Connectivity across the Bay of Bengal in the 19th and 20th Centuries
- Jayati BhattacharyaJayati BhattacharyaSouth Asian Studies Programme, National University of Singapore
The Bay of Bengal has had long history of commercial and cultural circulation across its maritime space, a lesser-studied region in the emerging discourse of Indian Ocean Studies, and extended much beyond, in both eastern and western directions. However, this maritime space has conventionally been regarded as separating contours of peoples, cultures, and economies, particularly in the realm of area studies which has been deeply embedded in academic scholarship as well as political discourses. On the contrary, the region presents us with fascinating stories of integration through family trees, kinship networks, family firms, financial exchanges, intra-community and inter-ethnic bonding, and other facets of circular movements around the Bay.
The political and economic narrative of Asia transformed into one of Western colonial dominance in the 19th century, a process that had begun about almost two centuries earlier. The British emerged as the most powerful of the Western powers in this space having gained strong political footing in India, their most prized possession in the East. The long years were marked by consolidation of their political conquests and economic prowess not only in the Indian subcontinent but also in and around the Bay of Bengal region. The technological innovations and inventions further facilitated their economic aspirations. The 20th century brought about different kind of changes. The ideal of laissez-faire along with the geopolitical discourse on rising maritime powers unleashed a new direction of policies, collaboration, conflicts, and negotiations. An important feature of the century was the dynamic rise of the ideology of nationalism, which worked differently in Europe and Asia. While it led to the world wars in Europe, for Asian powers, it opened doors of opportunity to break the fetters of several years of colonial domination.
In the framework of a narrative of subjugation and domination, a macro-view of the Bay brings forth several circuits of circulation in the maritime space. While some of these circuits had been visible and dominant, others existed on the margins, connecting to the larger circuits obliviously, or existing in independent and almost invisible circulatory loops that did not find any place in Western historiography. This article attempts to provide a broad overview of different circulatory movements under four subthemes—acquisition and development of port cities that facilitated the circulatory process, merchants, banians, and capitalists—as both visible and also invisible actors of circulation in the Bay. It also discusses communities that were displaced, integrated, or acculturated around the rim of the Bay, and intellectual exchanges that motivated, influenced, and incorporated participation of a large number of people all over Asia. There is a focus on the mobile Indian communities in particular, both voluntary and involuntary migrants who were the dominant participants in the colonial economic narrative on both sides of the Bay. The legacy of these long years of exchanges and interactions has often been undermined in the postcolonial nation state centric discourses and needs to be revisited with a fresh perspective in view of the increasing geopolitical significance of the Bay in the 21st century.
The Bay as a Dynamic Theater of Interactions
At the beginning of the 19th century, Asian history was being shaped by the colonial footprints of European powers like the Portuguese, Dutch, Spaniards, Danes, French, and British.1 The British started on a weaker note in the big power game in comparison to the Portuguese in the 16th and the Dutch in the 17th centuries, but by mid-19th century they had become more dominant than the rest of the contenders. Political and financial control of the important areas of the Indian subcontinent from the decaying Mughal emperor seated in Delhi was a big boost to their imperial acquisitions. British conquests continued well into the 19th century, leading to consolidation of their administration and a more centralized system. Thus, Asian history during this period was as much shaped by the power struggle and political acquisitions between European powers as it was by contestations between indigenous and colonial entities. The tussle for political and economic domination was much accelerated by the European industrial and technological revolution in different paradigms of trade and commerce, transport and communication, and arms and ammunitions. While the 19th century was characterized by major transformations in political, cultural, economic, and technological institution and experiences, the 20th century witnessed a different and defining course of political and economic developments. The world wars, the economic depression of the 1930s, and rising nationalism in the colonies led to new dynamics of accommodation and negotiation in the circulation and control of migration trends, capital flows, and governance laws. This was also a century of the rise of maritime power, largely through political and military maneuvers and mostly in a geopolitical context.2 The narrative of Asia was thus reconstructed not only in terms of colonial hegemonic control, increased mobility of goods and people, and sociocultural imports from the West, but also in terms of drawing up new boundaries between places, people, and culture. The transition had a direct effect on the formation and identity of port cities, littorals, and hinterlands across the fluid space of the Bay that have had a long-lasting legacy in inter-Asian cross-cultural encounters.
The maritime space of Bay of Bengal emerged as an important pivot in the theater of activities in the Indian Ocean. European mercantilism and its transformation into free trade policies and integration of the Asian market with the global economy led to an emergence of spatial architecture dotted with new port cities like Calcutta, Colombo, Penang, and Singapore. It was also characterized by the bulk movement of commodities (Bengal jute, Ceylonese coffee, Burmese rice, Malayan rubber, Javanese sugar, and coffee) and the unprecedented movement of people across this space. Between 1840 and 1940, about 8 million people traveled from India to Ceylon, and about 4 million to Malaya and 12 to 15 million to Burma, with approximately half of them returning within three to seven years.3 The maritime space of the Bay was interspersed with two different kinds of circuits of trade and commerce—inter-Asian trade around the rims of the Bay and the Euro-Asian trade lanes stretching out both to East Asia and then in the West to Africa and Europe. However, academic discourse on this maritime space in the colonial period has often been marginalized in the scholarship of the much broader scope of Indian Ocean studies that has gained significant momentum, particularly in the past three decades. There have been numerous academic publications on different paradigms of port cities, maritime routes, water history, globalized networks of communities and commodities, and also contemporary geopolitical trajectories (which are not discussed here). For example, Broeze builds a heuristic concept of port cities both geographically and historically and brings our attention to the multifunctionality of port cities.4 Mukherjee, on the other hand, studies the port cities under the “network model” or discusses the region under the framework of water history.5 Other prominent scholars have also been working on the Indian Ocean (e.g., M. N. Pearson, Philip Curtin, and Om Prakash and Denys Lombard to mention only a few6). However, when there is focused attention on the scholarship on the Bay, we find that most of the research is based on ancient periods until the beginning of 19th century (e.g., research work by Das Gupta and Pearson, Mukherjee, Om Prakash, Chaudhuri, McPherson, Chandra and Ray, and many others7). According to this perspective, this article makes an important contribution to the scholarship on the exchanges between colonial and the indigenous forces in the 19th and 20th centuries. What has also been least discussed in research are the different dynamics of interactions in northern and southern part of the Bay. The northern region is more intricately connected to the fluvial networks of maritime, overland, and riverine with fluid accessibility to the hinterland (modern West Bengal, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, northwestern Thailand).8 The southern region does not enjoy similar geographical morphology but has immediate access to the global transit points and maritime routes. This calls for separate research altogether. The seascape, in this article, instead of acting as a divider (as has been conventionally comprehended), has been highlighted as a connector of waterscapes and landscapes, integration of markets, and mobility of human capital and knowledge.
In the “spatial network of trading and shipping emporia” created with new identities under the British regional hegemony, this maritime space may be studied through the lens of circulation.9 Scholars like Bose, Pranjapra, and Amrith have already proposed the idea in recent years.10 Instead of characterizing empires with inflexible categories and homogenous hierarchical power structures, as is often understood, recent scholarship recognizes empires as “spaces of flows, structures within which individuals maintain complex allegiances and sense of belonging.”11 The pluralistic nature of the empires and their transnational connections and power structures, which in turn mobilized diasporic movements, is reflected in recent works of many scholars like Bose and Amrith (already mentioned), Metcalfe, Ho, and Lees, among others.12 However, the fluid nature of a framework of circulation presents both opportunities and challenges. While it offers scope of different dimensions of multidisciplinary research, fitting it within the frames of a neatly structured analysis may be arduous. For example, different merchant groups acted as sponsors of religious networks and at the same time, components of trade were determinant of interactions between regions and communities irrespective of religious affiliations or political governance. Markovits, both in his extensive research on the Sindhi communities as well as on the other Asian merchant networks, also highlights the dynamic circulatory flows of credit, capital, goods and men, which existed in precolonial period, got reshaped in the colonial centuries, and found resonance in postcolonial period as well.13 Markovits explained: “While goods may also circulate outside the network (otherwise there would not be any exchange), men, credit and information circulate almost exclusively within it. Most crucial is probably the circulation of information.”14 In this article several circuits then emerge in the bigger Venn diagram of the Bay with several convergences and interjections at different nodes. Four subthemes have been discussed to illustrate various aspects of economic and cultural encounters, resilience, and accommodations between both external and indigenous players across the maritime space of the Bay drawing on several points of similarities between diverse geographies, networks, and communities surrounding the Bay.
