Coromandel, Europeans and Maritime Trade

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Coromandel, Europeans and Maritime Trade

Coromandel is the name given to the flat and agricultural southeastern stretch of India's coastline. Fragmented by numerous river deltas, Coromandel offers many suitable harbors including Pulicat, Madras (now Chennai), Pondicherry, Cuddalore, Tranquebar, Karaikal, Nagore, and Nagapattinam. Historically, the region emerged as significant through the production of textiles for export, carried by Muslim Kling and later Chulia merchants as far afield as the Burmese and Thai kingdoms, the sultanates of the Malay peninsula, north and east Sumatra, Java, the Moluccas, the Persian Gulf, and southern Arabia. It is hard to say that any one of these trading ports became preeminent in the early modern period, although with the rise of the kingdom of Golconda and its mining activities, Masulipatnam in north Coromandel became an important regional entrepôt. The scattered locations of Coromandel ports was partly a reflection of the export trade in textiles, whose production was distributed evenly across the region. Besides the oceanic trade there was considerable coastal trade northward up to Orissa and Bengal, southward to Sri Lanka, and westward to Malabar and Gujarat. In this, Muslim settlers from the Arabian Sea and local Islamic merchant communities traded side-by-side with long-standing Hindu merchant groups such as the Telugu and Tamil Chetty, though a gradual shift of Telugu interests southward suggests they may have been displaced by competition. The import trade, by contrast, was never of any great significance, except at Masulipatnam, as it consisted mainly of trade in minerals and the local movement of rice and other foodstuffs.

Europeans were attracted from the outset by the possibilities of procuring textiles for export, though the extent of sixteenth-century Portuguese involvement in the Coromandel carrying trade is questionable. In any case, the Portuguese, who were initially attracted by the legend that the apostle St. Thomas was buried at Mylapore, were never present in great numbers. Around 1540 there were perhaps six to eight hundred across Coromandel, but their settlements remained largely outside state control. According to the Lembrança das Cousas da Índia, written in 1525, only one state vessel was active in Coromandel.

In the seventeenth century, however, Coromandel offered crucial trading posts for the Dutch, who opened factories in Pulicat, Sadras, and Masulipatnam. As Hendrik Brouwer explained in 1612, the Coromandel Coast was "the left arm of the Moluccas, because we have noticed that without the textiles of Coromandel, commerce is dead in the Moluccas." The English by contrast were slower to patronize this coastline, and instead concentrated their trading activities in Persia and Surat in Gujarat. Only in 1644 did they build Fort St. George, around which developed the city of Madras, which prospered from its trading activities. This trade represented above all the harnessing of the European demand for calicos, woven in Coromandel from raw cotton imported from the Deccan. The cloths produced were a variety of plain cloths (muslins and calicos) and patterned chintz. The weavers worked as household units, were organized into a number of castes under a community leader (careedar), and proved a mobile workforce, though they were sometimes forced to revert to agricultural livelihoods on account of competition from the emerging English machine industry and shortages in raw cotton supplies. They were paid well above a subsistence wage, though not as much as skilled laborers.

The Dutch and English were joined by the Danes, who established themselves at Tranquebar, and the French at Nizampatnam, Karaikal, and Pondicherry, which they acquired in 1674. With the arrival of Joseph Dupleix, who became governor in Pondicherry in 1742, the French Compagnie des Indes Orientales took on a martial bent. It provoked war with the English by invading Madras in September 1746, although the port was returned shortly afterward by international treaty. In 1750 Dupleix intervened in the succession dispute that followed the death of the Nawab of the Carnatic by thwarting the designs of another Muslim ruler, the Subahdar of the Deccan; shortly afterward, the French also blocked the Subahdar's attempts to control the province of Tanjore.

The English East India Company, despite its traditional aversion to warfare, could no longer afford to stay out of the conflict and intervened. Demonstrating greater skill in the field, the British army overwhelmed a French force protecting their puppet, Chanda Sahib, and further setbacks such as the failure to storm Muhammad Ali's citadel in Trichinoply undermined Dupleix's support back in France, forcing the governor's recall in 1754.

The French and the English continued to contest the region more ruthlessly than before, but a three-month French siege of Madras at the end of 1758 this time failed and the French were twice routed by local armies supported by the English in the Northern Circars. The French garrison at Pondicherry itself finally fell to the English in January 1761.

This complex of circumstances had, in the meantime, given rise to a situation in which the English could not easily extricate themselves from landholding and the development of colonial governance. Fueled by the appetite of young men bent on career and personal fortune, the Franco-British conflict in the Carnatic, together with concurrent developments in Bengal, had unwittingly set the foundations of the British Empire in India. For Coromandel, colonial rule meant the weaving industry falling under the total control of the English between 1795 and 1800, although when tensions arose the weavers still demonstrated themselves capable of collective protest.

see also Bengal, Maritime Trade of; Colonial Port Cities and Towns, South and Southeast Asia; English East India Company (EIC).


Arasaratnam, Sinnappah. Merchants, Companies, and Commerce on the Coromandel Coast, 1650–1740. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Arasaratnam, Sinappah. Maritime Commerce and English Power: Southeast India, 1750–1800. South Asian Publications Series, no. 11. New Delhi: Stirling, 1996.

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay. The Political Economy of Commerce: Southern India, 1500–1650. Cambridge South Asian Studies, no. 45. New York and Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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Coromandel, Europeans and Maritime Trade

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