When I meet people from other parts of the world and they ask me where I’m from, I usually tell them I’m from “near Mumbai”. But I’m from Surat, a city that lies on the estuary of the Tapi River some 300 km north of Mumbai. While few people know of Surat outside India today, and Indians usually know of it as just another industrial tier-2 city, Surat was once one of the largest and most connected cities on the Indian Ocean. Before the British established Bombay as their trading hub, Surat was a center for Indian Ocean trade and attracted merchants, craftsmen, and sailors from across the world. This meant that by the early modern era, Surat had a distinctly cosmopolitan feel and mercantile bent, characteristics which one can still discern in the city today, albeit in slightly different guises.
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).
Following Khudawand Khan’s death, there were power struggles between the Gujarat Sultanate, the Timurids, the Mughals, and the Portuguese. In 1573, Akbar finally captured the fort. Surat then became a crown jewel of the Mughal empire. The Portuguese kept trying to gain control of the port, employing both force and espionage, to no avail. This meant that before the British finally captured Surat in 1759, Surat was free of European domination. In the two centuries following the construction of the Surat Castle, Surat became one of the most important and prosperous centers for commerce on the western Indian littoral (Subrahmanyam). In the late seventeenth century, Ovington, a British traveler described mid-seventeenth century Surat as follows:
Surat is reckoned the most fam’d emporium of the Indian Empire, where all commodities are vendible, though they were never there seen before. The very curiosity of them will engage the expectation of the purchaser to sell them again with some advantage, and will be apt to invite some other by their novelty, as they did him, to venture upon them. And the river is very commodious for the importation of foreign goods, which are brought up to the city in hoys and yachts, and country boats, with great convenience and expedition. And not only from Europe, but from China, Persia, Arabia, and other remote parts of India, ships unload abundance of all kinds of goods, for the ornament of the city, as well as the enriching of the port (Haynes).
This bilingual Persian and Hindwani cloth map thought to be from the 1730s, preserved in the City Palace Museum in Jaipur provides a very interesting understanding of the layout of the city. The fort that Khudawand Khan built in Surat in 1540 is unusual, primality because it’s a square-shaped artillery fortress, also known as a chaukandi, that’s ringed by a moat connected to the Tapi river. The city fans out around this fort along the banks of the Tapi River, enclosed by an inner wall and an outer wall. Khudawand Khan built this fortress with the goal of defending the city and its port from attacks from the Portuguese, which meant it was built primarily as a defensive structure with iron and lead reinforcements between bricks and lofty battlements and towers. We can see this fort in the center of this French illustration from 1683 below, and then also in the following 1780s British illustration, where Surat is referred to as a “great city of … the Mogul empire” (Subrahmanyam).
Comparing these photos from the heydey of Surat look quite different from this contemporary vista of the Surat Castle from the Tapi River. The two jarring differences we see over time are the disrepair of the structure and the decline of water levels in the river. A series of floods, fires, and sieges have left their mark on this 500-year-old structure.
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).
The main trading partners of Surat during this period were ports along the Persian Gulf such as Bandar ‘Abbas, Kung and Basra, and Mokha and Jiddah along the Red Sea. Dale argues that the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires managed to establish a ‘pax Islamica’ in this period. Muscovite Russia Muscovite Russia later became part of this network starting in the late seventeenth century as well.
Throughout most of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries India’s most important markets were located in the countries bordering the Indian Ocean and the contiguous land mass of the Iranian plateau and the Central Asian steppe (Dale)
In addition, Surat was also a center of trade for Chinese, South East Asian, and European commodities, especially the latter as European presence increased in the Indian subcontinent. This sheer number and diversity of buyers and sellers that interacted in Surat meant that one could trade almost any good in Surat, ranging from silks, precious stones, and precious metals to also more basic goods like agricultural commodities (Subrahmanyam).
Moreover, like any trading hub (past or present), Surat housed a flourishing financial market that complemented the trade of commodities. Merchants, financiers, broker, and agents all conducted business in Surat — extending lines of credit to traders, supplying European companies, and transferring money from one place to another (Seshan). Moreover, the Islamic dominance over trade in Surat, along with linguistic differences, meant that Europeans were often excluded from the intellectual and cultural life of the city, and had to rely on Persephone interlocutors to gain access to these networks and conduct business. As a result, Armenian merchants and Banniyas gained positions of prominence because they were able to converse in both European languages and Persian and served as market-makers (Subrahmanyam).
