- Ocean of Trade: South Asian Merchants, Africa and the Indian Ocean, c. 1750–1850 by Pedro Machado, and: Margins of the Market: Trafficking and Capitalism Across the Arabian Sea by Johan Mathew, and: Sea of Debt: Law and Economic Life in the Western Indian Ocean, 1780–1950 by Fahad Ahmad Bishara
Capitalism in Muddy Waters: The Indian Ocean Economy in the 19th century
Scholars who undertake research on the Indian Ocean must foremost be commended for voyaging beyond the comfort of what are often nationally defined historiographical borders. Writing such histories requires piecing together sources from archives dispersed throughout imperial, state, and private collections and across regions of cultural and linguistic difference and assembling these into a single historical narrative. Dating as early as the second century b.c.e., flows across the South China Sea through the Western Indian Ocean began Indian Ocean history. For centuries thereafter, which ports were dominant around the Indian Ocean littoral shifted. Commerce combined with or escaped regional rulers' ambitions; rulers were either keen to promote or suppress oceanic traffic. By the nineteenth century in Indian Ocean history, traders and their historians alike had to contend with imperial infrastructures that coordinated and lent power to European capital.
Three recent publications on Indian Ocean history expertly circumvent nationalist and imperial historiographies and challenge the singular power of European capital. By foregrounding trade in the Western Indian Ocean in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries these books challenge the narrative of decline under the pressure of colonialism. They show how Indian, African, and Arab merchants shaped infrastructures and outcomes of empire and capitalism. They historicize exchanges amidst the pressures of new colonial legal regimes and the influx of novel currencies and commodities. They clearly [End Page 306] demonstrate that even if some trades became less legible and even illicit, such exchanges persisted much longer than previously thought, forcing a rich historiography on the Indian Ocean to overcome its focus on the early modern era. Together these books diversify histories of capitalism by seeing the formation of markets, merchant networks, and legal regimes from outside a North Atlantic perspective.
Pedro Machado's Ocean of Trade: South Asian Merchants, Africa and the Indian Ocean, c. 1750–1850 (2014) examines the central role of Gujarat's Vaaniya merchants between Western India and East Africa. Machado demonstrates not only that the Portuguese imperial infrastructures were dependent on Gujarati merchants but also that Gujarati actions determined European outcomes. Johan Mathew's Margins of the Market: Trafficking and Capitalism Across the Arabian Sea (2016) hones in on the question of how certain trades and networks were relegated to the margins of what counted as the "market." Focusing on the traffic in slaves, weapons, and currency, Mathew argues that these commodities were "framed out" of the market, masking their role in colonial capitalism. Fahad Ahmad Bishara's Sea of Debt: Law and Economic Life in the Western Indian Ocean, 1780–1950 (2017) strives to circumvent the imperial lens through which histories of the Indian Ocean have often been written, without resorting to a narrative of disparate networks operating alongside one another. Focusing on waraqas, or deeds that record obligations and debts between merchants and financiers, producers and consumers, or even sultans and commercial agents, Bishara shows how law provided a structure that made oceanic flows possible.
Machado's Ocean of Trade manages "the larger history of global exchange" in the nineteenth century by exposing and "being attentive to the multiple strands that underlie its structure" (p. 14). He focuses on the activities of Vaaniya or Gujarati merchants as central mediators forging a connection between Mozambique and India between 1750 and 1850...