ROBERT KNOX, whose book, published in 1682, is still the best written and most interesting account of Ceylon, gives an amusing account of the craftsmen, incidentally mentioning an interesting form of regulation whereby to each smith a monopoly of the work in a special district was reserved.

“These Smiths,” he says, “take much upon them, especially those who are the King’s Smiths; that is, such who live in the King’s Towns, and do his work. They have this Privilege, that each has a parcel of Towns belonging to them, whom none but they are to work for. The ordinary work they do for them is mending their Tools, for which every man pays to his Smith a certain Rate of Corn in Harvest time according to ancient Custom. But if any has work extraordinary, as making new tools or the like, beside the aforesaid Rate of Corn, he must pay him for it. In order to this, they come in an humble manner to the Smith with a Present, being Rice, Hens, and other sorts of provision, or a bottle of Rack, desiring him to appoint his time when they shall come to have their work done. Which when he hath appointed them, they come at the set time and bring both Coals and Irons with them. The Smith sits very gravely upon his stool, his Anvil before him, with his left hand towards the forge, and a little Hammer in his Right. They themselves who come with their work must blow the Bellows, and when the Iron is to be beaten with the great Maul, he holds it, still sitting upon his Stool, and they must hammer it themselves, he only with his little Hammer knocking it sometimes into fashion. And if it be anything to be filed, he makes them go themselves and grind it upon a Stone, that his labour of filing may be the less; and when they have done it as well as they can, he goes over it again with his file and finisheth it. That which makes these Smiths thus stately is because the Towns People are compelled to go to their own Smith, and none else. And if they should, that Smith is liable to pay Damages that should work for any in another Smith’s jurisdiction.”1

Of the King’s Towns, or Royal Manors in Ceylon, Knox says also: “In each of these Towns there is a Smith to make and mend the Tools of them to whom the King hath granted them, and a Potter to fit them with earthenware, and a Washer to wash their Cloaths, and other men to supply what they have need of. And each one of these hath a piece of land for this their service, whether it be to the King or the lord; but what they do for the other People they are paid for. Thus all that have any Place or Employment under the King, are paid without any charge to the King.”

A special feature of the guild activity has been alluded to already, in the statement that no unqualified person could remain in or enter it. It was, indeed, one of the most important functions of the guild in India, as in Europe, to maintain the Standard of quality, both of material and design. A forlorn trace of this survives in Europe in the hallmarking of gold and silver, and even that is not concerned with quality of design. In other cases the king or the State became responsible for the regulation of the craft sometimes in connection with the necessity for effective means of collecting the tolls and dues. The principle of Regulation is recognized in that fascinating and, for the study of Indian society, all-important law-book, the “Ordinances of Manu“:

“He who avoids a custom-house, he who buys or sells at an improper time, or he who makes a false statement in enumerating his goods, shall be fined eight times the amount of duty which he tried to evade. Let the king fix the rates for the purchase and sale of all marketable goods, having duly considered whence they come, whither they go, how long they have been kept, the probable profit and the probable outlay. Once in five nights, or at the close of each fortnight, let the king publicly settle the prices of the merchants.”

Here we see recognized the important doctrine of the “fair price,” so striking a feature of the commercial ideas of Mediæval Europe. The commercial morality of the individual is also safeguarded:

“A weaver who has received ten palas of thread, shall return cloth weighing one pala more; he who acts differently shall be compelled to pay a fine of twelve panas. ... All weights and measures must be duly marked, and once in six months let the king re-examine them.”

Closely bound up with these arrangements is the system of taxation, which amounts to what we should now call an income tax, or more exactly, a royalty, the due contribution from the trader to the State which protects him and the king his patron, and here also we see provision for the estimation of the fair price:

“Let the king take one-twentieth of that amount which men well acquainted with the settlement of tolls and duties, and skilful in estimating the value of all kinds of merchandise, may fix as the value for each saleable commodity.”

So also Yajnavalkya, 1360:

“A king, having duly corrected the castes, families, guilds of artisans (sreni), schools and communities of people that have swerved from the duty of their caste (sva-dharmat), should place them in the right path.”

Let us examine a few instances of these commercial principles at work in India.

In the time of Chandragupta (3rd cent. B.C.) there were six Municipal Boards in Patāliputra, of which the first was entrusted with the superintendence of everything relating to the industrial arts: fixing the rate of wages, and enforcing the use of pure and sound materials, as well as the performance of a fair day’s work for fair wages. These boards consisted of five members each, and may be regarded as a development on official lines, of the ordinary pacayat or committee of five members by which every caste and trade in India has been accustomed to regulate its internal affairs from time immemorial.2 The State regulation of craft appears to have been connected with the collection of tolls and revenues, and the two things hung together.

