Margins of the Market: Trafficking and Capitalism across the Arabian Sea

Margins of the Market: Trafficking and Capitalism across the Arabian Sea

by Johan Mathew

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What is the relationship between trafficking and free trade? Is trafficking the perfection or the perversion of free trade? Trafficking occurs thousands of times each day at borders throughout the world, yet we have come to perceive it as something quite extraordinary. How did this happen, and what role does trafficking play in capitalism? To answer these questions, Johan Mathew traces the hidden networks that operated across the Arabian Sea in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Following the entangled history of trafficking and capitalism, he explores how the Arabian Sea reveals the gaps that haunt political borders and undermine economic models. Ultimately, he shows how capitalism was forged at the margins of the free market, where governments intervened, and traffickers turned a profit.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520288553
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/10/2016
Series: California World History Library , #24
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Johan Mathew is Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

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Margins of the Market

Trafficking and Capitalism Across the Arabian Sea

By Johan Mathew


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96342-9


Commoditizing Transport

Hain baghla daqit bi daqaliha

What baghla ever straightened on account of its own mast?


DHOWS IN the ARABIAN SEA are the very image of the romantic Orient: sails billowing in the wind, half-naked brown men climbing up a raking mast, and perhaps some whitewashed Saracenic architecture in the background. Photographs of dhows intimate a world on the verge of extinction: they capitalize on nostalgia and the charm of anachronism. Yet it is not altogether clear what a dhow is: dhows belong to that category of "You know it when you see it." Contemporary scholars and the British administrators that preceded them have struggled to identify the unifying aspects of this diverse group of vessels. The name dhow was already widely in use and was a commonly understood referent, but colonial officials and historians wracked their brains to define this ambiguous category. Lateen sails, raked masts, teak hulls, and nail-less construction were all suggested as the defining characteristic of dhows, yet invariably some vessel that was widely considered a dhow proved to be an exception. Yet maybe officials were going about the problem in the wrong way: perhaps it was precisely this feeling of nostalgia and romanticism that defined the category of the dhow. I'd suggest that dhows were defined not by the physical qualities of the vessel's construction but by the way that European observers interacted with these vessels as a picturesque anachronism. Dhows cannot be understood as a clearly defined class of ships extracted and abstracted from the networks and environments in which they operated.

Dhow captains, known as nakhudas, and dhow crews were of course too busy sailing and trading to concern themselves with such categorical quandaries. These sailors referred to their ships as baghlas, sambuks, booms, pattimars, machwas, and so on. European officials in the Indian Ocean could not make these fine distinctions, but they could easily distinguish dhows as a category from the steamships that they were invariably traveling upon. Floating alongside a steamship, dhows appeared small, insignificant, and doomed to obsolescence. I do not want to suggest that dhows were actually anachronisms; rather, the category of the dhow made sense only when these vessels were placed in an anachronistic relationship with the "modern" European steamship.

Yet over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this seeming anachronism persisted and even thrived in the waters of the Arabian Sea. Strangely enough, it was because of this anachronistic quality that dhows were able to thrive. Colonial regulators saw dhows as a relic of traditional transportation and consequently as insignificant components of the modern world of trade. This colonial neglect allowed dhows to carry goods and make profits in places and trades that regulators deemed insignificant. They served ports and populations that steamship lines were incapable of reaching. Steamships could benefit from economies of scale by servicing trunk routes, but they relied on the feeder routes of dhows to obtain and distribute goods from major entrepôts to smaller anchorages. It appeared as if steamships existed in a separate time from dhows, but the image of modernity symbolized by the steamship was contingent on obscured and often illicit dhow traffics. It is essential to understand dhows and steamships not as isolated and abstract vessels but as interdependent components of a complex network of people, goods, and vessels that connected the Arabian Sea littoral.

The epigraph to this chapter points us to this fact. The baghla, a type of dhow, had a particularly precarious appearance, with a tall slanting mast and lateen sail that made it seem to be on the verge of falling over. One scholar called this lateen sail "the most dangerous rig ever devised by the wit of man." Yet in the hands of an experienced nakhuda and a capable crew, and directed in the right relationship to the winds and currents, this ungainly vehicle became quite elegant and efficient. On its own the baghla listed, but in concert with people, wind, and cargo it sailed straight and true. Both colonial officials and more recent scholars have tended to focus on the ancient technologies and material qualities of dhows, divorced from these wider networks and contexts. Dhows as abstracted vessels did not change very much between the eighteenth century and the second half of the twentieth. Yet the goods that dhows carried, the routes they plied, and the networks in which they operated were transformed to accommodate steamship lines and circumvent colonial regulations. These changing networks were both invisible and integral to the steamship lines that crossed the Arabian Sea.