A macro-view of the circulation will be as important as detailed research on the different strands that form a part of it proposing alignment between port cities, littorals, and hinterland.15 Land-related activities have usually followed outbound directions of flow through the ports and the coasts into the sea. However, the vision from the sea toward the land, as Frost suggests, can then be very different.16 Another distinct approach can be from the sea toward different lands. Colombo then can be compared with Calcutta and Singapore. The Bay thus emerges as a space that joins communities, cultures, and economies, not one that separates them, as it has been traditionally conceptualized. However, the focus in this article will be mostly on Indian dispersion and connections among the indigenous communities across the Bay. It is motivated by the fact that the Indians and Indian cultural familiarities were strikingly visible around the rim of the Bay in mostly an eastward direction of flow rather than otherwise, with few exceptions.17 The circulation was then carried on by the same category of people in a kind of a relay activity through different generations and destinations.
In the period of transition from mercantilist trends (16th–18th centuries) to laissez-faire economy (from 1840s onward to the beginning of the World War I in 1914), it is important to recount the development of merchant networks and institutions through the transition. In Braudel’s interpretation, a commercial network comprised of different agents or individuals located at different points in a circuit who were communicating and interacting with each other to facilitate trade transactions.18 In studying the changes in structure and agency of Asian commerce, Markovits highlights the problems of “survival” of Asian merchants in the emerging narrative of “decline and subordination” under colonial supremacy.19 Weber, on the other hand, assumed that the rise of Western capitalism led to the separation of household with business activities (e.g., the joint stock companies) and undermined the role of kinship and family ties. The rationalism of the modern West brought about the establishment of new institutions and legal corpus. Scholars who have studied the transition in the Western operational techniques and institutions have critiqued Weber’s ideas on different grounds.20 However, it is also important to comprehend how the institutional frameworks and modus operandi of Western banks, agency houses, chambers of commerce, and joint stock companies reframed the working of the Asian economy along with constitutional laws, property rights, and revenue settlements. Yet, as has been seen in the case of Indian merchant and trading communities, the indigenous structures of kinship, marriage alliances, linguistic affinities, and indigenous credit systems sustaining the regional networks flourished with new centers of commerce and different components of trade. An important example can be that of the Chettiars, a caste-based community from Tamil Nadu whose members spread their wings to Burma, Ceylon, Malayan peninsula, Mauritius, and South Africa.21 Another example of dynamic intra-ethnic interactions, particularly from 1860s onward, was the Sindhi community from the Sindh province, presently in Pakistan.22 We also come across local individual attempts to establish enterprises based on the European model of agency houses, banks, or insurance companies, which were profitable in the initial years (e.g., Bengal in the inter-war period), but in most cases, did not survive as long-term profit-making ventures. The total number of registered joint stock companies in Bengal was 17,022 in 1932, but only 7997 were functioning.23 The economic discourse on indigenous communities has often been submerged under the dominant narrative of the “drain of wealth” as propounded by nationalist economists on the one hand and European historians like Van Leur on the other, who theorized “dual” and hierarchical economies for Asian colonies—upper level dominated by European capitalists and lower level by small Asian firms.24 Markovits rightly point out the limitations of both the perspectives and strongly argues the powerful networks and agencies of Indian communities that flourished during the colonial period.25 Arguments on the Asian “bazaar” as put forward by Bayly and Ray bring forth the connective chain of local markets, finance and commodities in the bigger economic project of colonial domination.26
The dawn of the 19th century heralded with the effects of the industrial revolution that gripped more fervently on the Bay and the British finally pushed the Dutch to the Indonesian archipelago to secure dominance over the region. The turnaround for the British came with the acquisition of the Diwani (revenue rights and administration of civil justice) and political rights from the Nawab of Bengal by 1765 that followed with the victory in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. It has been considered a turning point in the East India Company’s fortunes in Bengal and India. Bengal, one of the richest provinces of India of the time, was sustaining the last years of the Mughal rule with required finances. Making a strong footprint in Bengal paved the way to further British victories in the subcontinent, to further their trading interests, and also to pay their company servants besides meeting other expenses. The British had already started fortification of Calcutta in 1696, which was in close proximity to Plassey, acquired villages for furthering settlements around the periphery of the fort, and also started establishing factories in the area. Calcutta thus emerged as the most important center of British administrative and political control in the Indian subcontinent, extending its administrative influence in the east as far as the Malayan peninsula (before the Straits Settlements). It was an equally important hub for trade and commerce in the Bay of Bengal connecting the Malacca Straits in the east to the African continent and the Mediterranean Sea, and thus, to Europe in the west. The political, commercial, and strategic significance of Calcutta soon earned its popularity as “London of the East.” Thus, by the end of the 18th century, the Bay had been transformed into a British lake.27 The 19th century witnessed consolidation of British commerce and political authority further with transfer of the colonies from the East India Company (EIC or the Company) to directly under the British crown from 1858, the introduction of steamships, and opening up of the Suez Canal in 1867, thus the British economic trajectory transiting from mercantilism to free trade.
Acquisition and Development of Port Cities
Port cities have been studied extensively from different perspectives by numerous scholars, and they contribute immensely to the historiography of Indian Ocean studies. As a subtheme in this article, the treatment here is that of a broader understanding of the changes in the infrastructure and identity of the port cities around the rim of the Bay in the given time period. It also shows the similarities of architectural spaces, communities, and governance between different colonial ports, thus drawing up a circuit of networks and connections and uneven sharing of power between different groups of people.
Acquiring, annexing, and building up new port cities and entrepots to consolidate power in and around the Bay of Bengal required a significant investment of time and attention during most of the 19th and the early parts of the 20th centuries. Thus, Colombo, Madras, Calcutta, Rangoon, Penang, and, later, Singapore remained connected through familiar circulation of engineering skills, economic networks, political and legal institutions, shipping lines, and the overall spatial architecture. The institutions and the architecture were also connected through similarities of British portrayal of power and assertiveness. Thus, factories, defense systems and fortifications, churches, hospitals, botanical gardens, town halls, and other public buildings dotted the spatial visuals of each of these port cities. The white settlements usually occupied the seafront with natives residing in the interior.28 As new nodes of littoral power, coastal cities provided tremendous possibilities of extending their influence in hinterlands for sourcing and distribution networks, and created the direction of human flows from the rural to the urban. The introduction of railways and telegraph created a seamless connection between land, river, and maritime networks, the like of which Asia had not witnessed before. The introduction of steamships from 1815 onward and using iron and steel for ship construction instead of timber was another giant step in increasing tonnage and modernizing shipping. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1867 added the real feather in the cap by reducing shipping time and freight costs drastically, thus boosting up the volumes in trade and the necessary infrastructure for trade. In 1871, almost all textile exports to Bombay and about 20 percent of bulkier and cheaper exports from Calcutta passed through the Canal.29 Advancement of navigational techniques and hydrography of the Indian Ocean added to the revolutionary changes. However, the country boats like the Indian katias and Arab dhows and baggalas as well as the Chinese junks still survived, most obviously for intra-regional trade and distributive networks.30 Britain’s tonnage of mercantile marines increased from 2.5 million tons in the years following the Napoleonic wars to 9.3 million tons in 1900. Income from shipping services stood at $9 million to $10 million a year and helped reduce its deficit on the balance of trade ($8–$9 million per annum) covering more than half of the deficit between the years 1825 and 1850.31
In the meanwhile, the acquisition of other coastal areas beyond the Indian peninsular rim went hand in hand. The important ports of Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay had already been established in the peninsular India. Bombay, though located in the western part of the peninsula, could be drawn into the same web of circulation as it was intimately connected with the commercial and financial networks of the China trade that traversed the Bay. In the early 19th century, the political power of Britain stretched further east into the Bay, stretching into the sealanes that formed the China trade route. The port of Colombo had already fallen into British hands in 1796 though it remained under the kingdom of Kandy until 1815. Before the Colombo breakwaters were completed, Galle was the chief port of call in Ceylon. The main steamship agencies operating were British India Steam Navigation Co. (BISN), Clan Line (Clark, Spence and Co.), and Anchor Line (Delmege, Reid & Co.).32 In the northern part of the Bay, the British acquired Arakan and Tenasserim in 1826 and Pegu and Martaban in 1852. Akyab became a leading rice exporting port, especially to India and as early as 1840, Akyab exported about 74,500 tons of rice.33 The rice trade developed rapidly after access to the vast flat Irrawady-Sittang delta plains.34 The Imperial Guide mentions a number of steamship services from Burma both within the region and to Britain. There is mention of frequent shipping communication between Liverpool, London, and Burma fortnightly by Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) via Calcutta and weekly via Madras and Bombay, whereas BISN had “bi-weekly services to and from Calcutta, Madras, Colombo and Bombay; from Rangoon weekly to Penang, Singapore, etc.”35 The other less frequent lines were the Bibby Line and P. Henderson’s Line. There were inland navigational lines as well—the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co. that plied from Rangoon to Upper Burma.36
Stretching further to the east, Captain Francis Light took over Penang (1786) and named it the Prince of Wales Island. Penang was to become a naval base and a trading post for country traders engaged in intra-Asian trade bound for China. The country traders were merchants who were non-Company servants permitted to trade in the region, and they formed an informal and influential network of contacts in the British trading web in Asia. At one end of the trade circulation were the Penang merchants, who supplied commodities from all around the Malay Archipelago brought in by the Chinese traders in their perahus and junks.37 The trade network flowed further outward through the British ships, which then carried to China opium and Indian and Malay products, “depositing their receipts into the Company’s treasury at Canton, in return for bills of exchange payable in India or London.”38 The EIC then used the local currency to buy tea and export it to London in its own ships, thus generating profit, much needed by the Company at the time.