A reference to guilds and regulations is found in the Āīn-i-Akbari, or Institutes of Akbar (sixteenth century), in the chapter dealing with the duties of the Kotwal, or City Officer.

“Out of each class of artificers he shall select one to be at their head, and appoint another their broker for buying and selling, and regulate the business of the class by their reports; and they shall regularly furnish him with journals attested by their respective seals. ... He shall see that the market prices are moderate, and not suffer anyone to go out of the city to purchase grain; neither shall he allow the rich to buy more than is necessary for their own consumption.”3

To this day the citizens of Srinagar lament the prosperous days of old, when the trade was not free, as it is now is.

“They have a common saying to the effect that when the taxation went the prosperity of the city went also, and they explain this by the fact that the removal of taxation led to the breaking up of what were practically guilds sanctioned and protected by the State. When the taxation was removed outsiders rushed in, and competition at once reduced prices of art wares. Copperwork, which sold at seven rupees per seer in the days of taxation, now sells at three rupees, and this is the case with many other art wares.”

In the days of taxation also:

“The State exercised a vigorous supervision over the quality of the raw material and the manufactured article. In the good days of the shawl-trade no spurious wool was brought in from Amritsar to be mixed with the real shawl-wool of Central Asia, and woe betide the weaver who did bad work or the silversmith who was too liberal with his alloy. There is no such supervision nowadays. Competition has lowered prices, and the real masters of weaving, silver, papier-maché and copper-work have to bend to the times and supply their customers with cheap, inferior work. Ask an old artist in papier-mache to show the work which formerly went to Kabul, and he will show something very different from the miserable trash which is now sold. But the Pathans of Kabul paid the price of good work; the visitors to the valley want cheap work, and they get it.”4

And so the story goes on. Let us take another case. Says Sir George Birdwood:

“Formerly, ... a great industry in gold-embroidered shoes flourished at Lucknow. They were in demand all over India, for the native kings of Oudh would not allow the shoemakers to use any but pure gold wire on them. But when we annexed the kingdom, all such restrictions were removed, and the bazaars of Oudh were at once flooded with the pinchbeck embroidered shoes of Delhi, and the Lucknow shoemakers were swept away forever by the besom of free trade.”5

And thus we see at work the degradation of standard, which is undermining alike the crafts of the East and of the West. “Under British rule,” says Sir George Birdwood, “the authority of the trade guilds in India has necessarily been relaxed, to the marked detriment of those handicrafts the perfection of which depends on hereditary processes and skill.” Modern individualism, in fact, whether we call it “Laissez Faire” in Manchester, or the introduction of “Free Western Institutions” into India, hesitates to interfere with a man’s sacred individual liberty to make things as badly as he likes, and to undermine the trade of his fellows on that basis a basis of competition in cheapness, not in excellence; and the result we know. Surely a strange product of civilization this!

Perhaps it is necessary to explain that in thus contrasting “Free Trade” with the status of “protected” industries, I do not intend at all to advocate “Protection” as commonly understood. The “Protection” which is here advocated is the protection of standard; this must be carried out in most cases not by the taxation of imports, but by the absolute prohibition of the importation of any goods whose quality falls below the standard established. The hall-marking of gold and silver is almost the only survival of this power formerly exercised by the trade guilds in England, and here it is only quality of material that is considered, not of design. In recent times, the principle has been put in practice in the prohibition of aniline dyes by Kashmir. The principle, however, requires great extension, if standard is to be maintained; and it is best done by restoring to the guilds that power of control which they formerly possessed. For the State to merely tax, and profit by, the importation of the inferior goods—“Protection” as ordinarily understood would be quite futile from the present point of view. Equally foolish would be the taxation of goods which for one reason or another can better be made in another country than one’s own. Each country should excel in its own special productions, and protect their standard ruthlessly.

  • 1. Cf. Appendix VII.
  • 2. Vincent Smith, “Early History of India,” Ed.II., p. 125.
  • 3. Ayeen Akbery, F. Gladwin, 1800.
  • 4. Sir W. Lawrence, “The Valley of Kashmir,” P- 373. The italics are not in the original.
  • 5. “Industrial Arts of India,” II., p. 64.