Millions of Indians migrated internally within the British Empire during the 19th and 20th centuries. While some migrated as labor migrants, many others did so as merchants and other businesspeople. By the start of World War II, more than 200,000 Indians worked in trade outside of India. These merchants played key roles in the British Empire within India and the larger Indian Ocean economy. Several conditions facilitated and perhaps caused Indian merchant migration within the British Empire. First, precolonial Indian commerce continued and adapted to imperial trade patterns. Second, within India, British rule lowered transaction costs and opened markets. Third, British rule brought preferential access to British colonies outside India, access that was denied to merchants from outside the British Empire. Internal merchant migration within India shows the importance of distinct religious, caste, and linguistic groups, many of which were active before British control. Gujarati-speaking merchant migrants and Parsis were bulwarks of Bombay’s commercial class. Specific merchant communities migrated within trading networks across India as railroads connected the subcontinent. Outside India, merchants—often from these same groups—accompanied British expansion in Asia and Africa. In Burma and Malaya, Chettiars from the south formed banking and trading networks that tied these colonies closer to the Indian economy. Chettiar finance was crucial in the development of industry in both Burma and Malaya. Indian businesspeople dominated commerce in East Africa and played key roles in commerce. Indian businesses in Uganda developed local commercial agriculture and industry, and Indians in South Africa played a large role in commerce before legal restrictions reduced their involvement. Distant colonies in which indentureship was the dominant form of migration experienced a transition from labor to trade, with merchant migration playing a smaller role. These colonies do not fit the pattern of merchant migration seen in India and the larger Indian Ocean economy, but they illustrate the role of Indian tradespeople outside India.
Indian Merchant Migration within the British Empire
Domestic Commerce during the Tokugawa Period
Under Pax Tokugawa, a wide variety of social, political, and economic factors coalesced to allow commerce in Japan to flourish to a theretofore unprecedented degree. The preceding century of civil war had had relatively little impact on the economy, but the removal of barriers to expansion such as toll roads that had been erected by warring daimyo (feudal lords) allowed the mechanisms of commerce that already existed in domanial economies to expand exponentially. Increased agricultural productivity and prosperity engendered a population boom in the 17th century. In 1635, the formal institution of sankin kōtai—a hostage system designed to ensure peace and prevent excessive accumulation of wealth in the provinces, usually translated as “alternate attendance”—created a movement of people and goods across the country that stimulated urbanization. The number of cities increased as did their sizes, with the largest of them, Edo, reaching an estimated million inhabitants by 1700. Robust distribution networks proliferated to support this urbanization, leading to greater monetization and consumerism. To support improving living standards and the need for revenue, the daimyo promoted the development of regional specialties, many of which flourished, buttressed by increased travel among all segments of society. Competition led to the development of branding and marketing. Merchants, who, according to Confucian ideals, were at the bottom of the social structure, became a larger and more important part of society in this period, resulting in the creation of unique ethical codes, religious sects, and philosophies geared to their specific needs and anxieties. Merchant houses, monopolies, and trade organizations formed. Some of the more successful—such as Mitsui and Sumitomo—would, in the late 19th century, form zaibatsu, and they still continue to exert influence on Japanese commerce.
Transregional Trade in Early Modern Eurasia
When the Mongol Empire expanded across Eurasia in the 13th century, it not only established a new political order but also unified the trade networks that spread across northern Eurasia, connecting China, Central Asia, the Middle East, and the East Slavs in Eastern Europe within one system. The collapse of Mongol rule and the rise of new states and dynasties, including the Ottoman Empire, Muscovite Russia, and Qing China, adjusted trade routes throughout Eurasia, but the commercial networks remained robust until the modern era. Historians have debated whether there was a notable “decline” of the overland caravan trade along the historic “Silk Roads” in the 18th century, as European maritime traders in Asia carried many of the goods that had traveled across Eurasia. The perception of a decline, however, is challenged by the robust intra-Eurasia trade among Russia, Central Asia, India, and China throughout the 19th century. This dynamic region was influenced by the maintenance and expansion of regional networks across Eurasia, the consequences of the involvement of state interests, and increasing economic regulations in the early modern period, and the variety of commodities exchanged east and west, which were far more than just a silk trade.
India’s Merchant Communities
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.
The Commerce and Economy of Ancient China
Initially, commerce did not play an important role in ancient China. However, starting from the 6th century bce, China experienced unprecedented growth in this area. Land became privatized and a highly sought-after commodity, contracts began to be widely used in transactions, some sort of market network emerged, and merchants started to exert influence on society. This transformation was due to the various reforms and policies that reshaped the overall structure of ancient Chinese economy and emancipated the strength of merchants. Furthermore, the sophistication and advancement of agriculture meant ordinary farmers had a surplus of labor and products, providing them with incentives to go to market.
Commercialization in Late Ming China: Seeds of Capitalism?
