Notes on the Trade Statisticsof British India

Kaoru Sugihara

1. Principal materials

This paper reviews the availability of trade statistics of British India in printed form and discusses some of the main problems involved when using them. India possesses a fairly systematic set of trade statistics from the beginning of the 17th century, earlier than most other Asian countries, and as British control became more firmly established, statistical compilation became increasingly comprehensive. Among the statistics available from the early 19th century are the estimates by Alexander Prinsep and the figures corrected and compiled by K.N. Chaudhuri from the reports of custom houses of Bengal, Bombay, and Madras for twelve years from the year 1828-29 (The Economic Development under the East India Company, 1814-1858, Cambridge University, Cambridge, 1971).

During the period from the early to mid-19th century, annual trade statistics for British India were compiled at the levels of the administrative units called "Presidency" or "Province" (referred to hereafter simply as province). At first, provincial trade statistics appear sporadically in various materials. The earliest instances of regular publication were those issued by the custom houses of Bengal (1840-42), Madras (1841-42), Bombay (1848-49), British Burma (1854-55), and Sind (1858-59). The provinces continued to compile statistics until around 1930 (up to the 1948-49 edition in the case of Burma). These statistics were naturally more detailed than those compiled on a nationwide basis, as they included such information as port-by-port statistics and overviews of trade conditions of each province.

Beginning with the 1866-67 edition, however, the British government of India in Calcutta assumed the task of compiling and editing the trade statistics for all of British India. The product, as it emerged in 1869, was the "Annual Statement of the Trade and Navigation of British India with Foreign Countries, and of the Coasting Trade between the Several Presidencies, in the Year ended 30th April 1867; together with Miscellaneous Statistics relating to the Foreign Trade of British India from Various Periods to 1866-67 (published by order of the Governor General in Council, Office of Superintendent of Government Printing)" (hereafter Annual Statement; it appeared until its 1950-52 issue under a number of different titles). This publication firmly established the distinction, already gaining recognition, between the "foreign" and "coastal" trade. As a result, the combined foreign trade of the five provinces of Bengal, Bombay, Sind, Madras, and British Burma was officially recognised as the total foreign trade of British India. The coastal trade between the five provinces along with the trade between them and non-British ports in India (in French and Portuguese territories) were established under separate account as "coastal," while transactions with such areas that were outside India but under the jurisdiction of the former East India Company like Singapore were included in the foreign trade category. Other than for Burma, split apart in 1937, this practice would be maintained as the basic concept of India's foreign trade until 1947, when British India was split into the two independent nations of India and Pakistan. Foreign trade, in the context dealt with here, was further divided into the trade with foreign countries (foreign trade in the strict sense) and the trade with other British possessions.

The trade statistics thus established for the entire British India would soon be included in the British Parliamentary Papers to occupy a distinct status in the trade statistics of the British Empire. The "Tables relating to the Trade of British India with British Possessions and Foreign Countries" (hereinafter Tables) submitted to the Parliament in 1875 may well be considered the British parliamentary version of the Annual Statement mentioned earlier. Prior to that time, the India Office in London compiled the trade statistics of the respective provinces. The Office then submitted the data to the Parliament through the Ministry of Commerce. They were included, under the classification "East India," in the series "Statistical Tables relating to Colonial and other Possessions of the United Kingdom" (first issued in 1856, though there had been occasional reports previously). With the advent of the Annual Statement the trade statistics of British India came to be separated from those of other British colonies, and were accorded special treatment in the parliamentary papers in the form of the Tables. The appearance of the two publications represented the institutional establishment of the compiling and publishing of trade statistics for India.

