Riverine Changes and Economic Growth
A distinguishing feature of East Bengal during the Mughal period—that is, in “Bhati”—was its far greater agricultural productivity and population growth relative to contemporary West Bengal. Ultimately, this arose from the long-term eastward movement of Bengal’s major river systems, which deposited the rich silt that made the cultivation of wet rice possible. Geographers have generally explained the movement of Bengal’s rivers in terms of the natural process of riverine sedimentation. In this view, in prehistoric times the entire delta was once under the ocean, and the Ganges met the sea in what is now the region’s northwestern corner (modern Murshidabad District), while the Brahmaputra did the same in the extreme north (modern Rangpur District). As sediment and debris accumulated at the rivers’ confluence with the ocean, a small delta began to form, through which the present-day Bhagirathi River carried the bulk of the Ganges to the Bay. The continued buildup of sediment from both the Ganges and the Brahmaputra steadily pushed the delta further southward into the Bay.
But the great rivers, flowing over the flat floodplain, could not move fast enough to flush out to sea the sediment they carried, and instead deposited much of it in their own beds. When such sedimentation caused riverbeds to attain levels higher than the surrounding countryside, waters spilled out of their former beds and moved into adjoining channels. In this way the main course of the Ganges, which had formerly flowed down what is now the Bhagirathi-Hooghly channel in West Bengal, was replaced in turn by the Bhairab, the Mathabhanga, the Garai-Madhumati, the Arialkhan, and finally the present-day Padma-Meghna system. “When the distributaries in the west were active,” writes Kanangopal Bagchi, “those in the east were perhaps in their infancy, and as the rivers to the east were adolescing, those in the west became senile. The active stage of delta formation thus migrated southeastwards in time and space, leaving the rivers in the old delta, now represented by Murshidabad, Nadia and Jessore with the Goalundo Sub-Division of Faridpur, to languish or decay.” As the delta’s active portion gravitated eastward, the regions in the west, which received diminishing levels of fresh water and silt, gradually become moribund. Cities and habitations along the banks of abandoned channels declined as diseases associated with stagnant waters took hold of local communities. Thus the delta as a whole experienced a gradual eastward movement of civilization as pioneers in the more ecologically active regions cut virgin forests, thereby throwing open a widening zone for field agriculture. From the fifteenth century on, writes the geographer R. K. Mukerjee, “man has carried on the work of reclamation here, fighting with the jungle, the tiger, the wild buffalo, the pig, and the crocodile, until at the present day nearly half of what was formerly an impenetrable forest has been converted into gardens of graceful palm and fields of waving rice.”
Map 5. Changing courses of Bengal rivers, 1548–1779
Map 5a. 1548 (Gastaldi)
Map 5b. 1615 (de Barros)
Map 5c. 1660 (van den Broeke)
Map 5d. 1779 (Rennell)
Although the process described by Mukerjee had actually begun long before the fifteenth century, it dramatically intensified after the late sixteenth century. As contemporary European maps show, this was when the great Ganges river system, abandoning its former channels in western and southern Bengal, linked up with the Padma, enabling its main course to flow directly into the heart of the east (see maps 5b and c). Already in 1567 the Venetian traveler Cesare Federici observed that ships were unable to sail north of Satgaon on the old Ganges—that is, today’s Bhagirathi-Hooghly in West Bengal. About the same time the Ganges silted up and abandoned its channels above Gaur, as a result of which that venerable capital of the sultanate, only recently occupied by Akbar’s forces, suffered a devastating epidemic and had to be abandoned. In 1574 Abu’l-fazl remarked that the Ganges River had divided into two branches at the Afghan capital of Tanda: one branch flowing south to Satgaon and the other flowing east toward Sonargaon and Chittagong. In the seventeenth century the former branch continued to decay as progressively more of its water was captured by the channels flowing to the east, to the point where by 1666 this branch had become altogether unnavigable.
