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Q: Was India Once the Richest Nation in the World? ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   9 Comments )
Subject: Was India Once the Richest Nation in the World?
Category: Reference, Education and News > General Reference
Asked by: arumugaswami-ga
List Price: $50.00
Posted: 21 Nov 2004 13:29 PST
Expires: 21 Dec 2004 13:29 PST
Question ID: 431985
We've read that prior to the British takeover of India, India was one
of the richest countries in the world, or the richest country (see, for example).
Is this true? Or was it the richest country prior to the Muslim
invasions centuries earlier? We don't know how wealth of a nation
would be measured historically, and part of the answer would be to
explain how the estimate was made.

Clarification of Question by arumugaswami-ga on 23 Nov 2004 13:18 PST
We're hoping for some estimate of the GNP of India relative to other
countries for somewhere in the time frame of 1000 ce to 1500ce. We
think there is some kind of historical economic analysis which makes
this kind of calculation. Failing that, the next best thing would be
the statements made during that time about the wealth of India, such
as what made Columbus think India was wealthy? What did Columbus say
about India?
Subject: Re: Was India Once the Richest Nation in the World?
Answered By: leli-ga on 15 Dec 2004 01:33 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Dear arumugaswami

I think you will be interested in figures produced by Professor Angus
Maddison estimating India's wealth relative to world GDP for the years
1000, 1500, 1600, 1700. His work, published by the Organisation for
Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), shows that India and
China used to be front runners for the title of "richest country".
India's share of world GDP is given as slightly more than a quarter in
the year 1000, and slightly less than a quarter between 1500 and 1700.

                    GDP in millions of dollars

Year                1000      1500      1600      1700

India             33 750    60 500    74 250    90 750

China             26 550    61 800    96 000    82 800

Western Europe    10 165    44 345    65 955    83 395

World Total      116 790   247 116   329 417   371 369

The complete table is available in pdf format by going to Professor
Maddison's website:

Scroll down to the list of his books and click on "The World Economy:
A Millennial Perspective".
On the next page select "sample tables".
Then choose "World GDP, 20 Countries and Regional Totals, 0-1998 AD".

Alternatively, the figures are in an Excel table which you can
download from the link at the bottom of Maddison's homepage.

Maddison discusses his approach and sources in:

"Appendix B: World Population and GDP before 1820"
"HS-8 The World Economy 1-2001 AD"
"Research Objectives & Results, 1952-2002"
(All available from his homepage)

If you are interested in buying the book, here's one possibility:

The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective (Development Centre Studies)
by Angus Maddison, Donald Johnston, Organisation for Economic Cooperation
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (April 1, 2001)
ISBN: 9264186085

I found Maddison's website after reading an article which mentioned his work.

"At the close of the sixteenth century, India?s wealth sustained more
than a hundred million people. There was an abundance of arable land
and the state of Indian agriculture compared favourably with any of
the western European countries. Right down to the subsistence-oriented
peasant, everyone saw a good return on land and labour. There was a
large and vigorous skilled workforce turning out not just cotton but
luxury items for the barons, courts and ruling classes. Consequently,
the economy produced a fabulous financial surplus. For example, the
annual revenues of the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb (1659-1701) are said
to have amounted to $450 million or more than ten times those of his
contemporary Louis XIV of France. According to an estimate of 1638,
the Moghul court of India had accumulated a treasure equivalent to
$1.5 billion. By the early eighteenth century, India was the leading
manufacturing country in the world. Of course, ?manufacturing? then
meant handloom textiles and handicrafts. The economist Angus Maddison
states that India, at that time, had a 22.6 per cent share of the
world?s GDP. Paul Bairoch confirms that it had a 25 per cent share of
the global trade in textiles. ?More important,? he writes, ?there was
a large commercialized sector with a highly sophisticated market and
credit structure, manned by a skilful and in many instances very
wealthy commercial class.? Methods of production and of industrial and
commercial organization could stand comparison with those in vogue in
any other part of the world. India had developed an indigenous banking
system. Merchant capital had emerged with an elaborate network of
agents, brokers and middlemen. Its bills of exchange were honoured in
all the major cities of Asia."