The Tables were discontinued with the 1913-14 / 1917-18 edition published in 1920. After the First World War, as the volume of parliamentary papers produced was reduced, the trade statistics on British India as well were reduced to summary tables incorporated into other statistical series. However, even these sources have remained useful for acquiring general information, and many researchers have used them as primary sources, though they are clearly inadequate for comprehensive research on historical statistics themselves. In addition, there is the "Statistical Abstract relating to British India," which is probably the source most widely known to scholars of Indian history. The 1867 abstract included edited data for the years of 1840 to 1865, and annual editions appeared thereafter. It not only covered trade but provided summaries from all other spheres of activities, and the reproduced data are very useful for grasping the overall conditions of British India. However, insofar as the Annual Statement has been published as the official publication, it must be regarded as the primary source, and all the similar publications compiled in Britain should be regarded as secondary sources, as far as trade statistics are concerned.

In addition to the statistical tables compiled from the Annual Statement, the Tables featured annual trade updates and overviews. The booklet at the outset focused on describing fluctuations in volume and new trends over the previous year, but it expanded into a comprehensive information source, and, retitled "Review of the Trade of India," gained a wide circulation. Summaries of notable changes for particular products and countries were given in the "Review" and any figures of special interest were cited in that context. The author was in charge of the government office dealing with trade in Calcutta. This part of the publication is arguably comparable to the Japanese Foreign Ministry's "The Overview of Foreign Trade" [Gaikoku boeki gairan]. In other words, the Tables were not simply an abridgment of the Annual Statement but included one other series (hereafter "Review") offering commentaries. The "Review" was published in India, independently from the Annual Statement. In the context of British parliamentary papers, however, this same series originally appeared as an introductory part of the Tables, and so did not appear in the list of Parliamentary documents prior to 1895. It became an independent series with the volume covering 1895-96 (published in 1896), but two years later was again joined with the Tables. The series and the Tables were finally separated for good in 1901 when the 1899-1900 volume was published. The Tables continued to be published until the 1917-18 volume (published in 1920), and the "Review" until its 1918-19 volume (published in 1920).

2. Format and Coverage of the Trade Tables

The formats of the trade tables adopted by the Annual Statement and the "Review" were basically modeled after those practiced in England. Here, we are only considering annual publications, but monthly trade statistics were published as well. For the annual statement, the recording period was May to April until the 1865-66 edition. The 1866-67 issue was irregular, covering eleven months from May 1866 to March 1867 to introduce the April to March pattern for subsequent years. It should be noted, however, that the assignment of year number to the period of coverage was not always uniform: during the 1870s, the 1873 edition, for example, covered statistics from April 1872 to March 1873, but in the 1880s it became more or less customary that the 1885 edition, for instance, would cover April 1885 to March 1886.

The units were listed by both official price and by volume (units varied according to the item). Prices of commodities were shown in either pounds sterling or rupees, but that presents no particular problem as the conversion rates are clearly shown. Following the abstract tables, there appeared the product-by-product accounts of transactions with major trading partners. This was followed by the country-by-country accounts of transactions with the breakdown of main trade items. The trade items were categorised as commodities and precious metals, and as Indian products and re-exports of foreign manufactures. Tariffs were shown for dutiable items. Conformity with the practice in Britain for the styles and forms was the prevailing attitude, and it remained the general principle at a later period when the more systematic product classifications were introduced.

The general practice in calculating total trade value has been to take the value of commodity transactions of the private sector in the total sea-borne trade, and to regard exports of Indian produce as exports, i.e., including re-exports. However, trade statistics for the government sector were first published separately in the 1870s. Strictly speaking, therefore, there is a lack of consistency in the data, but it is difficult to separate the government's share of trade in the early years.

Supplements to the first edition of Annual Statement recapitulate the total trade volume (total exports/imports of commodities and precious metals) over the thirty years from 1834-35 to 1866-67, as well as breakdowns by major trading partners and by major items from the year 1850-51 on. In view of the incompleteness of data collection in the 1866-67 edition, it may be advisable to refer to somewhat later editions of 1870-71 or thereabouts, to take the figures for the earlier period. Comparison of these figures with those of K. N. Chaudhuri for the five-year period from 1834-35 to 1839-40 suggests that export values were considerably underestimated. For that matter, revisions may also be necessary for subsequent years.

