Back in the middle ages, the country we know today as India, was divided into several kingdoms, each with their own rulers. The knowledge of saltpeter in India seems to have been known well before the middle ages, as it is mentioned in ancient Indian texts as being used by textile makers and metallurgists. After its explosive properties were discovered in China, the technology of making fireworks came down to India around the mid-thirteenth century. As we have seen before, saltpeter can be obtained from both natural sources and artificial methods (like nitre beds). In China, most of the production of saltpeter was from nitre beds, and since the science was not fully understood, it was usually weaker than natural saltpeter. This is why China used gunpowder mainly for incendiary rockets and fireworks. In contrast, saltpeter in India was produced from mainly natural sources and was of higher quality, which enabled production of gunpowder with more ballistic strength and led to the development of rockets as well as large siege guns. Therefore, by the fifteenth century, many Indian rulers began to acquire artillery and needed saltpeter for these.
Two separate books written by court scholars from the kingdoms of Bengal and Jaunpur in Eastern India describe saltpeter production in great detail and make it clear that by 1460 AD, these two kingdoms had already developed organized saltpeter production, managed by prominent merchants who were granted monopolies by the rulers. The books describe in great detail about investment of capital, division of labor, specialists for different tasks and state control of saltpeter production. It is significant that this same region later developed into one of the top saltpeter-producing regions of India.
A map of India from the 1800s. Click on the image to enlarge. Public domain image.
The above is a map of India from the 1800s, showing various kingdoms. The areas circled in red are some of the regions that were engaged in commercial production of saltpeter and the areas circled in green are the main areas from where it was exported to the world.
We will start off by looking at the regions that produced saltpeter first (i.e. the areas marked in red). First off, we have the region in the north-eastern part, marked in the map above as Bahar and Bengal (now, the modern day states of Bihar and Bengal in India), which was one of the major areas of production of saltpeter. This is the region mentioned by the court writers above, where the kingdoms had organized saltpeter production on a commercial scale by 1460 AD. People from this area were later recruited to other kingdoms because of their knowledge and expertise in gunpowder production. In particular, the kingdom of Malwa in central India recruited many of these experts and established their own center of saltpeter production. In northern India, the area of Punjab (marked on the map as the kingdoms of Lahore and Moultan) and Delhi (marked on the map as Delhi and Agra) were both centers of saltpeter production. In Punjab, the main centers were Lahore and Multan (marked as Moultan on the map) and in the Delhi area, the main centers were Agra and Hissar.
Down in the southern part of India, the regions around the modern day states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Telengana (seen in the map as Carnatic, Golconda and Mysore) were known for saltpeter production, in particular, the towns of Coimbatore, Anantapur, Kurnool and Guntur (the first two towns are marked on the map).
Meanwhile, over in Europe, during the fifteenth century, the Age of Exploration had started and the pioneers behind it were the kingdoms of Portugal and Spain (Spain was then divided into the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon). Before then, from the 8th to the 15th century, the various Italian kingdoms, such as the Republic of Venice, Genoa, Pisa etc. had a monopoly on trade between Europe and Asia, via the Arabs. In the early part of the 15th century, Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal decided to explore the west coast of Africa. Development of new types of ships (carracks and caravels) made it possible to sail into the open Atlantic ocean, which was much rougher than the calm waters of the Mediterranean sea. Due to travelers like Marco Polo and Pedro da Covilha, accounts of the riches of China and India became known to Europeans, but the land routes passed through several countries, each with their own difficulties and dangers for travelers. Prince Henry the Navigator had already explored enough of the African coast beyond the Sahara desert that he could bypass the Arab and Berber traders and trade with the African kingdoms directly. The next prize was to establish a sea-route to the fabled country of India, and both the Portuguese and the Spaniards were trying to discover how to do it, so that they could bypass all the countries in between and trade with India directly. The Portuguese concentrated on finding a route by sailing south around the tip of Africa and then sailing north and eastwards towards what they hoped was India. Meanwhile, a navigator from the Italian republic of Genoa, named Christopher Columbus, hoped to find a westward route to India and sailed in that direction, on behalf of Spain in 1492 AD. We all know what Christopher Columbus accidentally discovered instead :-). When he got back to Europe, a minor squabble started between Spain and Portugal, which was settled by Pope Alexander VI in 1494 with the Treaty of Tordesillas, which stated that all lands west of a meridian past Cape Verde islands could be claimed by Spain and all lands east of this line could be claimed by Portugal (of course, the opinion of the people already living on these lands wasn't considered!). The Portuguese liked this deal because this gave them claim to Africa, Asia and part of South America (Brazil), whereas the Spanish were given control of mostly unknown territory. Of course, the other non-catholic kingdoms in Europe, such as England, Holland, Denmark etc., paid little attention to the Pope's orders and got into the exploration game afterwards. Meanwhile, in 1498, a Portuguese expedition under Admiral Vasco da Gama, successfully rounded the coast of Africa and reached the fabled land of India, landing at the town of Calicut (circled in green in the south-western coast of India). The discovery of a viable sea route led to yearly fleets of ships leaving from Portugal to India and the Portuguese soon established trading posts in the southern coast of India, at Cochin, Goa, Calicut, San Thome (now a suburb of Madras city) and Pulicat and the town of Chittagong (now in Bangladesh) on India's eastern coast. Initially, the Portuguese only traded in cotton, spices, pepper etc. and saltpeter purchases were only made by soldiers buying their own supplies from dealers. However, by 1510, the Portuguese had established a powder mill in Goa (marked in green on the map, towards the west coast of India) and were exporting gunpowder and saltpeter from Goa and Surat, back to Portugal. Soon after, they also established trading treaties with kingdoms on India's south-eastern coast and were also exporting from San Thome (a suburb of Madras city, circled in the map in green) and Pulicat (also marked on the map) and the volume of trade increased as the years went by. There is a letter from 1605, from the King of Spain to the Portuguese viceroy of Goa (on the south-west coast of India), directing him to send an order of 12 casks of saltpeter.