However, there were other emerging and more favorable locations of strategic interest to the British in the Malacca Straits that soon gained priority over Penang. Stamford Raffles was sent to establish a new British port in Southeast Asia primarily to protect trading interests from the Dutch. Raffles stepped into Singapore in 1819 beginning the dynamic story of the rise of the island-city, the strategic node in the China trade. By the Treaty of London of 1824, the Dutch agreed to give Malacca in exchange for Bencoolen, leading to a consolidation of the three locations of Penang, Singapore, and Malacca as the British Straits Settlements. Singapore became the new seat of government for the Straits Settlements from 1832. The British agency houses, established in Calcutta extended their influence in the Straits Settlements and worked in alliance with their interests. They had supported Raffles’s Singapore mission and its retention through their own lobbies in Calcutta and London. One of these influential firms, John Palmer & Co., established close links with the Java firm investing in sugar and coffee plantations, Deans Scott & Co., and in Penang, worked closely with the pepper planter David Brown and Syed Hussain, the Arab Muslim merchant and a member of the Achenese royal family. Another Calcutta firm, Fairlie, Fergusson & Co., worked with the Malaccan firm Clark & Hare and James Carnegy of Penang.39 Thus, a circuit of interactions within the agency houses stretching from Calcutta to Canton in the east was well established, which not only worked with British imperial interests, and was facilitated by it, but also interacted with indigenous traders and merchants.
The changing dynamics of the ships and shipping lanes required urgent upgrading and expansion with an increase in the volume of cargoes and the dimensions of vessels as well as passenger and mail traffic. Different requirements were necessary for terminal and coaling ports. Jetties and wharves began to be built and required a new kind of government intervention and public works. Between 1861 and 1866, three dock companies set up repair facilities in Singapore. Tanjong Pagar Dock Co., Borneo Co., and Jardine and Matheson & Co. Singapore was to serve as the major eastern entrepot and by 1921, its wharfage was almost 12,000 feet (after being taken over by the government in 1905).40 Government policy was formulated to build up organizations to look after different aspects of the port administration. Thus were born the institutions of Port Trusts and Harbour Trusts. The infrastructure and governance of the major outlets of trade and commerce came under control of Western technology, capital, and systems of administration.
Dominance of the West prevailed in the development of shipping technology and the development of ports, as well as the development of flourishing shipping lines like the P&O Co., BISN Co., etc. Indian shipbuilding activities also existed, mostly around Bombay, although not on a scale as large as that of the colonists. However, they suffered from an unfair advantage of the British in different aspects. The Parsis had been the forerunners in this business. The Wadias—Lowanji Nasserwanji Wadia and his sons—were one of the earliest shipbuilders who followed the commercial and naval requirements of the EIC. In 1894, Jamshetji Tata started the Tata Line in partnership with a Japanese company, which began monthly operations between India and China and Japan on similar routes serviced by the P&O. But the freight war proved to be fatal for the company, as it had been for many other companies that succumbed under the heavy-handedness of the British lines. Unfair competition from the British decided the fate of the Tata Line.
To run business ethically on low profit margins, the Tata Line charged a freight of Rs. 12 per 40 cubic feet. This amounted to undercutting the monopoly of P&O as they were charging a freight of Rs. 19 per 40 cubic feet. To retaliate, the P&O dropped their rate to Rs. 1½ and cotton was carried free! The Tata Line was unable to match the P&O rates and folded up within a year. Following its closure, P&O restored its freight to Rs. 19 per cubic feet.41
Many other indigenous shipping companies tried their hands at the shipping business but could not stand the onslaught of the British lines. In an early effort, the Swadeshi Shipping Company of Tuticorin, started by V.O. Chidambaram Pillai in 1906, tried to establish steamer services between Tuticorin and Colombo, Bombay, and Calcutta. However, Swadeshi succumbed to competition from BISN Co. within a few decades. Walchand Hirachand, Lallubhai Samaldas, and Kilachand Devchand were business magnates based in Bombay who started the Scindia Steam Navigation Co. (SSN) in 1919 with steamships plying between Burma and India carrying rice and timber. Walchand also founded Indian National Steamship-owners’ Association in 1929. The British shipping interests created a lot of hurdles with their superior financial strength and rate wars. Yet, SSN Co. managed to carry more than 50,000 passengers across the Bay and owned six steamers in 1921, which elevated to cargo ships and four passenger ships by 1934.42 There were similar stories of the founding of Eastern Shipping Company (ESC) by Peranakan Chinese business tycoons of Penang, Koe Guan, Quah Beng Kee, and Lim Eow Hong, who formed a business alliance in response to the European encroachment of the western coast of the Thai peninsula where the ships plied between Aceh-Penang route expanding to Tongkah and Rangoon.43 Thus, resistance and negotiation for trading and commercial space continued with the British as the dominant player in the Bay.
Merchants, “Banians,” and Capitalists
The term “merchants” was very loosely used and incorporated a broad range of occupations in the 18th century, from retail shopkeepers to bankers and financiers. As Marshall points out: “Men connected with the East India Company (EIC) were among the most socially aspiring of merchants.”44 In the early years, the EIC, which had also been recognized as the “world’s most powerful corporation,” would have chosen only experienced merchants as “factors” in Asia.45 However, from 1706, the format of appointment changed.46 Most of the Senior Merchants became members of the Bengal Council directing EIC’s affairs until 1740 and some would also end up being Governors.47 This came as no surprise as EIC began to assume political and administrative control and was involved in direct interactions with political decisions and maneuvers from London. To protect its monopoly rights over Asian trade, the EIC, since the late 17th century, had not allowed private participation in Euro-Asian trade but allowed the Company’s servants a much greater freedom of trade in Asia. The interdependence of political power and business rights proved to be very lucrative for the Company’s servants. They benefitted individually and also accommodated the larger interests of the EIC. The Company’s servants were “permitted to trade in Asia in all commodities except calicoes and pepper, the twin staples of the Company’s own trade.”48 Fifty-nine of these “Free Merchants” as they were called, went to Bengal between 1736 and 1756.49 However, many unlicensed merchants were also to be found all over the country. By 1800, Europeans in Bengal who were not employed by EIC numbered under 1000. The changes became more dramatic with the transfer of power to the British Crown in 1858.
An important agency in the European trading networks were the country traders, who played a significant part either individually or collectively through their syndicates in promoting European commercial interests and, in turn, the traders were also benefited by them. Francis Light, the founder of Penang, was an illustrious example of a unique link that existed between private and Company political and economic ambitions. Light had joined the Royal Navy initially, but he later chose a career with one of the most influential firms of country traders, Jourdain, Sullivan and De Souza, upon reaching Madras in 1765. He traveled widely between Burma, Thailand, and Phuket (Junk Ceylon) and also stayed in Aceh. He liaised with a large range of people—from Sultan of Kedah and Company’s servants to local merchants traversing between formal bureaucratic orders to informal local networks. “For a former Royal Navy Officer,” as Barber points out, “working for an established country trader whose operations meshed closely with the East India Company, the distinctions often blurred.”50 Barber has well described the important status of the merchants and businessmen in the British society in Penang.
A cadre of salaried company officials stood at the apex of the British community, and considered itself a distinct elite, marked by uniforms, cocked-hats and much self-importance . . . when there were disputes between the official community and the merchant, such as over taxes and import duties, it was invariably the merchant community that came out on top. A number of Penang’s “pioneer” families intermarried, the Scotts, Browns and Lights were tied commercially, politically and through marriage, which helped tighten commercial bonds further.51
The European merchants could not possibly carry out their trade without relations with their indigenous counterparts at different levels of business operations. They were helpful in sourcing different goods, and also often supplied the necessary capital. Relations between the English merchants and their local counterparts differed in different time periods depending on the political grasp of the European power. In the case of India, for the 17th and 18th centuries, dealing with the European merchant community was only a small part of the activities of the indigenous merchant communities. The House of Jagat Seths in Bengal and Malay Chetti, Kasi Viranna, and Sunca Rama Chetti in the Coromandel Coast were important names to reckon with. Merchants and bankers had acquired significant positions of power and influence with the downfall of the Mughal Empire when they became indispensible to the new regimes in different parts of the subcontinent. However, with an increasing inflow of foreign merchants and extension of British power toward the East in Burma and Malaya, the equations changed by the end of the 19th century. The dependence on native merchants declined with the modern postal network as a better alternative to hundi system, and the Company’s silver rupee declared as the legal tender crippled the money-changing business. The British agency houses then took over. Calcutta had about fifteen such firms by 1790.52 One of these firms in Calcutta, Palmer & Co. (established in 1810), diversified into shipping, insurance, general trading, and also publishing, bringing out the Calcutta Journal. The firm reaped huge gains in the China trade and the coastal trade and was called the “opium king” and the “indigo king.” Palmer & Co. also established the Calcutta Bank. In Madras, on the other hand, the earliest of the names was Chase and Perry (1789), which later became Parry & Co. Parry also established a tannery in Madras, sourcing raw materials from Penang, Colombo, and the Cape of Good Hope and supplying leather goods to the army. Scotsmen John Binny and George Arbuthnot also founded similar firms, John Binny & Co. (1799) and Arbuthnot & Co. (1809), respectively.53 Thus, the European agency houses in the 19th century disrupted and displaced the Indians and the Arabs in the coastal trade in the Indian Ocean.
