Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Gujarati cotton trade in the 11th century: A lesson in market responsiveness

At the beginning of the second millennium AD, maritime trade in and around Asia was quite well developed. It spanned North and East Africa, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and China; and covered the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, and the China Sea. Merchant communities commonly traveled abroad and sometimes even settled in places along the network. For instance, trade was one reason why Jewish merchants from the Middle East and North Africa came to live in the thriving cities on India’s western coast.

India’s location – between Africa and East Asia – ensured that it played a significant role in the maritime trade. Ships from say Aden, in present-day Yemen, never made a direct journey all the way to Southeast Asia or China; that was too risky. They stopped at ports on India’s western coast before sailing farther.

Many different things were traded – spices, silk, ingots, glass beads. One of the major exports from India was cotton; and Gujarat was one the main centers of the cotton trade:
“Cotton was a major export from India and almost certainly would have been on board. Many documents that date from the period of the shipwreck, from the Middle East to China, concern the trade in Indian cotton. Recently discovered archaeological evidence is more direct, specific, and exciting. Several digs in the garbage dump of the old city of Fustat, south of Cairo, have turned up hundreds of fragments of printed cotton fabric that date as far back as the eleventh century, though many of these pieces are from the subsequent two centuries. The dry climate of the Cairo area has preserved these fragments for nearly 1000 years. Analysis of the twist patterns of the selvage style, and the wood-block printed patterns places their origin in Gujarat on the western coast of India. These small pieces of cotton were from simple, functional clothing, quite different from the use of silk in Indonesia…Gujarat had many specialized centers of cotton cultivation, dyeing and weaving spread through the countryside.” [From Stuart Gordon's When Asia Was the World]
That Gujarati cotton was found in Cairo isn’t news by itself. What is surprising though, is how responsive the cotton centers of Gujarat were to their markets thousands of miles away. Indonesia and the islands of Southeast Asia also appear to have been a market. But preferences about how that cotton should look and feel differed vastly from Egypt to Indonesia. The cotton producers of Gujarat were up to the task; they smartly and flexibly adjusted their production to meet varied tastes:
“Gujarat became subtly responsive to distant market demand. Researchers have recently located intact cloths in the islands of Southeast Asia that are virtually exact matches in weave and selvage to the small pieces found in Egypt. The only differences are in color and block printed pattern. Blue, being an inauspicious color in Southeast Asia, never appears. Green patterns sold well in Egypt. Animal patterns were sent to Southeast Asia, but not to Islamic Egypt. These archaeological finds suggest that traders did not simply take Gujarati cotton out to distant lands hoping to sell it. Instead there was a sophisticated return flow of information from traders to manufacturers on what sold well and what did not. There is even some archaeological evidence that Indonesian patterns were brought back to Gujarat and copied to meet market tastes.” [From Stuart Gordon's When Asia Was the World]

We live in a complex world today; we are more connected than ever before in history. But our globalism blinds us: we tend to overlook the fact that the world a thousand years ago was in some sense just as interdependent and complex – despite the hindrances to travel. Globalization was nothing new to Gujarat or Cairo or Indonesia even then: the wealth of their economies depended on it.

Fast forward a thousand years and the same market responsiveness that Gujarat demonstrated is vital for the corporations of today. It is true that modern day globalization is more instant and accelerated – perhaps that is why many communities feel it is harsh and intrusive– but the basic idea is very old indeed.


Krishnan said...

Fascinating !

Nilay said...

Very interesting....

SloganMurugan said...

recommended reading: In An Antique Land - Amitava ghosh

Anonymous said...

Thanks! The first couple of paragrapghs really helped on an essay of mine!

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