Matthew S. Hopper, Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.
Johan Mathew, Margins of the Market: Trafficking and Capitalism across the Arabian Sea. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.
Thomas F. McDow, Buying Time: Debt and Mobility in the Western Indian Ocean. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2018.
In the past decade, Indian Ocean history has witnessed something of a renaissance. Inspired by Fernand Braudel’s monumental analysis of the early modern Mediterranean, early works on the Indian Ocean elucidated a dynamic social space of connections that they assumed to have disintegrated with the arrival of the Europeans. Scholarship of the last few decades has questioned the inevitability of the transition from empires to nation-states, while interrogating the usefulness of the area studies model. This has propelled new analysis of the dynamic interactions between Indian Ocean networks and the expanding, though fragmented, institutions and ideologies of European empire. Still, this new “thalassology” has prioritized certain spaces and connections. Much of this scholarship relies on the culturally bounded trading diaspora, predominantly South Asian and Muslim, as its unit of analysis, and consequently focuses on the question of its resilience or decline during the region’s apparent transition from an Islamic sea to a British lake. At the same time, port cities and cosmopolitan coastal societies remain the quintessential spaces of the Indian Ocean, while the interior societies of East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, for example, continue to be overlooked within this revitalized study of the Indian Ocean.
Three recently published monographs by Matthew Hopper, Thomas McDow, and Johan Mathew draw on a range of neglected sources to push the spatial and conceptual boundaries of this new Indian Ocean space in important ways. In Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire, Matthew Hopper reads missionary, colonial, and commercial archives against and along the grain to recover the silenced experiences of enslaved Africans in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Arabia and to show the centrality of their labor to expanding global commodity networks. Proceeding from the analysis of an exciting new archive of Arabic financial documents, Thomas McDow’s Buying Time: Debt and Mobility in the Western Indian Ocean illuminates the multiple entangled histories of an impressively broad range of actors, from sultans to slaves, while demonstrating the crucial and multidirectional connections between port cities and interior spaces and societies in central East Africa and Oman. In Margins of the Market: Trafficking and Capitalism Across the Arabian Sea, Johan Mathew mines a wealth of colonial and private archives to bring to light the elusive trafficking networks that frustrated colonial officials throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and both defined and challenged the legal and conceptual margins of the free market.
Each author, then, takes up the particular challenge of writing Indian Ocean histories—how to at once convey the region’s dazzling diversity, while producing a coherent analysis of its connectivity—and advances a compelling, though in some cases underdeveloped, framework for conceptualizing the turbulent world of the long nineteenth century. It is this element that brings the Indian Ocean worlds depicted by each author into conversation with the emerging scholarship on global capitalism. Like Indian Ocean studies, the history of capitalism is far from a new field of study and indeed, the dynamics of globalization have long been a concern of Indian Ocean scholars. Yet the last decade has seen the incorporation of perspectives from the Global South as constitutive of, rather than peripheral to, contemporary capitalism. Long the home of sophisticated and adaptable regional networks of production and exchange and the site of renewed transnational competition, cooperation, and conflict, the Indian Ocean, as all three authors show, is a particularly exciting space in which to examine continuities and shifts in the history of global capitalism.