To the east, however, these changes had the opposite effect. With the main waters of the Ganges now pouring through the channel of the Padma River, the combined Ganges-Padma system linked eastern Bengal with North India at the very moment of Bengal’s political integration with the Mughal Empire. Geographic and political integration was swiftly followed by economic integration, for direct river communication between East Bengal and North India would have dramatically reduced costs for the transport of East Bengali products, especially textiles and foodstuffs, from the frontier to the imperial metropolis. At the same time, the main body of Ganges silt, now carried directly into the east, was deposited over an ever greater area of the eastern delta during annual flooding. This permitted an intensification of cultivation along the larger rivers where rice culture had already been established, and an extension of cultivation into those parts of the interior not yet brought under the plow. As a result, East Bengal attained agricultural and demographic growth at levels no longer possible in the western delta. These changes are reflected above all in the statistics of the Mughal government’s share (khāliṣa) of the land revenue demand (jama‘). Since the revenue demand represents the government’s estimate of the land’s income-generating capacity, and since Bengal’s major income-producing activity was the cultivation of wet rice, a labor-intensive crop, these statistics also suggest changes in the relative population density of different sectors within the delta.
|Sources: For 1595: Abu’l-fazl ‘Allami, ā’īn-i Akbarī, as given in Shireen Moosvi, The Economy of the Mughal Empire, c. 1595: A Statistical Study (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987), 26–27. For 1659: Dastūr al-‘amal-i ‘ālamgīrī (British Library MS., Add. 6599), fols. 120a–121a.|
|Note: Totals stated for sarkārs are given in dāms, which must be divided by 40 to give the rupee equivalent. Areas included in the northwest quadrant are the Mughal sarkārs of Purnea, Tajpur, Gaur (Lakhnauti), Panjra, and Barbakabad; for the southwest quadrant, sarkārs Tanda (Udambar), Sharifabad, Satgaon, Sulaimanabad, and Mandaran; for the northeast quadrant, sarkārs Ghoraghat, Bazuha, and Sylhet; for the southeast quadrant, sarkārs Mahmudabad, Khilafatabad, Fatehabad, Bakla, Sonargaon, and Chatgaon. As most of the eastern sarkārs lay beyond Mughal administration in 1595, imperial revenue officials evidently based their figures for those districts on records, known to them but lost today, of the independent sultans of Bengal. By 1659 all of Bengal had come under Mughal administration with the exception of Chittagong (Chatgaon), then still under Arakanese overlordship and not annexed until 1666. Provincial revenue officers nonetheless obtained current revenue figures for Chittagong and included them in the revenue demand for the entire province.|
Table 4 divides the delta into four quadrants and shows changes in revenue demand for each quadrant during the first century of Mughal rule. It can be seen that between 1595 and 1659 the revenue demand for the northeastern portion of the delta increased by 97 percent, while that of the southeastern quadrant, the most ecologically active part of Bengal, increased by 117 percent. On the other hand, the revenue demand for southwestern Bengal, an ecologically older sector, increased by only 54 percent in this period, while that for northwestern Bengal, the most moribund part of the delta, actually declined by 13 percent. These earlier trends in Bengal’s changing regional fertility compare with demographic data drawn from the modern period. During the century between 1872 and 1981, as is shown in table 5, population density increased much more in the eastern half of Bengal, averaging 323 percent, than it did in the western half, where it averaged 196 percent. Thus both seventeenth-century revenue data and nineteenth- and twentieth-century demographic data point to a moving demographic frontier, the product of a long-term process whereby land fertility, rice cultivation, and population density all grew at a faster rate in the east than in the west.
per sq. mi.
