Johan Mathew, Margins of the Market: Trafficking and Capitalism across the Arabian Sea (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Johan Mathew (JM): I can answer this question in two ways, one rather boring and mundane, the other somewhat more interesting and long-winded. In one sense, I wrote this book because it was my Ph.D. dissertation project and I needed to publish it to get tenure! On the other hand, the book has its origins in a long family history that crisscrosses the Indian Ocean. I come from a small Christian community in India known as “Syrian Christians.” Historians tell us that Christian and Jewish traders from the Levant lived and traded along the Malabar Coast of southwestern India from at least the third century CE, and over time they intermarried and converted local families to the nascent faith. The community then grew and divided into various sects, but orthodox members of the community still look to the Patriarch of Antioch as the head of the church. So my ancestors had maintained long-standing but fragile links between the Middle East and South Asia. Then—quickly moving forward two millennia—I was five years old when my father’s job took us from Bombay to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I proceeded to spend most of my childhood (from five to fourteen) growing up as part of the large expatriate community in the kingdom. As many of you may know, the status of South Asians in Gulf is a rather fraught one. My family was solidly middle class, so I was sheltered from most of the negative aspects of this status, but nevertheless, I left the Gulf with a rather ambivalent attitude towards Khaleejis and the wider Arab World. With time and distance, the frustrations and slights of everyday life in the Gulf faded and my fondness for Arab cuisine and culture came to the fore. After college, I began to look back at Riyadh as a fascinating microcosm of late twentieth century globalization, and my own experience as part of a much longer history of connections across the Indian Ocean. So when I began the research for my dissertation, I was anxious to understand my own particular history within the broader strokes of trade and travel across the Indian Ocean. These varied personal experiences and histories slowly seeped out of my subconscious and pushed me to write Margins of the Market.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JM: Margins of the Market is a history of trade and trafficking across the Arabian Sea. As a result, it engages with histories of the Middle East but also South Asia, East Africa, and the Indian Ocean world. Along with a number of recent works in Middle East studies, it turns to the ocean and the connections across these waters to gain a new perspective on what is happening on shore. Moreover, rather than looking west to Europe and the Mediterranean, it looks from the Arabian Peninsula to the East and situates Arab history within a broader network of connections within the Global South.
Margins of the Market is ultimately an effort to reinterpret the history of capitalism through the lens of illicit trade. The book examines how illicit traffics contest and subvert the conceptual and institutional underpinnings of capitalist markets. So it explores the history of slave trafficking to reveal how the notion of “free labor” was defined and subverted; similarly, the history of violence and firearms traffics exposes the constitution of private property rights, and the history of gold and silver smuggling demonstrates how money itself was never a stable unit for measuring value. Consequently, the book argues that this trafficking was constitutive of capitalism itself. Margins of the Market draws particularly on scholarship in economic sociology and science and technology studies for the conceptual framing, and seeks to engage with and push forward this interdisciplinary literature on social studies of the economy.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JM: To be perfectly honest, I do not have any previous work to connect this to! I have published several articles and chapters in edited collections, all of which are either chapters from this book or loose ends from this research that did not quite fit in the book.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JM: I had written this book, hoping to reach as large an audience as possible. I valiantly worked to excise theoretical jargon, historiographical references, and my own tendency to revel in the complexity of history so that the book might be widely accessible. However, given that it is an academic book about places and people unfamiliar to audiences in the United States or Western Europe, it was never going to be read by the chattering classes. I do hope, though, that the book will be read by faculty, graduate students, and perhaps even the odd undergraduate interested in the history of capitalism or the Indian Ocean world. Initial reports do suggest that the book is being assigned in graduate courses and is receiving a hearing beyond simply historians of the Middle East or South Asia. I hope that the book helps to increase interest in histories of capitalism and political economy in the Global South, as well as deepen a growing trend towards scholarship that takes the material world as a vital object of analysis.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JM: I am currently working on a book, tentatively entitled: Opiates of the Masses: A History of Humanity in the Time of Capital. The project is about hashish and opium and what the consumption of these narcotics can tell us about capitalist labor regimes and the physical strains that capitalist economies impose on human bodies. So I have been researching how industrial workers in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia consumed narcotics as a means of pain relief that made repetitive labor and the physical discipline of factory work tolerable. Rather like the “opiate crisis” in the contemporary United States, I am finding that addiction and the abuse narcotics were connected to the loss of employment and the despair of communities without opportunities for remunerative labor. Thus my interest is not in drug trafficking but rather histories of medicine, the body, and what they can tell us about the lived experience of capitalism.
