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Europeans in India, 1542 to 1700

Following the Portuguese, in 1542 the first Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, arrived in India, at Goa, but within a few years he left for Japan, disappointed that the Indians were, in his words, "without inclination to virtue" and little interested in biblical instruction. He left behind a small community of Portuguese and Indian Christians, and, drawing from Portuguese experiences in India, in northern Europe the view spread that Indians were heathenish and cunning.

In the early 1600s, the Dutch and British came to India. Being Protestants and competitors, they were harassed by the Jesuits and Portuguese. In 1611, the Dutch East India Company built a factory in India's southeast, at Pulicat. The Dutch and British drove out the Portuguese, a British fleet defeating the Portuguese off the coast of India in 1612. The Mughals, without a navy, had looked to the Portuguese to protect the ship that took Muslim Indians on their annual pilgrimage to Mecca, and now they turned to the English for this protection. This was accompanied by an increase in trade with England, dominated by the British East India Company, which built a factory at Surat, on India's western coast, in 1619.

Sailors, traders, diplomats and adventurers flocked to India. Europeans were allowed to roam about. They brought to India technical advances, such as a hand-driven pump to transfer water. And they brought technical skills. Some of the Europeans set up shop, and some were hired by Indians. Mughal artillery was not keeping pace with European developments, and the Mughal government hired Europeans as artillerymen – men who were often deserters for the East India Company ships and garrisons.

In the first thirty years of Alamgir's reign (1658-1707), European demand for Indian textiles rose steeply, while India in return received a few luxury items, precious metals, a modest amount of woolens, tin, lead and copper from Britain, and the Dutch brought spices from Southeast Asia. The two British and Dutch trading companies were buying their goods largely with silver and gold, on average 34 tons of silver and a half ton of gold every year.

Crops from the Americas, such as tobacco and maize, were being grown in India. Peasants reclaimed tracts of land from jungle for wet rice cultivation. Farming took over lands that had been used for pasture. Cotton, sugarcane, indigo and opium grew well in India, with farmers prospering as they produced agricultural goods for the market, including mulberries and silk production. Demand for food grew with the population and the rise of market towns.

By the 1680s, hundreds of prosperous market towns dotted northern India, the towns occupied by traders in grain, moneylenders, retired military officers and other officials, by religious figures and other recipients of subsistence grants, and Muslim gentry. The millions of people on state salaries increased demand for manufactured and processed consumer goods, some goods supplied by the government sector of the economy, but most by the private sector.

Foreigners arriving in India continued to be impressed by the opulence of the Mughal Empire, by the ceremonies, etiquette, music, poetry, paintings and art objects at the imperial court. But despite its affluence, India, like Russia, had little of what could be described as a merchant fleet. By tradition the Mughals were horsemen. Seafaring had been foreign to them. This and the more aggressive pursuit of technological advancement in Europe was impacting India. India, moreover, had the largest of populations – about ten times more dense than Russia – reaching from 100 million to 150 million between 1500 and 1700.


A New History of India, Fourth Edition, by Stanley Wolpert, Oxford University Press, 1993

The Formation of the Mughal Empire, by Douglas E Streusand, 1989

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