On May 20, 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, having sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, anchored his fleet at Calicut on the Malabar Coast and became the first European to reach India by sea. It was a landmark event, one that would lead to a fundamental shift in the pattern of Asian maritime trade. Joint venture companies set up by European entrepreneurs followed in Da Gama’s wake, and vied with each other to secure a share of the interregional trade of Indian goods in Asia, and to satisfy the growing demand for Indian products, among which were luxury items, which had earlier reached Europe in dribs and drabs via the land route.
It is probable that the Portuguese shipped only top quality Indian textiles to Lisbon, such as silk embroideries from Gujarat and Bengal, and the best varieties of dye-painted cotton fabrics, which they called pintados, from Gujarat and the Coromandel Coast. Plain cottons, as well as ones patterned on the loom and block-printed examples, were primarily used in the barter trade with the Moluccan Islands (or the “Spice Islands” as they were known), in the east of the Indonesian archipelago. These textiles were bartered there for nutmeg, mace and cloves, spices which yielded high profits in Europe. In Java, the Portuguese traded Indian textiles for pepper.
While the Portuguese trade in Asian products was connected with Portugal’s ambitions for a colonial empire in Asia, the European East India companies which followed in their footsteps, were primarily interested in making profit.
In 1600, the English East India Company (EIC) was founded; it was followed in 1602 by the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) and by the much smaller Danish East India Company (Ostindisk Kompagni) in 1616. The French and Swedish East India companies were established somewhat later, in 1664 and 1734 respectively. Trade in Indian textiles played an essential role in these companies’ activities in Asia. The volumes traded by EIC and the VOC were by far the largest.
By the late 17th century, both companies had an extensive network of factories along the coasts of India, in the vicinity of which the textiles were produced. Initially, the intra-Asian trade in Indian textiles was the priority of both the EIC and the VOC, as it was for their Portuguese predecessors. In 1604 the VOC, striving for a monopoly of the spice trade, ousted the Portuguese from the Moluccas. Two decades later, attempts by the EIC to acquire spices in the Moluccas in exchange for Indian textiles were stifled by the Dutch who pushed the English altogether from the region. However, the EIC established a factory in Banten in west Java, and some trading posts in Sumatra and Sulawesi.
In the first two decades of the 17th century, the EIC as well as the VOC shipped Indian textiles to these three large islands in the Indonesian archipelago, but soon after the Dutch were the main traders in Indian textiles in this vast region, leaving both the EIC and Asian entrepreneurs far behind. The British factory in Bengkulu, at the south-west coast of Sumatra, remained the sole British settlement in the Indonesian archipelago. It survived until 1824, when it was handed over to the Dutch.
Although the quality of most of the Indian textiles the Dutch shipped to Indonesia as barter was probably rather average, a number of Indian silk weavings as well as some top-quality dye-painted cottons were preserved and can be found in museums and private collections
A few European East India companies traded Indian textiles to other regions in South-east Asia as well, although in rather small quantities. From the third quarter of the 17th century, the EIC regularly shipped Indian textiles to London, and the VOC to Amsterdam and, in smaller quantities, to Middelburg, capital of the province of Zeeland, which was, after Amsterdam, the most important of the six so-called Chambers of the Company.
The textile cargos brought to the Dutch Republic (now: [Kingdom of] the Netherlands) were mostly plain cotton fabrics and striped and checkered ones patterned on the loom. They were made for the Dutch market as well as the Guinea Coast in west Africa. Vessels of the Dutch West-Indische Compagnie (West Indian Company; WIC) transported these fabrics from the Republic to Elmina, situated in present day Ghana, which was the Company’s main settlement at the Guinea Coast. These mostly coarse fabrics, including the so-called Guinea cloth, were used to purchase and clothe enslaved Africans, who were then transported to the Americas and the Caribbean.
Dye-painted cotton fabrics arrived in England and the Dutch Republic in relatively small quantities. In the records of the English East India Company these colourful textiles made for the home country are mostly called chint or chintz – occasionally pintado – in the records of the VOC generally chits or sits. The brilliant natural dyes that did not fade even after repeated washing, the exotic designs and the lightweight cotton fabric made Indian chintz an immediate success in Europe, which by the late 17th century became a craze that would last for well over a century.
Excerpted with permission from When Indian Flowers Bloomed In Europe: Masterworks of Indian Trade Textiles, 1600-1780, In the TAPI Collection, Ebeltje Hartkamp-Jonxis, Niyogi Books.