Social Scientist. v 28, no. 324-325 (May-June 2000) p. 47.

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Trade in Pre-colonial Bengal

External trade was never a strong point of the Indian or Bengal economy and society. Here we define 'India' as it is now, plus Pakistan and Bangladesh, again as it is now. By 'external trade' we mean trade by this territorial entity we define as 'India' with countries or areas external to it. Obviously, this simplification raises a host of definitional and statistical problems and would not please many, but, by choice, we are avoiding those here.


The statement made above can be easily confirmed statistically, even when these three constituents that we define as India are taken apart. The share of external trade in GDP is pitifully small in those countries even today, and must have been, much smaller in the remote past, the period we are dealing with in this paper, when transportation was, to put it mildly, highly difficult.

A number of factors explain this low level of external trade. Unlike many European countries, the size of the coastal area as a proportion of the total land mass defined as India here is quite small. Further, being large in size, its supply capability of nearly everything in demand was large and varied. The villages, given the conditions of transport in those days, were largely self-reliant in terms of their low levels of needs, whereas whatever was not available within the village was supplied by travelling salesmen from other parts of India. Nearly all the major cities, until a few hundred years ago, were located inland, away from the coastline. In fact, most parts of India were located far away from the seas. A large part of whatever external trade existed was conducted through known land routes. Further, the origin and

* Member of the Central Committee of the CPI(M) and Rajya Sabha, New Delhi.

Social Scientist, Vol. 28, Nos. 5 - 6, May - June 2000

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