However, the unfamiliarity of land, language, and culture necessitated dependence on a certain group of native agents who became indispensible and responsible for sourcing, purchase, shipment, quality control, and so on, for the agency houses. The banian class that was created had a convenient but hierarchical relationship between the European “masters” and the natives. Tripathi and Jumani suggested that the banian was the “lynchpin of the entire operation.”54 This was a new category that was different from the established genres of merchants and traders. There was possible fluidity of occupation between dobash/interpreter, Company clerks, and banians. When Raffles landed in Singapore, he was accompanied by Narayana Pillai, an interpreter and clerk from Penang, who later became one of the founding merchants and entrepreneurs in building up the island city.55 In Bengal, many of the banians flourished and went on to establish lucrative agency houses as well. Some of these firms were set up in collaboration with European capital like Carr, Tagore & Co., Oswald, Seal & Co., and Rustomji, Turner & Co. Motilal Seal and Dwarkanath Tagore were among the most promising native entrepreneurs during the early 19th century; however, the commercial crisis of the late 1840s and too much risky exposure in business brought about their downfall. Names like Ashutosh Dey & Co. and Ram Gopal Ghosh & Co. continued until the 1850s.56
Besides the new group of indigenous businessmen, there were traditional Indian business communities that restructured their trading interests and fitted themselves advantageously within the trajectory of British mercantile interests. The Chettiars, Chulia Muslims, Gujaratis, Sindhis, Parsis, and, much later, the Punjabis were the most prominent among these communities. The discourse on intra-ethnic circulation of the Chettiar moneylenders and financiers in Ceylon, Burma, and the Malayan peninsula has been well studied. The Sindhis, on the other hand, as Markovits has shown in his extensive research, catered to European clientele in luxury items like silk, curios, and handicrafts of China and India.57 The Gujaratis, who had been textile and spice traders in the region since precolonial times, continued with substantial presence in the region.58 The Parsis had been very active participants in the colonial China trade. George Leith mentions some groups of Indian traders in early 19th century: “the greatest portion of Chooliah reside on the island only for a few months. . . . The Parsees come from Bombay and Surat, some of them are great merchants, the lower orders are chiefly shipwrights and are esteemed excellent workmen.”59
Each of these Indian merchant communities maintained individual circuits of intra-ethnic linguistic and kinship networks, hundi exchanges, human resource links, and marriage alliances. Besides sociocultural differentiations of religion, caste, and language, there were also distinct business models and accounting methods and/or apprenticeship practices. The communities were close-knit and inward looking in their sociocultural interactions, although they had market interactions at times, for example, when discounting bills of exchange, or later forming the Indian Chamber of Commerce to voice their grievances and make petitions in unity to the colonial government.60
People on the Move
That migration formed the central theme of Asian history since the mid-19th century is little debated and several studies have been conducted on different aspects of the migratory flows in Asia.61 Furnivall’s observation of “plural” societies with “medley of people” where the different groups (European, Chinese, Indian) “mix but do not combine” in Southeast Asia is well recognized by scholars on migration.62 Colonial migration had assumed different contours and dimensions based on governance and border controls. It was driven by capitalism, growth of industrialization, technological developments, and commodification of human labor. It was directly linked to the global economic shifts as well as the political turn of events. Thus, the major flows of voluntary migration of precolonial times had turned around to be dominated by structured involuntary labor migration flows during the colonial period catering to the growing needs of the plantation crops in Ceylon and Malaya and rice cultivation in Burma. “Free migrants” traveled overseas for a better economic life, but they were mostly by debt to the labor recruiters. The others, merchants and capitalists, professionals, and service providers, numbered around 6000 annually in the 1890s and increased to about 16,000 in 1920s.63 This was only a very tiny part of the human flow that took place during the mentioned period.
The statistical information through Census documentation in different categorizations of ethnicity, race, religion, and caste gives us a fair view of the migration trends in and around the Bay from the latter half of the 19th century. The existing routes, reinforced with steamship navigation and bigger vessels, facilitated the mobilization of people. Around 30 million people traveled from India to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma, and the Malayan peninsula and 19 million people from China to Southeast Asia between 1850 and 1930.64 From the decade of 1930s, there were periodical reverse flows. It was also a cyclical migration to a considerable extent; only 6 million Indians and 7 million Chinese settled in Southeast Asia. Indian migration remained largely one of sojourners, both for indentured laborers under contractual obligation and other migrants, who chose to return to their homeland every two to three years. This was also a reason why Indian migration was mostly male dominated, although gender ratios differed in different geographies. Whereas it was about 45 percent in Sri Lanka, the figures were much less in the Malaya region.65
The documentation of migration experiences through ethnographic research and oral history records enhances our understanding of the diasporic communities in different locations (their intra-ethnic networks homeland ties, intercommunity interactions), which may be different from an understanding of trends of migration based on numbers. An important case in point is that of the Indian merchant and trading communities in Singapore. Though a minority among a minority in demographic status, they had remarkable footprints in business and lived spaces in the landscape of colonial and postcolonial (immediate years) Singapore.66 On the other hand, the Tamil Muslim migrants to Malaya were marrying local Malay women and their integration through matrimonial alliances with a different racial group based on religious affiliations often blurs the diasporic identity. It also problematizes demographic patterns of migration. Similar issues may also arise while incorporating the Peranakan communities within the framework of migration research. Colonial perceptions of different communities also led to stereotypical assumptions of their culture and religion. Chinese “secret societies” were almost invariably held responsible for any violent outbreaks among the communities. Governor Blundell described them as “turbulent and self-willed” and “dangerous to the lives and property of all persons.”67 It is no wonder that they were not preferred as policemen. On the other hand, religious processions like Thaipusam (Hindu) and Muharram (Muslim) of the local communities were viewed as a confrontation to the Christian religion, and some Europeans began to demand an end to the public celebration of the festivals.68
Two most important ports of departure from the Indian subcontinent, Madras and Calcutta, witnessed different dimensions of migration. There were the Tamil-speaking migrants from Madras, catering mostly to the cheap labor demand in Malaya, other free migrants (working in dockyards, petty traders, etc.), those who worked in bureaucracy (lawyers, teachers, administrators), and commercial merchants and trading communities (Chulia Muslims, Chettiars). The port of Calcutta witnessed not only an outflow of Bengali-speaking communities but also many non-Bengalis who were part of the city’s cosmopolitan culture (Armenians, Jews, Parsis, also some Chettiars) and others who came from different parts of North Indian belt. Bengalis, who mostly worked for British bureaucracy and administration, opted for the culturally more familiar Burma as a foreign locational option that was nearer home and could be reached by both land and sea. As a part of the colonial policy, the cheap labor supply from this port was directed mostly to different destinations beyond Southeast Asia. Thus, “Bangali” identity in Malaya was nurtured with the general perception of all those who departed from Calcutta including the British auxiliaries from the Bengal Regiment. There are interesting opportunities for further research on the non-Tamil migration in the Bay.
Thus China Towns and Little Indias grew up in different locations bearing the familiarity of landscapes and lived spaces in different destinations, mostly in Southeast Asia. While Indian migration dominated the Bay in numbers and complexity, there was also an example of migration from Southeast Asia and China, though mostly for short-term periods. One important exception was the growth and development of the China Town in Calcutta, which is also one of the least researched of the immigrant communities in the region. A number of Chinese immigrated to Calcutta as a result of political unrest and turmoil in China in 1920s and 1930s, and then again in post-World War II period.69 Cantonese carpenters, Hakka shoemakers, and tanners and dentists from Hubei provinces in China were some of the major occupations connected with regional ethnicity. There were also other businesses like laundry, restaurants, and beauty parlors associated with the communities.70 They had specific locations of residence in Calcutta. Things changed with the later developments of Sino-Indian relations, with a majority relocating outside India.