|Sources: H. Beverley, Report on the Census of Bengal, 1872 (Calcutta: Secretariat Press, 1872), 6–9; Census of India, 1981 (New Delhi, 1985), pt. II-A [i], “General Population Tables,” section 2, 182–85; The Preliminary Report on Bangladesh Population Census, 1981 (Dacca: Bangladesh Secretariat, 1981), 2–3. The districts included in the northwest quadrant are the 1872 districts of Rangpur, Bogra, Pabna, Dinajpur, Malda, Rajshahi, and Murshidabad. Those included in the southwest quadrant are Burdwan, Bankura, Birbhum, Midnapur, Hooghly and Howrah, Twenty-four Parganas, and Nadia. Those included in the northeast quadrant are Mymensingh, Sylhet, and Dhaka. And those included in the southeast quadrant are Jessore (including Khulna), Tippera (Comilla), Faridpur, Bakarganj, Noakhali, and Chittagong.|
As a result, already by the late sixteenth century, southern and eastern Bengal were producing so much surplus grain that for the first time rice emerged as an important export crop. From two principal seaports, Chittagong in the east and Satgaon in the west, rice was exported throughout the Indian Ocean to points as far west as Goa and as far east as the Moluccas in Southeast Asia. In this respect rice now joined cotton textiles, Bengal’s principal export commodity since at least the late fifteenth century, and a major one since at least the tenth. In 1567 Cesare Federici judged Sondwip to be “the fertilest Iland in all the world,” and recorded that one could obtain there “a sacke of fine Rice for a thing of nothing.” Twenty years later, when ‘Isa Khan still held sway over Sonargaon, Ralph Fitch wrote: “Great store of Cotton doth goeth from hence, and much Rice, wherewith they serve all India, Ceilon, Pegu, Malacca, Sumatra, and many other places.” The most impressive evidence in this regard comes from François Pyrard. After spending the spring of 1607 in Chittagong, still under independent rulers beyond the Mughals’ grasp, the Frenchman wrote:
Under the Mughals the export of surplus rice continued unabated, and indeed grew. In 1629 Fray Manrique noted that every year over a hundred vessels laden with rice and other foodstuffs left Bengali ports for overseas export. And in common with earlier observers, Manrique was impressed by the low prices of local foodstuffs. Although the eastward export of rice declined from about 1670 on, in lower Bengal it remained cheap and abundant throughout the seventeenth century and well into the eighteenth, for in 1763 an English observer wrote that rice, “which makes the greater part of their food, is produced in such plenty in the lower parts of the province, that it is often sold on the spot at the rate of two pounds for a farthing.”
There is such a quantity of rice, that, besides supplying the whole country, it is exported to all parts of India, as well to Goa and Malabar, as to Sumatra, the Moluccas, and all the islands of Sunda, to all of which lands Bengal is a very nursing mother, who supplies them and their entire subsistence and food. Thus, one sees arrive there [i.e., Chittagong] every day an infinite number of vessels from all parts of India for these provisions.
If the most productive area of rice production gradually shifted eastward together with the locus of the active delta, the production of cash crops, especially cotton and silk, flourished throughout the delta in the Mughal period. The most important centers of cotton production were located around Dhaka and along a corridor in western Bengal extending from Malda in the north through Cossimbazar to Hooghly and Midnapur in the south. In 1586 Ralph Fitch remarked that in Sonargaon, just fifteen miles east of Dhaka, “there is the best and finest cloth made of Cotton that is in all India.” Even in distant Central Asia fine muslin cloth was called Dāka, a consequence of Bengal’s political integration with North India, and of its access to markets both there and beyond. The Mughal connection also made Bengal a major producer for the imperial court’s voracious appetite for luxury goods. This was especially so in the case of raw silk, whose major center of production was located in and around Cossimbazar in modern Murshidabad District.
Bengal’s agricultural and manufacturing boom coincided not only with the consolidation of Mughal power in the province but also with the growth in overland and maritime trade that linked Bengal ever more tightly to the world economy. We have already noted that the thirteenth-century Muslim conquest of the delta had been followed by increased exports of Bengali textiles to Indian Ocean markets. Later, during the twilight years of the sultanate, Portuguese merchants intruded themselves into the Bay of Bengal, establishing trading stations in both Chittagong and Satgaon in the mid 1530s. In the last two decades of the sixteenth century, during the Mughal push into the heart of the delta, the Portuguese established the major port of Hooghly (downstream from Satgaon), built up their community in Chittagong, and established mercantile colonies in and around Dhaka. Although the Portuguese never replaced Asian merchants in Bengal’s maritime trade, as is often supposed, the appearance of European merchants in the sixteenth century certainly stimulated demand for Bengali manufactures, which served to accelerate local production of those goods.
In the early seventeenth century, the Dutch and English trading companies gradually replaced the overextended Portuguese as the dominant European merchants in Bengal’s port cities. Granted permission by Shah Jahan in 1635 to trade in Bengal, the Dutch East India Company opened a trading station at Hooghly the following year. In 1650 it ordered 50,000 lbs. of raw silk from Bengali suppliers, and four years later this figure grew to 200,000 lbs. By the end of the seventeenth century, the export of raw silk and cotton textiles had grown so rapidly that Bengal emerged as Europe’s single most important supplier of goods in all of Asia. But this manufacturing boom did not result from European stimulus alone. Clear down to the 1760s Asian merchants—especially Gujaratis, Armenians, and Punjabis—bought even more Bengali textiles than did Europeans, and exported them throughout South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.
