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Indigo in Precolonial South Asia  

Ghulam A. Nadri

South Asia is the home of natural blue dye extracted from the indigo plant species indigofera tinctoria. Its production for commercial purposes began very early and peaked during the early modern period. Growing Asian and European demand for indigo in the 16th and early 17th centuries raised its status as a major commodity in Asian and Eurasian trade. Indigo production in South Asia increased, and Indian and other Asian merchants exported large quantities of it to West Asia from where some of it was re-exported to Europe via the Levantine trade of the eastern Mediterranean. From the mid-16th century, the Portuguese Estado da India exported large quantities of indigo to Lisbon. By the early 1600s, when the English and Dutch East India companies began trading with India, indigo had become a highly sought-after commodity in the markets of England and the Dutch Republic. Consequently, the English East India Company (EIC) and Verenigde Oost-indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company or VOC) exported large quantities of it to Europe in the first half of the 17th century. With the rise of new indigo commodity chains in Europe’s transatlantic colonies, such as Guatemala, Jamaica, South Carolina, and Saint-Domingue, exports from South Asia declined. However, there was a substantial local demand, which kept the industry going well up to the end of the 18th century when indigo production would expand on an unprecedented scale in Bengal and some other parts of colonial India.

Article

Jewish Merchants in the Indian Ocean Trade  

Elizabeth Lambourn

The history of Jewish merchants in the Indian Ocean trade is a story in two parts. Before the modern period the scarcity of surviving material and textual sources causes this community’s history to wax and wane depending on the place and the period. Historians are left to grapple with the question of whether such microhistories can be read as paradigmatic. After 1500 a plethora of documents and material remains allow a far more detailed history and analysis, as well as across an expanded area. Especially after 1700, Jews from Europe and the Middle East entered colonial flows, joining long-standing Jewish communities along India’s western seaboard and in the Yemen, and in time establishing new businesses across the Horn of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Far East. Academic research into these networks is sparse and quite dated until the colonial period, when a new wave of work integrating Jewish merchants into larger narratives occurred.

Article

The Maratha Empire  

Sumit Guha

The Marathas, now sometimes called “Maharashtrians,” are an Indic people, speakers of the Marathi language. The boundaries of the modern Indian state of Maharashtra were drawn so as to include all majority Marathi-speaking areas. The Marathi language emerged a thousand years ago, but the Maratha Empire took shape only after 1674. Its leaders contended with the Mughal Empire and contributed to its downfall. They created a loosely knit but dynamic political system that grew within the frame of Mughal imperial power while reducing it to a shadow of its former self. Maratha governors ruled the great cities of Agra and Delhi, and it was from them that the British wrested control of north India in 1803–1806. The residual Maratha states still put up a fierce resistance before succumbing to the new British Empire in 1818. British historians wrote the first draft of Indian history. The English public was uninterested in the Marathas. The Mughal dynasty and the older states of Rajasthan received far more favorable attention. The historical narrative that the British rescued India from chaos also required a depiction of the Marathas as predatory sources of disorder. This representation has resulted in minimizing the commercial dynamism and flexibility of Maratha administration. Maratha taxation was far from destructive. It operated within a dynamic political economy. While periodically affected (as Indian governments had long been) by climatic catastrophe or political breakdown, this economy could recuperate quickly in better times. The Maratha Empire also represented a unique identification between a people and an empire. Ordinary Maharashtrian farmers served in its armies, were proud of its political achievements, and identified with the Maratha patria. The empire was also marked by a continuity with the symmetrical patterns of kinship and marriage customary in Maharashtra. While sons of secondary wives could rise to high positions in the lineage, primary marriages continued to be with women of status. Affinal relatives were recognized and played a large role in governance. Also, unlike the Mughal Empire, the Marathas used their own language wherever they ruled, enriching and elaborating it all the while. This prefigured the rise of linguistic nationalisms more generally in India under British rule.

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Origins of British India  

Tirthankar Roy

The origin of British India can be traced to warfare in 18th-century Europe and India, trade-related conflicts and disputes, and the East India Company’s business model. The state that emerged from these roots survived by reforming the institutions of capitalism, military strategy, and political strategy. As the 19th century unfolded and its power became paramount, the Company evolved from a trading firm to a protector of trade. The rapid growth of the three port cities where Indo-European trade and naval power was concentrated exemplifies that commitment. But beyond maintaining an army and protecting trade routes, the state remained limited in its reach.