Ideas in Circulation
From the end of the 19th century, colonial cities that developed around the rim of the Bay became thriving centers of intellectual debate, cultural interaction, and rising nationalist sentiment. English education and the European spirit of rationalism brought about new concepts of political rights and social justice. The print technology and its rising popularity and readership ushered in print capitalism. In Calcutta, bhadralok culture, “made books and literature central to modern Bengali identity.”71 Calcutta, Colombo, Rangoon, Penang, and Singapore became significant centers of these intellectual dialogues that traveled across the shores to create new age consciousness about politics, religion, society, and economy. As nodal points in the “imperial highway,” these cities transmitted goods, capital, and human flow as much as they did knowledge and information.
The often bilingual, Western-educated urban intelligentsia across the Indian Ocean resembled each other in lifestyles and mannerisms, and provided fertile breeding grounds for ideas on nationalism. While the educated class mostly reflected a progressive image influenced by Western notions, they also developed a unique reformative approach rooted in their respective heritage and culture in different geographies. Thus, the Straits Chinese and the Bengali intelligentsia were similar in manifestations of colonial modernity, yet they developed and expressed their identity quite differently. While Indian literary imagination, whether in Calcutta, Madras, or Bombay, expressed itself in both English and vernacular languages, the Straits Chinese, mostly traders with strong commercial links, published in English (the Straits Chinese Magazine (1897–1907)) but remained rooted to their Hokkien and Peranakan culture.72
Occasionally celebrated but less researched and studied were the visits and influence of important Chinese personalities in India with strong links in the Malayan peninsula. Kang Youwei, scholar, political thinker, and reformer in the late Qing period, fled overseas to Singapore in 1900 and also went to Darjeeling (India) in 1902.73 In his writings, he expressed the negative impact of India’s colonial servitude on China. Chiang Kai-Shek’s visit to India in 1942, on the other hand, witnessed an appeal to the British to grant freedom to India.74 Sun Yat Sen, who was revered by many Indian political activists, had a strong political base in Southeast Asia. He hailed Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement and had been empathetic toward India’s freedom struggle. Nehru was much impressed by the Chinese leaders who may have influenced his foreign policy later on. He maintained personal relations with Chiang and his wife and also hosted Sun Yat Sen’s wife in India (1955). Another Chinese teacher and scholar, Tan Yun Shan, who had spent time in Johor, Kuala Lumpur, and other places in Southeast Asia since 1925, met Tagore in Singapore in 1927. He later joined Visva Bharati as a professor of Chinese studies.75
An important link of Asian religious, political, and social consciousness emanated from Colombo in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). It was a cosmopolitan city with reflections of similar colonial progressiveness through English medium schools, law and medical colleges, and the growth of political institutions. There were two main dimensions of revivalist consciousness: the revival of Buddhism in response to aggressive proselytization of Christian missionaries and the rise of social reform movements. The theosophist involvement in the Buddhist revival led to close interactions with Madras and the establishment of the Buddhist Theosophical Society in Colombo, which later consolidated in a more transnational Buddhist identity by Dharmapala.76 Dharmapala’s Maha Bodhi Society was established in Madras, Rangoon, and Calcutta, among other places. Also, the Colombo Young Men’s Buddhist Association had “sister” organizations in Calcutta, Rangoon, Tokyo, and San Francisco.77 On the other hand, Western-educated literati like D. B. Jayatilake and W. A. De Silva and others took up the cause of “Ceylonese” nationalism and voiced themselves through different journals and periodicals. Buddhist elites in Colombo maintained close networks with their counterparts in Burma. Frost has discussed these networks in his article:
Buddhist English-language journals in Rangoon . . . kept their readership regularly informed of the progress of educational reform in Sri Lanka and of the methods employed by the capital’s temperance campaigners. In turn Colombo elite monitored developments in Burma by means of English papers such as the Burman and The Sun.78
Apart from religious revival, ideas of social reforms traveled across the Bay. Vernacular newspapers and periodicals, along with Tamil films and songs from Madras, traveled to the eastern rim of the Bay and were in circulation by the 1930s.79 In 1929, the founder of the Self-Respect movement and an anti-Brahmin activist in South India, “Periyar” E. V. Ramasamy, went to Penang. He toured the plantations and different urban settlements in Penang, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore, arousing unprecedented political enthusiasm among the people.80 Singapore witnessed a blooming Tamil press as an after-effect. G. Sarangapani established the Tamil Murasu in 1935 and the English-language monthly, Reform, soon after.81 Arguably, Periyar’s reform and social consciousness also laid the foundation for Subhas Chandra Bose’s clarion call for anti-British protests and liberation movement in Southeast Asia launched in Singapore.82 Though Bose’s alliance with the Japanese in his campaign against the British failed, he motivated and mobilized diverse groups of people to a common cause for homeland, creating consciousness of self and identity among the subjugated and the suppressed that had long-lasting effects in the Malayan region. Recent revisionist discourses on Bose point to his much greater role in British withdrawal than previously acknowledged.
Another extraordinary Indian personality was Rabindranath Tagore—poet, novelist, lyricist, musician, philosopher, the first Asian Nobel Laureate, and also a universalist. His ideas on love, freedom, unity, and brotherhood rose above boundaries of nationalism. It reverberated with inspirations of the idea of “One-Asia” through poets, philosophers, and painters like Jose Rizal, Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, and Okakura Tensin at a crucial phase in the crossroads of Asian history. By invoking historical connections and linking Buddhist ideals of peace and brotherhood, Tagore made connections with ancient Indian civilization and captivated thousands of minds through speeches and interactions in his voyages in Southeast Asia, China, and Japan.83 Though also severely criticized in the media as a bourgeoisie intellectual, or representative of a “defeated” country, his thoughts remained much ahead of his times and resonated recent intellectual currents of intra-Asian interactions.
The above narrative guides us in locating some of the transregional circuits that have existed and developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, and each of the subthemes separately merits detailed research as sites and sources for further scholarship. The retreat of colonialism from Asia did not end the discursive dominance of the West in knowledge production. Postcolonial thought was immersed in defining and strengthening the nation state boundaries. The Cold War that followed soon after the retreat of the colonial powers drew boundaries of fear, apprehension, and economic turmoil, again imposed by Western narratives. It was subjected to strong and strict area demarcations in political and academic discourses. Thus, the fluid circuits and networks maintained undercurrents of significant circulatory movements in the region. However, it was never recognized as a part of dominant discourse, and remained marginalized only to be revitalized years later in interdisciplinary studies like Indian Ocean studies, intra-Asian studies, diaspora studies, borderland networks, and so on.
It is interesting to see that the circuits of religious and ideological networks around the Bay resonated a consciousness that not only aimed at revivalist trends but also emulated and incorporated Western methods and principles in the thought process. The commercial webs, on the other hand, were restructured to cater to a colonial mode of production networks, yet, at the same time, maintained their indigenous links. The colonial narratives of domination have gradually given way to revisionist history in contemporary academic discourses, yet encounters with the colonial remain a substantial part of the theoretical-methodological understanding. Attempts are continuously being made to explore different sources of information beyond colonial archives. Different Asianists have begun to interpret the idea of “modernity” differently.84 Moreover, significant opportunities for research have emerged in different aspects of circulation, inter-ethnic connections, and lived spaces,85 and also interaction between the indigenous and the colonial with fresh interpretations of the “margins.”
Discussion of the Literature
The research makes use of the trope of circulatory interactions under structural economic changes and hegemonic domination of British colonialism and argues that exchanges between external and indigenous forces existed at different levels with unbalanced power ratio between them. In spite of numerous examples of scholarship on the Indian Ocean studies and the Bay (as has been elaborated within this article), such interactions during the height of British colonial rule have not been rendered significantly. This research work thus makes an effort to draw different circuits of interactions across the rims of the Bay, which have been interconnected in the larger Venn diagram of the region. Details of literature review have been incorporated within the text. Each of the subthemes discussed can be taken up as a separate research theme with a lot of opportunities for additional research and scholarship. In this respect, the research framework is just an initial step to further exploration of connections and circulation across the Bay of Bengal. This literature then may be particularly significant in understanding the resonances and legacies in the postcolonial period and contemporary geopolitical trajectories.
- Annual Reports of the Straits Settlements, 1855–1941, Vol. 1, ed. R. L. Jarman. London: Archives Editions Ltd., 1998.
- Bose, Sisir Kumar., and Sugata Bose, eds. Chalo Delhi, Writings and Speeches 1943–1945, Netaji Collected Works, Volume 12. Calcutta: Permanent Black, 2007.
- Devji Gopaldas Shah, Oral History Recordings. National Archives of Singapore, Accession No. A000549, Reel No. 1.
- Dutt, Romesh. Chunder. Economic History of India—Early British Rule (1st ed.). London: Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1901.
- Furnivall, John. Sydenham. Colonial Policy and Practice: A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948.
- John Murray. Imperial Guide to India Including Kashmir, Burma and Ceylon. London, 1904.
- Maideen, A. N. National Archives of Singapore, Oral History Department, A 001211/20, interviewer Rajendran Supramaniam, October 8, 1990.
- Naoroji, Dadabhai. Poverty and Un-British Rule in India. London: Swan Sonennschein, 1901.
