century, Bombay merchants began to export it from Bombay. By 1805, the value of cotton exported from Bombay amounted to almost 60% of the total exports from India to China. After a period of slump in the 1820s, the cotton trade picked up again and, by 1860-61, one-third of India’s cotton was shipped to China and leading tycoons of Bombay derived a major portion of their income from the export of this single item.

Bombay merchants made their fortunes from the opium trade as well. From the second decade of the eighteenth century, they began to export opium grown in Malwa to China. In 1796, the Emperor of China prohibited the import of opium into China. Thereafter, the East India Company did not carry opium in its own ships. But it encouraged private merchants to export opium because it benefitted greatly from this trade.

This ‘China connection’ stimulated the ship-building industry and construction of dockyards as well. Cotton was a bulk commodity and could be exported in big ships only. In Bombay, construction of ships began in mid-eighteenth century and by the end of the eighteenth century, ships built in Bombay with Malabar teak were of such quality that these were purchased for the British navy and were used in the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. However, by the 1840s, steamships came in use and in this sector Europeans established their monopoly.

The authors also show that experience gained from this trade as well as money earned from it enabled Indian entrepreneurs to make forays into other fields of economic activity such as banking and cotton textiles. The first textile mills were established in the 1850s. But, by the 1870s, it was becoming clear that cloth manufactured in India could not compete with British textiles in the Indian market. Long experience of the China market enabled Bombay merchants to sell yarn in China because Chinese weavers found the coarse type of yarn produced in India more useful and cheaper. The expansion was phenomenal. Between 1880–81 and 1890–91, the export of yarn to China increased by 500 per cent. In the 1890s, exports declined because of China’s efforts to become self-sufficient and competition from Japan. But, with the onset of the Swadeshi movement in the early twentieth century, the industry began to recover because of dramatic increase in domestic demand.

Though the China trade was dominated by Parsis, other communities were also involved.This becomes clear from the fact that, of the 163 firms and individuals who submitted claim to compensation for the opium surrendered in 1839 after the First Opium War, one-third were Parsis while others, judging by their names, appear to be Jains or Hindus. For some reason there were no Muslims in this list though, after the Second Opium War, 15 Ismaili merchants were listed as due for compensation in a notification of 1864 issued by the Hong Kong Government. The Jewish people played a very important role in the growth of the textile industry. It should also be noted that this expanding trade with China had a multiplier effect. It added to the income of a large number of people such as smaller merchants, investors and brokers in Bombay and other smaller towns, and transporters and cultivators of crops in the neighbouring regions.

This study covers not just commodities but also people. The traders had to face many a social taboo and had to undertake an arduous journey from Bombay to Canton that took 180 days. Yet, amongst foreigners, the number of Indians at Canton and Macao was second only to that of the British. The environment in China was not just alien but positively hostile. The Chinese did not welcome foreigners and imposed many restrictions on trade. The traders could conduct business only at Canton, in designated areas, during certain months, and with certain licensed merchants, known as Hong merchants. They had to shift to the island of Macao if they wanted to carry on trade during the next session. No foreign woman was allowed to live in Canton. The authors have made an attempt to make observations about the life of traders in China, though in the records relating to trade and eye-witness accounts, references to Indians are very few and far between. They observe that Parsis showed reluctance to change their food habits or dress. They tended to dine separately even when participating in social functions with the British or other foreigners. In 1829, they were able to establish a cemetery at Macao. Indians lent money to Hong merchants. In the records of the Chinese and the East India Company, Indians have been blamed for causing problems relating to indebtedness of Hong merchants. The situation changed after the First Opium War when monopoly of Hong merchants was abolished

Spatial manifestations of these social-economic processes can be seen at multiple levels of activities in Bombay. These ‘China merchants’ built large and luxurious mansions. Everywhere rich persons donated for building houses of worship, rest houses, food, and clothing for the poor and for festivals. What was noticeable about the business elite in Bombay during this period was that they donated for building libraries, art-galleries, educational institutions, hospitals and public works. A look at the old city shows that urban space was charged with meaning by private enterprise.

The long period of interaction was bound to influence art and culture though shipment of art and craft items was rarely the main business of Bombay merchants. The authors concede that influence on art and culture was not dramatic. But one could not fail to notice that Chinese porcelain was liberally used in mansions of that time. The reason was functional. Because of their weight, porcelain items were brought as ballast to fill empty ships. Chinese were known for exquisite silk weaving and embroidery.Indian artists tried to absorb their finesse in their own creations.This led to the emergence of a fascinating melange of styles and left an imprint on Parsi sarees known as gara and on silk weaving style known as tanchoi. It is also interesting that Chinese weavers and embroiderers made efforts to cater to the tastes of Indians. They tended to drop symbols of Chinese mythology and bigger motifs like dragon, pagoda and pavilions in favour of birds, butterflies, fruits and flowers. The jacket of the book carries the picture of one such saree.

The emergence of Bombay as the power centre on the western coast of India is usually seen as a product of colonial enterprise. Here the authors have shown that the rise of Bombay is linked closely with China trade. But they do not delve into the constraints arising out of the fact that they had to operate in a colonial situation. They also do not discuss how their activities facilitated the creation and expropriation of surplus by the colonial power.

It has to be conceded however that this work is very well-argued and very easy to read. In today’s globalizing world, when trade between India and China is increasing by leaps and bounds, it is very timely and useful.

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