Promoting Natural & Cultural History
This second essay on an East India voyage will focus on the Chinese trade in silk textiles transported back to Sweden on a mid-18th century sailing from Canton via Surat on the outward leg. Silk in various colours and weaving techniques was overall the dominating textile category of the cargo on this East India ship. To put into proportion, the auctioned pieces of cotton stretched over two pages, whilst silk fabrics were listed on sixteen pages and silk for re-export from Göteborg on two pages in the sales catalogue. The in-depth study of the auction catalogue, which included a wide range of merchandise carried on Götha Leijon, aims to glimpse into this extensive commerce in the autumn of 1752. Several other primary sources further evidence the great demand for these desirable and expensive goods, in particular, learned via a reference book kept onboard, travel descriptions by two of Carl Linnaeus’ former students and preserved 18th century East India silk in Swedish collections.
From the summary of wares on the second page of the sales catalogue of Götha Leijon, which took place at an auction in Göteborg on ‘the 17 August and the following days in the same year ’, all silk fabrics are listed below in a translation to give an idea of the substantial number of fine qualities. Materials were mainly ordered during the stopover at Canton (Guangzhou).
The safe return of ‘Götha Leijon’ to Göteborg in the summer of 1752, with an extensive amount of silk fabrics, was one of the last ships that had that possibility during the coming decades. Future restrictions on such goods and the total import ban of silks in Sweden in 1756 made imports unlawful. Due to this, the Swedish East India Company ship, which returned in 1757, only carried silk for re-exportation and raw silk (to be used by the Swedish silk manufacturers). However, already in 1752, a considerable number of silk pieces were not acquired for the domestic market, whilst two pages were listed with: ’Silk goods for exportation, which will be kept secure by the customs lock and key, until they are re-exported.’ In this case, colours were carefully described together with all other acquired information for delicate damasks, taffetas, satins and lampas qualities.
Furthermore, besides these auction catalogues, the results of that commerce can be gleaned from travel journals, account books, share certificates, correspondence from the time, sporadically kept cash books, balance sheets etc., principally and most meticulously ascertained by Sven T. Kjellberg in his research and published in Svenska Ostindiska Compagnierna 1731-1813 (The Swedish East India Companies 1731-1813). Interestingly, on the subject of imported silk, he presents a clear example of the various colours and techniques involved in those Chinese fabrics through transcription from an auction catalogue of 1736 after the voyage of the ship Fredericus Rex Sueciae.
It may be noted that many similarities in colours and fabric qualities can be observed via imported silk fabrics from Canton carried on the ship Götha Leijon sixteen years later, goods which, some weeks after the arrival in the home harbour Göteborg, were sold at auction during the late summer of 1752. Additionally, Kjellberg’s material shows that the value of the textiles was relatively high compared to that of porcelain, although the fabrics made up a minor part of the cargo than the fragile china with silk, satin and cotton wares represented 8.2% of the value during the years 1762-1767, whereas tea represented 87% and porcelain 4.8% respectively.
The Swedish East India Company was one of the East India Companies in Europe, which made good profits from desirable goods in Canton, where the artisans worked in the artisans’ streets in specific quarters of the town. Among the numerous groups of artisans, the weavers formed a considerable number. In addition, a large group of people was occupied with the preparatory work of silk and cotton in the extensive production on the many looms. The naturalist and ship’s chaplain Olof Torén (1718-1753) on Götha Leijon described briefly from his stay that the cotton had to be spun, reeled, handed over to possible dyers, then warped, set up in the loom, made ready for weaving to the point at which the weaver took over. Silk went through a similar process, except for the spinning element which was missed out. The end of the silk thread was instead reeled directly from the cocoon, which contains approximately 1,000 metres of extremely fine thread. For very thin fabrics the silk from one single cocoon could make up the ready thread, but several cocoons were usually reeled simultaneously, resulting in a stronger but still very thin thread. All those facets required many skilful textile workers. However extensive and excellent the products of Canton may have been, the textiles produced at Nanking were better still. Nanking is situated some 1,000 kilometres northeast of Canton, and its goods were transported south by sea. Even the Cantonese themselves regarded the products made in Nanking as superior, which Torén interpreted as: ‘The Cantonese take great pains to make their goods strike the eye and sell well, but they do not take the same care to make them good and strong, nor do they offer them as the best and finest; for when they have a mind to praise their goods, they say that they come from Nanking, viz. Nanking silk, Nanking ink, Nanking fans, and even Nanking hams.’
The naturalist Pehr Osbeck (1723-1805), ship’s chaplain on the Swedish East India Company’s sister ship Prins Carl also stayed in the Canton area and made several observations of the trade in silks around the same time as Olof Torén. Among other matters, Osbeck visited a weaving-mill in Canton (outside the city wall), where he noted that the Europeans ordered their fabrics on arrival in the city for them to be collected once ready shortly before their departure. It usually took the weaving-mill 90 days to weave, perhaps also treat the fabrics and deliver the goods. When the Company placed its order, it was decided what types of materials were wanted and in what qualities and colours and what quantity of each kind. The fabrics were packed by the Company’s own staff during dry and sunny days as the slightest moisture might endanger the sensitive materials, causing stains. After being quality-controlled and marked, the fabrics were rolled into bolts and packed in chests. A thin, fine Chinese paper covered the valuable cloths in the tightly packed chest, which was then nailed down and transported to the Factory. The fabrics were then stored there until the time of departure. In the trading stores, it was also possible to buy single pieces of woven cloth for the private use of the Chinese and the Europeans. That was best done ‘in the porcelain street, which is the broadest in the whole town...’ where one could buy silk fabrics, silk stockings, handkerchiefs, ribbons and cotton cloth in September 1751.
From my experience, when studying 18th century documents, including all these hundreds of meters (listed in alnar ≈ ells ≈ 60cm) of East India silk, obviously such textiles have been preserved up to the present-day, primarily due to random and lucky circumstances. Even if many individuals took great care during their own life when all types of purchased cloth were expensive, garments often lasted for or were expected to last for a lifetime. Whilst most such fabrics were used for clothing and home furnishing, after some time or at least during the next generation if inherited, they had become worn-out or unfashionable. If still in good condition, such cloth was reused, remade, re-stitched, and later used as rags over the centuries. Some pieces, often of the most luxurious sorts, have been saved for various reasons, stored in attics or chests – and from the late 19th century and onwards, found their way to museums or are still being kept in private homes.
Notice: The first essay (January 23, 2023) of this two-part case study described the Surat trade in cotton textiles on the same voyage.
Original documents – in the form of auction catalogues, reference books and journals have been transcribed and translated from Swedish to English by the author of this essay. Digital sources mentioned below have been added with page numbers = digital page numbering. Specialist terms of fabric qualities have primarily been assisted by Sven T. Kjellberg’s in-depth research of the Swedish East India Company, and the author of this essay has also translated such terms. Several books and articles over the last decade – including the Swedish East India Company trade of these silk fabrics, their colours, demands over time, detailed statistical information etc. – have also been published. (Besides my monograph, Hansen 2017). Notable are (Hellman 2015), (Hodacs 2016), (Söderpalm 2016) and (Rönnbeck & Müller 2020) as listed in the sources.