With a distinct geographic setting encompassing the vast grassland of Banni, the white salty desert expanse, hilly mass, and a long coastline, the northwestern Indian region of Kachchh is a place of spellbinding landscapes. People residing in such a light-rain region are exposed to diverse cultures and distinctive ways of life, beliefs, and practices. Alongside a vast and diverse expanse on the northwest, Kachchh has a maritime history determined chiefly by centuries of deep-sea sailing and trading experience in the Indian Ocean. The mercantile age of this mystic region reached the height of its glory in the late 18th and 19th centuries. But way before such a fascinating historical stage was set, there was the process of transforming a geographically complex region to the most commercially connected state through the métier of the sea. This land, with its close links to the sea and to the rest of India in the mid-16th century, was brought under the centralized administration by the Jadejas. Ever since its inception, the Jadeja rule contributed to the entrepreneurship and the growth of trade through a wide range of policy measures including building up ports such as Mandvi (c. 1581). Being aware of the agricultural disadvantages, in different ways the state facilitated entrepreneurism and exploitable opportunities.
In the 18th century, the rise of the new merchants of Mandvi coincided with the rise of Omani imperial expansion to East Africa: both groups exploited the shifts in their favor. The initial Omani reliance over the budding Kachchhi capital not only nurtured the rise of Muscat but also the ambitious East African expedition. The Omani inroads into the Swahili coast accelerated the trade between Kachchh, Arabia, and East Africa. As a result, the Portuguese intervention in the early 16th century in Asian trade paved the way to new patterns of commerce. Those who benefited the most from these inviting developments and major shifts in western Indian Ocean patterns were Kachchhis: by this period they had successfully established closer commercial ties with Muscat and Bombay. Also in this opportunistic time, the increase of the Omani interest at Zanzibar helped the entrepreneurs from Kachchh to retain the existing commercial ties and develop substantial commercial relations with East Africa. The increasing Kachchhi presence also threatened the dominant position of the traders, especially from Diu, as their trading activities on the east coast became quite noticeable from the 1820s and 1830s. Yet emergence of Mandvi as a significant port of trade and shipbuilding center during the declining importance of Surat in the mid-18th century set the stage for the Kachchhi mercantile activities in the western Indian Ocean. Kachchhis intensely exploited the early expanding coastal commerce in the region and managed to divert the flow of the trade from Zanzibar to Mandvi and Bombay by the early 19th century. The common element among these merchants was their close mercantile association with the expansive Bombay harbor. This kept the Bombay-based merchants of various communities commercially connected with the Kachchhi enterprise in East Africa. Without their commercial synchronization the Kachchhis would not have secured their commanding position overseas. In return, the Kachchhi entrepreneurs’ overseas commercial connections helped flood the Bombay market with high-value goods and transformed Bombay into a major reexportation center, which catered to the demands of the international market. Reciprocally, Bombay’s strategic location and trading contacts helped Kachchhi entrepreneurs flourish in many ports along the western Indian Ocean, including Mandvi and Zanzibar.
Kachchhi capitalists managed to emerge as important economic players through a profitable and indigenous commercial system. These proto-capitalists eventually popularized fiscal transactions in the precapitalist society of East Africa, which considerably decreased the functioning of exchanges in kind. Their credit operations had also achieved complexity in terms of money and treasure transfer along with the alteration to the transitory and lasting forces. One such enduring force was neo-imperialism, which partially jolted the indigenous market economy. The effect was partial because the Kachchhi oceanic merchants quickly merged the Western trading practices with their own. These sophisticated trade and banking methods globalized the profile of the Kachchhi enterprise, especially in East Africa. The control over the bazaar economy, especially, allowed the Kachchhis to negotiate the favorable business deals. For instance, the ivory bazaar in Zanzibar was chiefly controlled by the Kachchhis, although the Euro-American capitalists were in fierce competition to capture it. The open bazaar economy empowered Kachchhis to carry out millions of transactions. Rajat Kanta Ray (1995) suggested that bazaars should not be seen merely as the peddlers joint. Though the Asian firms’ business practices were distinct from the Euro-American business practices, the success of the South Asian trading method, especially in high-value commodities, was quite visible. This effectiveness compelled the Western merchants to accommodate the South Asian business system. On many occasions, the efficient execution of the indigenous business practices did spin off a sort of business dependency for the Western counterparts. Such business dependency facilitated South Asian merchants’ firmer consolidation in the transnational trading world of the Indian Ocean and prepared them to play a global role.
Kachchhi commercial practices, which are not widely recorded, represent the South Asian model of enterprise and debunk the idea that this model was subordinate to Western/European capitalist systems. Usually the foundation of markets, capital, and business dependency have been dynamic and produced a significant literature. Yet quite a few offer the nuanced study on the interplay between enterprisers and their social goals. The least consulted trust and will literature of these economic players sheds light on the shared social responsibilities of the commercial world. The complex capitalist enterprise of these merchants gravitated toward nafo (i.e., profit), chiefly when oriented toward the idea of migration to East Africa. However, this long-distance enterprise, which was closely connected with Bombay and Mandvi, was based, as Dungarshi Sampat (1935) emphasizes, on the cardinal maxim of trust. So even though the profit-minded trading operations of Kachchhis prompted their contemporaries to label them unconscionable men of money, their business ethics operated on the functional interdependency, which procured the best trading opportunities for all those who were involved in the trading world of East Africa. Their pursuance of certain conventional tacit and thoughtful approaches did much to facilitate quick global commercial deals.
Casting a wide net over these varied histories, this article reflects on the potentially diverging themes surrounding polity and trade, merchants and migration, language of business, the structure of trade, the sailing tradition, the marine insurance, the system of apprenticeship, the mercantile community and guild dynamics, the unique banking houses, expanding textile production for the foreign markets, and the commercial connections between hinterland and merchants. Emphasizing, however, the importance of more diverse themes, this range of factors in turn weaves a single thread into the larger story of Kachchhi enterprise, which ties into the even wider story of the East African economy in the 19th century.