- A Sea of Debt: Law and Economic Life in the Western Indian Ocean, 1780–1950 by Fahad Ahmad Bishara
In a 2007 book review in the Journal of World History of Sugata Bose's A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire [End Page 402] (2006), this author noted that Indian Ocean studies "suffers neglect in comparison to the rich literatures of the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Pacific" (p. 377). Decidedly, this is no longer the case. Since Bose's landmark book, appearing in tandem with Thomas Metcalf's Imperial Connections: India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860–1920 (2007), there has been a proliferation of groundbreaking publications reconceptualizing the Indian Ocean in history as a zone of dense interactions and cosmopolitan cultural productions. There also have appeared many publications that simply append "in the Indian Ocean" to the title in order to ride the cresting wave of a field that, while rarely institutionalized at the level of academic centers or faculty positions, has played a prominent role in the growth of transnational approaches to history. Fahad Ahmad Bishara's new book, A Sea of Debt: Law and Economic Life in the Western Indian Ocean, 1780–1950, is not in the latter category. It is an important scholarly achievement based on an impressive range of texts and archival records from East Africa, the Gulf, and India, connecting these areas in a vibrant portrait that illustrates another of the western Indian Ocean's colorful horizons, that of law.
Bishara, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, persuasively argues in the prologue that Indian Ocean historiography, either with a focus on trade and trust in merchant networks, or with imperial lenses that "obscure the indigenous ties across the Indian Ocean" (p. 18), has overlooked the legal structures that gave the region its particular shape. As a corrective, Bishara sets out to write "a legal history of economic life" (p. 22), and reveal "an oceanic space bound together as much by law as by nature, empire, or trade networks" (p. 11) even as modern capitalism and British imperialism sank their tentacles deeper into a transoceanic world that had its own, if fluid and ever changing, legal traditions and inventions. He pursues this agenda by examining the intertwined political and commercial aspirations of a wide array of mobile actors, and the circulation of legal rights and obligations that underpinned them, as Omani dynasties and Indian moneylenders moved into East Africa in the nineteenth century, followed by colonial interventions emanating from British India, fusing together three critical nodes in the western Indian Ocean.
At the center of Bishara's study is an innovative history of a legal document, the waraqa, across three distinct phases of history in the western Indian Ocean, beginning in the late eighteenth century with Omani expansion in East Africa, moving into the encounter with British Indian law as European imperialism accelerated, and concluding with the global depression and economic restructuring that ended [End Page 403] the life of this unique form of commercial contracting. Waraqas—literally, "papers" in Arabic—can be described as flexible and creative deeds of contract among individuals or firms, exchanging financing for property or commodities or rent in a specific arrangement, as recorded by scribes (katibs). The resultant debts created cross-generational obligations, but fresh capital also produced lucrative opportunities as the regional economy boomed in the first half of the nineteenth century. Features of the waraqa flowered at this time, mediated and approved by judges (qadis) and jurists who aligned them with Islamic legal thought while seeking to boost commercial expansion. As such, Bishara argues, the waraqa formed a "common Indian Ocean grammar of economic life" (p. 83), providing a legal foundation to credit networks spanning the region.
This story is convincingly told in the first three chapters of the book, based on extant waraqas held in the Zanzibar National Archives and the fatwas of Omani jurist Sa'id bin Khalfan Al-Khalili...