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Shakespeare & Beyond

‘In the spiced Indian air’: Trading coin and cloth in the empire of the Great Mughal

Map of India
Map of India

The spiced air of India was the stuff of legend in Shakespeare’s England, and is brought to vivid life in this famous passage from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Set your heart at rest:
The Fairyland buys not the child of me.
His mother was a vot’ress of my order,
And in the spicèd Indian air by night
Full often hath she gossiped by my side
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking th’ embarkèd traders on the flood,
When we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait,
Following (her womb then rich with my young
Would imitate and sail upon the land
To fetch me trifles and return again,
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die,
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And for her sake I will not part with him.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 2, Scene I, Lines 125-142

Titania and Oberon, the Queen and King of fairies, are quarreling over a young Indian boy. The child, whose Indian mother was a follower of Titania and died in labor, is dear to the fairy queen. Yet Oberon seeks to recruit the young boy as a ‘henchman’, a demand Titania refuses. In arguing her case, the fairy queen harks to the celebrated riches of India and frames the pregnancy of the boy’s mother in terms of trade. She compares the growing womb ‘rich’ with child to the swelling sails of merchant ships that grow ‘big-bellied with the wanton wind’ and return from distant voyages ‘rich with merchandise’.

These were images which Shakespeare knew his audiences would understand in those early years of the 17th century, when Dream was first performed. England had begun its sea voyages to Asia in earnest, and the fabulous possibilities of directly accessing the merchandise of India were being realized for the first time. The fabled land of spices and riches was closer to home than it had ever been before, both physically and metaphorically.

man on elephant in the Mughal Empire

John Ogilby. Engraved title page of Asia, the first part, being an accurate description of Persia, the vast empire of the great Mogol, and other parts of India, etc. (1673) Folger 141- 516f

India in the time of Shakespeare was a vast, powerful, and wealthy imperial entity ruled by the Mughals. Its legendary riches, spoken and written of for generations in western Europe, were becoming crystallized into reality as Europeans made their first direct voyages there in search of trade. England’s pursuit of trade in the Indies was fueled by a desire to access some of the most coveted commodities of the early modern world. These included spices, such as cloves and peppercorns; textiles, from silk brocades to cotton calicoes; and dyes, most notably indigo. The English sought to exchange these valuable commodities for broadcloth, woven from Cornish wool, as well as quicksilver and other goods. What they soon discovered, however, was that India had little need for such wares.

The imposingly prosperous Mughal Empire was economically self-sufficient. The Mughals had minimal interest in English imports that either did not suit their warm climes, such as woollens, or were already available in India, as would come to be the case with quicksilver. Instead, the English were forced to trade in silver to purchase Indian goods. In the trimetallic monetary system of the Mughal empire, which included gold muhar, silver rupia, and copper dam, the silver coins were the most active form of currency. The English East India Company accordingly imported silver bullion from the mines of South America. In India, this would be converted into coins at the Mughal royal mints, which were dotted across the land. The newly minted Mughal coins then served as chief currency for purchases at Indian markets. India thus became a sink of English imported precious metals; as trade with India grew to feed a growing demand for Indian goods in Europe, so did imports of bullion to finance that trade.

It is unsurprising then that in his account of the Mughal Empire, the Scottish publisher and geographer John Ogilby (1600-1676), explored the Mughal monetary system and its role in international trade. Writing in Asia, the first part, being an accurate description of Persia, the vast empire of the great Mogol, and other parts of India, etc. (1673), Ogilby commented on how ‘they buy all the Gold and Silver upon the coming of the English, Dutch, and other European ships’, adding that:

All the Gold and Silver, both coin’d and uncoin’d, which is brought thither out of other Countreys, is melted and Coin’d into Money, stamp’d with Persian characters, expressing the Name and Dignity of the King.

Ogilby was accurate in his description. Indeed, goods-based trade between England and Mughal India at this stage was so sparse that Company merchants could be found writing letters decrying the ‘Inconveniences attending the sale of the Company’s cloth ; it is so unvendible that they are glad to be rid of it on almost any terms ; the Company will do well not to send any more for a year or two’. Instead, merchants traded in currency, for despite the financial loss it represented, the spices and textiles sought were too lucrative and desirable to resist.

Map of India

Map of India in Asia, the first part, being an accurate description of Persia, the vast empire of the great Mogol, and other parts of India, etc. (1673) by John Ogilby. Folger 141- 516f

With offerings of silver minted into rupia English traders plied Mughal markets, and as their coffers emptied their ships filled with Indian luxuries. Mirroring well the words of Titania earlier, East India Company ships grew ‘big-bellied’ and ‘rich with merchandise’. These ‘traders on the flood’ crossed oceans, bringing with them the valued Indian ‘trifles’ their compatriots so desired. It is this image of lucrative and abundant commerce which Shakespeare so vividly immortalized in that unforgettable and evocative scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This blog post belongs to a series with Medieval and Early Modern Orients (MEMOs). For citations and bibliography, please see the full version of this post on the MEMOs blog.