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Chapter 17

The British Bazaar--The pioneer traders of Sistan--Sistan a
half-way house and not the terminus of the route--Comfortable
route--Protection and redress--Indian tea in Persia--Persian
market overstocked--Enterprise of Indian tea traders--Which are
the markets worth cultivating--Articles mostly wanted in Sistan
and Meshed--Exports--A problem to be faced--Ways of communication
needed to cities of central Persia.

The entire British bazaar--a modest one so far--can be taken in at a glance. The snapshot reproduced in the illustration gives a very good idea of it. Besides this, one or two Indian British merchants are established in the main street of Sher-i-Nasrya, where, as we have seen, they have opened nice shops.

The pioneer merchants of Sistan were the firm of Mahommed Ali Brothers, of Quetta, established in 1900, and represented by a very intelligent man called Seth Suliman.

The firm has branches in Birjand and Meshed. They have done good business both in Sistan, Birjand and Meshed, and have been followed in Sistan by Tek-Chand, of the wealthy firm of Chaman Singh from Shikarpur--at one time the trade-centre of Asia. This firm holds to-day the opium contract of the whole of the Sind district, and is a most enterprising concern.

Mahommed Azim Khan Brothers, of Lahore, have also opened a shop in Sistan, and so has Mahommed Hayab, agent for Shek Fars Mahommed, the biggest British firm in Meshed. It is probable that in the near future a number of other Indian firms may be induced to open branches in Sistan and Khorassan; but, if they are to avoid disappointment, they should remember that the Sistan market is merely a retail one, and there is very little wholesale trade to be transacted so far. In time to come no doubt a wholesale trade will eventually be developed.

A point which is seldom grasped, or at any rate is frequently overlooked, is that Sistan (Sher-i-Nasrya) is a mere half-way house between Quetta and Meshed, and not, as is supposed by many people, the terminus of the route. Considerable loss and disappointment have been sustained by some rash British traders, who, notwithstanding the exceptional opportunities given them to obtain accurate official information, set out with large caravans, apparently without the most rudimentary geographical knowledge, as well as without sound commercial foresight.

Another mistake is frequent. Somehow or other the idea seems to prevail among some Indian traders that Persia, or Eastern Persia, forms part of the Indian Empire, and they forget that the protection and unusual facilities which they enjoy from Quetta to Robat (the Beluch frontier) and, to a certain extent, as far as Sistan, cannot possibly be given on Persian territory beyond Sistan as far as Meshed.

Although practically across a desert, the journey from Quetta-Nushki to Sistan is--for travelling of that kind--extremely comfortable and easy; the real difficulty begins for traders when they are perforce left to look after themselves on Persian soil, where there are no more clean rest-houses and where a Britisher--if travelling as a trader--is no more thought of than if he were an Asiatic trader. He is no longer the salaamed "Sahib" of the Indian cities, but becomes a mere ferenghi, a stranger, and is at the mercy of everybody.

Moreover, it should be well understood that the protection and redress obtainable under English law, cease on crossing the Persian frontier. Very little, if any, redress is to be obtained from Persian officials except at great cost and infinite worry, waste of time and patience.

Indian tea traders have probably been the greatest sufferers in consequence of their rash ventures, and they will probably suffer even more in the future if they do not exercise greater caution in ascertaining beforehand the suitable markets for their teas and the actual cost of transport to the markets selected. Several traders have brought very large caravans of Indian tea to Sistan on various occasions, believing that they had arrived at the end of their journey, and, after having paid the heavy duty imposed upon goods introduced into the country, have found before them the option of going the 600 miles back to Quetta or continuing at great expense, via Bam to Kerman, a long journey with doubtful results at the end; or of going to Birjand, Meshed, Teheran, where they have eventually been compelled to sell at a loss or to pay the additional Russian duty and send the tea on to Moscow.

The Persian market is at present very much blocked up with Indian teas, and great caution should be exercised by intending exporters from India. In time to come, when good roads have been made in every direction, or railways constructed, and cost of transport greatly minimised, Persia will be, I think, a considerable buyer of Indian teas; but as matters are to-day the expense of conveying the tea to the various Persian markets, especially by the land route, is too great to make any profit possible at the very low prices paid by the Persians for tea.

Tea exported overland to the Meshed market (not to Sistan) realised, before the market became overstocked, better prices than the sea-borne tea via Bandar Abbas. It is certain that the delicate aroma of tea is not improved by being exposed to the warm sea air, no matter how carefully it has been packed. And as Major Webb-Ware, the political agent at Chagai, points out, tea despatched by the land route direct from the gardens or from Calcutta is not liable to the numerous incidental charges, commissions and transhipments which are a matter of course upon teas sent via Bandar Abbas or other Persian Gulf ports.

The demand for unspoiled teas brought overland is considerable in Russia and all over Europe, even more than in Persia, and when a sensible understanding has been arrived at with Russia to let Indian teas proceed in transit through that country, there is no reason why the better Indian teas should not favourably compete all over Europe with the China caravan teas.

The Persian market, to my mind, speaking generally, will only be able to purchase the inferior teas, the Persians as individuals being comparatively poor. Superior teas in small quantities, however, may find a sale at good prices among the official classes and the few richer folks, but not in sufficient quantities to guarantee a large import. The same remarks, I think, would apply to teas finding their way into Western Afghanistan from various points on the Sistan-Meshed route.

The Indian tea-traders have shown very commendable enterprise in attempting to push their teas by the overland route, and trying to exploit the new markets which the Nushki-Meshed route has thrown open to them, but their beginning has been made too suddenly and on too large a scale, which I fear will cause a temporary loss to some of them. A gradual, steady development of the tea trade is wanted in Persia, not a rush and violent competition flooding the market with tea that has to be sold at a loss. When the natives all over Persia have by degrees got accustomed to Indian tea, and when it is brought in at a cheap price, Indian teas are likely to be popular in Persia.