J: What can these illicit activities, whether smuggling or narcotics consumption, tell us about the larger law-abiding population?
JM: People are often a little suspicious that my work revels a little too much in the salacious details at the margins of normal society. On the one hand, I do confess that I am fascinated by scandalous and sensational quality of these issues, and that they are often not representative of the majority. However, there is little question that illicit trade constitutes a significant proportion of overall economic activity particularly in post-colonial societies. There is even less doubt that the consumption of narcotics is widespread in many if not most societies. Most importantly to me, the very scandalous quality of these commodities suggests that they conceal points of cultural sensitivity. The very sensational quality of trafficking allows us to pretend that these exchanges do not shape the formal free market of our everyday lives. Lurid and traumatic stories of addiction conceal the ways that our bodies and minds are routinely altered by substances we consume. I hope in my research and writing to reveal how the seemingly marginal corners of society are actually peeling edges where the structures that undergird our societies are brought into the light.
Excerpt from the Book:
Chapter 2: Trafficking Labor
As Political Agent in Muscat, S.B. Miles had heard some strange excuses from slave traders, but Abdulla al-Kasadi’s excuse was stranger than fiction. Abdulla al-Kasadi, a merchant from the Hadhramout valley in present-day Yemen, was returning from a long sojourn in the Indian princely state of Hyderabad. Accompanying him were his family as well as two young Indian boys, Mohsin and Mubarak, whom he insisted that he had legally purchased in India. Al-Kasadi even produced a deed of sale on government-issued, stamped paper, registered and witnessed by the government of Hyderabad. Perplexed and outraged by this document, Miles sent a letter to the British Resident at Hyderabad, demanding to know how it was possible that slavery was being legally recognized in British India. The resident eventually explained that the Hyderabad government issued this document during the recent famine to facilitate parents or relatives wishing to hand over their child for ‘maintenance’ to a charitable individual. This deed was issued to insure that the biological parents could raise no further claims over the child and to serve as official recognition of this charitable act of adoption. Though he was not pleased, Miles had to accept the exigency of the crisis in Hyderabad and the government’s interest in protecting the rights of adoptive parents. Al-Kasadi, however, had attempted to re-sell the boys in the port of Sur, so he was arrested and the boys were sent to Bombay.
The tortuous transactions of Abdullah al-Kasadi and the convoluted journeys of young Mohsin and Mubarak illustrate the vastly different ways that slavery was framed-out of the Arabian Sea. The same transaction could be documented as selfless charity and as self-interested enslavement. As colonial officials and trading networks engaged each other across the sea, each sought to make visible different characteristics of their transactions. Colonial officials examined this traffic through the paradigm of markets, particularly the slave markets and the slave trades that they had encountered in the Atlantic World. Slave traders, like al-Kasadi, responded by framing their transactions as familial affairs. Colonial officials could not discern exploitation or slavery when it was obscured by relationships like marriage and adoption. European businessmen elided these same relationships of social dependence in order to portray their transactions as the operation of a market in free labor. Free labor was only defined in the negative: anyone that was not enslaved could be categorized as a free and independent market agent. Human beings were still entrenched in networks that constrained participation in social and economic life, but human bodies were de-commodified.
The visibility of the slave trade was determined by the materiality of human bodies: their size, shape, color, and how these bodies were affixed to ships and other people. A market in free labor necessitated the movement of free bodies, so abolishing the slave trade required the evanescent distinction between enslaved bodies and bodies engaged in free labor. Consequently, abolition in the Arabian Sea was intimately tied to new racial distinctions, and affiliating certain kinds of bodies with slavery. Mobile African bodies were marked as slaves, while mobile Indian bodies were marked as free labor. Furthermore, determinations of age and gender would become flashpoints of conflict between traders and officials, and ultimately these bodies would be marked as labor or family through official certificates of marriage, adoption and manumission. Bureaucracies attempted to disembody labor, but abolition was constantly subverted by traffickers who contrived to frame family bonds as exclusive of bonded labor.