I will begin with the most theoretically rich of the three monographs. In his engaging account of trafficking and capitalism across the Arabian Sea, Johan Mathew presents “a history of the market, but from the margins” (18). And indeed, the concept of margins functions in several ways in his work. Firstly, Mathew argues convincingly that the relatively neglected space of the Arabian Sea provides a unique vantage point for the history of modern capitalism; structured by “enormous heterogeneity”—cultural, economic, and political—and by the “dense connectivity” of old and new exchanges in the nineteenth century, the region proved to be particularly difficult for European empires and capital to control (4). Mathew’s aim, then, is to trace the ways that the various exchanges of the Arabian Sea came to be categorized as forms of trafficking, that is, as “trades that undermined the foundations of capitalism” (5). This process he understands through the concept of framing. Defining the territorial history of capitalism as the incorporation into the market of land, labor, and capital—the holy trinity for classical political economists and Marxists alike—Mathew contends that the maritime version of this tale necessarily takes an inverted form. Thus, in the Arabian Sea, firearms, human beings, and coins became the “intermediaries” that, following Michel Callon, both framed and overflowed the free market. Margins is both the story of how imperial bureaucracies sought to identify, elide, and suppress these “problematic commodities” and of how merchants contrived to “engage, co-opt, and domesticate” the burgeoning British bureaucratic system, forcing colonial officials to constantly redefine the legal and conceptual boundaries of capitalism and trafficking (12).
While this dialectic of framing out and contrivance is in some ways a neat articulation of a rather familiar narrative of the making of and reaction to colonial governance, Mathew brings a wealth of new archival material to his examination of the spatial and conceptual margins of the market. Chapter one on the dhow trade in the age of steamships, which will prove the most accessible for undergraduates, shows clearly the continuous interplay of colonial regulation and merchant contrivance. Moving beyond the existing debate of resilience and decline, moreover, Mathew illuminates the interrelatedness of the dhow and steamship trades; working with fundamentally different conceptions of space, time, and profit, “dhow traffics” could become “the informal capillaries that fed into the arterial routes of steamship lines” (51). Moving on to the conceptual margins of the market, a chapter on trafficking labor mostly adds empirical weight to well-established arguments about slavery and abolition in the region: that legitimate trade and freedom were constituted by the categorization of the slave trade as illicit traffic and slavery as unfree labor, that in practice, abolition replaced slavery with various other kinds of unfree labor, and that the ambiguities of British abolitionism in the region were particularly gendered. But the following chapter provides a fascinating exploration of firearms as particularly slippery commodities that exposed the paradox of violence in the functioning of the free market.
It is the fourth chapter on money, however, that takes us beyond the call-and-response model of colonialism and contrivance and advances the most powerful concept in the book: that of arbitrage, which Mathew defines as “exchanges that profited from the differences between markets” (13). A bewildering array of currencies and financial instruments circulated around and interacted within the western Indian Ocean in the nineteenth century, including cowries and other local and regional commodity currencies, the Maria Theresa thaler and Indian rupee, as well as other princely currencies, and different kinds of Islamic and Indian paper obligations. Such diversity, as well as the competing conceptions of money that structured these financial circulations, challenged political economists’ assumption that money acted as a standard of value and as an avatar of capital; money could only assume these roles in European national economies, because it had been “transfigur[ed] . . . from a lump of solid metal into a transparent veil” (115). In the context of the Arabian Sea, then, Mathew argues that colonial governments had to intervene significantly to “neutralize money,” to frame it out of the market, even as colonial monetary policy attempted to “operate invisibly” (116). Crucially, colonial states relied on various kinds of mediators to link abstract monetary policies with the financial practices of ordinary Indian Ocean actors.
Such an argument, as Mathew acknowledges, is reminiscent of those in Rajat Kanta Ray’s seminal work on the Asian bazaar. Yet it is the chapter’s examination of the opportunities and practices of arbitrage developed by merchants and merchant bankers that illuminates most clearly the dialectic, rather than the distinct spheres, of trafficking and capitalism. With a primary focus on monetary traffics within and to and from India, Mathew describes arbitrage at various scales: from the simple, but notorious counterfeiting practices of the Chapperband tribe to the profits derived from unregulated charitable currencies by Gujarati merchants importing Muscat baiza that were sold to upper-class Indians to distribute at weddings for social capital to the changing role of shroffs (merchant bankers) as evaluators of coin value and brokers in exchange banks. “The final outcome of . . . efforts to stabilize and unify money,” Mathew concludes, “was a disparate range of currency forms connected by networks of arbitrage” (142). Thus, arbitrage is understood as both a set of economic practices that emerged from long-standing familiarity with “divergent valuations” and a creative response to the turbulence wrought by an expanding colonial capitalism.
