chapter  6
10 Pages

South Asian Business in the Empire and Beyond c. 1800–1950

WithClaude Markovits

By 1800, there were colonies of South Asian traders dispersed across the entire Indian Ocean basin, from Mocha in Yemen to Malacca on the Straits. There were also small clusters of moneylenders and merchants in the interior of Asia, in the immense continental space extending from Tibet to the Russian heartland across Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran. No credible demographic estimate of this population is available, but it was certainly in the several thousands, perhaps even more. Most dispersed South Asian traders originated from Western and Southern India. Prominent amongst those from Western India were various groups of Gujarati traders (including Kutchis), mostly Muslims, both Shi'a (Khojas and Bohras) and Sunni (Memons), but also Hindus (more specifically the Bhatias of Kutch). There were also Hindu traders from Thatta in Sindh and Muslims from the Konkan. South Indian traders came mostly from Kerala on the West Coast, in particular the Muslim Mapillai, as well as Syrian Christians, and from the Coromandel coast of present-day Tamilnadu, mostly the Muslim Marakayyars, often known as Chulias. Along the caravan routes leading to Upper Asia and Central Asia, the dominant element consisted of the Multani—Shikarpuris of the Punjab—Sindh confines (Markovits 2000a; Levi 2002). These various networks did in no way constitute a unified South Asian trading diaspora, and Stephen Dale's view of the existence of an ‘Indian world economy’ is probably an exaggeration (Dale 1994: 1–7).The reasons why Indian trading networks were, from an early medieval period, able to expand much beyond the subcontinent, remain an under-researched area, but mention must be made, apart from their seafaring abilities (the pilot who guided Vasco de Gama from Malindi to Calicut in 1498 was most probably a Gujarati), of their financial skills. In particular they had developed a credit instrument known as the hundi, a kind of bill of exchange and promissory note, which allowed them to maximize their capital assets and to transfer funds in relative safety across long distances. Another advantage they had over their European and Asian competitors was their unrivalled knowledge of the Indian textile industry, which was the main supplier of cotton cloth to the entire Indian Ocean Basin. Indian cloth was such a standard commodity that it was still in use as a kind of currency in the eighteenth century in many areas of the Indian Ocean, and South Asian traders had developed over the centuries an uncanny ability to match supply in India with demand in faraway markets. The question before us therefore is how this dispersed but efficient mercantile universe managed to survive the colonial transition of the first half of the nineteenth century and even to thrive in the period starting around 1860, when British and European capital extended its sway over most of Asia and Africa.