In the early 17th century, newly discovered sea routes to southeast Asia spurred active trade between India, the Spice Islands, and Europe.
Traders vied with each other to supply highly desirable spices—pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, and clove—to insatiable European markets. The desire for spices dominated the early global market and, in a roundabout way, brought Indian printed textiles to Europe.
Merchants in the Maluku Islands (formerly the Moluccas) and the Banda Islands—known as the Spice Islands—located between Indonesia and Australia, were not interested in gold or other precious metals. Instead European ships, laden with gold, sailed first to the east coast of India, where they traded bullion for textiles desired by the spice merchants. The Europeans then sailed to the Spice Islands with the brightly colored cottons and traded them for spices.
Some of the brightly colored cottons they carried made it back to Europe where merchants recognized the growing interest in the colorful, washable textiles. Cotton became increasingly popular, especially when English and French merchants realized that sales could be increased with modifications to Indian designs. The adaptations of colors and motifs were wildly successful in Europe.
Indian textiles, particularly the printed cottons produced on the Coromandel Coast, located in southeast India, became the largest commodity of the Indian import market. Britain rapidly became the leader in textile imports, until producers of wool and silk fabrics, mainstays of the British economy, rebelled and prompted the governments of both England and France to impose trade restrictions on Indian cottons in the 18th century.
Indian textiles’ influence is still apparent today in the vocabulary that has become commonplace: calico, pajama, gingham, dungaree, chintz, and khaki.