As early as the 1950s, a number of scholars in mainland China started to refer to the commercialization in late Ming China that appeared from the 16th century on as “the sprouts of capitalism.” Since 1990, ever fewer scholars use this term, but this does not that late Ming commercialization is not worth discussion; indeed, relevant research continues to accumulate. Considering the growth of agriculture, the expansion of long-distance trade, changes in the organization of the handicraft industry, material culture, and state economic policies, generally speaking, late Ming commercialization not only influenced the economy, society, and culture of the time but also the order in which the state prioritized interests in economic matters; its related policies also showed significant adjustments. Overall, these changes benefited merchants in that their property received greater protection. Furthermore, the phenomenon of late Ming commercialization provides another thought-provoking historical experience that contributes to a deeper understanding of the evolution of the market in the modern world.
Astrakhan and Orenburg: Russia’s Asian Trade in the 17th and 18th Centuries
Astrakhan and Orenburg were the Russian Empire’s two “official” entrances from Asia in the early modern era. Russia’s “Asia” was conceived broadly as the expanse of Eurasia from the Ottoman Empire to the shores of the Pacific. Russia’s control of the Volga River, culminating in the conquest of Astrakhan on the shores of the Caspian Sea in the 16th century, was intended to open direct access for Russia’s merchants to reach Asia. Throughout the 17th century, trade with the Middle East and Central Asia increased, followed by an important breakthrough in relations with China culminating in the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689. In the 18th century, Russia’s Asian trade increased; Astrakhan’s customs fees collected from Asian trade goods surpassed the revenue generated by Russia’s Baltic ports in the first half of the century. A growing trade with the Central Asian Khanates of Bukhara, Khiva, and Khoqand led to the creation of Orenburg as the entry point for overland trade from the steppe in 1753. In theory, the new outpost separated Russia’s “Asia” into separate zones for increased regulation: Astrakhan for goods arriving from the Caspian Sea, imported from Iran and India, and Orenburg for the increasing steppe traffic. This is not to suggest that increased regulation produced better control over Eurasia’s trade networks, but rather to reveal Russia’s significant investment in profiting from Asia’s trade as much as its competitors in Britain or the Netherlands did. While overland Eurasian trade remains plagued by a historiographical assumption of its decline in the 18th century, Astrakhan and Orenburg were vital centers of Eurasian commerce, revealing the robust overland trade that remained outside of West European observation.
The Spice Trade in Southeast Asia
The history of the “Spice Trade,” much like that of its overland counterpart, the “Silk Road,” has long been imbued with an aura of romance. It has evoked fantasies of dhows, junks, and East Indiamen plying monsoon seas, tropical islands with swaying palms and coastal forts, swaggering pirates, and ports brimming with fragrant exotica—the maritime versions of camel caravans crossing deserts, menacing bandits, distant cities graced with minarets and pagodas, and merchants haggling for silks in bazaars. In the case of the spice trade, these exotic images are haunted at times by less agreeable visions of unbridled princely and corporate greed, ruthless exploitation, and emerging colonial empires. Beyond fantasy, these visions of the spice trade have their roots in very real and complex historical phenomena, whose importance to Southeast Asia’s economic, political, and cultural history, and indeed to global history, are difficult to overstate. Until their gradual early modern diffusion to other regions of the planet, the trees which produced Southeast Asia’s most coveted spices and aromatics, especially the cloves, nutmeg, mace, and white sandalwood of eastern Indonesia, were largely confined to the unique tropical ecoregions in which they had evolved, and were effectively unavailable anywhere else. This fact, combined with their unique and powerful aromas and flavors, ensured that Southeast Asia would remain a nexus of the spice trade for the better part of two millennia. Following their discovery and cultivation by Indigenous peoples, Southeast Asian spices and aromatics began to circulate in the trade networks of the Indo-Malay archipelago in pre- and protohistoric times. By the 4th and 5th centuries ce, seafaring merchants were regularly carrying them to emporia across the Indian Ocean and western Pacific Rim, and they became coveted luxuries in India, China, West Asia, the Mediterranean, and northern Europe. By the 14th century, peoples across much of the Eastern Hemisphere had become regular and avid consumers of Southeast Asian spices and aromatics. Their popularity in India, West Asia, and China was a major factor in the development of permanent commercial ties between the three regions, which in turn helped to facilitate the diffusion of Hinduism, Buddhism, and subsequently Islam to Southeast Asia. Conversely, the relatively peripheral position of Europe in the lucrative Southeast Asian spice trade was a major factor in prompting the Iberian maritime voyages of exploration beginning in the 15th century. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, a range of European and Indigenous polities engaged in a complex and often violent series of struggles for control of the spice trade. Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English armed trading expeditions lay the groundwork for their respective colonial empires in Southeast Asia, while regional peoples and polities adopted and adapted elements of European technology, culture, and in some regions, Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Over time, changing tastes in Europe and the transplantation of nutmeg, cloves, and white sandalwood to the Caribbean, East Africa, and India, respectively, diminished the relative importance of the traditional Southeast Asian spice trade, while new aromatic crops introduced from elsewhere, such as black pepper and later coffee, became increasingly important to the region.