- Dalrymple, Alexander. Appendix to Captain Ritchie’s Survey of the Bay of Bengal (3rd ed. First published from the original MSS, 1785). London: Ballintine and Law, 1809.
- Reform, August 1936.
- Roy, Supriya, ed. Letters from Java: Rabindranath Tagore’s Tour of Southeast Asia 1927 (Volume 3 of Tagore Travelogues). West Bengal: Visva Bharati, 2010.
- Sindhi Merchants Association, Minutes of the meetings held on May 30, 1946, and October 17, 1946, unpublished records of the Sindhi Merchants Association [in Sindhi language].
- Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, 1833.
- Amrith, Sunil S. Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and Fortunes of Migrants. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.
- Amrith, Sunil S. “Mobile City and the Coromandel Coast: Tamil Journeys to Singapore, 1920–1960.” Mobilities 5, no. 2 (2010): 237–255.
- Bates, Crispin, ed. Community, Empire and Migration: South Asians in Diaspora. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 2000.
- Bayly, Christopher. Alan. Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770–1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
- Bose, Sugata. A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of the Global Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
- Bowen, H. V., Margarette Lincoln, and Nigel Rigby. The Worlds of East India Company. Suffolk, U.K.: Boydell Press, National Maritime Museum and University of Leicester, 2002.
- Bhattacharya, Jayati. Beyond the Myth: Indian Business Communities in Singapore. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2011.
- Bhattacharya, Jayati. “Sea of Changes: Shifting Trajectories Across the Bay of Bengal.” Asian Politics and Policy 9, no. 2 (2017): 245–267.
- Broeze, Frank. Brides of the Sea: Port Cities of Asia from the 16th–20th Centuries. Sydney: New South Wales University Press, 1989.
- Broeze, Frank. Gateways of Asia: Port Cities of Asia in the 13th–20th Centuries. London: Kegan Paul International, Asian Studies Association of Australia, 1997.
- Broeze, Frank. Jan. Aart., K. I. McPherson, and Peter D. Reeves. “Engineering and Empire: The Making of the Modern Indian Ocean Ports.” In The Indian Ocean: Explorations in History, Commerce and Political. Edited by Satish Chandra, 254–301. New Delhi: SAGE, 1987.
- Bulley, Anne. The Bombay Country Ships, 1790–1833. Surrey, U.K.: Curzon, 2000.
- Chandra, Satish, and Himanshu Prabha Ray. The Sea, Identity and History: From the Bay of Bengal to the South China Sea. New Delhi: ISEAS, Manohar, 2013.
- Chaudhuri, Kirti Narayan. Asia Before Europe: Economy and Civilization of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
- Das Gupta, Ashin, and M. N. Pearson. India and the Indian Ocean, 1500–1800 (2nd ed.). New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Ghosh, Devleena, and Stephen Muecke, eds. Cultures of Trade: Indian Ocean Exchanges. Newcastle, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars, 2007.
- Lees, Lynn Hollen. Planting Empire, Cultivating Subjects : British Malaya, 1786–1941. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
- Liang, Jennifer. “Migration Patterns and Occupational Specialisations of Kolkata Chinese: An Insider’s Story.” China Report 43, no. 4 (2004): 397–410.
- Loh, Wei Leng. “Penang as Commercial Centre: Trade and Shipping Networks.” Journal of Malaysian Branch of Royal Asiatic Society 82, no. 2 (2009): 25–37.
- Markovits, Claude. “Structure and Agency in the World of Asian Commerce During the Era of European Colonial Domination (C. 1750–1950).” Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient 50, no. 2/3 (2007): 106–123.
- Mathew, K. S., ed. Mariners, Merchants and Ocean: Studies in Maritime History. New Delhi: Manohar, 1995.
- Moorthy, Shanti, and Ashraf Jamal, eds. Indian Ocean Studies, Cultural, Social and Political Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2010.
- Mukherjee, Rila, ed. Oceans Connect: Reflections on Water Worlds Across Time and Space. New Delhi: Primus Books, 2013.
- Mukherjee, Rila, ed. Pelagic Passageways: The Northern Bay of Bengal Before Colonialism. Delhi: Primus, 2011.
- Mukherjee, Rila, ed. Vanguards of Globalization: Port Cities from the Classical to the Modern. Delhi: Primus, 2014.
- Pearson, M. N. The Indian Ocean. London: Routledge, 2003.
- Pearson, M. N.The World of the Indian Ocean, 1500–1800: Studies in Economic, Social and Cultural History. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2005.
- Png, Poh Seng. “The Kuomingtang in Malaya, 1912–194 1.” Journal of Southeast Asian History 2, no. 1 (1961): 1–32.
- Prakash, Om, ed. The Trading World of the Indian Ocean, 1500–1800 CE. Noida, India: Pearson Education, 2012.
- Prakash Om, and Denys Lombard, eds. Commerce and Culture in the Bay of Bengal, 1500–1800. New Delhi: Manohar/ICHR, 1999.
- Ray, Rajat K. “Asian Capital in the Age of European Domination: The Rise of the Bazaar, 1800–1914.” Modern Asian Studies 29, no. 3 (1995): 449–554.
- Roy, Tirthankar. The East India Company: The World’s Most Powerful Corporation. New Delhi: Allen Lane, 2012.
- Subramanian, Lakshmi. Three Merchants of Bombay, Trawadi Arjunji Nathji, Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy and Premchand Roychand: Doing Business in Times of Change (Foreword by Gurcharan Das). New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2012.
- Webster, Anthony. “The Development of British Commercial and Political Networks in the Straits Settlements, 1800–1868: The Rise of a Colonial and Regional Economic Identity?” Modern Asian Studies 45, no. 4 (2011): 899–929.
1. The article is limited to a broad framework of the circulatory movements on the sub-themes discussed. It is also focused mostly on Indian migration trends subject to constraints of space, and confined to the colonial period. Postcolonial nation states in the 20th century presented different complexities.
2. The famous proponent of the rise of sea power at the time was Alfred Thayer Mahan, the American navy personnel whose classic work, The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1663–1783 (1890) (Reprint, New York: Dover, 1987), influenced the political will of many states in Europe, America, and Asia.
4. Frank Broeze, Brides of the Sea: Port Cities of Asia from the 16th–20th Centuries (Sydney: New South Wales University Press, 1989), and Gateways of Asia: Port Cities of Asia in the 13th- 20th Centuries (London: Kegan Paul International, Asian Studies Association of Australia, 1997).
5. Rila Mukherjee, Vanguards of Globalization: Port Cities from the Classical to the Modern (Delhi: Primus, 2014), and Oceans Connect: Reflections on Water Worlds Across Time and Space (New Delhi: Primus Books, 2013).
6. M. N. Pearson, The Indian Ocean (London: Routledge, 2003); Philip D. Curtin, Cross-Cultural Trade in World History (Studies in Comparative World History) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984); and Om Prakash and Denys Lombard, eds., Commerce and Culture in the Bay of Bengal, 1500–1800 (New Delhi: Manohar/ICHR, 1999).
7. Ashin Das Gupta and M. N. Pearson, India and the Indian Ocean, 1500–1800 (2nd ed.) (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999); Rila Mukherjee, ed., Pelagic Passageways: The Northern Bay of Bengal before Colonialism (Delhi: Primus, 2011); Om Prakash, Bullion for Goods: European and Indian Merchants in the Indian Ocean, 1500–1800 (New Delhi: Manohar, 2004); K. N. Chaudhuri, Asia Before Europe: Economy and Civilisation of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Kenneth McPherson, The Indian Ocean: A History of the People and the Sea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); and Satish Chandra and Himanshu Prabha Ray, The Sea, Identity and History: From the Bay of Bengal to the South China Sea (New Delhi: Manohar, 2013).
8. For further reference, see Rila Mukherjee, “Ambivalent Engagements: The Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean World,” International Journal of Maritime History 29, no. 1 (2017): 96–110.
9. Frank Broeze thus describes one of the many dimensions of the port cities on Asia in the “Introduction” to his edited volume, Gateways of Asia, 6.
10. Bose highlights the circulation across the Indian Ocean in terms of men, money and ideas. Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of the Global Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); and Sugata Bose and Kris Manjapra, eds., Cosmopolitan Thought Zones: South Asia and the Global Circulation of Ideas (Houndmills, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). Amrith focuses his research on the interactions mainly between the southern part of India and the Malayan peninsula. Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal.
12. Thomas R. Metcalfe, Imperial Connections: India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860–1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Enseng Ho, Empire Through Diasporic Eyes: A View from the Other Boat,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 46, no. 2 (2004): 210–246; and Lynn Hollen Lees, Planting Empire, Cultivating Subjects.
13. Claude Markovits, The Global World of Indian Merchants, 1750–1947: Traders of Sindh from Bukhara to Panama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), and “Indian Merchant Networks Outside India in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: A Preliminary Survey,” Modern Asian Studies 33, no. 4 (1999): 883–911.
