Early Modern Surat

The Rise of Surat

In the early 16th century, before the Portuguese arrived in India, Surat was reportedly just one of many fort towns dotting Gujarat’s shoreline, described by early visitors as a shanty town with buildings predominantly built using reeds, cow-dung, and clay. The Portuguese, in their conquest to wrestle away control of the Western Indian littoral from the Gujarati Sultans, set fire to both Surat and Rander. Khudawand Khan, a Muslim convert of Italian and Albanian origin came to Surat on an Ottoman ship and quickly rose up the ranks of the Gujarati aristocracy. For his loyalty to the Sultan, he was awarded a title and allowed to use Surat as his headquarters, where he built a fort in 1540 CE, which is today referred to as Surat Castle (Subrahmanyam).

The Castle

Cloth Map of Surat, Early 18th Century, Preserved in the Japiur City Palace Museum of Jaipur
French Illustration of Surat from 1683
A view of the fort from about 1780, with modern hand coloring
Contemporary view of Surat Fort from the River

Commerce

Once the Mughals captured Surat, the hinterland corresponding to the port expanded beyond the territories of the Gujarat Sulatane to the whole of northern India. This large hinterland, in addition to access to overland routes throughout the Central Asian steppe, provided Surat’s port with a distinct competitive advantage (Das Gupta). This meant that a greater number of commodities from the north Indian heartland of the Mughal empire were being traded through the port of Surat and that the commodities being brought to the port now had a bigger market of potential buyers (Subrahmanyam).

Cosmopolitanism

Since Surat was an important commercial center, it also served as a venue where interactions between people from different countries, religions, and social standings took place. However, the nature of these interactions in Surat was quite different compared to the cosmopolitan interactions between latter colonial port cities such as Bombay as Calcutta. A key reason for this difference was the lack of segregation in the city (Subrahmanyam).

Map of Surat in 1720

The Fall of Surat

It’s often argued that Surat faced somewhat of a decline starting in the latter half of the eighteenth century. There are many theories as to what caused the decline of Surat and many different interpretations of what constitutes a decline in the context of a prominent trading hub.

The master plan for renovating Surat Castle, Ludwig Felix De Gloss

References

  1. Dale, Stephen. (1994). Indian Merchants and Eurasian Trade, 1600–1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Das Gupta, A. (1979). Indian Merchants and the Decline of Surat, c. 1700–1750. Wiesbaden: Steiner.
  3. Haynes, Douglas. (1991). Rhetoric and Ritual in Colonial India: The Shaping of a Public Culture in Surat City, 1852–1928. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  4. Nadri, Ghulam. (2015). Revisiting the ‘Decline of Surat’: Maritime Trade and the Port Complex of Gujarat in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries.
  5. Seshan, Radhika. (2019). Merchants and Marts: Gujarat’s Networks of Trade in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.
  6. Subrahmanyam, S. (2018). The Hidden Face of Surat: Reflections on a Cosmopolitan Indian Ocean Centre, 1540–1750, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 61(1–2), 205–255.

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