Kirti N. Chaudhuri

Kirti Narayan Chaudhuri (born September 8, 1934) is an Indian historian, author, creative writer, and a graphic artist. In his early life, he was also a pianist and a general musician. He is the second son of the Indian writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri.

Kirti Chaudhuri has spent most of his adult life travelling and working in the Middle East, North Africa, South America, and Europe. Although he earned his living as a professional historian and as a university teacher in England and in Italy, he has always considered his creative work, both literary and artistic, to be the first priority. In the manner of his early life, he still considers himself to be a man of the road, a professional wanderer and a vagabond, a latter day Flying Dutchman. Chaudhuri's academic achievements however have several unusual features. He was the first undergraduate in the University of London to obtain First Class Honours in Final BA Examinations from the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1959 since Bernard Lewis gained that distinction in 1936. He is the only historian from South Asia to have been elected to the British Academy and Academia Europaea.

Since the year 2000, Kirti Chaudhuri has divided his time between London, Avignon in France, Florence, the Sahara, Argentina, Uruguay, and Mexico. His main recreations are travel, wine tasting in different parts of the world, photography, large format printing of his graphic images, designing and printing Artists’ Books, bookbinding, and mountain walking.

Kirti Chaudhuri is married to Surang Na Songkhla whose family in the past was the traditional governors of the Songkhla Province in Thailand and her great grandfather was the Prime Minister to the Thai monarch. His son Vik Chaudhuri, educated at Westminster School London, lives and works in London, and vigorously follows the pastime of semi professional cycling. In the year 2004 to 2005, Vik Chaudhuri cycled all alone from Anchorage in Alaska to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, a trip of 25,000 kilometers. He was attacked and robbed at gun point at a lonely stretch of the Pan American Highway in Peru and fought successfully with the bandits to recover his bike.

Early life and education

Chaudhuri was born in Calcutta and spent his childhood in Kolkata and Delhi. He sat for the entrance examination for the University of London and studied history at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University College London, Birkbeck College, and the London School of Economics. His teachers included Arthur Llewellyn Basham, Cyril Philips, William Beasley, C. R. Boxer, Bernard Lewis, Eric Hobsbawm, G.J. Renier, Michael Oakeshott, and Karl Popper. Chaudhuri graduated with first-class honours in 1959 and was awarded the Derby Fellowship for Doctoral Research Studies.

Chaudhuri completed his PhD in 1961, in just over two years. His dissertation was on the early history of the English East India Company. He was immediately offered a position at the University of London and became a lecturer, reader, and professor of economic history. In 1991, Chaudhuri was invited to become the first Vasco da Gama Professor of the History of European Expansion at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, with the support of the Portuguese National Commission for Maritime Discoveries. [O tempo lento do Indico, Interview between K.N. Chaudhuri and Rui Rocha, Expresso, Revista, Lisbon, Saturday, 3 August 1991 and "Indian History and the Indian Ocean (Professor K. N. Chaudhuri Interviewed by Ranabir Chakrabarti)." Calcutta Historical Journal. 14 (1-2) (Jul 1989-Jun 1990): 78-83.] Chaudhuri completed his contract in 1999 and has returned to his earlier activities as a creative writer and an artist.

Chaudhuri was elected to the British Academy (1990), the Royal Historical Society (1993), and Academia Europea (1994_. The Portuguese government and National Commission for Discoveries awarded him the Don John de Castro Prize in International History (1994).

Academic Works

Chaudhuri’s first monograph The English East India Company: the Study of an Early Joint Stock Company 1600-1640,] was published in 1965, and it is still regarded as one of the seminal works on the history of the East India Company since W.R. Scott published his classic three volume work in 1912. After the publication of the monograph, Chaudhuri began in 1966 a major research project on the later history of the East India Company. It was supported by a substantial research grant from UK. Social Science Research Council, and Sir John Habakkuk, the chairman of the S.S.R.C. and the distinguished British economic historian personally expressed his appreciation and support for Chaudhuri’s still unproven research and methodology. The research grant enabled Chaudhuri to computerise the vast array of quantitative data on the Company’s transcontinental trade and shipping. The research was published by the Cambridge University Press in 1978 under the title The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company 1660-1760. [ The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company - Cambridge University Press ] ] The Cambridge University Press has reprinted the work in 2006. The methodology of the book was based not only computerised data processing but also on the use of rigorous statistical methods and systems analysis. For the first time, historians are provided with a wide range of reliable statistical data on early modern trade and shipping and Chaudhuri’s conclusions point to the way early modern capitalism and business methods developed in Europe and the Indian Ocean. Economic History Net described the book as one of the most significant works in twentieth century economic history. [ The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company, 1660-1760 | Book Reviews | EH.Net ] ]

In 1980, the Cambridge University Press commissioned Kirti Chaudhuri to write a two-volume work on the history of the Indian Ocean similar in scope and narrative to the work of the French historian Fernand Braudel. Chaudhuri was profoundly influenced by Braudel’s approach and remained in close touch with the French historian until the latter’s death in 1983. The Cambridge University Press contract led to the publication in 1985 of The Trade and Civilisation in Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750 [ Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean - Cambridge University Press ] ] and Asia before Europe in 1990.]