14. Claude Markovits, Global World of Indian Merchants, 25.
15. Pearson makes a good argument on the littoral society where the hinterland, foreland is linked with the sea through the port cities, which then serve as gateway communities. M. N Pearson, “Littoral Society: The Case for the Coast,” in The World of the Indian Ocean, 1500–1800: Studies in Economic, Social and Cultural History, ed. M. N. Pearson (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2005), §6, 1–8.
16. Mark Ravinder Frost, “That Great Ocean of Idealism,” Calcutta, the Tagore Circle and the Idea of Asia, 1900–1920,” in Indian Ocean Studies, Cultural, Social and Political Perspectives, ed. Shanti Moorthy and Ashraf Jamal (New York: Routledge, 2010), 251–279.
17. The category “Indians” is inclusive of interactions from the Indian subcontinent and does not necessarily subscribe to modern nation state boundaries.
18. F. Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism: 15th–18th Century. Vol. 2: The Wheels of Commerce (London: Fontana Press, 1985).
19. Claude Markovits, “Structure and Agency in the World of Asian Commerce During the Era of European colonial Domination,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 50, no. 2/3 (2007): 108.
20. Weber’s ideas and critiques have been well discussed in Bhaswati Bhattacharya, Gita Dharampal-Frick, and Jos Gommans, “Spatial and Temporal Continuities of Merchant Networks in South Asia and the Indian Ocean (1500–2000), Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 50, no. 2/3 (2007): 91–105.
21. Primarily salt trading merchant groups, the Chettiars were facilitated and motivated by Britsh commercial interests and commercial agriculture which required substantial investments that the Chettiars could supply as investors and reap large profits. The Chettiars maintained exclusive methods of accounting and business operations and apprenticeships that were closely guarded by kinship and caste affiliations. Yet, they did not hesitate to invest in British plantation economies, whether in Malayan rubber plantations, or rice-producing regions, and were perfectly at ease with engaging with different economic strata for money-lending purposes, both with the laborers as well as with foreign traders and merchants. For details on the Chettiar community networks, see David West Rudner, Caste and Capitalism in Colonial India: The Nattukkottai Chettiars (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); H. D. Evers and H. Schrader, eds., The Moral Economy of Trade: Ethnicity and Developing Markets (London: Routledge, 1994); and Heiko Schrader, “A Comprehensive Analysis of Chettiar Finance in Colonial Asia” (working paper no. 208, Faculty of Sociology, University of Bielefeld, 1994). Interactions of different other ethnic groups with the Chettiars were well manifested in the practice of using promissory notes by the money lending community. Some illustrations of promissory notes between the Chettiars and the Chinese, Muslims, and a European in Singapore in late 19th century are given in Jayati Bhattacharya, Beyond the Myth: Indian Business Communities in Singapore (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2011). Many more copies of the promissory notes are available in Koh Seow Chuan Collection, National Library, Singapore.
22. The Sindworkies traded in silk and curios and the sale of “European” goods for their foreign clientele across the globe with a significant presence in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, but intimately maintained their community cohesiveness with marriage alliances, hundi (bill of exchange) network, etc. More on the Sindhi community can be found in Markovits, “Indian Merchant Networks Outside India,” 894.
23. Jayati Bhattacharya, The Business Communities in Bengal and Nationalist Politics: The Nexus Between Economic Compulsions and Political Aspirations, 1919–1939 (PhD diss., Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 2003), 108.
24. The “drain of wealth” theory made arguments about how the British constant depleted the natural resources and wealth of the Indian sub-continent through the decades bringing down the economic stature of India from one of the highest GDP contributors to global economy (India contributed to almost one-third of the total world economy) to around 2 to 3 percent of GDP growth in early decades of the 20th century. The most important proponents of this theory were R. C. Dutt and Dadabhai Naoroji. Among many speeches and writing the two most popular were: R. C. Dutt, Economic History of India—Early British Rule (1st ed.) (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1901); and Dadabhai Naoroji, Poverty and Un-British Rule in India (London: Swan Sonennschein, 1901). Bipan Chandra made a detailed analysis of the economic nationalists in his work. Bipan Chandra, The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India: Economic Policies of Indian National Leadership, 1880–1905 (Reprint, New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1991). For a different view on Asian ‘dual’ and hierarchical economies, see J. C. Van Leur, Indonesian Trade and Society: Essays in Asian Social and Economic History (translated by James S. Holmes and A. van Mark) (The Hague: van Hoeve, 1955).
25. Claude Markovits, “Structure and Agency in the World of Asian Commerce during the Era of European Colonial Domination (C. 1750–1950),” Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient 50, no. 2/3 (2007): 106–123.
26. C. A. Bayly, Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770–1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); and Rajat K. Ray, “Asian Capital in the Age of European Domination: The Rise of the Bazaar, 1800–1914,” Modern Asian Studies 29, no. 3 (1995): 449–554.
27. The British undertook number of surveys to examine the possibilities of developing new centers of trade and commerce to extend their outreach into the Bay. For example the coasts of Chittagong, Arakan, Pegu, and Ava were surveyed and reported by Bartholomew Plaisted, Capt. Ritchie, Alexander Wood, Capt. Hayter. Dalrymple, Appendix to Captain Ritchie’s Survey of the Bay of Bengal (3rd ed. First published from the original MSS, 1785) (London: Ballintine and Law, 1809).
28. Partha Mitter, “The Early British Port Cities of India: Their Planning and Architecture Circa 1640–1757,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 45, no. 2 (1986): 95–114. Though Mitter draws on comparisons between Indian cities of Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras, similar spatial architecture was witnessed in Penang and Singapore as well.
29. F. J. A Broeze, K. I. McPherson, and P. D. Reeves, “Engineering and Empire: The Making of the Modern Indian Ocean Ports,” in The Indian Ocean: Explorations in History, Commerce and Political, ed. Satish Chandra (New Delhi: SAGE, 1987), 256.
30. S. Bhattacharya, “The Indian Ocean in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” in The Indian Ocean: Explorations in History, Commerce and Political, ed. Satish Chandra (New Delhi: SAGE, 1987), 305.
31. Bhattacharya, “Indian Ocean in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,”306.
33. Cheng Siok Hwa, “The Development of the Burmese Rice Industry in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Southeast Asian History 6, no. 1 (1965): 69.
34. Details of the colonial policy on Burmese rice trade and the stakeholders involved in the trade (Burmese cultivators, Indian moneylenders, middlemen, millers, shipowners and fine millers in London) are described in J. S. Furnivall, Colonial Policy and Practice: A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948), 95–98.
35. Imperial Guide to India, 194.
36. Imperial Guide to India, 193–194.
37. Anthony Webster, “The Development of British Commercial and Political Networks in the Straits Settlements, 1800–1868: The Rise of a Colonial and Regional Economic Identity?,” Modern Asian Studies 45, no. 4 (2011): 904.
38. Webster, “Development of British Commercial and Political Networks in the Straits Settlements,” 904.
39. Webster mentions these examples of connections of the agency houses, which stretched from Calcutta to Canton. Webster, “Development of British Commercial and Political Networks in the Straits Settlements,” 907.
40. Broeze, McPherson, and Reeves, “Engineering and Empire,” 262, 294.
41. Mrinal Kulkarni, INSA–A Historical Perspective (Mumbai: Indian National Shipowners’ Association and Vasant J Sheth Memorial Foundation, 2005), 16.
42. Kulkarni, INSA, 17–26.
44. P. J. Marshall, East Indian Fortunes: The British in Bengal in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 12.
46. The entry appointment was as a “Waiter” (possibly one in late teenage years), who served five years before becoming a “Factor,” and three years after would become a “Junior Merchant,” and again after three years, would reach the highest point as “Senior Merchant.”
47. Marshall, East Indian Fortunes, 10.
48. Marshall, East Indian Fortunes, 19. Later (1660s), the Company decided that individuals could get a trading license by applying to the Directors.
49. India Office Records, Home Miscellaneous, 78, 49–51 taken from Marshall, East Indian Fortunes, 21.
50. Andrew Barber, Penang Under the East India Company, 1786–1858 (Kuala Lumpur: AB & A, 2009), 42.
51. Barber, Penang, 110.
52. Dwijendra Tripathi and Jyoti Jumani, The Concise Oxford History of Indian Business (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007), 18–23.
53. Tripathi and Jumani, Concise Oxford History, 25–27.
54. Tripathi and Jumani, Concise Oxford History, 23.
55. Bhattacharya, Beyond the Myth, 27–28.
56. Tripathi and Jumani, The Concise Oxford History, 31–36.
57. Markovits, Global World of Indian Merchants. The Sindhis in Southeast Asia comprised of one of the most extensive intra-ethnic networks of indigenous communities. They were among the earliest of the trading communities to have their own merchants association (Sindhi Merchants Association in Singapore, 1921) and also provided boarding facilities for transit travelers to other parts of Southeast Asia. They also interacted with the government on policies on imports, exports, and quotas. Minutes of the meetings of the Sindhi Merchants Association held in May 30, 1946, and October 17, 1946, unpublished records of the Sindhi Merchants Association (in Sindhi language). (I am thankful to Mr. Chhatru Vaswani for the translations).
