Empire in Asia

A New Global History

European Commercial Enterprise in Pre-Colonial India

Book Cover

Book Title

European Commercial Enterprise in Pre-Colonial India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998


Prakash, Om


The book is set against the background of the rise of a pre-modern world economy, which had been facilitated by the great discoveries of the closing years of the fifteenth century. Most prominent among these discoveries was the all-water route between Europe and Asia via the Cape of Good Hope. The period of the beginning of the sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century essentially saw the transition from an essentially market-determined commercial encounter between Europe and India to colonial relationship.

The book comprises of details of consequences of the European trade on the subcontinent's economy during the pre-colonial period, leading to a different in the trading relationship in the early colonial period.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The analysis expounds largely on the implications of the European trade for the subcontinent's economy during the pre-colonial period. The workings of the English EIC during the early colonial period was thoroughly followed through in order to analyze the altered state of affairs between the two phases: the pre-colonial and early colonial period.

In addition, the study features the principal agencies instrumental to the running of the Euro-Asian commercial network in the early modern period. These were the European corporate enterprises - Portuguese Estado da India in the 16th, and the Dutch, English and the French East India companies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

An important topic is the consequences of the subsequent increase in trade between Europe to India. There was an almost revolutionary increase in European demand for Asian textiles and raw silk in the last quarter of the seventeenth century. This significantly enhanced the relative role of India in the Euro-Asian trade. Such perceived threats of a 'deindustrializing' Europe in response to invasion of Indian textiles significantly blurs the lines between which is 'core' and 'periphery'

The Europeans were allowed complete freedom of trade and had access to use of various elements of a rather efficient economic infrastructure of Indian economy. Yet, when it came to dealing with the producers and the merchants supplying the export goods to India, the Europeans were just another group operating in the market.

The topic of the decline in India also had a prominent place in the discussion. The whole subcontinent did not just decline with death of Aurangzeb and the beginning of decentralization in 1707. However, the takeover of Bengal after the Battle of Plassey in 1757 inaugurated a colonial phase. Later, on the basis of its political muscle power, the Company now enforced unilaterally determined below-market terms on the producers dealing in textiles and opium, changing the rules of trade significantly.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

India played a key role in the functioning of the key trading networks. Her capacity to put on the market large quantities of relatively inexpensive and highly competitive manufactured goods, while providing an important market for the specialized agricultural, mineral products offered by her trading partners, contributed to the growing level of trade. Hence, India contributed significantly to expansion of the basis of trade in the Indian Ocean. English private traders operated from India to manage their intra-Asian trade.

Prakash' argument is that the Europeans had been dependent upon and had to assimilate into existing intra-Asian trade networks. Only by the second half of the eighteenth century, on the basis of the newly found political leverage and expanded resource base, could private English traders operating from India make their way beyond the established networks of trade and carve out new niches and routes for themselves. Yet, Indian maritime merchants could adjust remarkably well to the pressures generated by the Europeans' presence - there was hardly any negative effect on the volume and value of the Indian merchants' maritime trade. Finally, the availability of special privileges to English EIC following its emergence as formal ruler of the province altered to a large extent the impact of European trade on India's economy.

Annotated by Michelle Djong