Whereas Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean mainly follows the traditional descriptive method of a historian, Asia before Europe is a study, using mathematical set theory, of the dynamic interaction between economic life, society, and civilisation in the regions around and beyond the Indian Ocean during the period from the rise of Islam to 1750. It raises and answers the question how the identity of different Asian civilisations is established in the first place and then goes on to examine the structural features of food habits, clothing, architectural styles, and housing. The analysis of the different modes of economic production is followed by a description of the role of crop raising, pastoral nomadism, industrial activities, and the history of urbanisation for the main regions of the Indian Ocean. The book also presents a distinctive theory of comparative history. An extension of Fernand Braudel's theory of time and space, the methodology sets out precisely the logical foundation of the historical perceptions of unities and disunities, continuities, ruptures, and thresholds. The analysis of the historical evidence leads to a striking conclusion. Indian Ocean societies were united or separated from one another by a conscious cultural and linguistic identity but below this surface level of awareness, there was a deeper structure of unities created by a common ecology, technology of economic production, traditions of government, theory of political obligations rights, and a shared historical experience. The theory makes it possible to show that the name or the linguistic sign "Indian Ocean" is an arbitrary construction with a narrow range of meaning: the real Indian Ocean was an area which extended historically from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf to the sea which lies beyond Japan. The "axiom of choice" in mathematical set theory is used to show that even the great deserts of Asia can be included in the "set" Indian Ocean through the logic of dialectical opposition.

Criticism of Chaudhuri’s academic work

Santhi Hejeebu, Department of Economics, University of Iowa in her general critique of the Trading World of Asia and English East India Company wrote: “Systems analysis receives prominent attention. He writes of the Company as a trading system, one in which the decision-rules employed by management can be mapped to a sequence of physical inputs and outputs, suggesting the Company operated like an engine. Systems analysis enables him to test statistically a series of hypotheses, such as "average costs are a decreasing function of the volume of trade, the cost price of goods, and of time, with an associated level of fixed costs." [K.N. Chaudhuri, The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company 1660 1760, Cambridge, 1978, p. 486.] The approach looks rather alien to those who learned industrial organization from Tirole (1989) or Stigler (1968) a generation earlier. [Jean Tirole. 1989. Theory of Industrial Organization. Cambridge: MIT Press. George Stigler. 1968. Organization of Industry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ] It is not typically taught in economics or in history departments though it is widely used in information systems management and environmental engineering. System analysis requires the investigator to redefine structural and functional relationships on a firm-by-firm basis. What surprises (and annoys) the economist is the absence of a theory of the firm. The cost functions in Appendix 3 are hypotheses relating costs to accounting and physical variables. They do not imbibe the idea that costs functions arise from production functions and must include opportunity costs.

“Can systems theory be useful to economic history? Certainly. It requires a much lower level of abstraction than conventional microeconomics and can be particularly useful when a researcher needs to make a detailed plan of a complex organization. This is precisely the sense in which computing professionals in the business world use the theory. The emphasis on information flows and functional relations across different subsystems can help organize data-gathering efforts. And this is precisely how the theory was useful to Chaudhuri. Chaudhuri writes, "The historical material was collected and analysed with very strict adherence to the concept of the model. The exposition was then 'translated' into the idiom of historians." [K. N. Chaudhuri. 1983. "The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company, 1660-1760: A review of reviews." South Asia Research (London) 3 (1) (May): 10-17. p. 14] The gargantuan task of synthesizing the thousands of volumes of records pertaining to the Company over the period indeed required a coherent approach embedded in a structural model of the Company's various operations.

“The drawback to systems theory is that it is a static model of the organization and it therefore offers no guidance on how to ask the deeper questions about efficiency or organizational change. Writes Chaudhuri, "For a model cannot without destroying itself take account of the passage of time which affects its structural boundaries and parameters" [K. N. Chaudhuri. 1983. "The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company, 1660-1760: A review of reviews." South Asia Research (London) 3 (1) (May): 10-17. p. 41] . Theories of institutional change are of fundamental concern and those that are not amenable to changes over time appear to have little explanatory power. Thus while useful as an organizing heuristic, systems analysis seems rather unlikely to yield insights regarding organizational change.”

