Today I would like to talk about a trader that lent money to the English, The Dutch, The Portuguese and the Mughals. He was someone who single handedly dominated the commercial and urban history of seventeenth century Surat. This man, operating from Surat in India controlled an empire spanning the entire subcontinent and had business interests in Persia. Greece and the South East Asia. 

An artists reendition of Mughal India with the arrival of foreign traders. 

He was referred to as the richest merchant in the world at the time by English Factory Records.  He was Mr - Virji Vora - A Jain merchant Prince, financier, trader and Banker to the ruling elite of his time. 

Virji - The community Leader 

Virji Vora was the head of a Jain sect and the,  'mahajans’ . Those who aspired to take deeksha in order to become a Jain monk had to seek his permission, and without it they were not allowed. Virji constantly checked the knowledge of "Agam" - Jain Scriptures of those seeking deeksha , if he as well as the order was satisfied he would give his assent.

In 1669, Qazi of Surat in persuasion of the policy of religious conversion converted a few Banias into Islam. Bhimji Parekh and Virji Vora as a mark of protest declared a strike against the action. This was almost like a non-violent non co-operation movement which lasted for weeks. It forced Aurangzeb into submission. About 8,000 merchants, led by their mahajans or mercantile association of which Virji Vora was the leader, migrated to nearby Broach port as a mark of protest.

Virji  - The Business Man

Business activities of Virji Vora ranged from wholesale trade, of money, credit and banking. He established a monopoly on the import of certain in Surat, and dealing with a wide range of products, including spices, precious metals, coral, ivory, lead, and opium. He was a major loan provider and client of the British East India company and the Dutch East India company.

Business house Virji Vora has branches in several places in India and also the port cities of the Persian Gulf, red sea and Southeast Asia. Virji had agents in the major commercial centers of India, including

  • Goa, where his agents bought spices used Malabar frigates for coastal trade.
  • Bihar
  • Golkonda in the Deccan, where his agents bought spices, especially pepper and cardamom.
  • Burhanpur, a major transportation and textile centre on Agra-Surat route.
  • Calicut in Malabar, trade center for various spices.
  • Agra, the Imperial capital and center of trade of Indigo.

In Gujarat, his agents were scattered in different cities, including Ahmedabad, Baroda, and broach.

Relationship and Competition with the English and Dutch 

Virji Vora competed with the British East India company at times, but he was also their biggest creditor and client in Surat. The two often sent gifts and letters to each other. Company records have shown the following string of interactions between Virji and the Company

  • 1635: Virji gave nine pieces of white cloth in the company.
  • 1643: the EEU has given the German iron chest, made in Nuremberg to Virji.
  • 1661: Virji gave the company a calico fabric.
  • 1654: Virji asked the Director of the company, to judge their disputes with their employees in India. The decision was not favorable to the thief, but the company gave him a few pieces of broad cloth and satin, two large mirrors and a piece of double-slip plate engraved with the company coat of arms.

English often complained about the high interest rates charged by Virji Vora at 1-1.5% per month. Some of his credits to the English include

  • 1619: a record dated 25 August 1619, which States that Virji lent the 25.000 mahmudis to the English language.
  • 1625 : Virji bought the entire pepper stock brought by the Dutch to Surat. The English factory at Surat decided to purchase pepper worth £10,000 from Virji at the rate of 16 mahmudis per Maund. Virji, who owned the entire pepper stock in the city, demanded 16.25 per maund, and also asked them to sell to him 25 chests of coral - which was in great demand from Indians at a price lower than the market price. When the merchants from South India arrived at Surat with a fresh stock of pepper, Virji bought all the pepper from them. The English then sent an agent to the Deccan to buy pepper, but Virji asked his agents to buy the pepper stock at a price slightly higher than the English were prepared to give. Ultimately, the English were forced to purchase pepper from Virji. 
  • 1648 Bought cloves from the Dutch at a cheaper rate than the English thanks to his enormous liquid capital. He purchased the cloves at Rs. 45 per maund and sold them at Rs. 62-65 per maund. 
  • 1635: Lent RS. 20.000 to  English.
  • 1636: Lent  RS. 30.000 to English.
  • 1636: Lent RS. 2 lakhs to the English .
  • 1647: financed the East India company's Voyage to Pegu, Burma by providing 10.000 pagodas about 6000 £ in the interest of 1.17% per month, in Golconda
  • 1630: Lent RS. 50.000 in English in Agra.
  • 1669: the English borrowed RS. 400.000 from a group of creditors, of which Virji was an important member.
  • 1642: a letter dated 27 January 1642 mentions him as the "principal creditor" of the East India company, and mentions that he has offered a loan of RS. 100.000 in "necessitous and calamitous times."
  • 1650: Proposed RS. 100.000 to merry, the President at English factory at Surat.
  • 1668 : Virji Vora and Haji Zahid (another merchant of Surat) stored thousands of maunds of vermilion and quicksilver, "sufficient to supply the whole country for many years."

Virji and his close associate Shantidas Javeri were also the main creditors to the Dutch East India Company. 

Virji Vora also bought opium and cotton from the local merchants and exchanged them for pepper in South India or in the Spice Islands

Business Strategies 

He would often purchase the entire quantity of a particular commodity and then dictate terms to the other merchants, including Indians and foreigners. His strategy involved syndicates that bought the entire cargoes of a particular commodity valued from 5 to 10 lakh of rupees. An English factory record dated 18 July 1643 mentions him as "the sole monopolist of all European commodities." It further states that the deals between the Europeans and the smaller local merchants were restrained by him, and the "time and price" of the deals were decided at "his will and at his own disposure

The Last Years of Virji Vora and the Shivaji Raids on Surat 

Virji vora suffered a major defeat when the Maratha chief Shivaji raided Surat in 1664. 7 January 1664, the Maratha soldiers demolished his residence and warehouses, and looted a large sum of money, along with pearls, rubies, emeralds and diamonds. Volquard Iverson, a Dutch witness, States that Shivaji is, "six barrels of gold, money, pearls, gems and other precious items" from Virji. The French traveler Jean de thévenot, who visited Surat in 1660-ies and developed a friendship with Virji, also wrote about the huge monetary loss inflicted in the course of the RAID Shivajis. William foster estimates this loot to £50.000. 

Even after the Maratha RAID, Virji was not completely ruined, as his assets were distributed among several centers outside Surat.