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Rise and Decline of Surat

Ashok V. Desai

A Project of
Popular Prakashan, Delhi . First Published by Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies, Stockholm, Series No. 28, 1979, 1980, pp. 222, Rs. 100.00

VOLUME V NUMBER 6 May/June 1981

Surat was perhaps ~he most active and prosperous port in seventeenth­ century India, and was among its three or four premier cities. It is of supreme historical interest both as a pre-indus­trial city and as a focal point of Asian trade. Dr Gokhale seeks in this book to tell the story of its rise and decline. The story of its rise cannot really be told, for we know little about Surat be­fore the Portuguese arrived there in the sixteenth century. It does not figure in the Periplus, written in the beginning of the Christian era, when Broach was the best-known port of Gujarat. Since, how­ever, it is clear that the Portuguese bat­tened on and later the English captured a voluminous West Asian trade centred on Surat, it is likely that this trade had existed for years and perhaps centuries before the arrival of the Europeans. It is known from European sources that Europe in the fifteenth century and ear­lier received textiles and spices from India through the Arabs who made a tidy profit on this trade; it was in order to break into this trade that Columbus looked for and Vasco Da Gama found a sea route to India. Hav­ing found the sea route, the Portuguese discovered that the risks of shipwreck made maritime trade with Asia a hazard­ous operation, and so settled down to piracy and collection of a tax on ships in the Indian Ocean. The Dutch, by building more seaworthy ships, made the sea route profitable, and with the help of levies and monopoly purchases in Java, developed a lucrative export of spices from Java to Europe. The English, being late-comers, found it difficult to break into the spice trade. So they concen­trated on textiles, which till the sixteenth century were shipped from Gujarat ports to Arabia and then carried overland across Arabia to be reshipped to Europe. That was why the English settled down in Surat and made it the base of their textile purchase operations. They ranged from Cambay in the north to Navsari in the south for cloth, and went up to Bayana for indigo. In their first years the English apparently caused a shortage and raised the prices of textiles. But since the lower middle class did not rule India at that time, exports were not banned, and sup­plies proved elastic enough in the ...

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