Bengal had a rich tradition of commodity production, trade and commerce in the pre-colonial and the early colonial period. The archival records of the families with such leading businesses shed light on the history of pre-industrial Bengal. However, the records are kept in family homes and not available to the public.
Bengali business families prospered in pre-colonial and early colonial periods, but faced more challenges in subsequent periods. Archival records of business families in Bengal can provide greater detail on the family structures, norms and values which caused this shift in society. The studies on business history so far conducted are based on the official records. Historians have not consulted the private records of the business families due to unavailability and inaccessibility of that kind of material. The material adds a new dimension to our understanding of the period and encourages us to look beyond the official archive.
The material is in large part held by descendants of the families, but the humid climate, paired with a fast urbanisation process puts the materials in danger. This survey project aimed to locate 25 business families of early colonial Bengal. Of the 25 families visited, 13 agreed to collaborate in the project. Most of the records found were beyond repair, but the project created an awareness among owners of the importance of preserving the records. Two assistants were trained in record handling and survey methods. The project continued with a major digitisation grant in 2018.