Missing Merchants

Missing Merchants

Photo by Angilee Shah

A Paris researcher says historians of colonial India have been neglecting an important part of history.

Claude Markovits says the history of colonial India is missing its merchants.

Director of research at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, Markovits specializes in the history of colonial India and business history. He assesses the problem like this: "Business is too serious a matter to left to the exclusive care of business historians."

Markovits' talk was the first of five in the Center for India and South Asia's (CISA) winter colloquium series. The series features topics about Indian history which range from "Oriental Studies" of the 18th Century to early Indian film of the 1940s.

From the 1970s through the 1990s, "merchants and businessman have suffered an almost eclipse on the Indian historical scene," Markovits explained. A few historians have pursued the subject, but have not given it sufficient coverage in terms of scope and methodology. "The markets suddenly appear as a great thing which is going to be the salvation of India, and at the same time we know nothing about the history of them, and historians are not delving into the history of the markets."

The lack of academic inquiry and writing about these merchants owes to both practical problems and trends of the field. On a practical level, merchants' archives are not yet open or have disappeared entirely. In addition, Markovits said, recent scholarship has emphasized culture, religion and family rather than work. Historians may have also shied away from the merchants because the class prospered even as the British controlled the country. To some, this represents merchant-class complicity with colonialism and thus makes an unpopular focus for research, according to Markovits.

Regardless of their role in the colonial system, Markovits said, something important is lost when merchants don't make it into the history books. Merchants, he said, served multiple roles, not only circulating goods but creating networks of news and knowledge. These networks, he contended, might have spurred nationalism and contributed to India's independence from the British Empire in 1947. But the ways merchants interacted with the state and participated in the networks for almost a century of India's history as a British colony is still a relatively unexplored area.

"In present-day India the market has staged a rather spectacular comeback, but it is a market without history, willed into existence out of nothingness in 1991," said Markovits.

The merchants' return to history, Markovits suggested, does not have to come as a straightforward economic history, especially in the absence of good data. Another promising strategy would be to focus on how merchants interacted with state and societies. For example, historians might follow vernacular writings in the lower levels of the business world to better understand how information moved.

One audience member pointed out that merchants have been discussed and studied in other fields under other names, such as bourgeoisie. Another contended that the merchants' histories are preserved among the merchant class in India, in records and oral histories are passed through generations. Moderator and CISA director Sanjay Subrahmanyam asked about Markovits' terminology; he said that "merchants" and "the markets" do not describe a single, discrete field because many others take part in markets.

Jyoti Gulati, CISA program assistant and graduate student in South Asian history, said that the series of seminars that Markovits kicked off has been in the works since last November.

Published: Wednesday, January 25, 2006