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Banians


Banians native interpreters, brokers and agents to the European merchants in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The term banian is the Anglicised form of the Sanskrit and Bangla word banik (merchant). In Anglo-Indian society and among the natives too a banian was one who was engaged by an individual western merchant or a firm to work for them as a broker, interpreter and agent. The banians were mostly high-caste Hindus, particularly Brahmins.

Because the European merchants were generally ignorant of the local language, customs, business hubs, weights and measures, and because they were not quite acquainted with the communication networks and market conditions in the mofussil, they needed to engage local agents to work for them in lieu of commission. In the market place, the banians worked for them as their interpreters, intermediaries, negotiators and even custodians of their purse. In lieu of their services they got a commission, usually two percent on the total value of goods transacted. The banians would receive their European traders on the arrival of their ship, arrange their accommodation, select their servants to serve them during their stay, supervise the loading and unloading of cargoes, convert the silver brought by them into sicca rupees, take them to hats and bazaars, provide capital if needed, and finally, arrange but not always, a farewell dance (baizee dance). In the south such agents and brokers were called Dubash and in China, Comprador.

Every Company official including the fort william Governor and the Council members used to engage one or more banians engaged to look after their personal business concerns. The banians acted not only as brokers and agents but also as capital providers. It is said that most of the capital investments of the individual European merchants were locally procured and its greatest source were the banians.

From 1757, the value and volume of private business of the Company officials increased manifold and with that the importance of banians. There were, of course, factions and private business concerns among the Company officials. Their banians quickly learnt how to exploit the situation to achieve their own ends.

Among the banians who became fabulously rich and influential in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were Kanta Babu, ramdulal de, Nabakrishna Dev, Gokul Ghoshal, Joynarayan Ghoshal, Naku Dhar, Joykrishna Sinha, Ganga Govinda Sinha, Darpanarayan Tagore, Kashinath Babu and many others. Most of them were the builders of great commercial and landed families of nineteenth century Calcutta. Their wealth was used in building palaces in Calcutta and in their native villages, purchasing zamindaris after the permanent settlement, buying Company bonds and in organising pompous social and religious ceremonies.

From 1785 onward, the European agency houses established in Calcutta began to replace the banians in the export trade. But the banians as a class did not decline and disappear at once. The American merchants began to come to Bengal from 1785 and their investment in Bengal's export trade increased phenomenally during the Napoleonic Wars. American merchants engaged banians instead of Agency Houses, because their services could be obtained at a much cheaper rate. India was opened up to Free Trade after the charter act of 1813 and consequently many foreigners came to participate in Bengal's foreign trade. It meant a new opportunity opened up for the banian class, but it did not last long. With the growth of banking and other financial institutions, the banians were losing their importance and by 1850, they became nearly extinct as a class. [Sirajul Islam]