I may be wrong, but, to my mind, the greater profits on Indian teas brought by this route will in the future be made not in Persia itself, but in Transcaspia, Turkestan, Russia and Central Europe, where people can pay well for a good article. Great credit should be given to the Indian and Dehra Dun Tea Associations for despatching representatives to study the requirements of the Persian market on the spot; but, as Captain Webb-Ware suggests in the Gazette of India, the tea associations would do well to turn their attention to the sale of Indian teas in Russia, and to send some experimental consignments of their teas to Moscow by the overland route. The same remarks might also apply to a great many other English or Indian manufactured goods.

We complain a great deal that the Russian protective tariff is high, but it is mild when compared with the murderous protectionism of the United States or of our beloved friend Germany. And, after all, does this protection keep out our goods from those countries? By no means. Russia's industries are indeed fast developing, but they are far from sufficient to supply her own wants. English, German, and American goods find their way even to the most remote spots of Siberia. It is, then, a problem worth considering whether "free trade Persia," with her English and Indian imports amounting to one million four hundred thousand pounds sterling (£1,400,000), is a customer so well worth cultivating as protectionist Russia, which buys from us nearly twenty-two millions' (£21,974,952) worth yearly.

In regard to the Quetta-Meshed route, it would strike a casual observer that from our geographical situation we might, without much difficulty, kill two birds with one stone by a happy combination--Persia being dealt with en passant, as it were, while aiming for quicker, sounder, and more extensive markets further north.

Persia is a good market for Indian indigo, which has, so far, commanded a ready sale.

In Sistan itself--which, it cannot be too emphatically repeated, is to-day only a comparatively poor and sparsely-populated district--the articles which have, so far, found a quick retail sale, have been Indian assorted spices, second-hand apparel, sugar, tea, boots, cheap cotton cloths, matches, kerosene oil, thread, needles, cheap cutlery, scissors, small looking glasses.

The Amir and the Sardars have at different times made purchases of boots, shoes, saddlery, silk, woollen and cotton cloths, rugs, shawls, crockery, and enamel ware, watches, chains, and knives, and have also bought a considerable number of English-made fancy goods, furniture, stationery, cigarettes, cigars and tobacco, &c. The humbler Sistanis purchase very freely from the Indian British shops, but cannot afford to pay very high prices; but the high officials pay cash and give a good price for all they buy.

Speaking generally, the articles which are mostly wanted at present are those mentioned in the official report. For these commodities there is a steady demand in the markets of Sistan and Khorassan, but the supply, it should be remembered, should be in proportion to the size of the population. Sistan, Birjand, Meshed, are not London nor Paris nor Berlin.

The articles wanted are:--

Woollen stuffs, flannels, muslins, mulls, sheetings, chintzes,
cottons, &c.
Velvets, satins, silks, brocades.
Indigo of medium and good quality. (Oudh indigo is principally in
demand in Bushire.)
Iron, brass and copper sheets.
Sulphur matches.
Spices, including cinnamon, cardamums, cloves, pepper, turmeric, &c.
Rice (for Sistan).
Tea, black for Persia, and green for Afghanistan and Transcaspia.
Coffee (in berry).
Refined sugar, loaf.
Ginger preserve (in jars).
Baizes (specially of high class), Khinkhabs and gold cloth.
Cotton turbans (lungis) of all qualities, including those with
pure gold fringes.
Leather goods.
Boots (Cawnpore and English).
Saddlery (Cawnpore, as the English is too expensive).
Ironmongery of every description. Cheap padlocks find a ready sale.
Watches (cheap).
Kalai (for tinning copper vessels).

Fire-arms would command a very ready sale, but their importation is strictly forbidden.

The articles of export from Khorassan and Sistan are wool, ghi, saffron, dried fruit of various kinds, hides, jujubes, assafoetida, pistachio-nuts, barak, kurak, gum, valuable carpets, and some turquoises.

In Sistan itself wheat and oats are plentiful, but their export to foreign countries is not permitted. Opium finds its way out of the country via Bandar Abbas, and wool, ghi, feathers, carpets, and assafoetida are conveyed principally to Kerman, Birjand, Meshed, Yezd, the Gulf, and Quetta.

One of the principal problems of the new land route to India is not only how to induce British traders to go to Persia, but how to solve the more difficult point of persuading the big Persian traders to cross the bridge and venture into India. They seem at present too indolent and suspicious to undertake such a long journey, and would rather pay for luxuries to be brought to their doors than go and get them themselves.

With the assistance, both moral and financial, of the enterprising Major Sykes, a large caravan was sent from Kerman to Quetta with Persian goods, and paid satisfactorily, but others that followed seem to have had a good many disasters on the road (on Persian territory) and fared less well. Major Sykes's effort was most praiseworthy, for indeed, as regards purely Persian trade, I think Kerman or Yezd must in future be the aiming points of British caravans rather than Meshed. These places have comparatively large populations and the field of operations is practically unoccupied, whereas in Meshed Russian competition is very strong.

With the present ways of communication across the Salt Desert, it is most difficult and costly to attempt remunerative commercial communication with these towns. Small caravans could not possibly pay expenses, and large caravans might fare badly owing to lack of water, while the circuitous road via Bam is too expensive.

When more direct tracks, with wells at each stage, after the style of the Nushki-Sistan route, have been constructed between Robat and Kerman, and also between Sher-i-Nasrya and Kerman, and Sher-i-Nasrya and Yezd, matters will be immensely facilitated.