Article

The Persian Cosmopolis  

Richard Eaton

The Persian cosmopolis refers to the vast territory between the Balkans and Bengal in which, for 1000 years, an integrated sense of moral, social, political, and aesthetic order was informed by the circulation of normative Persian texts. Several centuries after the Arab conquest of the Iranian plateau, a spoken form of a hybridized Middle Persian and Arabic emerged in written form, using a modified Arabic script. What had begun as a regional vernacular swiftly became a transregional, literary medium as regional courts in Khurasan and Central Asia patronized Persian literature and used that language in their bureaucracies, building on a tradition of professional writers that had served Persian empires for centuries. The technology of paper-making, recently introduced from China, facilitated the rapid movement of Persian texts across space, while Firdausi’s epic poem the Shah-nama (1010) celebrated Iranian mythology and pre-Islamic history in ways that connected widely scattered peoples of different ethnicities. Territorial conquests by Persianized Turks, followed by Mongol invasions that drove peoples of Central Asia and Khurasan into new lands, also served to expand the geographical extent of the Persian cosmopolis. By the 14th and 15th centuries, the political, aesthetic, and moral order elaborated in a growing Persian canon—for example, the principle of justice—had become associated with a prestigious, cosmopolitan style that was emulated and absorbed by widely scattered peoples of diverse ethnicities and religions. Persianate architecture, attire, urban design, music, cuisine, and numismatic traditions were also assimilated by such peoples. With the translation of a rich store of romance literature into vernacular tongues, the Persian cosmopolis became as much a subjective phenomenon, inhabiting people’s collective imagination, as it was an objective, mappable zone in which popular, discursive, and normative texts circulated along networks that connected royal courts, provincial notables, Sufi lodges, merchant communities, and schools.

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The Portuguese Estado da Índia (Empire in Asia)  

Zoltán Biedermann

The origins of the Portuguese Estado da Índia—the sum of all Portuguese Crown possessions east of the Cape of Good Hope—can be traced back to the late 1400s, most importantly to the inaugural voyage of Vasco da Gama from Lisbon to Calicut (Kozhikode) in 1497–1498. After some initial hesitations, the Portuguese Crown created a governorship for India in 1505, with a seat at Cochin (Kochi) later transferred to Goa, to oversee commercial, military, administrative, and other activities in an increasing number of possessions along the shores of East Africa and Maritime Asia. Portuguese trading posts (feitorias), forts, and fortified towns across the region resulted from conquest or, more frequently, from negotiated agreements with local rulers, on whose cooperation the Portuguese generally relied. The Estado reached its apex in the second half of the 16th century, drawing vast resources from trade around the Cape and within Asian and African waters, while investing increasingly in military and religious campaigns in a variety of regions from southeastern Africa to the Moluccas (Malukus) and Japan. Despite significant losses to the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the English East India Company (EIC) during the 17th century, the Estado survived until the 20th century. Goa became a part of the Indian Union in 1961, and Macao integrated into the People’s Republic of China in 1999. The perceived decadence of the Estado during much of its history is at odds with its longevity and has prompted longstanding debates about the nature of Portuguese power in Asia; its reliance on trade, military might, and imperial ideas; and its intertwinement with Asian polities and societies.

Article

The Dutch East India Company (VOC) in Southeast Asia  

Peter Borschberg

The Dutch East India Company, also known by its historic initials VOC, was a chartered trading company that was active between 1602 and 1795. Formed by a merger of six smaller trading firms that traded in the East Indies and backed by a monopoly of trade, this proto-conglomerate emerged as a driving force in globalization, transregional investment, and early European colonization in Asia and Africa. The VOC operated as a profit-driven shareholder corporation and at the apex of its power, around the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, maintained a series of factories and settlements stretching from Cape Town in Southern Africa, the Malabar and Coromandel coasts of India, Bengal, to insular and mainland Southeast Asia and as far as Taiwan (Formosa) and Japan. Chartered companies possessed considerable investments and infrastructure outside Europe, especially with their administrative apparatus, contacts, business networks, and trading knowledge. This in turn laid the foundations for Dutch imperialism during the 19th century.