Britain's territorial acquisitions expanded rapidly during the first half of the 19th century. As the territory expanded, naturally the area covered by trade statistics expanded as well. For example, trade statistics were first compiled for British Burma from 1854-55, and were first included with statistics for Bengal, before being separately published from 1861-62. Statistics for Sind were first compiled for 1857-58, and were published separately from 1862-63. However, after Punjab and Lower Burma were annexed, and in 1858 the former territories under the control of the East India Company had been placed under the jurisdiction of the British government of India, there were no major changes that would affect the coverage of trade statistics. In this manner, a structure was established in which the five provinces of Bengal, Bombay, Sind, Madras, and British Burma became basic units. Upper Burma was annexed in 1886, but almost all trade was conducted in Lower Burma. During the course of the 19th century, British rule in India evolved from being a form of control based on the core port cities of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras to the one of a more developmental type under which a vast Indian sub-continent came to be connected through railways and other means of communications. Foreign trade was an engine of such a development.

From the trade statistics alone, of course, one cannot trace such a process of economic development. Classifying Indian trade into "foreign" and "coastal" categories was, in the first place, nothing more than an artificial classification dictated by Britain's colonial policies, and was not necessarily meant to reflect the history, culture, and economic unity of the respective regions. It is highly debatable, for example, whether Burma should be treated as part of India. It is not easy to discern any economic reason for designating shipments destined for Ceylon as exports, and those headed for Burma as part of the coastal trade. Since the coastal trade statistics were compiled and published much like the foreign trade, the two sets of statistics should be joined together for the analysis of Indian trade. A related point is that statistics on rail-borne and river-borne trade exist separately. In the history of railways some attempts were made to process the rail-borne trade statistics, but research which links all the relevant statistics into a single framework in order to understand the process of India's integration into the world market has yet to emerge.

The above discussion deals exclusively with sea-borne trade, but the statistics on overland trade with neighboring countries exist separately. Since the scope and degree of statistics coverage for the northwestern and other frontiers must have changed frequently, we cannot calculate or estimate the trend of overland trade with any precision, but as far as we know, there were periods when it surpassed ten percent of sea-borne trade in terms of value. Re-exports of foreign goods were an important component of this trade, but there is no research offering an overview into this area. All we have so far is a stock of individual research, for example, on trade between India and Nepal. More important, native states controlled approximately one third of the Indian sub-continent, and remained outside direct British control. The trade between them and British India is not included here either. Moreover, there are some cases in which sea-borne trade with some places (such as Aden) were treated separately from the regular statistics. These facts remind us of the fact that the trade statistics of British India originally came to be compiled for the purpose of recording long-distance trade with the Western nations, especially Britain. As such, the reliability of the statistics is high. However, there are a number of serious problems regarding the conceptualisation of local and regional trade, and the degree to which it was captured in the form of statistics. As suggested by recent studies in the Indian Ocean trade, there is good justification for reinvestigating the issue of whether or not the Western impact during the 19th century caused a decline of local and regional trade in the Indian Ocean. At the very least, it is clear that no easy answer can be adduced from the available statistics.

3. The development and decline of industrialisation-led trade

The study of the history of Indian trade has so far placed an overwhelming importance on the history of India's relations with England. The basic outline is well-known: at the beginning of the 19th century, India's cotton exports declined while cargoes of Lancaster cotton textiles poured in; India became the supplier of the raw material, cotton, for the British textile industry; and this led to the inflow of capital and imports of materials from Britain, which spurred the building of railways and cities in India. It is also well known among students of international economic history that exports of opium from India to China during the mid-19th century, as well as India's exports of primary products to industrial Europe and Japan from the end of the 19th century to the eve of the First World War, made major contributions to the creation of the patterns of multilateral trade settlement and the smooth development of the world economy centered on Britain.

