Rulers and Merchants in Late Eighteenth-Century Bengal

Curley, David Leith

     This thesis describes relations into which South Asian merchants entered because of their trade. The introduction reconstructs a Bengali Hindu definition of trade as a livelihood. It uses a late sixteenth-century narrative poem, Mukundarama Cakravarti's Candi-mangala. The poem defines trade by distinguishing it from two temporary relations: first, the hunting by superiors of inferiors; and second, the exchange initiated by an inferior's less valuable placatory gift (bheta) and supplication (nibedana). Trade is distinguished by the condition that neither superior nor inferior receives more than he gives. Like the other temporary relations, however, trade is a zero-sum game. Trade can produce gain (labha) by two enduring relations (bandha): that of trapping and caging, in which the superior coerces; and that of physical desire (kama), in which the inferior entices. As a livelihood trade is reprehensible because it must involve one of these two exploitive bonds.
     The following four chapters discuss merchants' relations in Bengal during the period 1770-1810, the first decades of the English East India Company's responsibility for provincial revenues. The first two chapters analyze roles of rulers in marketplaces. Every Bengali marketplace had a ruler responsible for collecting market taxes, overseeing police and adjudicating civil and criminal cases. By the rank of its ruler each marketplace was ranked in the hierarchy of the agrarian political system.
     In bad times rulers properly intervened in their marketplaces to manage trade. When famine threatened, they monitored grain prices to judge whether to impose embargoes of grain shipments to all equal or inferior marketplaces beyond their own localities. If this step was insufficient, they proposed price regulations. The organization of grain merchants in a marketplace enabled this regulation. Among grain merchants of Murshidabad one was recognized as chief or sardar by the Nawab of Murshidabad; he helped the Nawab formulate and implement famine policy. The grain merchants themselves, however, recognized four 'tribes' (probably dala), each with one or more heads (masta), that would unite only to petition redress of some specific grievance. Although subject to the Nawab, grain merchants of Murshidabad were immune to embargoes of inferior rulers and paid them not revenue but 'charity' (mangana).
     The last two chapters analyze roles of merchants in marketplaces, using a Bengali biography and East India Company records of Krsnacandra Pal of Ranafhat (1749/50-1809/10). The biography contrasts transactions secured by carefully stipulated contracts under an Islamicate law of sale to gifts of credit secured by the natural law of dharma and dependent on the superior's generosity; the latter are better. On the other hand, the biography describes a hierarchy of prestige among merchants determined by the rank of a merchant's apical marketplace, by the prestige of his dala, and by his power. A merchant's power was judged by his ability to bribe officials, to establish monopoly control of stocks and to manipulate prices. The most powerful merchants were recognized as masta.
     Krsnacandra Pal was a masta of Calcutta salt merchants. At different times he acted on behalf of different groupings of salt merchants, including the whole community, the segment of which he particularly was a masta, the 'ring' of powerful merchants with whom he usually cooperated, and the other masta of his segment. Of course, he also could, and did use his power on his own behalf against the interests of other salt merchants. To the extent that they did unite in bad times salt merchants commonly supported a strategy of limiting imports to protect salt prices.