Bengal: Commerce and trade, c. A.D. 1900

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This article has been extracted from



Note: National, provincial and district boundaries have changed considerably since 1908. Typically, old states, ‘divisions’ and districts have been broken into smaller units, and many tahsils upgraded to districts. Some units have since been renamed. Therefore, this article is being posted mainly for its historical value.

Commerce and trade

British trade with Bengal commenced about 1633; but prior to the acquisition of the Province it was on a very small scale, and in 1759 only thirty vessels with an aggregate burden of less than 4,000 tons sailed from Calcutta. The chief , trade exports were opium from Bihar and Rangpur*, silk manufactured goods and raw silk from Murshidabad and Rajshahi*, muslins from Dacca*, indigo and saltpetre from Bihar, and cotton cloths from Patna. Little except bullion was imported. The 150 years of British rule have witnessed a commercial revolution. Hand- woven silks and cottons are no longer exported, and machine-made European piece-goods have taken the first place among the imports. On the other hand, owing to the increased facilities for the transport of goods, the food-crops have been largely displaced by fibres and oilseeds, which now figure largely among the exports. The principal imports are yarns and textile fabrics, metals and machinery, oil, and sugar ; and the principal exports are raw and manufactured jute, coal, tea, opium, hides, rice, linseed, indigo, and lac. Bengal enjoys a practical monopoly of the export of coal, raw and manufactured jute, lac, saltpetre, and raw silk, and has a large or preponderating share in that of opium, indigo, rice, hides, and tea.

The maritime trade of the Province is concentrated in Calcutta. Chittagong*, the terminus of the Assam-Bengal Raihvay, exports jute, rice, and tea, and imports salt and oil ; but its total trade is still comparatively small. The Orissa ports do an insignificant rice trade. The head-quarters of the jute trade are Narayanganj*, Sirajganj*, Chandpur*, and Madaripur* in East Bengal, and JalpaigurI* in North Bengal ; the jute-mills line both banks of the Hooghly river from lo miles below to 30 miles above Calcutta. Patna is still a market for grain, but the East Indian Railway has robbed it of much of its importance. Raniganj, Asansol, GTrTdTh, Jherria, and Barakar are the centres of the coal trade. Calcutta, with its suburbs of Howrah, Garden Reach, and Chitpur, is the centre of the commercial and industrial activities of the Province.

The Bengal Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1834, and represents all the large commercial interests of Calcutta. The Bengal National Chamber of Commerce and the Calcutta Trades Association have been formed to protect the interests of native merchants and of the retail trading community. The affairs of the Calcutta and Chittagong ports are administered by Port Trusts.

Broadly stated, the imports into Calcutta represent the convergence of the products of the country to the chief seaport for shipment overseas, and the exports from Calcutta the distribution inland of foreign imports ; the principal articles of export and import are thus the same as have already been enumerated for the Province as a whole.

The registration of internal trade is defective, except for Calcutta, and complete returns exist only for rail-borne traffic. The Province is divided for registration purposes into eight blocks. The articles most largely exported from the Eastern block are jute, grain and pulses, timber, kerosene oil, and fodder; from the Northern block jute, grain and pulses, tobacco, and tea ; from the Dacca* block jute ; and from Bihar grain, pulses, oilseeds, stone, and lime. All the blocks obtain their piece-goods from Calcutta. Calcutta receives rice from East and West Bengal ; coal from West Bengal and Chota Nagpur ; jute from Dacca* and East and North Bengal; timber from East Bengal ; grain and pulses from West, East, and North Bengal, Dacca*, and Bihar ; and oil- seeds, opium, and indigo from Bihar. West Bengal imports salt, oilcake, wrought iron and steel, and sugar from Calcutta ; coal and timber from Chota Nagpur ; and grain, stone, lime, and oilseeds from Bihar. East Bengal draws its supplies of salt and railway material from Calcutta ; coal from West Bengal and from Chota Nagpur ; and jute and rice from North Bengal. Bihar imports coal and timber from Chota Nagpur.

The railways, rivers, canals, and roads carry country produce to the ports for export, and distribute the imports : the main routes of traffic will be described under the head of Communications. Calcutta, the chief receiving and distributing centre, is connected with all parts of the Province by the railways, which carry the bulk of the internal trade. Next in importance as a channel of communication are the Calcutta and Eastern Canals, which carry enormous quantities of rice and jute from the eastern Districts into Calcutta.