One can find intriguing points of comparison and connection, moreover, between Mathew’s concept of arbitrage and Thomas McDow’s examination of various kinds of “temporizing” in the nineteenth-century western Indian Ocean. “To temporize,” McDow explains, “is to adopt a course of action to conform to circumstances; to wait for a more favorable moment” and perhaps most intriguingly “to negotiate to gain time” (8-9). Buying Time, then, explores two interrelated forms of temporizing: debt and mobility. Such a framework potentially does more than “preserve a sense of historical contingency,” as McDow would have it (9); rather, like arbitrage, temporizing can be seen as a way of conceptualizing how Indian Ocean actors negotiated the turbulent world of the nineteenth century. For, also like arbitrage, these two “temporizing strategies” worked through the negotiation of differences in time and space. Following David Graeber, McDow argues that debt is an exchange not yet brought to completion and that “what remains in that equation is time” (12); recent economic anthropology also defines credit as the value derived from delaying the fulfillment of an obligation. Moreover, both in his analysis in chapter two of the Jairam Shivji firm, which functioned as both customs master and “apex creditor” for much of the second half of the nineteenth century, and in his examination of the financial and commercial activities of manumitted Africans in chapter six, McDow illuminates indebtedness as a “common language” that pervaded all strata of East Africa’s “multiethnic society” (46). Mobility, on the other hand, was both facilitated by credit and a key strategy for elite and non-elite actors alike to delay payment, as well as to take advantage of potential or promised opportunities elsewhere.
Yet despite its omission from the title, it is kinship that emerges as the book’s most theorized concept. Chapter five, in particular, usefully engages the extensive anthropological literature on kinship and uses the life of infamous trader, Tippu Tip, to illustrate the diverse networks of patrilineal, matrilineal, fraternal, and marital kin that formed a crucial infrastructure for commercial actors in the western Indian Ocean. Scholars of East Africa, of course, have long argued that reliance on multiple networks of association was crucial for non-elite actors seeking to mitigate the vulnerabilities of the late nineteenth century. And one can certainly read both the preceding chapter’s analysis of the ambiguous baysari identity and the limits of fluidity in the connected cosmopolitan societies of Oman and East Africa and chapter six’s exploration of manumission, patronage, and mobility in this vein. This more expansive definition of kinship, however, has been slow to influence scholars of trading networks and business communities that crossed the Indian Ocean, despite the assumption that familial and communal intimacy formed the basis of communal trust. Buying Time, then, is a welcome intervention into a body of scholarship that is profoundly neglectful of gender as an analytical category, as well as of concepts from Africa.
The biographical lens of chapter five also places it within a growing body of global microhistories. As recent work by Tonio Andrade, Francesca Trivellato, and Emma Rothschild contends, microhistories of the global not only populate abstract models and theories, but also illuminate the often-forgotten interconnected lives that produce global transformations (see Hopper, 15). McDow’s final two chapters develop this approach most fully and they are consequently the two most successful chapters. Drawing on an extensive and diverse source base, McDow is able to spin the fascinating tale of religious leader and rebel Sheikh Salih bin Ali al-Harthi and in so doing elucidate the deep connections between the credit economy of East Africa, the turbulent politics of the interior of Oman, and the expansion of British influence in the Gulf.