Dhows became invisible because the British Empire imposed new ways of seeing and conceiving of the Arabian Sea. New techniques of scientific cartography elided long porous coastlines and dense littoral traffics. Dhows inhabited a littoral world: one in which the sea was the center and the shore was marginal. Colonial maps reversed this order, conceiving of the world as centered on territorial states and enclosed markets. Coastlines were carefully demarcated and territories were clearly indicated by different colors. The sea was just the empty space left over, a vast barren frontier or margin between bounded territories. The littoral perspective of dhows was cartographically effaced and commercially marginalized. Colonial maps depicted coastlines that were closed except at specific ports where customs officials could closely monitor, control, and tax the flow of commodities. However, this vision of free markets was made possible only by the framing out of dhows that frequented foreign enclaves, neglected harbors, and hidden coves. The coastline and the port were thus the limit of the market where governments could intervene to preserve freedom within the market. The littoral was a geographic margin but continued to be a hive of activity that was sidelined only in the geographic imaginations of colonial officials.

The vast expanse of the sea was consequently a marginal space par excellence, a no-man's-land between territorial states. The Arabian Sea was a space of freedom but also a potentially chaotic space haunted by pirates, sharks, typhoons, and reefs. Steamship lines effaced this tortuous terrain and worked to make the sea a barren, flat expanse between territorial markets. Steamers turned the vicissitudes of crossing the Arabian Sea into a straight line connecting one market to another. Where dhows traveled only with the monsoon and charged variable fares, steamships covered these distances in roughly the same time, year round and for the same price. Steamships were "liners" because they formed a constant line of connection that instantiated the lines drawn on modern maps. Trade across the sea was broken down into increments of nautical miles, and the price of transportation was calibrated to this objective measure of distance. Transportation consequently became a commodity that had a calculable price incorporated into abstract, free market exchange. Steamer lines dominated the formal market by framing out the volatilities of the maritime environment; dhows thrived in informal trade by capitalizing on the volatilities of space, season, and social life.

Just beneath the pacific image of stately ships effortlessly crossing the sea was the chaotic reality of dhows darting into hidden coves, passengers smuggling goods through customs, and bureaucrats frantically managing the confusion of people at dockside. Imperial subsidies, discriminatory regulations, and the contrivances of dhows were responsible for funneling trade into orderly steamship lines. Only with these essential support networks could steamships profit from economies of scale in cargo and passenger traffic. Colonial officials dismissed dhow trade as peddling: a small-scale, irrational, and obsolete form of commerce. Scholars of the early modern Indian Ocean have rightly contested this characterization, but there may be something worth rescuing in the term peddling. By the late nineteenth century, when European steamships dominated large-scale transport, dhows survived by operating in niche markets. Dhow traffics could be characterized as peddling in that they were more nimble, responsive, and elastic than the rigid and encumbered bureaucracies of steamship lines. Peddling need not be irrational or archaic but rather can be a creative response to changing conditions of trade and geography. Dhow captains were not the vanguard of the capitalist bourgeoisie, but they were sharp traders who used their mobility to exploit information asymmetries, market imperfections, and arbitrage opportunities. Only by framing out dhows and peddling could steamship lines form the hegemonic image of transportation in the Arabian Sea.

This chapter will consequently trace how the global network of steamship lines was dependent on dhow traffics peddling their wares on the monsoon winds. We will begin by tracing the itineraries of dhows, how they navigated through the Arabian Sea, and how they circumvented new orderings of space developed for steam travel. Then we will examine how the British Empire strove to bring dhows under the Union Jack and how dhow traffics evaded British jurisdiction. The chapter will subsequently investigate the regulations and fixed capital investments in port infrastructures that connected dhow traffics to global steamship lines. Last, we will turn to the rebates, cartels, and anticompetitive business practices that made steamship lines profitable. Colonial governments intervened extensively in the spatial margins of the market, regulating commodity flows across the sea and through ports to produce free markets within the coastline. From the bow of a steamship liner, the sea appeared as a flat homogeneous expanse between bounded free markets. The geopolitical map of the Arabian Sea showed clearly defined borders and precisely calculated distances, but this image was both undermined and undergirded by marginal dhow traffics.


Dhows exhibited an improbable resilience to the onslaught of the latest European technologies and suspicious bureaucrats. The persistence of dhows was not a consequence of any particular mechanical advantage or of a cultural resistance to innovations. Rather, dhows thrived in a world of steamships precisely because they adapted their networks to the changing world around them. Nakhudas were canny operators who adapted their business to the routes where they were protected from the competition of steamship lines and the spaces where they were protected from the invasive attentions of colonial bureaucrats. Dhow traffics evolved and rerouted so that these vessels continued to be the preferred method of transportation for a particular niche of goods and people crossing the Arabian Sea.