Colonial officials imagined that by destroying slave markets and liberating slaves, a free market in labor would spontaneously form to distribute their labor. While labor could be conceptually abstracted out of laboring bodies, it was much more challenging to disembody labor in practice. Human beings were neither commodities nor independent market agents, rather they were enrolled in multiple socio-economic networks. Absolute freedom was rarely very attractive, rather people wanted control over which networks they were attached to and under what conditions. Thus we are confronted with slaves who when offered freedom, emphatically wished to remain with their former masters. These slaves believed that they could sustain themselves more successfully by mobilizing the networks that they were situated in, rather than liberating themselves from all social bonds. “Independent” freedmen tended to live a very precarious existence or their independence was little more than a contrivance of colonial documentation. Transactions within colonial networks were documented as the movement of free labor, while similar transactions through Arab diasporas were maligned as slave traffics. These regulations did not establish a labor market so much as they framed the flow of bodies through particular networks as the operation of a market in free labor.
Transactions in labor, rather than laboring conditions, were consequently the central concern of British officials. A number of historians have highlighted the persistence of relations of social domination after abolition. While the word slavery was slowly excised from colonial discourse, its characteristics persisted in everything but name. Indeed, colonial officials across the Arabian Sea were hesitant to abolish slavery itself for fear of alienating cooperative elites and the social revolution that this would entail. So, for all their sanctimonious rhetoric, British officials were very much complicit in the perpetuation of slavery. Even their ostensible success in abolishing of the slave trade did not prevent transactions in bonded labor. The illicit slave trade easily overcame the meager imperial efforts to stop it. Abolition also turned a profit for the British Empire, as it became the manager and beneficiary of a massive trade in Indian “coolie” labor. This chapter consequently traces out these multifarious impacts of the abolition of the slave trade in the Arabian Sea. If abolition was a process of framing-out slaves from the market, then the movement of bonded human bodies continued to undergird the market in free labor.
The process of abolishing the slave trade in the Arabian Sea began in 1822 when the British Empire negotiated a treaty with Sayyid Saʿīd al Bu-Saʿīdi, the Sultan of Muscat and Zanzibar. Under this treaty, Sayyid Saʿīd prohibited the export of slaves from his dominions, declaring this “external” trade as piracy. This label granted the ships of the Royal Navy the right to seize slave-trading ships beyond an imaginary line extending from Cape Delgado to Diu. In 1845, Sayyid Saʿīd signed another treaty prohibiting the export of slaves from his African dominions and the import of slaves into his Asian dominions. Sayyid Saʿīd died in 1856, and with his sons warring over their late father’s empire, British officials decided to play Solomon. In 1861, they divided the empire between Asia and Africa, severing the very maritime connection that had made it so wealthy and powerful. Finally, in 1873, the Sultan of Zanzibar agreed to completely abolish the slave trade. This treaty was supposed to be the culmination of Britain’s abolitionist mission, however it proved to be a veneer over the tumultuous process of suppressing the commerce in human beings.
The export of slaves from East Africa continued on a significant scale for a quarter of a century after the abolition treaties of 1873. This large scale trade was mostly stanched by the de-facto colonization of Zanzibar in 1897, yet despite the consolidation of colonial rule along the east coast of Africa a small traffic continued particularly across the Red Sea. In the 1930s, a new slave trade from Iranian and British Baluchistan developed across the Gulf to the Arabian Peninsula. By the 1950s when oil wealth of the Gulf states started to increase their demand for labor, these same networks were activated to supply labor from South Asia and Africa. Thus the abolition of the slave trade altered and re-routed the flow of bonded labor without stopping it.
This chapter argues that abolitionist efforts neglected the smuggling traffic, condoned those slave transactions which resembled kinship transactions, and privileged British businesses in transactions of “free” labor. From their experiences in the Atlantic, British officials assumed that the Arabian Sea slave trade was structured by slave markets. However, the trafficking of slaves across the Arabian Sea did not depend on markets but was largely facilitated by dispersed social networks. Abolitionism in the Arabian Sea had three consequences, firstly it produced a distinct smuggling traffic in slaves. Secondly, adoption and marriage became non-market exchanges by which the substantial traffic in women and children was legalized. Thirdly, British bureaucrats and businessmen simply replaced slave traders in profiting from the disposal of laboring bodies. Subtle semantic shifts allowed British official to document a victory against the slave trade by overlooking, condoning and co-opting labor traffics for their own benefit. The abolition of the slave trade was supposed to establish a free market in wage labor. Instead, both imperial officials and diasporic merchants contrived to frame-out enslaved bodies from the market, while facilitating a traffic in bonded labor.