India of the eighteenth century failed to make progress economically, socially or culturally at an adequate pace. The increasing revenue demands of the state, the oppression of the officials, the greed and rapacity of the nobles, revenue-farmers and zamindars, the marches and counter-marches of the rival armies, and the depredations of the numerous adventurers roaming the land made the life of the people quite wretched.
India of those days was also a land of contrasts. Extreme poverty existed side by side with extreme riches and luxury. On the one hand, there were the rich and powerful nobles steeped in luxury and comfort, on the other, backward, oppressed and impoverished peasants living at the bare subsistence level and having to bear all sorts of injustices and inequities.
Even so, the life of the Indian masses was by and large better at this time than it was after over hundred years of British rule at the end of the nineteenth century. Indian agriculture during the eighteenth century was technically backward and stagnant. The techniques of production had remained stationary for centuries.
The peasant tried to make up for technical backwardness by working very hard. He, in fact, performed miracles of production; moreover, he did not usually suffer from shortage of land. But, unfortunately, he seldom reaped the fruits of his labour.
Even though it was his produce that supported the rest of the society, his own reward was miserably inadequate. The state, the zamindars, the jagirdars, and the revenue-farmers tried to extract the maximum amount from him. This was as true of the Mughal state as of the Maratha or Sikh chiefs or other successors of the Mughal state.
Even though Indian villages were largely self-sufficient and imported little from outside and the means of communication were backward, extensive trade within the country and between India and other countries of Asia and Europe was carried on under the Mughals.
India imported pearls, raw silk, wool, dates, dried fruits, and rose water from the Persian Gulf; coffee, gold, drugs, and honey from Arabia; tea, sugar, porcelain, and silk from China; gold, musk and woolen cloth from Tibet; tin from Singapore; spices, perfumes, arrack, and sugar from the Indonesian islands; ivory, and drugs from Africa; and woolen cloth, metals such as copper, iron, and lead, and paper from Europe.
India’s most important article of export was its cotton textiles which were famous all over the world for their excellence and were in demand everywhere. India also exported raw silk and silk fabrics, hardware, indigo, saltpeter, opium, rice, wheat, sugar, pepper and other spices, precious stones, and drugs.
Since India was on the whole self-sufficient in handicrafts and agricultural products, it did not import foreign goods on a large scale. On the other hand, its industrial and agricultural products had a steady market abroad. Consequently, it exported more than it imported and its trade was balanced by import of silver and gold. In fact, India was known as a sink of precious metals.
Historians differ on the state of internal and foreign trade during the pre-colonial period of the eighteenth century. According to the dominant view, constant warfare and disruption of law and order in many areas during the eighteenth century harmed the country’s internal trade. Many trading centres were looted by the contestants for power and by foreign invaders.
Many of the trade routes were infested with organised bands of robbers, and traders and their caravans were regularly looted. Even the road between the two imperial cities, Delhi and Agra, was made unsafe by the marauders.
Moreover, with the rise of autonomous provincial regimes and innumerable local chiefs, the number of custom houses or chowkies grew by leaps and bounds. Every petty or large ruler tried to increase his income by imposing heavy customs duties on goods entering or passing through his territories. All these factors had an injurious effect on long-distance trade.
The impoverishment of the nobles, who were the largest consumers of luxury products in which trade was conducted, also injured internal trade. Other historians believe that the effect of political changes and warfare on internal trade has generally been exaggerated. The impact on foreign trade was also complex and differential. While sea trade expanded, overland trade through Afghanistan and Persia was disrupted.
Political factors which hurt trade also adversely affected urban industries. Many prosperous cities, centres of flourishing industry, were sacked and devastated. Delhi was plundered by Nadir Shah; Lahore, Delhi and Mathura by Ahmad Shah Abdali; Agra by the Jats; Surat and other cities of Gujarat and the Deccan by Maratha chiefs; Sarhind by the Sikhs, and so on.
Similarly, in some areas artisans catering to the needs of the feudal class and the court suffered as the fortunes of their patrons declined, leading to the decline of cities like Agra and Delhi. The decline of internal and foreign trade also hit them hard in some parts of the country.
Nevertheless, some industries in other parts of the country gained as a result of expansion in trade with Europe owing to the activities of the European trading companies. Moreover, the emergence of new courts and local nobility and zamindars led to the emergence of new cities such as Faizabad, Lucknow, Varanasi and Patna and the recovery, to some extent, of production by artisans.
Even so, India remained a land of extensive manufactures. Indian artisans still enjoyed fame all the world over for their skill. India was still a large-scale manufacturer of cotton and silk fabrics, sugar, jute, dye-stuffs, mineral and metallic products like arms, metal ware, and saltpeter and oils.
The important centres of the textile industry were Dacca and Murshidabad in Bengal; Patna in Bihar; Surat, Ahmedabad and Broach in Gujarat; Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh; Burhanpur in Maharashtra; Jaunpur, Varanasi, Lucknow and Agra in U/P.; Multan and Lahore in the Punjab; Masulipatam, Aurangabad, Chicacole and Vishakhapatnam in Andhra; Bangalore in Karnataka; and Coimbatore and Madurai in Tamil Nadu.
Kashmir was a centre of woolen manufactures. Ship-building industry flourished in Maharashtra, Andhra and Bengal. Writing about the great skill of Indians in this respect, an English observer wrote:
“in ship-building they probably taught the English far more than they learnt from them.” The European companies bought many Indian- made ships for their use.
In fact, at the dawn of the eighteenth century, India was one of the main centres of world trade and industry. Peter the Great of Russia was led to exclaim:
“Bear in mind that the commerce of India is the commerce of the world and … he who can exclusively command it is the dictator of Europe.”
Once again, historians disagree whether there was overall economic decline as a result of the decay of the Mughal empire and the rise of a large number of autonomous states or whether trade and agricultural and handicraft production continued to grow in some parts of India while they were disrupted and declined in others, with overall trade and production not suffering any sharp decline.
But, in fact, the question is not of some progress here and some decline there but of basic economic stagnation.
While the Indian economy was quite resilient and there was a certain continuity in economic life, there was no greater effervescence or buoyancy in economic activities in the eighteenth century than what was there in the seventeenth century.
On the other hand, there was a definitely declining trend. At the same time, it is true that there was less economic distress or decline in agricultural and handicraft production in the Indian states of the eighteenth century than what was to result from the impact of British colonialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.