The evolution of human culture is intimately connected with the material basis of existence, and man, ever since his creation, has waged an eternal struggle not only to free himself from the vagaries of nature but to provide for his own comfort by modifying the environment and utilizing the forces of nature to his own account. All throughout this struggle, there remains an intimate relation between him and the surrounding nature which exerts the most powerful influence on the evolution of his life and thought.
The material environment remains the basis of all his activity. He is intimately bound to the soil. The aspects of nature regulate the conditions of his existence and progress. His social life remains with the connected with the economic factors of production and distribution of his necessaries. He remains, as it were, a conscious and self-asserting though insignificant element in the working of nature’s great phenomena—too weak entirely to resist her influence, and practically dependent on her bounty. At no stage of progress can he free himself entirely from her influence.
Such, indeed, is the history of human civilization, and one who wishes to engage in the study of human society, can hardly neglect man’s relation to this material basis, so essential to his life and progress. An enquiry on this nature is important from the point of view of the historian, who enquires into the progress of the community in general—the evolution of its life and progress, as opposed to its internal arrangement, the working of its component parts and the maintenance of internal order, which all come within the sphere of political history.
Such a study discloses to him the real man, the man of wants and desires, and not the man of higher ideals or objectives. Anyone who fails to do this must necessarily blind himself to the existence of forces which play so prominent a part in the moulding of human society. The result of such a neglect will make him over estimate other forces, vitiate his judgment and lead to false generalizations.
The examination of these material factors of human society is reserved in particular for the economic historian who makes it the special subject of his study. It is for him to investigate the material aspect of the problem which faces the social man, and to note his efforts along with the results attained at each stage.
Such a study of the various economic facts and phenomena will enable him to disclose the Influence of forces otherwise unnoticed and to estimate their effects upon the social progress. So far as social evolution is concerned this economic interpretation will throw new light in explaining the past and serve as a guide for the future.
Herein lies the importance of economic history. Yet, strangely enough, in the past it hardly drew the attention of historians except incidentally. They used to confine their attention entirely to the political history of a nation, the vicissitudes of its ruling princes and statesmen, the strife of parties, the struggle of armed forces, success or failure of movements, but failed to take into account the economic factors which contribute to man’s progress or deterioration and which constitute an essential part of a nation’s history in the true sense of the term.
As Dr. Price observes- “Until a time not yet removed by any distance from the present day, it was thought no necessary portion of the duty of the general historian to devote substantial sections of his narrative to the economic interests and affairs of the people or the country whose advancing or declining fortunes be was studying and describing. Political changes and constitutional developments, the rise and fall of dynasties and statesmen, the vicissitudes of military and naval conflict filled the canvas and presented tempting opportunities for able draftsmanship or rich contrasted colouring.”
Such being the state of things the historian narrated everything but accepted from his attention the materials which directly furnished him with information on the struggles which centre round the real problems of humanity.
Of late, however changes have come to pass, which in Europe and more recently in the East, have altered the conception of history and also the ideals of humanity. During the close of the 18th century the cry of political reform put into the background all strife about theology and religion.
Everywhere the people asserted themselves and claimed political power, hitherto solely reserved to their despotic rulers Nations burst the fetters of despotic authority and repudiated claims of irresponsible legitimacy to rule at its will. Along with these, or perhaps earlier, came the industrial revolution, facilitated and made possible by a series of scientific discoveries and inventions which enabled man to utilize the forces of nature to his advantage.
The industrial revolution brought about fundamental changes in the organisation and technique of industry. The introduction of machinery widened the scope of large-scale production and directly facilitated the growth of capitalism, which in its turn deprived for the time being a large number of men of the opportunity of earning their livelihood by means of manual labour. The man of labour passed into the grip of the capitalist and the struggle between capital and labour began.
The antagonism of interests diverted the attention of thinkers to the consideration of forces and factors hitherto neglected. Gradually, the strife for political equality lost its charm and “the era of politics passed into that of social reform” always aiming at the adjustment of the relative claims of the masses and of the classes in a favoured situation.
All this led to a revival of interest in the consideration of economic factors in human life, and though there was a tendency to overestimate these forces, they at length received that amount of consideration which they deserve. This gave an impetus to the study of economic history which makes its special business the study of the various economic phenomena, and assigns them their proper place in human history “amid the throng of conflicting and cooperating causes to which historical effects are due.”
Method of Enquiry:
In studying the economic life of a community in any age the first consideration with the historian is an examination of the environment in which it lives. In connection with this, he must take into account a number of physical factors which exert so great an influence upon the life of the community. These include the climate and geographical configuration, the nature of the soil, its productive capacity, its peculiar products, the conditions of food supply and such other considerations, to which may be referred the whole of the “external phenomena by which man is permanently affected.”
A consideration of these not only enables us to see clearly the extent of that remarkable “influence which in an early stage of society the powers of nature exercise over the fortunes of man” but at the same time helps us in tracing the basic principles underlying he character and development of all societies.