Yet more intriguing is the story of the formerly enslaved trader who built the first dhow to sail on Lake Victoria. Known alternatively as Msabbah and Songoro, the dhow builder is an enigmatic figure who straddled the changing worlds of the coast and the interior. It is in this chapter, then, that McDow truly shows off his archival mastery, weaving the accounts of missionaries, explorers, and colonial court records with the fascinating, though fragmentary evidence from Arabic deeds to illuminate the “micropolitics of debt, kinship, and mobility” (191). Most suggestive is McDow’s contention that Songoro “lived at the interstices of written documents and face-to-face negotiations,” a position that is most evident in the description of his dispute with Lukonge, the ruler of Ukerewe island. Songoro’s dhow had been built with wood advanced on credit from the Ukerewe king and so when the Church Mission Society missionaries, who had bought it half-completed from Songoro, attempted to launch the boat, Lukonge protested. What proceeded was a dispute, a tournament perhaps, over the value and validity of the paper instrument by which the dhow was sold, as well as the meaning of unwritten obligations and ownership. Moments such as these reveal the dialogue not only of axiological regimes, but also of written and oral, abstract and personal obligations that connected coast and interior through a language of indebtedness.
I would have liked to see McDow dig deeper into such moments, drawing more on the conceptual frameworks of economic anthropology perhaps and making clearer the linkages between Songoro’s story and the customs of credit and political economies of manumission and mobility explored in previous chapters. In fact, Buying Time would have benefited from a fuller commitment to the global microhistory methodology as a means of weaving together the different threads of his analysis. One finds oneself at times dizzy from McDow’s shifts in framework and focus, and the book is consequently somewhat unwieldy. A clearer chronological arc may have helped, but, as Mathew points out, the heterogeneity of the western Indian Ocean places limitations on a linear or progressive narrative. Certainly, one can appreciate McDow’s dedication to forgoing the easy chronology of British imperial expansion and building a narrative around the multiple perspectives and directionalities of this truly expanded Indian Ocean space.
Recovering enslaved life stories from missionary and colonial archives and tracing commodity histories from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, Slaves of One Master is also an excellent example of a global microhistory that provides unique perspectives on slavery and capitalism. Studies of slavery are a staple of Indian Ocean history and at the core of now well-entrenched revisionist histories of capitalism in the Atlantic world, both of which Hopper builds on; but the previously neglected view from Arabia provides a number of correctives to scholarly assumptions. Contrary to standard histories of the Indian Ocean, which assume that the actions of the British Royal Navy reduced the region’s slave trade to a “trickle” by the final decade of the nineteenth century, Hopper shows that the East African trade to Arabia continued well into the twentieth century. This trade, chapter one argues convincingly, was thoroughly modern and global; it tapped into networks and institutions that had developed in response to a dramatic increase in European demand in the nineteenth century and supplied labor to date and pearl economies that were geared toward global export production. Thus, Hopper reinforces recent Middle Eastern scholarship that contests definitions of “Islamic slavery” as primarily domestic, elite, and non-productive, as well as challenging scholarly distinctions between the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean; rather, “the growth of African communities in the Gulf” should be seen as “part of an economy that—like its predecessor in the Atlantic—was influenced by global forces” (6). And indeed, it is the linkages that Hopper draws—with an Atlantic past, but also, in a more nuanced way, with the contemporary Gulf—that are the book’s most notable contributions.
Hopper’s clearest arguments about what he terms globalization emerge in chapters two and three, which, drawing inspiration from the work of Sidney Mintz and other Atlantic scholars, trace the concurrent development of Arabian economies’ participation in global commodity markets and their dependence on slave labor. New appetites for dates in America and the renewed fashion in pearls among old and new elites in Europe and America stimulated Arabian economies and increased demand for enslaved plantation laborers and divers. Chapter two also suggests that the importers and buyers of Arabian dates—mostly American, but also Arab—transformed American tastes and imaginations about the Orient. But Hopper’s remains a rather unidirectional and predictable understanding of globalization: enslaved Africans labored to produce commodities for Western consumption. Scholars of East Africa, most notably Jeremy Prestholdt, have challenged this genealogy of globalization, showing how the sophisticated demands of East African consumers, both elite and enslaved, shaped global commodity networks. There are certainly economic and social differences between these two spaces. Yet, given the source of the African labor and the similarities with the earlier development of the clove industry on the islands of Zanzibar, as well as continuities and connections on the financing side, it is surprising that Hopper does not engage more deeply with this scholarship.
