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.
Colonial Indonesia’s sugar industry, developed under Dutch and Sino-Indonesian auspices over a period of almost three centuries, beginning c. 1650, evolved into one which exhibited a unique configuration in which an industrialized sugar complex became embedded within much larger “peasant” economy of the farming of rice and “second” crops. It was on this agrarian and largely self-financed basis that Indonesia’s colonial sugar industry, located exclusively in the island of Java, became one of the leading sectors of the international sugar economy of the late colonial era, eventually even rivaling Cuba—the nonpareil of such producers—as an exporter to world markets. During the interwar Depression of the 1930s and subsequent decade of war and revolution, it lost much (and eventually all) of its international standing—yet managed to survive into Indonesia’s postcolonial era, albeit in an attenuated form. There were four main phases to the industry’s colonial-era history. The first, foundational phase, which saw the establishment of modern industrialized manufacture extended from the 1830s through to the 1880s. The second phase, from the 1880s to 1930, was the period of sugar’s peak expansion. The third phase, beginning in 1931 and ending in 1942, was one of retrenchment and (partial) recovery prior to the spread of the Second World War into Southeast Asia. The fourth phase, 1945–1958, was one of postwar reconstruction.
Insecurity and inequality (both real and perceived) have defined the Japanese Empire as an entity of trade. If one the primary goals of Japan’s leaders during the Meiji period (1868–1912) was to revise the so-called unequal treaties, then having an empire was seen as a necessary means towards achieving this end. From the very beginning, strategic concerns proved inseperable from economic considerations. Imperial expansion into neighboring territories occurred simutaneously and worked hand in hand with forging an industrial nation-state. The empire began with the so-called internal colonization of Hokkaidō and then the Ryūkyū Islands (Okinawa), followed by Taiwan and Korea, spoils of victory after the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars, respectively. Taiwan and Korea represented Japan’s formal empire, and Japan developed these territories primarily as agricultural appendages—unequal and exclusive trading partners to provide foodstuffs for a growing, industrializing population in the home islands. As Japan developed its formal colonies toward a goal of agricultural self-sufficiency, it also pursued informal empire in China, which took shape as a competitive yet cooperative effort with other Western imperial powers under the treaty port system. World War I represented a turning point for imperial trade: At this time, Japan took advantage of a Europe preoccupied with internecine battles to ramp up the scope and scale of industrial production, which made Japan increasingly reliant on China—and particularly Manchuria—for raw materials necessary for heavy industry such as coal and iron. Japanese efforts to tighten its grip on China brought it into conflict with the Western imperialist powers and with a strengthening Chinese nation. Another major turning point was Japan’s 1931 takeover of Manchuria and the establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo; these actions ended the treaty port system and sparked conflicts between China and Japan that broke out into full-out war by 1937. Although Japan was largely able to achieve agricultural self-sufficiency by the 1930s, it was unable to be fully self-reliant in essential resources for industry (and war) such as oil, tin, and iron. Resource self-sufficiency was a major goal for the construction of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in the early 1940s. The Japanese Empire officially ended with defeat in 1945.
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.
The export of silk products created a regional trade surplus for eastern Japan, centered on Tokyo. In producing raw silk, the people of eastern Japan created factories to lead rural industrialization. This regional trade surplus was used to fuel growth in the consumer economy of Japan, as it pushed western Japan, centered on Osaka, to develop its cotton industry. These two industries and the Yawata Steel Works in northern Kyushu transformed Japan from an agricultural country to an industrial country in the late 19th century. In this story, the role of government is both central and peripheral. Without the decision by the Tokugawa shogun’s government to open Japan to external trade, this development would never have happened. However, once Japan was opened to trade, the Tokugawa government did not do much to help the trade, while the Meiji government, though desirous of fostering trade, did not always succeed in its efforts. Ultimately, it was the producers and merchants, the people, who transformed the rural economy and the country itself.