Merchant communities have dominated the Indian commercial landscape for centuries. These groups span different religions and regions across the country, and even beyond. They include the Marwaris, Banias, and Khatris in the north, the Chettiars and Komatis in south India; the Jains, Sindhis, Parsis, and the Bohras, Memons, and Khojas in the western parts of the subcontinent. While business activity was not restricted to these groups, they dominated it until at least the mid-20th century. These mercantile communities underwent a constant process of evolution in response to changing political and economic developments. They were not homogenous groups either and were divided internally by subcaste, region, religious affiliation, and language. Yet, they found it advantageous to function collectively and formed community organizations, which facilitated their economic interests. These communities played an important role in the 16th century in integrating India in the new trading networks, thereby helping in the making of a world economy. By the mid-19th century, many among them made the transition to industrial activity. These communities dominated commerce and industry till the late 1960s and 1970s, when new groups began to emerge.
In India, as in much of the world, the 19th century witnessed the emergence of urban capitalist classes, effected by the rapid growth of global mercantile capitalism and, later, industrial manufacturing. As a colonial city, Bombay—like its eastern counterpart, Calcutta—developed two connected, but distinct business communities: one, a European community with foreign, imperial connections, and the other, an Indian community with roots in long-standing regional networks. In Bombay, the latter took the form of a class known as the “Merchant Princes,” who capitalized on long-standing commercial traditions in western India and their ability to command both Indian and colonial networks to establish themselves as commercial powerhouses. These commercial networks and patterns of behavior, established before the arrival of the British, had an indelible impact on the character of Indian business in colonial Bombay. The business community brought such traditions with them when they migrated to Bombay at the end of the 18th century and used them to build the famous mercantile firms of the early 19th century. The Indian business elite likewise built collaborative links within their own community to expand their business interests; when barriers erected by the colonial establishment sought to limit their expansion, Indian businessmen used the resources at their disposal (both in the Indian hinterland and within the city itself) to circumvent them. Class identity similarly began to emerge as they cooperatively campaigned for particular agendas, intended to improve the fortunes of the entire community. They fought for greater influence in the Bombay government—in line with the wealth they then commanded—and used their financial resources to mold the physical and intellectual landscape of the city in their favor.
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.