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).
In this map of Surat from 1720, we can see the haphazard placement of various compounds and buildings owned by the various trading communities that had footholds in Surat. We see the tomb of Khdawand Khan (the Marjan Shami) is right next door to the English Factory, which is right next door to a Mughal mosque. This physical proximity, along with the history of the city shows the deep-rooted cosmopolitanism that was an asset to the city’s status as a commercial hub.
For a richer understanding of what this cosmopolitanism looks like, one can look to Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s description of the intertwined communities of Surat
The picture that has been presented here of Surat over two centuries is of a relatively fluid and open space, where communities did not live in quarters wholly segregated by race or faith, where an Italian convert to Islam could ally with neighboring Rajputs to defend an artillery fortress, where a Parsi trader acted as a commercial and diplomatic agent for the Portuguese, and where an inquisitive Scotsman could apprentice himself to a Chishti Sufiand thus become an admirer of the Mughal intellectual Shaikh Abu’l Fazl (Subrahmanyam).
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.
Das Gupta attributes blame for the decline of Surat’s prominence in Indian Ocean trade networks on the nearly simultaneous decline of the three empires that make up Dale’s “Pax Islamica”. He argues that the increasing threats to the Mughal empire’s stability due to attacks by the Marathas and encroachment by the British made it difficult for Surati merchants to access the vast hinterland that they were previously able to, which limited the number of buyers and sellers interacting at the port. Moreover, political instability in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea territories meant that Surat’s primary trade-partners were also in a compromised position. He argues that this gradual decline is what made it possible for the British to capture Surat in the Castle Revolution of 1759 (Das Gupta). The Castle Revolution marks an important moment in the British colonization of India since this was the “first time that the British had formally assumed sovereignty over Indian territory (as opposed to leasing land from Indian rulers), realizing the first formal step towards the creation of the ‘Company Raj’” (Kalakriti Archives).
Other historians argue that sieges by Marathas in the seventeenth century and capture by the British in the eighteenth century didn’t diminish the volume of trade in Surat, they just changed its nature. For one, trading records show a greater number of ships docked at the port to be of British origin later in the eighteenth century, suggesting that trade networks passing through Surat became more dominated by Europeans (Nadri).
Another way in which the nature of the Surati trade changed was resulting from the rise of Bombay as “the main port of departure and arrival for ships in Western India”. Bombay, Nadri argues, created opportunities, not competition, for Surati merchants. As Bombay increasingly became the port of choice for British vessels, traders still relied on Surat to serve as a source for imports and as a market for exports. Surati merchants increasingly started becoming suppliers for Bombay based merchants, first coffee imported from Mokha that was to be exported to England, and the for Gujarat cotton. Moreover, merchants in Bombay still relied heavily on financiers based in Surat. As per Nadri, this meant that the volume of trade conducted through the port of Surat grew as Bombay emerged as a complementary port, but Surat’s prominent role in the Indian Ocean world declined as it served more of an auxiliary purpose to international trade that was increasingly being centered around Bombay. Over time, as trading networks consolidated further around Bombay, Surati merchants and businessmen moved to Bombay, taking with them the city’s cosmopolitan flair (Nadri).
As Surat’s function and status in Indian Ocean trade networks changed, so did its physical features. After the British captured the fort, they made plans (depicted in the diagram below) to renovate the structure to make it more suitable for being an administrative center than a defensive fortification.
- Dale, Stephen. (1994). Indian Merchants and Eurasian Trade, 1600–1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Das Gupta, A. (1979). Indian Merchants and the Decline of Surat, c. 1700–1750. Wiesbaden: Steiner.
- 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.
- Nadri, Ghulam. (2015). Revisiting the ‘Decline of Surat’: Maritime Trade and the Port Complex of Gujarat in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries.
- Seshan, Radhika. (2019). Merchants and Marts: Gujarat’s Networks of Trade in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.
- 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.