Dubashis /Banians (Indian Commission Agents/ Translators) and East India Company officials

Coat of arms (1698)en.wikipedia.org

During the East India company rule in the Indian subcontinent, in order to carry on the trade activities  successfully there  arose a necessity for the English company officials  to use the services of a dependable  interpreter commonly referred to as  Dubash or Dubashi (dho meaning  two, and bash or bashi meaning  language).  An Hindustani word literally meaning a person knowing two languages.  The term ''Banyan''(from caste term Baneah) implies a Hindu merchant, shopkeeper, or confidential cashier and broker. The term was used widely in Bengal to designate the native who managed the day today finance of the European and sometimes served him as an interpreter between the trader and supplier.  In plain term, he was a commission agent for the Europeans traders. apart from being an intermediary.

Banyan (agent)-a native of Surat.Brtish India. :diwancybermuseum.com

In the later period  during the colonial rule European merchants had to rely on them heavily, hence they became indispensable  for their trade activities.  Dubashis became a powerful force to reckon with because of their easy access to the English company and  influence  on the  higher officials. No doubt, they emerged as influential people and played no less rule in the realm  of trade, politics and society.

 India being a multi-lingual country  with many regional languages and varied culture, the English company had to deal with merchants and traders who never spoke English.  The language hurdle between European traders and the ­native merchants caused the  emergence of  dubashis as ­interpreters. Besides English, they could speak both Tamil and Telugu in the Madras Presidency. In the Calcutta Presidency, the Banions/ dubashis could speak Bengali and Hindustani, besides English. But gradually the dubashis, as their services became inevitable in all dealings -business, govt. contract work, etc., they  began to make lots of money exploiting both parties and their lack of a common language.  

Thus  lack of knowledge of local language  skill, traditional  Indian trading systems and the prices of  local commodities on the part of Europeans was to the advantage of some of the unscrupulous Dubashis. This handicap made them depend on the bilingual Dubashis who  never missed the opportunity to exploit both parties by giving  misleading information on the price of merchandise, etc. Being inquisitive, they very well knew the horoscope of every English  sahib or ''Durai'' (local parlance in Tamil Nadu for European) and their planet positions!!  They also knew their weakness as well as strength. As far as trading was concerned  the English sahibs were like fish out of water without them. For English traders Dubashis became endemic, nothing could be done by them without their support. 

Mention may be made of some of the earliest dubashis of Madras: Ananda Ranga Pillai, - the dubash of Dupleix, the Governor of French Pondi­cherry,  Pachiyappa Mudaliar ( from Kanchi­puram) - one of the most famous dubashis of the British.and Avadhanam Paupiah - talented, but  notorious in the later half of the 18th and early 19th ­Cen­tury and was daringly  corrupt and an accomplice in financial misdeeds with Europeans.

Brahmans, Chettiars and  Nayaks became Dubashis 
with good proficiency in  English. They also became influential and had political clout in colonial India. Having been firmly rooted in the Indian soil, the English company began to poke their nose in the internal affairs of  rich Maharajahs and Nawabs and slowly put their grip on them only to be tightened later.

Company flag (1801)en.wikipedia.org

In the initial sages the EIC refereed to them as servants, and later   called them  ‘agents’ and ‘brokers’. In Madras in the early period - 1679, there were only 12 dubashis  to serve the English merchants. Later the company appointed a  Head  Debash  to do other duties like free food distribution among the poor in case of  natural calamity - (1686 and 1687), etc.  Dubashis  humanitarian activities got them a name for their charity.

After 18th century in the Madras Presidency debashis were mostly merchants. Men like Sunca Raman Chetty, Bell Chetty, Colloway Chetty and Callastry Chetty in thr  1700s had  influence with the European settlers in the Fort. St. George. At one stage these agents were given power to regulate the prices of local market. 

Armed with lots of power under the authority of the Governor, they misused their power and fixed prices without proper regulation. Further,  among them jealousy, competition and mistrust  tore them apart.  Infuriated EIC, at one stage in 1716, fired an errant  dubash for dereliction of duty, fined  500 pagodas  and sent him to Camp David (near Cuddalore, TN). Here, they put him on the pillory with  a message around his neck explaining his crime. Anyway, Dubashis played  a major role in the  political affairs of Fort St. George, Madras.  Rather, the officials, relied on them for  better administration in-cooperation with the local population.