However, Santhi Hejeebu also goes on to say; “The most long-lasting contribution of the book is the stunning amount of quantitative data on commodities and specie flows between Britain and Asia. Appendix 5 provides the annual time series for nearly a dozen commodities originating from six locations -- representing a fraction of the 400 tables originally produced. Chaudhuri's research involved tracking more than 91 different textiles, 7 types of tea, and 30 other commodities imported into London. On the export side, he followed the course of 12 products plus treasure. By following the order lists and invoices of literally every Company ship between 1660 and 1760, he and his assistants made available data that had been scattered across hundreds of volumes of financial records and thousands of volumes of correspondence. Clive Dewey wrote that Trading World of Asia "represented the work of a lifetime, not only -- or even mainly -- in the sense that it took a significant proportion of [the author's] working life to write, but in the sense that such a book is only likely to be written once in a lifetime” Ten productive years of archival work (involving English, French, Dutch, Belgian sources) went in to the production of Trading World of Asia and that staggering effort alone will ensure its longevity. [C.J. Dewey, Review in Times Literary Supplement, 23 July 1980.]

“The book influenced numerous literatures within economics and history. Chaudhuri's emphasis on the efficiency of the East India Company resonates in the literature on the origins of the multinational organization and on the character of the English chartered companies. While Chaudhuri used systems theory, others (Anderson et al. 1983 and Carlos and Nicholas, 1988) have employed transactions cost analysis, agency theory, and Chandlerian analysis of firm structure to argue that the East India Company was an organizational innovation on par with a modern multinational firm such as General Motors. [Gary Anderson, Robert McCormick and Robert Tollison. 1983. "The Economic Organization of the English East India Company," Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. 4 (4): 221-238. Ann Carlos and Nicholas, Stephen. 1988. "'Giants of an Earlier Capitalism': The Chartered Trading Companies as Modern Multinationals," Business History Review. 62 (Autumn): 398-419.] They emphasize the efficacy of the firm's internal operations as its main commercial legacy. They de-emphasize the firm's imperial legacy. Other studies by contrast have highlighted the significance of "merchant empires" to European expansion. These works have also drawn on Chaudhuri's insights.

“The contribution of The Trading World of Asia to the study of the foreign impact on the Indian economy has also been fruitful. Most notably, Chaudhuri's argument that India's, and in particular Bengal's, textile production increased through an expansion of employment has resulted in several important monographs. Om Prakash (1985) [Om Prakash. 1985. Dutch East India Company and the Economy of Bengal, 1630-1720. Princeton: Princeton University Press.] builds directly on the claim by asking how much did Bengal's employment rise as a result of European demand for textiles. His qualified answer: about 10%. Numerous studies have focused on the economic dislocation experienced by weavers and other groups connected with the Company's trade. From the perspective of the Mughal ruling classes it was certainly difficult, if not impossible, to separate the Company's commercial purposes from its political ones. For example, in dealing with Asian powers, the Company, Chaudhuri explains, had every incentive to present itself as having the delegated power of the British Crown. In the Indian economy, the East India Company employees insisted on special treatment and trading privileges. By bringing to the foreground the Asian commercial milieu Chaudhuri helped initiate new literatures in Asian history. For the range and importance of its findings, its unique method, and its empirical bounty, Trading World of Asia deserved the unanimous praise it received upon publication in 1978. For those same reasons and for its lasting impact on economic history, Trading World of Asia certainly deserves its present distinction -- one of the most significant works of the twentieth century.”

On Asia before Europe, Sugata Bose, Gardiner Professor of History, Harvard University, wrote: “Yet it remains an open question whether the recourse to mathematical precision fares much better than a historian’s intuitive e presumptions in resolving the problem of the spatial limits of an interregional arena of human interaction.” [Sugata Bose, Hundred Horizons, The Indian Ocean in the age of Global Empire, Harvard University Press, 2006, p.,11.]