One consequence of this manufacturing boom was that substantial quantities of silver were attracted from outside the province, whether carried by European or Asian merchants. In 1516 Bengali ships carrying local textiles to Burma brought mainly silver back to the delta. And in the 1550s the Portuguese found themselves shipping so much treasure to Bengal that the value of silver currency in Goa actually fluctuated with their sailing seasons to Bengal and Malacca. From the second half of the seventeenth century on, we have precise figures in this matter. The Dutch alone imported an annual average of 1.28 million florins in treasure during the 1660s, and 2.87 million florins in the 1710s. To this must be added the imports of the English East India Company, which in 1651 had also established a trading factory in Hooghly. Between 1709 and 1717 the two companies together shipped cargoes averaging Rs. 4.15 million in value into Bengal annually, 85 percent of which was silver. Advanced to Bengali agents, merchants, or weavers, this treasure was absorbed into the regional economy, adding considerably to the existing stocks of rupee coinage already in circulation. All the while, the overland import of silver by Asian merchants continued until the very end of Mughal rule in the delta.
Economists have long understood the inflationary effects that any increase in money supply can have on regional economies. In the sixteenth century, for example, the massive import of treasure from Mexico to Spain is thought to have contributed to price inflation in the latter country. In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Mughal India experienced a similar expansion in money supply, but ten or twenty years after Spain, suggesting that much of the silver mined in America and hauled to Europe was then re-exported to India. Moreover, there is evidence that in Mughal India, as in Spain, the influx of silver caused consumer price inflation, at least in the western and northern domains of the empire.
But in Bengal during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the well-documented influx of silver had no such inflationary effect on consumer prices, which remained stable throughout this period. Such an outcome might be explained if, during these centuries, the influx of outside coinage or bullion had been offset by a proportionate outflow of precious metal from Bengal to North India in the form of enhanced revenues. It is true that provincial authorities gradually increased land revenue demand between 1659 and 1722. But the amount of revenue actually sent to Delhi remained about the same throughout this period, while the additional taxes imposed on the peasantry and collected seem to have stayed in Bengal. Some silver doubtless left the delta when high-ranking officers or governors like Shaista Khan (1664–78), Khan Jahan Bahadur Khan (1688–89), or ‘Azim al-Din (1697–1712) embezzled large sums of provincial revenue, some of which they took with them when they were transferred out of the province. But such practices by self-serving officers were probably commonplace throughout the Mughal period, and they cannot alone explain the absence of price inflation from the mid seventeenth century on.
One can, on the other hand, relate Bengal’s known price stability between ca. 1650 and 1725 to the economic boom then taking place in the province. Put simply, consumer prices remained stable because the production of agricultural and manufactured goods, together with the population base, grew at levels high enough to absorb the expanding money supply caused by the influx of outside silver. Moreover, since additional increments to the money supply did not flow out of the province, newly minted silver percolated freely throughout Bengali society, penetrating ever lower levels and facilitating the kinds of land transfers and cash advances that necessarily accompanied an expanding agrarian frontier. The importance of ready cash in this process is suggested in Mukundaram’s Caṇḍī-Maṅgala, composed around 1590. In it, the goddess Chandi gives the poem’s hero, Kalaketu, a valuable ring and tells him to exchange it for cash. With the money thus obtained—seventy million tankas—Kalaketu is to clear the forest and establish a city and temple in honor of the goddess. Once the land is ready for agricultural operations, Kalaketu promises to advance Kayastha landlords as much cash as they need for their own thousands of laborers (prajā, lit., “subjects”) to come and settle on the newly claimed lands. Such contemporary literary evidence points, not only to the high level of monetization in the late sixteenth century, but to the role that cash played in transforming virgin jungle into settled agrarian communities.
In sum, a number of factors—natural, political, and economic—combined to create the seventeenth century’s booming rice frontier in theeast: the eastward movement of Bengal’s rivers and hence of the active delta, the region’s political and commercial integration with Mughal India, and the growth in the money supply with the influx of outside silver in payment for locally manufactured textiles. We shall see that the high volume of cash circulating in Bengal during the Mughal period not only contributed to the movement of men and resources to and within the frontier. It also depersonalized economic transactions by permitting land to change hands across communal or cultural lines. Finally, Bengal’s rice boom coincided both in time and place—the eastern delta between the late sixteenth and early eighteenth centuries—with the emergence of a Muslim peasantry. Such a correlation between economic change and religious change invites inquiry into their possible connections.