Other excerpts and links which may interest you:

"The historian Angus Maddison has painstakingly constructed the
structure of world income over the past three centuries and shows us
that in 1700, before the dawn of the industrial era, India, China and
Europe accounted for similar shares of world income. Each had a near
23% share of world income. "
PM's address at The Indira Gandhi Conference: ?India: The next decade?
November 19, 2004
New Delhi

"As Andre Gunder Frank points out, China and India were the two great
regions most central to the world economy.
India?s competitiveness was explained by its relative and absolute
productivity in textiles, by its domination of the world market in
cotton goods; that of China by its even greater productivity in
industry and agriculture, and in river transport and trade. "

"The core regions, especially of industrial production, were in China
and India; and West Asia and Southeast Asia also remained economically
more important than Europe. Likewise, China and India were the primary
centres of the accumulation of capital in the world system, and China
was in overall balance of trade surplus throughout most of this
period. Indeed, Europe was in deficit with all regions to the East.
West Asia was in surplus with Europe, but in deficit with India. India
was in surplus westward but in deficit eastward to Southeast Asia and
China, whence India re-exported bullion received from the West. In
political terms, the hegemonic influence of China, India, and the
Ottomans was considerably greater than that of the Europeans. Asian
hegemony was not seriously threatened before the second half of the
18th century."
Asian-based world economy 1400-1800: A horizontally integrative macrohistory
By Andre Gunder Frank, University of Amsterdam
12 November 1995

" . . India produced about 25 percent of world industrial output in 1750 . . "

I trust this is of interest and meets your needs. Please let me know
if you have a query about this answer, or if any of the links fail to
work properly, and I'll do my best to help.

Best wishes - Leli

Search which led to an article mentioning Maddison's work:

india rich moghul wealth century gdp
arumugaswami-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
Great answer, very smart research, thank you!

Subject: Re: Was India Once the Richest Nation in the World?
From: scriptor-ga on 21 Nov 2004 13:56 PST
I doubt that India, in the given timeframe, could be considered a
unified country or a single nation. For that time, "India" would be
nothing than a geographical term.

Subject: Re: Was India Once the Richest Nation in the World?
From: probonopublico-ga on 22 Nov 2004 00:33 PST
In the early days of the Raj, Bengal became very important to the
British for its poppy production.

This was converted into opium and shipped to China.

It was handled by the Honourable East India Company ... Honourable?
You may well ask.

Us Brits used to do these things with oodles of style.

Ah for the Good Old Days.
Subject: Re: Was India Once the Richest Nation in the World?
From: snakeman2-ga on 22 Nov 2004 01:01 PST
This is not an answer but i would like to clearfy "Or was it the
richest country prior to the Muslim invasions centuries earlier? ",
The Muslim army never reached India, the big population of muslims in
india was the result of muslim trading with india and traveling and
dealing with indians.
Subject: Re: Was India Once the Richest Nation in the World?
From: geof-ga on 23 Nov 2004 06:42 PST
In the middle ages India and the Orient generally was renowned for
being rich in precious stones, textiles, carpets and spices; this was
the origin of the much-used term "the riches of the Indies". Of
course, it was these same riches which led Columbus (and others) to
seek a sea route to Asia, resulting in the "discovery" of America.
However, whether India at that time was the richest country in the
world (compared, say, to China, Mexico, Spain or Britain) is in my
opinion impossible to say.
Subject: Re: Was India Once the Richest Nation in the World?
From: arumugaswami-ga on 23 Nov 2004 12:48 PST
Thanks for the comments. We are talking about the geographical region
that is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, we realized the political
unity varied with time. The comment from snakeman2-ga is actually in
reference to Indonesia. India was not only invaded but sacked time and
again by Muslim armies. We've raised the value to $50 for an answer
and hope someone expert in historical economics can sort this out.
Subject: Re: Was India Once the Richest Nation in the World?
From: hydcallin-ga on 11 Dec 2004 00:06 PST
a little over 200 years ago India just before the Brits took over
contributed more than 30% to the world trade (current is 1.2%)

The very reason Europeans came to India was 
a) Spices
b) Direct trade - the middlemen in this case were the Arabs 

So yes, India's wealth attracted the West and India was the richest "region" then.

scriptor - It was, for most parts under a Single ruler - the Mughals
starting from the 13th Centruty right until  the British took over.
So, yes It was a Unified country - and was perceived so by the
The difference between the Older India and British/Post-1947 India is
that there is a "Central" Ruler.

India has been and will be too diverse for it to be a "single" entity
or to have a singular nation-state sort of Emphasis that the Western
World likes to emphasize on.
Subject: Re: Was India Once the Richest Nation in the World?
From: arumugaswami-ga on 14 Dec 2004 11:38 PST
This last reply is closer to what we want. Is there some source for
the 30% world trade? Any figures from earlier. We don't think it
matter if India was not a unified country for this calculation. We
talking about present day Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
Subject: Re: Was India Once the Richest Nation in the World?
From: hydcallin-ga on 20 Dec 2004 03:36 PST
do I get any dough too? :-D
Subject: Re: Was India Once the Richest Nation in the World?
From: arumugaswami-ga on 21 Dec 2004 17:56 PST
Sorry, hydcallin-ga, you are a day late and therefore $50 short.

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