Later Literary and Artistic works

In 1994, Kirti Chaudhuri created and founded Gallery Schifanoia and its associated imprint house Schifanoia Firenze to exhibit, print, and publish his artistic and literary works along with the works of other artists and writers. The press has published thirty titles so far and further projects are being planned for future publication. The activities of Schifanoia Firenze as a private Press and a publishing house belong to the same genre and the tradition created by Ambroise Vollard at the beginning of the twentieth century, a tradition that was actively taken up by other art dealers and art publishers such as Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, Albert Skira, Tériade, and Fabiani. The foundation of Schifanoia Firenze however was accidental. The chance purchase of two rare books, the facsimile edition of the Calligraphic Models of Ludovico Degli Arrighi surnamed Vicento (1525) and Crito A Socratic Dialogue by Plato, hand printed by Hans Mardersteig in Montagnola in 1926, led Chaudhuri to the idea of founding a printing and publishing enterprise similar to Mardersteig’s Officina Bodoni, which was later transferred to Verona and joined to the letter-press printing house Stamperia Valdonega.

Schifanoia Firenze has tried to maintain the standards of bookwork set by the great masters of the past such as Gütenberg, Nicholas Jensen, Aldus, Claude Garamond, Bodoni, and modern designers such as Jan Tschischold, Hans Mardersteig, Bruce Rogers, and Frederick Warde. The search for fine printing paper led Chaudhuri to the high narrow valley of Pescia in Tuscany where fifteenth-century methods are still being followed in the paper mill of Cartiere Enrico Magnani, methods that are also followed in the Auvergne where Moulin Richard de Bas turns out superb examples of handmade paper in Val de Laga, Ambert. The exquisite Japanese Kozo bark paper and the Gampi vellum are used for special reserve copies, which are bound by famous designer binders in full Morocco leather. Some of these examples can be seen at the National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum in London as well as in the British Library. Chaudhuri’s graphic work, large prints and photographic images, have been exhibited in Florence, London, and Paris.

His latest work is an audio play, Four Nights in Tunis. He wrote and directed the production of the compact disk in June 2007 and it is part of an audio book. The audio play was recorded at the professional sound studio A1 Vox and mastered at Iguana Music Studio, London. The parts were played by the actress Beverley Beer and the actor Andy Rowe. Kirti Chaudhuri was the narrator.


1. The English East India Company; the Study of an Early Joint-Stock Company, 1600-1640. London: F. Cass, 1965.

Reviewed in "Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies"

2. The Economic Development of India under the East India Company 1814-58; a Selection of Contemporary Writings. Cambridge [Eng.] : University Press, 1971.

Reviewed in "The Journal of Asian Studies" []

3. The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company, 1660-1760. Cambridge [Eng.] ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Reviewed in "The Economic Journal" []

4. with Dewey, Clive (eds), Economy and Society: Essays in Indian Economic and Social History. Delhi; New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Reviewed in "The Journal of Asian Studies" []

5. Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean: An Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

;List of Reviews:

Geoffrey Scammell, Times Higher Education Supplement, 7 June 1985.

Geoffrey Scammell, English Historical Review, October 1987.

Chris Wickham Caravans and Caravels, Times Literary Supplement, 12 September 1986, No. 4354.

P.A. Memon, Journal of Historical Geography, vol. 12, No. 1, January 1986.

Burton Stein, Pacific Affairs, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 513-514.

Demund Bosworth, British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, Bulletin, vol. 14, No. 2, 1988.

Tapan Raychaudhuri, Economic History Review, vol. 39, No. , 19””, p. 325.

Richard T. Lindholm, The Journal of Economic History, vol. XLVII, 1987, No. 2, 544.

Niels Steensgaard, in Danish, Historisk Tidsskrift, 1986, No. 2.

Brian Harrison, American Historical Review, April 1986, pp.448/9.

M.N.Pearson, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, vol. XIV, No. 2, January 1986.

Charles Boxer, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 21 November 1985.

Maurice Zinkin, Journal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, October 1985.

P.J. Marshall, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 1986.

Robert Olson, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 19, No. 3 (1986), pp. 519-521 []

6. Asia before Europe: Economy and Civilisation of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Reviewed in "The English Historical Review"

7. with Bethencourt, Francisco, Historia Da Expansao Portuguesa. 5 vols. Lisbon: Temas e Debates, 1998.

Some past and recent citations to the work of K.N.Chaudhuri

1 Fernand Braudel, “In a book from which I have greatly benefited, K.N.Chaudhuri asks why the prestigious Indies Companies stopped short at the point of distribution,”Fernand Braudel, The Wheels of commerce, Civilization and Capitalism 15th to the 18th Century, vol. II, p. 385, London, 1982.“K.N.Chaudhuri finds it very difficult to explain the poverty of weavers…” “Chaudhuri understandably finds it a little puzzling that highly skilled workers … should have been paid such miserable wages …”“This being so, it may have been not so much pressure of English demand as competitive Indian prices, K.N.Chaudhuri suggests, which stimulated technical inventions …”Fernand Braudel, The Perspective of the World, Civilization and Capitalism 15th to the 18th Century, vol. III, pages 508, 5520, 567, London, 1984.