Hopper’s fourth chapter on African life in Arabia does provide intriguing points of comparison between enslaved experiences of globalization in Arabia and East Africa. Historians have argued that most enslaved and manumitted East Africans on the Swahili coast sought to deny mainland origins and integrate into the Muslim coastal communities that had enslaved them. While this was true in Arabian societies also, Hopper finds at least some examples of emancipated Africans seeking to return to their homeland. Take the fascinating case of Soloman, who worked for the Reformed Church of America’s mission in Bahrain before migrating to Harlem, New York. In 1934, at least a decade after moving to the United States, Soloman petitioned the British vice consul in Muscat for documentary proof of his emancipation so that he could “return to his native country, East Africa” (140). The case of Soloman also exposes the ambiguities of emancipation and manumission; Soloman feared returning to East Africa without documentation of his liberation, because re-enslavement continued to be a real possibility throughout the early twentieth century. The possibility remained despite the fact that manumission was widely practiced before and after British rule. For, though manumitted slaves were given documentary proof of their free status, “the document had value only where it was respected by others” (133). Willful dismissal of their documents was only one danger that emancipated slaves faced in Indian Ocean societies in the era of abolition. All three authors highlight what McDow calls “insincere manumission” and the concealment of slavery through the language of kin, as well as the limits to freedom and expectations of labor placed on those slaves who were “rescued” by the Royal Navy. The framing out of human trafficking from the free market, then, was never complete.
In fact, Slaves of One Master is most compelling when it suggests continuities with present forms of globalization. Pearling, for example, involved both enslaved and ostensibly free laborers and depended heavily on debt bondage. Hopper’s analysis, then, hints at comparisons and continuities between nineteenth- and twentieth-century forms of bonded labor and many Gulf states’ contemporary reliance on indebted migrant laborers. And as Hopper points out, Western consumers in the nineteenth century, as consumers today, thought little about the conditions of bonded and enslaved laborers, even as they protested an abstract notion of slavery. I would like to have seen Hopper draw these connections more strongly, particularly in his final chapter on the end of the slave trade. He makes a strong case for the impact of competing date and pearl industries in California and Japan on commodity production in Arabia, arguing, “the forces of globalization that helped create global markets for Arabian commodities also helped destroy them” (210). But his discussion of the other factors precipitating the end of the trade—Portuguese intervention in Mozambique and the development of new sources of labor—is less developed. Both the enslavement of Baluchis and the kidnapping and re-enslavement of manumitted Africans begs the question of how new these sources and forms of labor really were. Moreover, slavery was still legal in some Gulf countries as late as 1971, by which time the oil industry was well established in the region. Hopper notes that Gulf sheikhdoms were able to use oil money to compensate slave owners who manumitted their slaves, while many former slaves found work in the burgeoning oil industry. Exploring such historical connections, as Hopper suggests in his introduction, has the potential to challenge the conventional “‘rags-to-riches’ image of a region long impoverished before the development of oil under the benevolent tutelage of the region’s sheikhs and sultans,” while also providing a unique perspective on the history of contemporary forms of globalization (6). That being said, such questions are perhaps beyond the scope of this study and, as Hopper suggests in his epilogue, come up against both archival and contemporary forms of silencing and forgetting.
It is perhaps the temporal proximity of slavery in Arabian societies that raises the stakes of such strategies of erasure. Yet the challenge of archival silences and biases is another point of convergence for the three authors and in general a source of frustration for scholars seeking to produce socio-economic histories of the nineteenth-century Indian Ocean. For while the Indian Ocean is a source-rich space for much of its history, the archive from the nineteenth century onward, if not earlier, is largely a colonial one and as a consequence many works of the new Indian Ocean history are, in practice, histories of empire at sea. This charge could be levied somewhat at Margins of the Market, which, despite the impressive bibliography, relies most heavily on British colonial and business records and consequently presents a much clearer picture of the colonial project of framing than of the more intriguing practices of contrivance and arbitrage.