Jute is either exported from Calcutta or manufactured in the mills on the Hooghly. In the former case it is pressed into bales to reduce the freight. One-third of the jute pressed at Narayanganj* finds its way to Chittagong* by the Assam-Bengal Railway, and is thence shipped direct. The presses and the mills obtain their jute from the cultivator through native brokers, and the trade in Calcutta is largely in the hands of European brokers. Tea grown in North Bengal is taken to Calcutta by rail, but most of that produced in Assam is carried thither by steamer, and shipped thence to London either by the producers, or by brokers who purchase it at auction. Considerable and increasing quantities of Assam tea are, however, now sent by the Assam-Bengal Railway to Chittagong*, and are shipped thence direct to England. Coal is carried by rail from the mines to Calcutta, whence it is shipped to Bombay and other coast ports. Opium intended for export is also brought to Calcutta, where it is sold at auction by the Board of Revenue. Imported foreign goods are bought by native merchants, through European brokers, from the consignees, and distributed up- country.

Only 8 per 1,000 of the population are engaged in commerce. A great part of the trade is in the hands of enterprising merchants from Marwar, chiefly Agarwals and Oswals ; the indigenous dealers belong in Bengal to the Sunri, Kayasth, Teli, Subarnabanik, and Brahman castes, and in Bihar to the Rauniar and Kalwar castes. The Marwaris are bankers and money-lenders, and dealers in piece-goods and country produce ; of the other castes mentioned, the Brahmans and Kayasths are engaged as brokers, money-lenders, and bankers, while the others are for the most part petty shopkeepers.

Statistics of the value (i) of the trade with other Provinces and States in India, (ii) of the foreign maritime trade, and (iii) of the foreign land trade are given in Tables V-VII on pp. 348-50. Of the trade by sea with other Provinces the largest share, both in imports and exports, is with Burma, which sends rice, timber, and kerosene oil to Bengal, and receives from it coal, tobacco, gunny-bags, and betel-nuts. Next comes the Bombay Presidency, which supplies Bengal with cotton goods and salt, in exchange for coal, rice, gunny-bags and cloth, and tea. The trade by land with Provinces other than those named is carried by rail and river, and much of it is due to the position of Calcutta as a seaport and medium of trade with other countries. The largest share of this trade is with the United Provinces, whence are received opium,


oilseeds, grain and pulses, hides and skins, and wool manufactures, and to which are sent cotton piece-goods, gunny-bags and cloth, metals, and sugar. From Assam, Calcutta receives tea, oilseeds, grain and pulses, and stone and lime, and sends in return cotton piece-goods, metals and manufactures of metals, oils (mostly rape and mustard), and salt. Excluding the trade with Calcutta, the imports of Bengal consist mainly of the staple products of the United Provinces, Assam, and the Central Provinces, and the exports consist mainly of grain and pulses, coal, jute, gunny-bags and cloth, spices, and sugar.

Of the foreign trade by far the largest part is with countries in Europe ; and of this the greatest share is with the United Kingdom, from which two-thirds of the imports come. Kerosene oil is imported from Russia, sugar and piece-goods from Germany, wrought iron and steel from Belgium, and sugar from Austria-Hungary and from the Straits. The United Kingdom takes one-third of the total exports, and Germany as much as all the other countries combined.

The foreign land trade is insignificant except with Nepal, which absorbs about 92 per cent, of the total. Tibet still presents a practically closed door to the Indian trader, and with Sikkim and Bhutan the trade is trifling. About half of the imports consists of grain and pulses (largely rice) ; the exports are cotton yarn and piece-goods (European and Indian), metals, provisions, and salt.

See also

For a large number of articles about Bengal, extracted from the Gazetteer of 1908 (as well as other articles on Bengal) please either click the 'India' link (below, left) and go to Bengal (under B) or enter 'Bengal' in the 'Search' box (top, right). Bengal, 1908 Bengal: A history, by British Raj writers Bengal: Agriculture in A.D. 1900 Bengal: Arts and manufactures, 1908 Bengal: Commerce and trade, c. A.D. 1900 Bengal: Famines, 1769-1899 Bengal: Forests, c. A.D. 1900 Bengal: Mines and minerals, c. A.D. 1900 Bengal: Physical aspects, c. A.D. 1900 Bengal: Population, A.D. 1901

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