Since Indian export trade in the 19th century consisted of several large items such as raw cotton, cotton yarn, cotton cloth, opium, and rice, it has become a common practice to take these commodities and discuss them separately. However, the pattern of development suggested in the above passages indicates that under the direct impact of the global diffusion of industrialisation, the structure of Indian trade was transformed from a demand-pull type based on luxury goods trade to that of a developing country, exporting primary products, both raw materials and foodstuffs, to industrialised nations and importing their manufactured goods. The country was essentially incorporated into the system of industrialisation-led trade. How does this appear in the statistical tables?

Until around 1887, the Annual Statement and the Tables had simply listed the prices and volumes of major commodities. Along with this traditional format, however, another form of classification appeared around 1880. According to the "Review," the new categories, developed in Britain and France and adopted by Britain's Ministry of Commerce, gradually came to be applied to the compilation in India as well ("Review", 1884-85, p. xli; 1888, p. 3). The new classification was as follows:

 I-----Animals, Living
 II----Articles of Food and Drink
 III---Metals and Manufactures of
 IV----Chemicals, Drugs, Medicines and Narcotics, and dyeing and tanning Materials
 VI-----Raw materials and unmanufactured articles
 VII----Articles manufactured and partly manufactured

Items III, IV, and V represent manufactured or semi-manufactured goods. The 1884-85 edition of the "Review" carried export tables from the year 1879-80 and import tables from the year 1880-81, using this classification system. Over time, this grouping underwent gradual change as greater weight was placed on the more abstract classifications such as foods, raw materials, semi-manufactured goods, and manufactured goods. It was on the basis of the development of this compilation that it became possible to understand the nature of Indian trade in terms of exporting primary products and importing manufacturing goods, as depicted above.

The commodity classification system for international trade evolved thereafter from the 1913 Brussels List, to the Minimum List of Commodities for International Trade Statistics compiled by the League of Nations in 1938, to the evolution of the Standard International Trade Classification (SITC) by the United Nations following the Second World War (P.L. Yates, Forty Years of Foreign Trade, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1959, pp. 208-10). As has been shown in the case of Japan (Kenzo Yukizawa and Shozo Maeda, Nihon boeki no choki tokei [Long-term statistics of Japanese trade], Dohosha, 1978), our understanding of the history of structural change of trade would be greatly enriched if we could express the changes in commodity composition during the 19th century, using a common yardstick. To do so, it would be necessary to recompile original statistics in accordance with the classification developed in the later period. Of course, a fundamental problem would arise if we wish to apply the classifications developed to express the pattern of industrialisation-led trade backwards to the first half of the 19th century when trade of a demand-pull type was predominant. But the problems in making the existing classifications consistent for the industrialisation-type trade era are also considerable. For example, the degree to which processing industries relating to tea, sugar, and rice production were developed is important to understanding the extent to which the primary product economy was industrialised, but these goods are classified as primary products, without any regard to the extent of processing. Nevertheless, opium was included in Category IV above, which comes under the category of manufactured goods. From the perspective of Indian history, this is, to say the least, rather odd. Establishing a unified classification standard would greatly improve our ability to make comparisons, but the existing classifications are far from satisfactory in their present form. Inevitably, a degree of flexible interpretation would be essential in using them.

However, even if we accepted the usefulness of these types of classifications, would it help to understand the relationship between the development of the export economy of primary products and industrialisation? The usual view emphasized in Indian trade history, that the country was incorporated into the international market as a primary producer, cannot elucidate this issue. As is well known, India was the first country in Asia that developed the modern industry, and her cotton and steel industries preceded those of Japan at their initial stages of development. By the eve of the First World War, India created a trade structure of an advanced-country type in its trade with Southeast Asia and East Africa, exporting manufactured goods and importing primary products, while following the pattern of a developing country in its trade with the West and Japan, exporting primary products and importing manufactured goods. India clearly played the role of a newly industrialising country in Asia until rapid industrialisation in East Asia altered this situation during the interwar period (Kaoru Sugihara, Ajia-kan boeki no keisei to kozo [Patterns and development of intra-Asian trade], Mineruva Shobo, 1996, ch. 6). Britain, with its finance and service sector specialisation, had reason to desire an expansion of Indian trade and to permit a certain degree of industrialisation.