The exception is in Mathew’s final chapter, which begins with a fascinating analysis of what he terms the “negotiated value” of vernacular capitalism. Rooted in an analysis of Arabic accounts books, as well as some linguistic evidence, Mathew successfully shows that Arabic accounting practices in the Indian Ocean were far from the under-developed cousin of double-entry account-keeping, but rather perfectly suited to forms of exchange and value on which the Indian Ocean functioned far into the nineteenth (and indeed the twentieth century). Because success in Indian Ocean markets was dependent on various forms of arbitrage—deriving value from the margins between commodities, time, and spaces—“transactions, contracts, and prices were treated, not as rigid and intractable commitments, but as part of a relationship in which both parties had to operate flexibly, sacrificing the profits of particular transactions in order to maintain enduring commercial relationships” (153). Thus, “whereas double-entry accounts allow legibility, commensurability, and surveillance, the Arabic accounts created a more embodied and contingent knowledge” (155). This distinction should not be read as a revival of a gemeinschaft/gestalltschaft distinction, however; rather, Mathew’s analysis suggests that such features of Indian Ocean capitalism were particularly well suited for the choppy waters of the long nineteenth century.
In contrast to these exceptional flashes in Mathew’s work, such quotidian vernacular documents are the building blocks of McDow’s archive and the result is a more innovative Indian Ocean history. The Arabic deeds (waraqa) that McDow analyzes, like the enslaved life stories that Hopper relies upon, are mediated objects; an “archive within an archive,” most waraqa survive because they were included in cases brought before British courts or registered with the British consulate (46-47). Yet read carefully, which McDow succeeds in doing, these documents also reveal a transactional world that exceeds the temporal and spatial boundaries of empire. Crucially, this fiduciary culture was not a static Islamic one. Waraqa functioned within an Islamic legal space, inscribing obligations using the lexicons of Islamic law and avoiding, in appearance at least, those practices, such as usury, that were prohibited by the Qur’an. But they were also the products of and participants in the diverse social spaces of the western Indian Ocean; a large number of the waraqa registered in the period covered by McDow’s research, for example, involved creditors from the Hindu Bhattia community from the Princely States of Kachchh and Kathiawad. Analysis of such documents, then, may help to flesh out and nuance Isobel Hofmeyr’s recent claim that Islam was both a “grammar” of the Indian Ocean and “one of its modes of universalism.” Through them, it is possible to examine the shared concepts, values, logics, and practices that facilitated commercial relationships across religious and communal boundaries and adapted to and incorporated the changing political economies of the western Indian Ocean. Such exciting new sources, then, potentially produce a very different narrative, one that moves beyond the encounter of a European global and non-Western local-isms or of the dynamic logics of capitalism and the bewilderments of static commercial cultures.
All three authors discussed here make important and connected contributions to the history of global capitalism in the western Indian Ocean. McDow illuminates a sophisticated system of credit and obligation that connected elite and non-elite actors in both the coastal and interior societies of the western Indian Ocean. This pervasive language of indebtedness, moreover, may be seen as a mode of universalism that Europeans and Americans had to come to terms with on entering the region. Mathew provides a compelling new framework for understanding this encounter as a dialectic of colonial governance and merchant contrivance. In this framework, arbitrage is a particularly useful concept that not only shows how Indian Ocean actors adapted financial practices to negotiate the turbulence of the nineteenth century, but also suggests that such negotiations were productive of, rather than peripheral to, global capitalism. Finally, Hopper shows that Indian Ocean production and exchange was deeply connected to Atlantic capitalism from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries and further suggests that the roots of contemporary globalization can be sought in the Indian Ocean.