Thus, no civilization can flourish unless the forces of nature are favourable to man and help him in producing his necessaries of life. Where natural obstacles are very great, man’s efforts are blasted and the bitter struggle for existence kills the instinct of progress in him. No great civilization in antiquity nourished except in well-watered plains, or in regions naturally fertile or rich.
On the contrary, when conditions are favourable to man he attains an early civilization. The valleys of the Nile, the Euphrates, the Indus, the Ganges and the Yangtse became centres of an early civilization, since, there, man was put in circumstances which enabled him easily to attain the necessaries of his life. On the contrary, the bleak desert regions, or those under the scorching sun, or the realms of eternal snow have remained devoid of culture.
Man also is influenced by the climate and configuration of his habitat. His food supply, which depends on the climate and soil, influences him directly and regulates his efforts. Moreover, climate influences his capacity for labour. The rigours of the Arctic zone as well as that of the tropics, are both detrimental to his progress.
In the one case the moist heat and the lavish bounty of nature take away man’s habit of industry and kill the desire for further progress as in the case with the tropical regions of Africa; in the other, the extreme cold of the arctic regions similarly affects him. Climate and meteorological phenomena influence at the same time agriculture and industry. They determine harvests and exert an influence on man’s temperament and his habits.
Economic conditions, moreover, are influenced by the geological formation of the soil and the mineral wealth hidden underneath the surface. Thus, in sandy deserts as well as in swampy regions man remains forever a nomad or a semi-nomad, moving from oasis to oasis or from place to place in search of good pasturage for his Bock.
In fertile soils, the progress of agriculture is rapid, and fosters a settled life; other industries, too, grow very rapidly; while mineral wealth enables communities to attain an early prosperity and furthers the growth of commerce. In primitive times, civilization was bound up with the wealth of communities in copper or iron. The abundance of these metals contributed to their fighting and conquering capacity and the early growth of industry.
In our own days, the influence of metals is far greater. The character or the flora and fauna, too, materially influences civilization. In some cases, they go to influence the social life or the character of development. Lastly, a nation’s proximity to the sea contributes to its maritime and trading activity. The normal influence of these factors, moreover, is liable to variation, owing to changes in them or through the action of outside influences. A variation of these physical factors modifies the social life.
Outside influences, too, act as modifying agents. A nation may come into contact with a different type of civilization or social organisation and the influence of such a contact is very great. Such contacts may take place with the migration of communities, the intercourse of one with another through trade or through war.
In any case, the changes brought about are. often remarkable and history abounds in instances where the contact of one nation with another, either through war or peace, brought in new factors in economic life by introducing new commodities, industries or industrial ideals.
Enquiry as Regards India:
In order to make a systematic study of economic development in India in the earliest part of her history, we must first of all study the physical factors which influenced the growth of Indian culture. With this end in view, we must study the peculiarities of her situation, the physical character of her landscape and soil, and her climate.
We shall pass on next to a consideration of her natural resources, e.g., her natural mineral wealth, flora and fauna, the productive capacity and the character of her soil, and then trace the advent of the race or races, with whom the history of her civilization is so closely associated.
In connection with this human element we shall enquire in detail as to the state of culture attained by the race or races of whom we have definite records at the very outset, and the nature and influence of any outside force. After a consideration of these, we shall attempt to find out suitable landmarks which may help us in determining the important periods in the history of economic development, and in this connection we shall take chronology into account.
A neglect of chronology will be altogether unscientific. It will put obstacles in the way of discriminating the successive phases of development and will introduce confusion in tracing the relation between cause and effect.
We shall next, study the chief features of the economic life of the earliest period. In order to do that, we shall have to enquire into the general social condition of the community, the relation subsisting between its various sections, their mode of life and occupations, the state of arts and crafts, the exchange of commodities and the medium employed therein.
Then we shall pass on to subsequent periods noting the chief economic forces and phenomena and also the nature of any change or improvement which might have taken place with regard to the economic life, or other factors associated with these.
In course of this we shall proceed to a consideration of the chief points of study as enumerated above. The plan thus followed in this work will comprise a systematic and detailed enquiry into the economic condition of India during successive ages and this will include an enquiry into the following heads, with the special purpose of elucidating their importance and bearing on the life of the community.
1. A systematic study of the village its arrangement, its socio-economic organisation, land tenure, with a detailed discussion as to the ownership of the various classes of land. In connection with this we shall discuss the nature and origin of the village community which has a special Indian interest in it.
2. Agriculture including a description of agricultural methods and operations e.g. ploughing water supply cultivated plants agricultural labour royal share of the produce, and such other topics bearing thereon.
3. The Chief industries, e.g. weaving smelting and working in metals carpentry and other minor crafts; The influence of the growth of industry upon the life of the community; separation of the industrial element from the agricultural; movement of population from villages to industrial centres to towns; the growth of town life.
4. The various occupations of the people the evolution of caste on the basis of the, division of labour.
5. The state of commerce, internal and foreign causes and circumstances fostering it exchange of commodities, barter mediums of exchange and metallic currency money transactions and such other things as are closely connected therewith.