chapter  4
32 Pages

Bombay: the Parsi-British Affinity 1661-1940

Quite some time before Bombay was ceded to them in 1661, the British in Western India had been indebted to the Parsis in their commercial endeavours. At the time of the East India Company's arrival in Western India, Surat was the most important seaport on the west coast and the centre of trade for both the Moghul Empire and the European trading companies. The Parsis, a community descended from Iranian Zoroastrians who emigrated to India after the Islamization of Iran, were attractive to European merchants as 'brokers' who could conduct business in the hinterland with the necessary knowledge of land and language, but whose minority position in Indian society gave them an understanding of foreigners' needs. The Portuguese, French, Dutch and English factories at Surat all employed Parsis as their chief brokers and to some Parsis at Surat the Moghul Empire granted the right to collect customs duties. 1

Brokers carried out a highly specialized function in the Indian Ocean port cities. As well as dealing with foreign merchants, the Parsi brokers also played other roles, servicing certain traders who were not foreigners and also engaging in commerce on their own account. Shippers and merchants engaged in importing and exporting relied on commodity

Parsi brokers were, of course, at the apex of Parsi society, and to supply the commodities desired by Europeans they were required to maintain firm links with their villages and towns of origin in the Gujarat hinterland. Gujarati textiles were the Europeans' desired article of export and the Parsi brokers of Surat were readily supplied from Navsari, the Parsis' main town, which was famous for sending its cotton cloth to the seaport.S Other Parsi villages were celebrated for their woven cloth.6 The English were particularly dependent on the Parsi weavers, a 1689 account stating: 'They are the Principal men at the Loom in all the Country, and most of the silks and stuffs at Surat are made by their Hands. '7 In addition, Parsis in Surat and its vicinity carried on a variety of occupations, such as general trade and shopkeeping, crafts, agriculture and shipbuilding.8