During the mid-19th century, the British colonial elite in Calcutta drank French claret at dinner, in line with their old habits at home, even if this was perhaps not well suited to Bengal’s florid, tropical climate. In fact, purchases of wine often represented the largest single line item in the household costs of Europeans in the capital of British India and, as such, the wine business was a ‘big deal’. However, safely importing and storing claret in Bengal was a challenge, owing to the climate, and a significant portion of the wines shipped from France were often found to be spoiled. As such, importing wine to India was a risky business, although generally still lucrative, as the good and great of Calcutta were willing to pay exceptionally high prices for any viable bottles (most customers were either personally very wealthy or had access to large expense accounts), while spoiled bottles could still fetch surprisingly good money at auction. These factors made up for the risk from wastage, and overall, the wine business in India was highly profitable.
One of the leading wine importers in India during the mid-19th century was the firm of James Lyall & Co. of Calcutta, a mercantile enterprise that was also heavily involved in the silk and indigo trades. It had its origins in the East India Company’s 1833 decision to end its own monopoly over the silk trade, whereupon in 1835, the firm of Lyall, Rennie and Co., headed by James Lyall, a Scots immigrant, was made one of the three main licensees to carry on the trade. The company soon entered the indigo market and began to import large quantities of French wine into India. Rennie was, in due course, dropped as a partner, and the firm henceforth bore the name James Lyall & Co. The enterprise eventually opened offices in London (appropriately at 6, East India Avenue, Leadenhall Street) and Glasgow. It seems that James Lyall also had stake in the complementary Calcutta firm of Mackenzie, Lyall &
Co., who were real estate agents, wine merchants and auctioneers, as well as being the proprietor of The Calcutta Exchange Gazette. James Lyall & Co. would remain a big player in its fields until it spectacularly went bankrupt in 1881, owing its creditors £250,000, then an enormous sum.
It was then normal for merchants in India to have their hands in several different industries, as market conditions there were notoriously unpredictable. While vast profits could be made one year in a certain sector, a tragic event (ex. cyclone, droughts, war, etc.) could ensure that revenue from the same for the next year was nil. As such, one had to hedge their bets.
Bengal was then home to the world’s largest indigo industry and, as mentioned, Calcutta wine merchants were often key players in this sector. While indigo, then in hot demand in Europe as a dye material for textiles, was overall a very lucative field, the annual harvests varied in quality and yield due to the weather, while the massive Bengali textile industry competed with European exporters for the best stock.
Fortunately for the Calcutta wine importers, many of the main French wine exporters were highly interested in dealing in indigo, as Parisian fashion houses were willing to pay exaggerated sums for the stuff. As such, it was common for Calcutta wine merchants to trade, with Bordeaux wine houses, Bengali indigo for French claret, so offsetting the great capital costs of their wine orders.
Despite the considerable importance of the wine trade in 19th century Calcutta, and its close relationship to the indigo and silk trades, the field today remains poorly researched, in good part due the lack of surviving manuscript primary sources. As such, the preset letter provides very rare and valuable insights into what were key elements of the commercial and social life of the ruling elite of British India.
The present original manuscript letter was written by James Lyall & Co. on December 13, 1853, as part of an ongoing chain of correspondence with the preeminent French wine house of Clossman & Co. (founded 1770) of Bordeaux. Clossman not only owned many of its own vineyards in the Gironde region of France, but also acted as the agent of export for many other winemakers across France and Spain.
Here Lyall discusses its ongoing, long-term relationship with Clossman, in which the prior has purchased large quantities of wine from the latter, while Clossman received indigo shipments from Lyall in return. This letter generally bears bad news, as Lyall feels compelled to complain about the fact that a significant part of the last wine shipment from Bordeaux was spoiled (sadly not an uncommon occurrence), while the indigo market was currently in a state of flux, such the Lyall would need to wait things out in order to procure a good shipment for Clossmann.
The full text of the letter reads:
By Steamer “Royal”
Calcutta 3rd December 1853.
Mess. Clossman & Co., Bordeaux.
We had the pleasure by Mail of 19th Ultimo in a P.S. to which we announced the arrival of the “Madras” Steamer, & on the following day were favoured by your esteemed advices of 6th October, by which we are glad to find the remittance by Bill made in our respects of 19th August have proved acceptable, though you confirm your late instructions as the investment of any further Terms in Indigo, provided prices do not rule too high, & the same shall receive our best attention. We also notice that you will also forward a further supply of Wine, by a vessel to leave about this time.
The chief object of our now addressing you is to call your particular attention to the same defect existing in your Claret “Mariquita” – that of being thick discoloured & unmerchantable, as occurred in former shipments, but which was not brought to our notice, till the other day, when some of the Wine was returned to us, & as both the Sample Bottles on which we reported last Mail were sound, it did not occur to us to unpack & inspect ay of the Cases beforehand; [start of p. 2] This we have now done and the result is that out of 5 Cases or 60 Bottles of the Proprietaire Nos. 7 – 20, or exactly one third, are found to be bad, & quite unfit for use, but the No. 9 Claret of the same name, has turned out comparatively well, which leads to the conclusion that Wine requires to be longer in bottle before Shipment than you have usually allowed, and which seems to be your own opinion also, with reference to your previous Correspondence. We shall be of course under the necessity of Selling the rejected portion at Auction, as before, but the repetition of the fault is most unfortunate as we have lately put the Wine into new Channels of Consumption & its Sale cannot be otherwise than injured by it. We trust you will give your best Attention to remedying the defect, & as far as we can, we shall guard against any of the bad Wine being distributed by a careful examination of all before delivery.
Nothing has yet been done in Indigo of the new Crop – both Planters & Buyers preferring to see the result of the entire October Sale, before operating as well as the upshot of pending negotiations for the Settlement of the Russo-Turkish Question [referring to the global economic instability caused by the ongoing Crimean War (1853-6)]; last mail brought intelligence of the progress of the first four days, wherein a considerable decline had been established, and though we think it probable the remainder of Sale will be characterized by more firmness, the prices hitherto current do not offer indictment to pay very [start of p. 3] extreme rates here, & our impression is that unless the French Buyers have large orders at full limits, and go into the Market quickly, the Planter’s expectations will not be realized.
We remain, Gentlemen, your most obed. Servants, [signed:] James Lyall & Co.
P.S. Since writing the above, the Mail of 20th / 24th October has arrived, bringing advice of the Ocbr. Indigo Sale having terminated more unfavourably than it commenced; this will no doubt protract the opening of the Market here, as Buyers will be induced to hold back for lower prices in consequence.
“Messrs. Clossman Bordeaux by Steamer “Bengal”.
“Jas. Lyall & Co. / R[eceived]. 12 Janvr. 1854”
References: N/A – Letter unrecorded.