By 1756 Calcutta had reached such a stage of industrial progress, that its trade is stated to have exceeded one million sterling yearly, and that some fifty vessels or more annually visited its port. To conduct business with Indian producers it became vital for the Company to have interpreters, brokers and other native agencies. The brokers, like the Setts and Basaks, were weavers by caste. The Setts controlled the broker’s office in Calcutta until the end of the dandi system in 1753. By the beginning of the 19th century they had become Shroffs. The shroffs were essentially money-exchangers whose main business was to test the purity of coins and exchange coins. They also exchanged bullion for currencies, and vice-versa. In wider sense, the shroffs, or saraffs, were moneylenders and bankers, who accepted deposits and transferred funds from one place to another by means of hundis, that included bills of exchange and promissory notes.
The banking house of Jagat Seths played the most significant role in Bengal’s monetary economy in pre-colonial to early-colonial period. Jagat Seth, besides the enormous assets accumulated in his house, had enough control over the mint at Murshidabad to make use of its resources for meeting the demands of the credit-hungry European Companies.Their control over the urban money market in Bengal was so profound that no money merchant or bullion dealer dared offer a higher price than Seths did. The grand success of the house of Jagat Seths was largely because of the business climate sustained in that time in which money-changing and banking activities flourished vigorously, and naturally produced numerous sarrafs and bankers of lesser fame. Sarrafs dealing in rupee coin generally operated at urban commercial centres, where various types of rupee coins came for circulation and were exchanged with one another.
In Bengal, however, low-value exchanges were dominated by the cowrie currency, and there was hardly any copper coin in circulation in the 17th-18th centuries. Copper Mint began operation in Calcutta in April 1865, and it provided all copper and bronze coins for India from 1889 until 1923. It is understood that there were many wealthy sarrafs qua sarrafs operated in urban Bengal who dealt in rupees and sometimes in gold coins. But there were a section of sarrafs operated in the rural markets – in haats and bazaars. They were called potdars – a term referred to in Chandimangal, the Bengali poetic work written in the second half of the 16th century. Potdars, as the book defined, were professionals engaged in exchanging gold, silver coin, and cowrie. More substantial cowrie dealing sarrafs got their stocks from domestic merchants who used to sell goods to cowrie-importing traders. Agents of big merchants and European companies needed cowries for procurement of goods, and they managed to receive these shells from the saraffs. There are another class of cowrie-dealing sarrafs, who operated at the lower-end of money-changing business and dealt with small rural vendors. In the early part of the day, the vendors took cowrie from them in exchange, and in the afternoon, bring back their cowrie and go away with the rupees. In the International sphere, a commodity currency that could not be clipped or fabricated, serverd at least partly, as a medium of exchange. In West Africa there was widespread circulation of cowrie. In some important European cities, like London, Lisben, Humbourgh, Amsterdam developed strong cowrie markets in the 17th and 18th centuries, and their chief supplier was Dutch East India Company. Overtime, the Dutch wrested control of the European cowrie trade from the Portuguese. Before the Mughals, cowries were exchanged with silver coins of the Afgan era. Mughals were not in mood to disturb the tradition of cowrie usage.
We came to know from Chandimangal, a late 16th century work, the units of counting cowries, were One ganda = 4 pieces One pan = 80 pieces One kahan = 1,280 pieces The rates varied under changing conditions of demand and supply. When a particular currency became scarce, its price in terms of other currencies went up. As reported by C.R. Wilson, the quoted price of a silver rupee in cowrie at the Fort William was 2560 in 1703. Again by a proclamation dated 10th October, 1804, the collectors were asked to accept revenue in sicca rupees, failing that , in cowries, the rate of exchange being 4 kahans and 12 pans or 5240 pieces for one Calcutta sicca rupees. ‘The widespread circulation of cowrie represented a dualistic monetary structure in Bengal. … The decline of cowrie took place in a phase of vigorous empire-building launched by the colonizing state’. See for more
The picture featured above: John Mowbray, Calcutta merchant, seated at a desk piled with account books, attended by a banian or money agent and messenger. Oil on canvas by Thomas Hickey. Originally published/produced in c.1790.