Cowrie Currency and Calcutta’s Money Market

(c) British Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation কলকাতার পোদ্দারি কারবার , টাকা-কড়ির বিনিময়

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.

Merchants-of-calcutta--1887

Marwaris

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.

Money-changer 1920

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.

Money-changer-Hindu-1859

Hindu money-changer. 1859

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.

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Old Calcutta Mints, Calcutta, 1757 –

calcutta minxt
পুর্বাতন কলকাতা ট্যাঁকশাল, কলকাতা, ১৭৫৭ –

Before 1757 the East India Company had no right to its own mint. Therefore to obtain current coin it had to send its silver and gold to the Murshidabad Mint and pay the standard duties and charges. This was not a favourable arrangement for the Company as these often caused delays in obtaining needed coin, and more importantly, the situation allowed the Seths at Murshibad to take business advantages over the Company’s deal with Murshidabad mint. Robert Clive after recapturing Calcutta and overpowering Nawab of Bengal made the stipulations in the subsequent treaty between the East India Company and the Nawab that the Company to have its own mint where gold and silver coins struck on the standard of the Murshidabad mint could be made.

The First Mint
Holwel's Monument - Calcutta (Kolkata) c1910The first East India Company’s mint was located in a building next to the Black Hole in the old fort – where the General Post Office stands today. The above photograph of Holwell Monument shows a rare view of an unidentified building standing near about the indicated spot at the opposite side of the then Writers’ Buildings. (No details of the photograph. Source: Recoolections of Calcutta … by Montegue Massey, 1919) The Calcutta mint made changes to the mint’s name struck on its coins. Its first issues, from April 1757, bore the mint name A’linagar Kalkatta; then from July simply Kalkutta. However, once the East India Company were appointed Diwan of Bengal in 1765 their mint at Calcutta began to use the name of the capital, Murshidabad, making its coins identical in every way to those from Murshidabad itself. Confusion in identifying the mint for a particular coin remains until 1777 when the mint at Murshidabad was closed and for a time the Calcutta mint was the only mint in operation.

The Second Mint
The second Calcutta Mint was established with the modern machinery brought in 1790 from England. The second Mint was located at the Bankshall, opposite to the western entrance of St John’s Church. It was on the site of Gillet Ship building Establishment, one of the docks from which several good ships were launched. The Governor General arranged for two Bengal Army engineers, Lieutenants Golding and Humphries, to superintend the construction of the machinery for the Calcutta mint and other mints to be established. New minting machinery, still based on the hand operated screw principle, was developed locally. Some years later, when the Calcutta Mint was removed from the Gillet’s dockyard, in 1829, to the New Mint, which had been built on the Strand, the Old Mint passed into the hands of Messrs. Moran & Co., indigo brokers. Long years afterwards, when this firm relocated to Mango Lane, they carried with them the well-known designation of The Old Mint Mart, to become a puzzle to later students of local topography. See Blechynden

The Third Mint
In March 1824 the third Calcutta Mint, better known today as Old Silver Mint, was founded, ready with over 300 tons of equipment freshly arrived from England in October 1823. The mint was to be built on a piece of water-logged land owned by the East India Company near a quay on the Hooghly. The new silver rupee that was being struck at the new mint in 1830 to go into circulation in January 1831.. The imposing frontage of the building of the third Mint was based on a design oMint, Burduan Raja's Bazar -Prinsep-2f Parthenon, the Greek Temple, stood on the Strand Road just beyond the highest spot of ground in Calcutta, the point where Cotton Street meets Clive Street. It is revealed from the William Prinsep’s scribbles on the pen & pencil image he drawn in c.1832, that the mint location was actually Burdwan Raja’s Bazar as the place was then called. The mint was opened for production from 1 August 1829.
In 1860 a new set of mint buildings was begun in the north of the Calcutta Mint grounds. It was known as the Copper Mint and began operation in April 1865. However demand for copper coin was not sufficient at that time to require a separate minting facility so it was moth-balled from 1866 until 1878. From 1889 until 1923 the Calcutta Copper Mint provided all copper and bronze coins for India. The coinage production capacity then was varying between 3,00,000 to 6,00,000 pieces per day. The silver and copper mints both used to function and produce coins of bronze, silver and gold.
CalcuttaMintWorkers The oil on panel painting by Arthur William Devis dated c.1792 describes assayer at work in the Calcutta Mint. Courtesy: The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. Between 1916 and 1918 on account of World War I, the Calcutta mint was employed producing bronze penny and ½ penny coins for Australia; prior to that these denominations had been struck in Britain. At the end of the war the master tools from Calcutta were sent to the Melbourne Branch of the Royal Mint where they were used to produce the first bronze coin struck in Australia in 1919. Apart from minting of coins another important function of the Kolkata Mint was the manufacturing of medals and decorations during the British regime. The production of medals continues to this day.

After the Government of India Mint at Alipore was opened on 19 March 1952, the building of the Old Silver Mint fell into disrepair and neglect. There are currently plans to restore the building and open it as a museum.

Find more historical data and illustrations of Murshidabad and Calcutta coinage here.

The view of the Calcutta Silver Mint featured at the top was painted in watercolour by Thomas Prinsep in 1829. Courtesy: Caroline Simpson Collection