58. Singapore being one of the important nodes of connection, witnessed growth of some of the oldest firms of the colonial period in the city that had thrived and prospered for more than two/three generations, e.g., Ranchoddas Purushottamdas & Co. (1905) and Waghji Lamidas (1906). Ranchoddas carried on its transshipment business taking rice from Bangkok to Zanzibar, carrying the cloves from Zanzibar to Indonesia, and/or shipping sugar from Indonesia to India and the Middle East, thus participating in the circulation of commodities with the Bay and beyond. Devji Gopaldas Shah, Oral History Recordings. National Archives of Singapore, Accession No. A000549, Reel No. 1.
59. Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Leith, 1804, quoted from Barber, Penang, 115.
60. More elaborate discussions on these communities in the context of Singapore have been made in Bhattacharya, Beyond the Myth.
61. Different perspectives of Asian migration have been discussed in separate research works, which is not included in the discussion in this article because of space constraints. Some of the references on Asian migration, especially Indian migration trends, are mentioned. S. Arasaratnam, Indians in Malaya and Singapore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970); K. S. Sandhu, “Some Aspects of Indian Settlement in Singapore, 1819–1969,” Journal of Southeast Asian History 10, no. 2 (1969): 193–201; K. S. Sandhu and A. Mani, eds. Indian Communities in Southeast Asia (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1993); S. Amrith, Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal; Bose, Hundred Horizons; Adam McKeown, “Global Migration, 1846–1940,” Journal of World History 15, no. 2 (2004): 155–189; and Crispin Bates, ed. Community, Empire and Migration: South Asians in Diaspora (Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 2000).
63. Bose, Hundred Horizons, 113.
64. Amrith, Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia, 18–19.
65. Christophe Z. Guilmoto, “The Tamil Migration Cycle, 1830–1950,” Economic and Political Weekly 28, no. 3/4 (1993), 114. Of the number of 2,71,000 Tamil migrants to Sri Lanka between 1891and 1901, women accounted for nearly 45 percent. The number is 271, 000. However, in the article from where it is cited, it is written as 2,71,000.
66. Details of the Indian business communities and their impact in the growth of Singapore have been discussed in Bhattacharya, Beyond the Myth.
67. Edmund Augustus Blundell, “Annual Report on the Administration of the Straits Settlements during the Year 1855–56,” in Annual Reports of the Straits Settlements, 1855–1941 (Vol. 1), ed. R. L. Jarman (London: Archives Editions Ltd., 1998), 28.
68. Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, August 29, 1833 (the writer expresses concern over the festival processions: “need I ask whether such processions as we have seen in Singapore are an insult to that religion or not? and if they are, why not put an end to them?”); Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, October 31, 1833.
70. Liang, “Migration Patterns,” 397–410. One other significant work on this migrant community is by Ellen Oxfield, Blood, Sweat and Majhong: Family and Enterprise in an Overseas Chinese Community (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).
71. Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Romantic Archives: Literature and Politics of Identity in Bengal,” Critical Inquiry 30 (Spring 2004): 655. The bhadralok represented the middle and the upper middle class educated section of Bengalis who participated quite vocally in public discourses, in the reform movements and political protests. One could, however, draw a difference with a babu, or a kerani, who were also familiar with English language but had different economic and social status. For further reference, see Sumit Chakrabarti, “Space of Deprivation: The 19th Century Bengali Kerani in the Bhadralok Milieu of Calcutta,” Asian Journal of Social Science 45 (2017): 55–72.
72. Neil Khor Jin Keong, “Imperial Cosmopolitan Malaya: A Study of Realist Fiction in the “Straits Chinese Magazine,”” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 81, no. 1 (2008): 27–47.
73. For further details, refer to Png Poh Seng, The Kuomingtang in Malaya, 1912–1941,” Journal of Southeast Asian History 2, no. 1 (1961): 1–32.
74. Wu Chen-Tsai, “Chiang Kai-Shek’s Visit to India and the Indian Independence,” Chinese Studies in History 21, no. 1 (1987): 3–38.
75. Visva Bharati is Rabindranath Tagore’s university at Shantiniketan, West Bengal, established to promote China-India studies and cultural relations between India and the world. Tan Chung, ed. In the Footsteps of Xuanzhang: Tan Yun Shan and India (New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, 1999).
76. Colonel H. S. Olcott toured the island with Madame Blavatsky in 1880 to support the revival. There were also Sinhala translations of Pali canon made available to new audiences. The most remarkable was the rediscovery of the Mahavamsa (The Great Chronicle of Ceylon), which facilitated the consolidation of Ceylonese identity on the island. Olcott acted as a mentor and guide to Dharmapala, who became a leading figure in Sri Lanka’s nationalist figures and initially accompanied Olcott in his tours as interpreter. Details of the regeneration and revival of Colombo can be referred from Mark Frost, “‘Wider Opportunities’: Religious Revival, Nationalist Awakening and the Global Dimension in Colombo, 1870–1920,” Modern Asian Studies 36, no. 4 (2002): 937–967.
77. Frost, “‘Wider Opportunities,’” 959. An International Buddhist Conference was held in Calcutta in 1892 (962). Earlier in 1890, Olcott organized conventions of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists from Sri Lanka, Burma, Japan and Chittagong (in Bangladesh now) (960.)
78. Frost, “‘Wider Opportunities,’” 959.
79. The oral history narratives of Nagore Maideen provides quite detailed picture of Singapore in the 1930s. National Archives of Singapore, Oral History Department, Nagore Maideen, A 001211/20, interviewer Rajendran Supramaniam, October 8, 1990.
80. The impact of Peryiar’s activities in Malaya was discussed with equal enthusiasm more than five years later in “Our Spade Work,” Reform, August 1936, p. 4.
81. Amrith, “Mobile City,” 244–246.
82. Subhas Bose started his political career as an activist in Indian National Congress, but he later quit the party owing to serious differences with Gandhi and others. He fled India and organized diaspora Indians and others to support him in his armed fight against the British. With the help of the Japanese, he had proclaimed the Azad Hind Government under his leadership in Singapore in 1942. However, his association with the Japanese has often been misinterpreted and overwhelmed with Japanese aggressive designs in Southeast Asia, thus nourishing a negative memory of the time in popular narratives. For further readings, refer to Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941–1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); Sisir Kumar Bose, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose (New Delhi: National Book Trust, 2001); Sisir K. Bose and Sugata Bose, eds., Chalo Delhi, Writings and Speeches 1943–1945, Netaji Collected Works, Volume 12 (Calcutta: Permanent Black, 2007); and Sisir K. Bose, A. Werth, and S. A. Ayer, eds., A Beacon Across Asia—A Biography of Subhas Chandra Bose (Kolkata: Orient Blackswan, 2008).
83. Tagore’s voyages to Southeast Asia, China, and Japan in 1916, 1924, and 1927 and his interactions with the local intellectuals make a remarkable contribution to the understanding and exchange of ideas across the Bay. Tagore Centenary Volume (Singapore: Singapore Tagore Centenary Celebration Committee, 1961). Lee Siow Mong, the chairman of the Committee had paid a glowing tribute to Tagore’s mission and dissemination of his thoughts during his voyages in different parts of Southeast and East Asia. The four-month-long trip in 1927 to Southeast Asia to explore Asian cultural unity and raise funds for his university, Visva-Bharati, Shantiniketan was particularly significant. Some of the important sources on these voyages were: Rabindranath Tagore’s written letters, Javajatrir Patra [Bengali] Supriya Roy, ed., Letters from Java: Rabindranath Tagore’s Tour of Southeast Asia 1927 [Vol. 3 of Tagore Travelogues] (West Bengal: Visva Bharati, 2010); Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, Rabindra-Sangame Dweepmaya Bharat O Syama-desh, (Bengali) 1940, (Calcutta, Prakash Bhavan: 1964); Sisir Kumar Das, ed., Rabindranath Tagore—Talks in China, revised and enlarged edition (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati, 1999); Supriya Roy, ed., Talks in Japan—Rabindranath Tagore (Shizen: Kolkata, 2007); Stephen N. Hay, Asian Ideas of East and West, Tagore and His Critics in Japan, China, and India (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970); and Sugata Bose, Hundred Horizons.
84. One good example can be the recent work, Prasenjit Duara, The Crisis of Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
85. A direction of research in diaspora studies that has immense possibilities is the study of inter-ethnic communities sharing the same lived space for generations. This is most widely visible in two of the largest diasporic communities across the globe, the Chinese and the Indian diaspora. Of the few research works that are available in comparative diaspora studies, mention may be made of J. Bhattachaya and C. Kripalani, eds., Indian and Chinese Immigrant Communities: Comparative Perspectives (London: Anthem-ISEAS, 2015).