2 Peter Marshall, Emeritus Rhodes Professor of Imperial History, Kings College London,“Chapter 9 of K.N.Chaudhuri’s massively authoritative The Trading World of Asia and English East India Company 1660 1760, Cambridge, 1978, surveys English involvement in Asian country trade over the same time span.” P.J. Marshall, “Private British Trade in the Indian Ocean before 1800,” in Ashin Das Gupta and M.N.Pearson, ed., India and the Indian Ocean 1500 1800, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987, 299.

3 Bruce Watson, “Kirti Chaudhuri’s extremely detailed but immensely difficult study, The Trading World of Asia and English East India Company 1660 1760 is probably the only other book which really recommends itself to the interested student,” in Ashin Das Gupta and M.N.Pearson, ed., India and the Indian Ocean 1500 1800, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987, 316.

4 Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World System, vol I, New York, 1974, pp. 337, 342.Vol. II, pp. 97, 107/8, New York, 1980, vol. III, pp. 136, 139, 149, 153, 179 to 180, New York, 1989.

5 Janet L Abu Lughod, “As Chaudhuri stated so well, before the arrival of the Portuguese … 1498 there had been no organised attempt by any political power to control the sea lanes and the long distance trade of Asia …” Janet L Abu Lughod, Before European Hegemony, The World System A.D. 1250 1350, New York, Oxford, 1989, p.275.

6 C.P. Kindleberger Spenders and Hoarders: The World Distribution of Spanish American Silver, 1550-1750, New Yori, 1990This short book is a critique of K.N. Chaudhuri’s theory and description of world bullion flows and an attempt to refute his conclusions.

7 Louise Tilly Presidential address delivered at the American Historical Association meeting in San Francisco on January 7, 1994. American Historical Review, Vol. 99, No. 1. (February 1994): 1-17. Extended discussion of K.N.Chaudhuri’s work on the history of Indian textile industry before the Industrial Revolution.

8 David Kopf, “Asia before Europe, though written by eminent Orientalist and medievalist K. N. Chaudhuri, is what may euphemistically be called a philosophy of history. The book establishes Chaudhuri as a star in the games deconstructionists play. Part 1 constitutes a brilliant analysis of theoretical models from mathematics and the sciences, natural and social, which support a world where reality is perceived only through a chosen set of mental constructs, truth is contradictory, and history is a "complexity of movements" brought about by "the interaction between the physical and mental domains at the level of action" Review Article, Asia Before Europe: Economy and Civilization of the Indian Ocean, The Historian, 1 January 1993, Author: Kopf, David.

9 The Indian Ocean World Centre at McGill University, the first of its kind in Canada, is on the cutting edge of a new and expanding field of research. The Centre aims to build a solid academic basis which will place IOW studies alongside the already established fields of Atlantic and Pacific Ocean studies. foundations for Indian Ocean World history were laid by K.N. Chaudhuri (1985), Anthony Reid (1998, 1993) and other scholars who applied Braudelian (1966) concepts of a ‘maritime’ economy to the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Both were uniquely characterised by a monsoon system that served to regulate agricultural production in the hinterland and facilitate the early development of a long-distance maritime trading network.

10 Markus P. M. Vink Journal of Global History (2007) 2, pp. 41–62 ª London School of Economics and Political Science 2007 ‘new thalassology’* Three historians in particular – Kirti Chaudhuri, Michael Pearson, and Kenneth McPherson – stand out among the early representatives of ‘the new thalassology’ emerging in the 1980s, profoundly influencing the subsequent course of maritime-based studies. In his two seminal works on the Indian Ocean world, K. N. Chaudhuri vigorously asserted that ‘capitalist’, long-distance trade in luxury goods and bulk commodities provided an underlying ‘historical unity’ to the regionon the other hand, provided the contrasts.’

11 Spodek, Howard The Arabian Seas: The Indian Ocean World of the Seventeenth Century (review)
Journal of World History - Volume 15, Number 1, March 2004, pp. 92-96 “Rene … sees this maritime region as constituting an "Indian Ocean World," quite in keeping with the nowadays dominant views of scholars like K.N. Chaudhuri, Frank, and Pearson.”

12 Edward A. Alpers Opening Address to the International Conference on Cultural Exchange and Transformation in the Indian Ocean WorldUCLA April 5-6, 2002 “The past two decades witnessed several important efforts to establish the parameters of the Indian Ocean world by very different historians. The best known of these is Kirti Chaudhuri’s major study of the economic history of the region from the rise of Islam to 1750.


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