Spices and cotton: Indian Economy 1500-1800 AD
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Spices and cotton

white and black men on a ship with bales of cargo
Japanese painting of Portuguese
bringing Indian cargo to Japan (1500s AD)

Under the Mughal Empire, India continued to make a lot of money by trading things back and forth between East Africa and West Asia to their west, and South-East Asia and China to their east. Mostly Indian traders sold pepper and cinnamon and other spices to West Asia. They sold glass beads and cotton cloth to East Africa and got gold and furs and ivory in return.

cloth with flowers and leaves on it
Cotton cloth from Gujarat, India (1600s AD)

When Portuguese, Dutch, and British ships began to show up in Indian ports in the 1500s, Indian traders sold them cotton cloth and spices too. The Portuguese traded Indian ivory and ebony to China, and brought back gold, silk, porcelain, and copper. By the 1600s, traders wanted tons of cheap Indian cotton cloth and glass beads to trade to West Africans for slaves, and to North American people for furs.

Around 1700 AD, though, people in England began to want to buy a lot of Indian cotton cloth too. British ships now carried cotton cloth to England as well as to Africa and Asia. British trading posts in India at Madras, Bombay (modern Mumbai) and Calcutta started to grow into big cities.

But British traders began to push Indian people around to make more money for themselves. In the 1820s, the British began to grow a lot of tea in India to sell in England, in order to save money on buying tea from China. Indian people didn't make money growing tea. In the 1830s, British people put a tax on salt in India, to force Indians to buy British salt instead of making their own.

When the American Civil War started in 1860, the British couldn't get raw cotton for their mills in England anymore. They began to force Indian traders to sell them raw cotton instead of making the cotton into cloth. Millions of Indian spinners and weavers and dyers were put out of work. India, forced to sell cheap raw materials instead of expensive finished manufactured goods, became a much poorer country.

Learn by doing: look at printed India-style cloth in a fabric store
More about the Indian economy

Bibliography and further reading about the Indian economy:

Eyewitness India Ancient India

Eyewitness India, by Manini Chatterjee (2002). Written for kids.

Ancient India, by Virginia Schomp (2005). Written for teens. Very good for reports.

More about the Indian economy
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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