Soon enough, other European kingdoms saw how rich the Portuguese were getting from their Asian imports and decided that they needed to set up trading posts in Asia too. Despite the Pope's orders that only Spain and Portugal were authorized to claim lands around the world, the mainly non-catholic countries, such as England. the Netherlands, Denmark and France openly defied his orders and decided to develop their own businesses.
The first was the English East India Company (EIC), also called the Honorable East India Company, formed on 31st December 1600 and the first ship left England in 1601 (Fans of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series might have seen this company mentioned more than a few times in the movies, but it is not a fictional company, it actually existed and grew to become the largest company in the world, at one point, controlling over 50% of the world's trade by itself). In 1602, the Dutch established their Dutch East India company (VOC - Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie), which was the world's first multinational corporation and the first company in the world to issue stock. These two companies started establishing bases all over Asia. In India, the Dutch captured the trading post of Pulicat from the Portuguese in 1609, while the English East India Company established trading posts in Surat (1619), Madras (1639), Bombay (1668, acquired by England from the Portuguese as part of the dowry of Catherine de Braganza, when she married King Charles II) and Calcutta (established 1690).
The Dutch VOC company started exporting saltpeter from India (from Pulicat town) as ship ballast in 1617 and the English learned this from them and started doing so in 1627. Correspondence between East India Company Headquarters in London and their trading outposts in India are quite revealing on the growth of the saltpeter trade. For instance, in December 1630, two ships, the Discovery and the Reformation, traveling from Surat to London, carried 597 bales of saltpeter instead of rocks for ballast, along with their regular cargo of pepper, cotton, indigo, calico cloth etc. In 1638, the Company asked captains to prefer loading sugar, preserved ginger, cinnamon etc. on the grounds that 'saltpeter is ... troublesome to bring home, as it infects and spoils other goods.' The agents in Surat responded that while saltpeter was certainly 'a bad neighbor to better goods', a sprinkling of pepper 'praeventeth all praejudice'. A letter to the Company headquarters in 1639 even suggests to not import as much saltpeter on the ship, so as to keep the demand up and 'increase its value in England'. By 1643, with the English Civil War in full swing, English saltpeter men and European sources could not meet the demand for saltpeter and the East India Company started refining their own saltpeter in Surat and Ahmedabad, before shipping it out. The English began to receive reports of the availability of high quality saltpeter available from the north-east region of India, in Bengal and Bihar. However, the Portuguese were already established in that area since the 1530s (in Chittagong) and so were the Dutch. Soon after, the English started to concentrate their efforts in Bengal as well, later edging out both the Portuguese and Dutch from this area (we will study how that happened in our next post).
Seeing the success of the Portuguese, Dutch and English companies, other European countries also tried to get in to the action and established their own (often short-lived) East India Companies. The Danes founded the Danish East India Company in 1616 and built Fort Danesborg in Tranquebar, south of Madras (marked in green in the map), the Prussians established the Prussian East India Company (1752), the Swedish had the Swedish East India Company (1731) and the French formed the French East India Company (1664). The French were slightly more successful than the others in the beginning, until the English seized control over most of India and pushed them out. Nevertheless, the French still kept trading posts in Pondicherry (south-east India) and Chandernagore (eastern India near Calcutta) until the 1950s, but they couldn't get much saltpeter out of India, because of English interference.
In the next post, we will look at how the English managed to edge out all the other competitors and gain a monopoly on Indian saltpeter production. We will also examine how saltpeter was produced in India in some detail.