The slipperiness of the term dhow proved to be a frustration to regulators and a boon to trafficking networks. In 1889–90, European diplomats, ostensibly concerned with the slave trade, came together in Brussels and tried to define and regulate these sailing craft. The General Act of the Brussels Conference established definitions that would be repeated in a number of colonial regulations throughout the Arabian Sea. British authorities in East Africa, Aden, and India copied this language wholesale and incorporated it into colonial law. The Brussels Conference divided ships on the Arabian Sea into three categories: fishing boats, trading dhows, and steamships. The Brussels Conference enforced the least amount of regulation on fishing boats. It required only that these vessels carry a license specifying basic information about the vessel, its crew, and the waters in which it was permitted to sail. Since these vessels were not expected to engage in international trade, the delegates at the Brussels Conference presumed that that they could not be used for smuggling or slave trading. However, naval officers had long suspected that pearling and fishing vessels were being used to carry slaves on a small scale. Pearling boats in particular could be at sea for months and had many opportunities to sneak across territorial waters. Moreover, the Straits of Hormuz, the channel between Zanzibar and German Tanganyika, and the Bab el-Mandeb all posed a threat because of the short distance between different jurisdictions. Traffickers frequently took advantage of fishing boats to move illicit goods and people across these short stretches of the sea. The category of fishing boats was too vague to regulate and thus provided an opening for trafficking.

Under the Brussels Conference regulations, one step above fishing boats were trading dhows. Since it was impossible to define dhows by any physical characteristic, European diplomats took recourse to indigeneity as a rule of thumb. Article 31 of the General Act defined a "native vessel" in the following way:

1. It shall present the outward appearance of native build or rigging.

2. It shall be manned by a crew of whom the captain and the majority of the seamen belong by origin to one of the countries on the coast of the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, or the Persian Gulf.

The definition was rather circular: a "native vessel" was a vessel that appeared to be "native" and whose crew was native to the Indian Ocean littoral. Though this definition was awkward, the General Act attempted to regulate this diffuse category of vessels to prevent trafficking. Unsurprisingly, officials quickly discovered dhows that escaped the definition of a native vessel, and European ships that tried to fall under dhow regulations.

The accurate measurement of dhows was far more difficult in practice than legislators imagined. The volume of Arab dhows was calculated by a vernacular metric of the number of date packages they could carry. European tonnage was of course originally derived from a similar measurement of the number of casks (or tuns) of wine that a ship could hold. Over the nineteenth century, tons had been standardized, abstracted, and then applied as a neutral scientific standard to all ships under European authority. Port authorities tried to use the latest European techniques of calculating the tonnage of vessels, but these methods provided unwieldy and inaccurate measurements for dhows. Moreover, builders began to construct dhows precisely to subvert these new techniques of measurement. The parts of a vessel that were measured by shipping authorities would conform to the specified requirements, but other parts of the hull would be expanded to allow larger volumes than these measurements calculated. Nakhudas also had their vessels inspected and afterwards erected temporary constructions on deck to exceed the intended provisions. Dhows were thus contrived to both comply with tonnage regulations and subvert their intentions.

Dhows were further required to be legible by having a name and tonnage painted in Latin characters with black ink on their hull and sail. Yet dhows in the Arabian Sea did not have stable names and often seemed to carry no name at all. When these vessels did have a name it was usually one of about a dozen names that were considered auspicious. Officials could barely keep track of the innumerable vessels just named Fath al-Khair1 Names painted on vessels were therefore so generic that they were of little use as a means of identification. Dhows were known not as a particular vessel but as the vessel of a particular nakhuda, and nakhudas identified each other through intimate knowledge of the idiosyncratic ways that they sailed. This embedded knowledge could not be transcribed into bureaucratic documentation, so the effort to name and measure dhows was doomed to frustration. Regulations thus failed to make ships identifiable or volumes commensurable.

Colonial authorities imagined that each vessel on the ocean was a single isolated individual and attempted to govern these vessels as such. Nakhudas, however, acted in concert and sailed in fleets for both social and commercial reasons. Nakhudas and crews from the same ports and communities would trade and sail together, so social life was not limited to shipmates but involved a broader seafaring population. These convoys were also a practical method of obstructing naval patrols. One boat in a convoy courted arrest with a relatively insignificant amount of illicit cargo. This would tie up British cruisers, allowing the remainder of the convoy to travel unimpeded. What made dhows conducive to trafficking was not merely their particular designs but also communal methods of sailing that allowed dhow traffics to remain illegible to regulators.


Excerpted from Margins of the Market by Johan Mathew. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Note on Terms and Transliteration

1. Commoditizing Transport
2. Trafficking Labor
3. Disarming Commerce
4. Neutralizing Money
5. Valorizing Markets

Abbreviations Used in Notes


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