Promoting Natural & Cultural History
A few 18th century East Indian textiles, in a Swedish museum collection, were evidently brought back to Europe via the British East India Company and probably sold in London to visiting Swedish individuals. These sought-after commodities used for fashionable clothing and interior textiles, were later on or close to the purchases in time taken back home for their own family use or to be resold. Other links to similar extensive trades are closely linked to Carl Linnaeus’ so-called seventeen apostles, whereof some had direct contact with several of the East India trading companies which imported cloth for the European market. Travel journals and correspondence from these naturalists’ long-distance voyages, while working as either ships’ chaplains or surgeons onboard or assisting botanists – include various information about silks from Canton [Guangzhou], cottons from Surat and much more which will also be closer observed in this essay.
Three of Linnaeus’ former students travelled as ship’s chaplains with the Swedish East India Company and made textile observations in their journals. Whereof Pehr Osbeck’s journal from 1750-52 has the most detailed notes, describing the various stages of weaving, in which he had very much wanted to take part, but was partially prevented by restriction of movement and other obstacles for Europeans in the Canton area. Other interests being documentation on looms, the importance of the manufactures, orders of fabric at arrival, the trade in fabrics onboard ships, lists of cottons and silks etc. His contemporary, Olof Torén, also stressed the significance of fabrics within the East India trade at Canton and also from Surat in a series of letters to Linnaeus (1750-52). In addition he described the reeling of silk and spinning of cotton at Canton and mentioned that the nankeen fabrics were considered to be the very finest of all. The first of the travelling apostles, Christopher Tärnström, who never reached Canton, nonetheless made several notes in his journal in 1746 on the East India trade. He bought for example cottons at Pulo Condore [Côn Són Island] which were thought to be of extremely good value and mentioned the high-ranking officers’ private trading in East Indian fabrics of various materials along with Swedish linen fabrics. Such fabrics of different origins were sold wherever it was most advantageous, which might mean that fabrics from a previous voyage could be sold in ports on the next outward voyage. Moreover, like Torén, he described the nankeen qualities as most highly valued and worn by the prominent inhabitants of Pulo Condore during his stay in the area.
The long-distance travelling naturalists of later dates during the 1760s and 1770s also provided repeated examples of notes on that textile trade. The journal writers in Daniel Solander’s group on James Cook’s first voyage demonstrated the Dutchmen’s considerable trade in fabrics from Savu and Batavia; while during his time in Africa Anders Sparrman described the Cape as an important anchorage for that trade, with European as well as Asian fabrics being sold and bought. Carl Peter Thunberg too mentioned the ideal situation of the Cape for trade in fabrics for example in both directions for the East India ship. There were restrictions however on what merchandise could be traded, the East India Companies having the monopoly on certain fabrics, and contraband therefore being a widespread occurrence. He also noted that Chinese and Javanese textile traditions were not only spread through trade in the respective countries but also through the fact that Chinese and Javanese people were themselves settled and living in the Cape; in addition he noted the busy trade in cottons and silks in Batavia. His time in Japan also gave rise to repeated notes to do with the trade, the Japanese mainly trading with the Dutch East India Company, China and Korea, but the country was otherwise inaccessible for outsiders. The fact that Thunberg had the possibility to take part in the journey to Jedo [Tokyo] as a “European observer” gave him unique insight into textile traditions, trade etc. Finally he noted that Ceylon’s [Sri Lanka] trade in Indian muslins, consisted of the finest and thinnest fabrics he had ever seen during his nine-year long journey. Much of Carl Linnaeus’ Swedish observations during his provincial tours of the 1740s was moreover indirectly linked to the East India trade, as regulations on the restriction of Swedish imports was largely directed against the exclusive fabrics which entered the country via that lucrative Swedish trade.
At least three names were commonly used for the British trading company: the East India Company (EIC) or British East India Company or Honourable East India Company (HEIC). Contacts with Swedish merchants, individuals linked to the Swedish East India Company, other Swedes on East India travel, meetings in harbours along the route or visits in England were obviously intertwined in a multitude of ways during the second half of the 18th century. Global cultures spread at an increasing speed, due to those shipping enterprises with its commercial trade and Imperial expansion alike, giving already desired fabrics – being one of the most popular merchandise to transport – in the European market even more desirable and accessible for more than the well-to-do. This ongoing consumer revolution often gave owners and shareholders large profits, at the same time as luxury wares became increasingly fashionable.
Despite all revenues for some, existing monopolies and restrictions opened up for “alternative” trades. A set of complex sumptuary laws in some European countries additionally set rules for which fabrics were allowed be traded, sold or resold. Sweden among others had several such restricting laws over the century, which set out strict rules and limits for the way people of different positions in society were to dress and furnish their homes. A total ban on imports of textiles of finer sorts was therefore introduced in November 1756 for instance, and that covered not only costly silks from East India but included even finer woollen fabrics and wool yarn, which for a long time had traditionally been imported from a number of European countries. The restrictions were intended to improve the potential of the domestic manufactures, but thanks to Sweden’s long coastlines the bans opened up new possibilities for smugglers instead. However, such laws were revoked later on by Gustav III during his reign from 1772 to 1792, making it easier to import what luxury goods one desired. All fine East Indian silks and cotton qualities on the market, overall gave positive influences and large profits for the European and Chinese traders, but from the perspective of some controlled areas it was often another matter. One negative effect among many for local citizens may be noted from mid-18th century Bengal in India, where the population came to live under real hardship, poverty and famine due to new extended British land taxes, wars and expanding colonial settlements.
This textile subject is very wide-ranging and much written about, but as far as I know, which was emphasised in my publication in 2017, there is no in-depth collected study of all the European East India Companies’ trade in textiles. The observations by Carl Linnaeus’ apostles do in any case provide a good contemporary insight into the Swedish and the Dutch East India Companies with detailed descriptions of fabric qualities, trading conditions, production, demand, smuggling, contraband, officers’ possibilities versus those of the rest of the crew to buy cloth etc. However, it is clear that the cotton spinning, silk reeling and cloth weaving at Canton and its environs were some of the most crucial branches of the trade, crafts which must have been continued on an industrial scale in domestic settings, taking into account the highly substantial trade with Sweden and other European companies, at times together with other East India ports, over several centuries.