Medieval Jewish Sources for Asian Trade
Roxani Eleni Margariti
Epigraphic materials, travel narratives, religious-legal literature, and documents of daily life produced by or for Jews between the 7th and the 13th centuries add significant dimensions to our understanding of the history of trade across Asia. Written in a variety of Jewish languages, these sources hail from places across the Afro-Eurasian geographical continuum and speak to the two well-known circuits of medieval trans-Asian trade: the Silk Road and its maritime Indian Ocean equivalent. While there has been a tendency to look at medieval Jewish sources scattered across Asia as vestiges of a unified trading diaspora, a consideration of these sources’ volume, chronology, and the circumstances of their production and use reveals several disjunctures and suggests a more fractured history of Jewish participation in Asia trade. Even so a survey of these sources illuminates a variety of topics that relate to Jewish mercantile activity along well-trodden avenues of exchange, transactions and relationships across confessional lines, and the structures and institutions of transregional commerce.
Inland Trade in the Mughal Empire
The Mughal rule had manifold implications in all spheres of life in India, including the economic one. During the peak period of imperial power (17th century), inland trade underwent a transformation in volume, commodities, and organization. The historiography of inland trade has seen various shifts in the last four decades. The initial views of an autocratic state have been overtaken by new research recognizing the state’s role in facilitating trade in alliance with nobility and other elite groups. The autonomous function of trading activities and merchant groups is now widely acknowledged. Authoritative attitudes and attempts at extraction did sometimes impinge on the expansion of trade and commerce, but subject to that qualification, individual action had agency. The pattern of local, regional, and inter-regional trade being facilitated by urbanization, goods transport, and other related services shows that commercial transactions in the commodities of daily use, as well as luxurious items, were constantly increasing. Here goes a narrative history, a tour of the historiography, and a discussion about the communities engaged in commercial transactions.
Commerce and the Agrarian Empires: Northern India
Bhairabi Prasad Sahu
This article focuses on the shifts in the ways of seeing the history and historiography of the emergence of agrarian landscapes, manufacture of crafts, and trade and commerce in north India, during the mid-first millennium bce to the 13th century. Continued manifestation of settled agrarian localities, or janapadas, with its attendant concomitant processes, is visibly more noticeable from the middle of the first millennium ce onward, though their early beginnings can be traced back to the later Vedic times. The study of the janapadas or localities and regions, as distinguished from earlier regional studies, focusing on the trajectory of sociopolitical developments through time is a development dating to around the turn of the 21st century. It has much to do with the recognition of the fact that historical or cultural regions and modern state boundaries, which are the result of administrative decision-making, do not necessarily converge. Simultaneously, instead of engaging in macro-generalizations, historians have moved on to acknowledge that spaces in the past, as in the present, were differentiated, and there were uneven patterns of growth across regions and junctures. Consequently, since 1990 denser and richer narratives of the regions have been available. These constructions in terms of the patterns for early India have moved away from the earlier accounts of wider generalizations in time and space, colonization by Gangetic north India, and crisis. Alternatively, they look for change through continuities and try to problematize issues that were earlier subsumed under broader generalizations, and provide local and regional societies with the necessary agency. Rural settlements and rural society through the regions are receiving their due, and so are their networks of linkages with artisanal production, markets, merchants, and trade. The grades of peasants, markets, and merchants as well as their changing forms have attracted the notice of the historian. This in turn has compelled a shift in focus from being mostly absorbed with subcontinental history to situating it in its Asiatic and Indian Ocean background.
Japanese Trade in Cotton Textiles from the Tokugawa Era to the Interwar Period
In Japan from the 18th century onward, cotton cloth was actively produced as a proto-industry in the provinces south of the Kantō region, where cotton could be grown, and a hierarchical cloth-distribution system was formed nationwide, with wholesalers in Edo (later Tokyo) at the top. In the early 19th century, however, new wholesalers emerged in Edo and later Osaka. After the opening of the ports in 1859, they began to take on the sale of imported cotton cloth, and from the late 1870s, they began to import cotton yarn for weavers in the various cloth-producing areas. From the mid-1880s, modern cotton-spinning companies developed, especially in Osaka, and the yarn produced by these companies was sold to the traditional weaving industry through cotton-yarn importers in Osaka. The foreign raw cotton, which came to be required by the spinning companies, was mainly imported by three large trading companies, which also began to export cotton yarn and cloth. At the turn of the 20th century, large spinning companies developed greatly, vertically integrating not only weaving, which had begun in the late 1880s, but also finishing, and these firms increased their focus on products for export while the traditional weaving areas established small power-loom factories. Furthermore, the weavers in some areas expanded their exports after World War I and went beyond indigenous industry, becoming small and medium modern enterprises. The prolonged depression after 1920 was a period of hardship for trading companies in the cotton industry, but the cotton-yarn and cloth-trading companies in the Kansai region overcame this and worked together with spinning companies and weaving areas in the 1930s to develop new markets for cloth and to expand exports, helping the Japanese cotton industry to overcome the dominance of Lancashire.