We all have heard India to be a ‘golden bird’ but many of us are not aware of the fact that the Indian economy, at one time, was one of the world’s largest importer, or ‘earner’ of silver, if correctly said.

Between 1600 and 1800 Indian cotton cloth was consumed massively around the globe. In exchange, enormous quantities of silver, gold, copper and other forms of money flowed into the Indian subcontinent. Despite the extensive evidence for sizeable imports of silver into India, a number of s have argued that most of the world’s output of the precious metal in the 17th and 18th centuries made its way to China.

However, these writers have misconstructed India’s place in the global trading system and the place of silver bullion in the commercial world of the Indian subcontinent. Some facts and figures:-

• A very conservative calculation reveals that between 1600 and 1800 about 28,000 tons of bullion in silver equivalents, which represented roughly a fifth of the world’s production of 142,000 tons, flowed into the India subcontinent.

• Bullion came into India via a number of routes in the 17th and 18th centuries i.e. Middle East, central Asia, Southeast Asia and Europe etc.

• Many scholars believed that the bulk of silver that was imported into India was re-exported to China. But figures suggest something else. According to estimates from Richard Von Glahn, between 1600 and 1640 the Portuguese carried less than 4 tons of silver a year from the Indian Ocean to Macao.

• In the late 17th century, more than a million florins of silver, the equivalent of about a 9 tons, was transported every year from Manila to South India.

• In 1693-1694 the price of silver dropped in Madras because of the ‘’arrival of a considerable quantity of Spanish silver from Manila’’ and in 1712, 1715 and 1727 Madras suffered shortages because the Manila ships had brought very little silver.

• Between 1588 and 1602 an average of 136 tons of silver were imported every year into the Mughal Empire.

• From 1679 to 1685, 145 tons of silver was imported every year into India.

• An average imports into Mughal India of 120 tons of silver per year from the late 16th to late 17th centuries i.e. a total of 13800 tons in those 100 years.

• If we project the 17th century figure into the 18th we arrive at a grand total of almost 2800 tons of silver imported into India between 1600 and 1800, which represents a fifth of total global silver production in that period.


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