Following the First World War, the Indian economy was affected by the stagnation of the British economy while it suffered the impact of the industrialisation of East Asia at the same time, as a result of which it lost its chance to enter the path of export-led industrialisation. The value of India's trade increased almost without interruption until the mid-1920s, then fell into decline. The role of primary products as an engine of economic development was sharply diminished and the nation's manufacturing industries were not strong enough to compete with those of Japan, yet Britain forced India to conform to the basic framework of free trade. Following the Great Depression, inward-oriented industrialisation progressed to some degree. However, it was only during the Second World War that a systematic plan for industrialisation began to be implemented.

Following independence, the state attempted to lead industrialisation with strong emphasis on the development of heavy and chemical industries. The legitimacy of this industrial policy has come to be questioned in recent years, and the Indian economy is currently going through the process of liberalisation. In understanding the nature of this change, however, it is grossly insufficient to simply reflect on the process of development and faltering of inward-oriented industrialisation since the 1930s, and draw critical lessons from it. It is important to remember that India has a successful historical experience of export-led industrialisation. The question of what lessons should be learnt from the development and faltering of industrialisation-led trade under the British rule appears to be gaining new meaning.

Before concluding, I would like to touch upon the treatment of trade in treasures. In 19th century India, gold and silver did not simply serve as currency, but were used for a variety of purposes, including decoration and ornamentation. Insofar as the latter functioned as a method of hoarding, different usages of precious metals were loosely interrelated. In some periods, trade in gold and silver represented well over ten percent of the gross trade value, and was particularly important in imports. There are still many who believe that the massive imports and hoarding of precious metals undermined Indian economic development. However, K.N. Chaudhuri, referring to international balance of payments tables for the first half of the 19th century, assigned imports and exports of precious metals to the opposite columns from those of commodities. This writer is also of the opinion that the best practice would be to compile commodity trade only when constructing the main series of trade statistics.

4. Conclusion

Finally, I would like to touch briefly on some other information contained in the source materials discussed in this paper. One is trends in tariff and exchange rates. Colonial India is said to have been put under the system of forced free trade. Whether or not to introduce a tariff policy to promote industrialisation was a matter of heated debate for both the colonial government and nationalists. The devaluation of the rupee, in particular, was one of the major demands made by nationalists. This issue was debated, especially from the 1920s, in terms of whether the rupee should be devalued to promote India's industrialisation, or whether rates should be kept high to protect British investment.

Another area which deserves attention is statistics on marine transport. Plainly put, the 19th century witnessed the virtual disappearance of traditional Indian ships as well as the expansion and competition of Western, including British, and Japanese vessels. This process was closely linked to changes in the structure of trade but it also strongly reflected military and political considerations of the time. Since the early 20th century, and especially from the 1930s, the competition for control of the Asian market of marine transport became a serious concern for Britain.

A number of reports and minutes of evidence related to these topics can be found in the British Parliamentary Papers, especially in the reports of the Royal Commission. They have often served as the starting points for scholarly debates as well. However, these source materials were published for the purpose of formulating the policy under the framework of Britain's colonial rule. By contrast, the annual reports and other publications discussed in this article hold vast amounts of information which was largely detached from the concerns of policymakers. In spite of a number of limitations mentioned above, this information has the advantage of having been compiled automatically under the protected institutional environment of statistical compilation. Arguably, therefore, it has the potential to offer the less biased evidence and inspire new interpretations.

Osaka University, Faculty of Economics