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Of Slaves, Arms and Gold in the Arabian Sea

Lakshmi Subramanian ( is a historian and archivist at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.

Margins of the Market: Trafficking and Capitalism across the Arabian Sea by Johann Mathew, Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2016; pp XV + 248, £24.95.


This remarkable book combines rare conceptual imagination with rigorous and empirical scholarship. It is wonderfully written, with all the makings of a classic. It raises the real possibility of theorising the complex web of social and economic processes in areas generally seen as peripheral in the grand narrative frame of capitalist development. Thus, it is at once a vivid account of trafficking and illicit trade practices in the Arabian Sea and a story of the contested market boundaries that go on to constitute capitalism.

Tracking the story of slavery and human trafficking, arms trading and gold smuggling—each commodity seemingly embodying the horrors of unregulated enterprise—Johann Mathew puts forward a persuasive argument of how the history of each of these staples in the Arabian Sea trade was entangled with the history of capitalism and free trade. In developing this argument, he revisits categories of property, labour, and capital within the space of the ocean, where it is almost impossible to speak of either landed property, factories, or, indeed, territorial sovereignty.

The commodities that make up the trading world of the Arabian Sea—slaves, arms, and gold—Mathew refers to as “intermediaries,” following Michel Callon who described intermediaries as those who both framed a market and seeped out of the frame as an overflow. Mathew takes this argument to its limit, arguing how slaves, arms, and money both frame and seep out of the market. The argument is elegantly demonstrated through a consummate investigation and reading of a wide archival repository. Some, like the colonial state archives, recorded strategies of marking off trades as legitimate from those that were illicit, and then passed over from the market with the help of actual force when necessary. These performative acts of and for the functioning political economy produced a series of practices that were then represented by record keepers as aberrations and anomalies. The process—performed as well as actual—was by no means seamless or uncontested and, in fact, required the cooperation of multiple parties and networks that engaged in arbitrage. This process of arbitrage simply meant capitalising on price differentials in different markets for the same good. These transactions were not in any way a form of resistance, but simply a means of negotiation and adjustment sustaining vital trade and exchange networks in the Arabian Sea.

Each chapter of this book begins with a dramatic episode of smuggling, interception, or flight that helps frame a complex argument about capital and its overflows. The first chapter reconstructs the world of dhows associated with illicit trade; the technology of controls assumed by the imperial authorities to monitor the ocean; and the gaps that existed in the bureaucratic net, making it virtually impossible to contain and control sea-captains or nakhudas and the smuggling that was associated with them. The optimal use of personal networks that enabled dhows to operate, and offer to their sensitive customers goods at attractive prices, meant that the new formatting of the sea did not really displace them. They emerged as the best conveyors of the slave trade and trafficking.

The subsequent chapters on slavery reflect on the limits of the British abolitionist discourse. Not only did the abolition of the slave trade not establish a free market in wage labour, it created conditions for perpetuating a traffic in bonded labour. In a sense, neither of these propositions is entirely surprising or new: we have had very important work on slaveries and abolitionism such as the those by Indrani Chatterjee, Richard Eaton and Andrea Major. However, the narrative gains salience in its brilliant description of social networks of freed slaves in India and the ways in which the human body became the “intermediary commodity” between the market and society.

The chapters dealing with weapons and gold make up the connecting points in the argument about the constitutive elements of capitalism. These foreground dramatic episodes, enabling the author to provide a textured analysis on how the actual traffic operated and then anchor it within the theoretical framework of capitalism and its bureaucracy. Gaps and slippages were bound to emerge in the attempts to police trade and protect property, to control and restrain the traffic in arms, and to regulate the exchange flows and monetary system; these lacunae became fodder for merchant networks to manipulate and manoeuvre to their advantage. These chapters are followed by a concluding chapter on the exploits of Haji Mastan, a larger-than-life Bombay-based smuggler whose exploits embody the maturation of complex processes that Mathew traces in the context of the Arabian Sea trade networks.

Readers could experience a degree of unease over the moral silence that accompanies the story; but that is quickly dispelled by the depth of the theoretical explanation and the evocative description of the social life of networks and of travels and transactions in the maritime world of the Arabian Sea. That we need to move beyond conventional binaries of licit and illicit, of formal and informal, of piracy and privateering, is well argued and accompanied by a powerful critique of the valorisation of capital and markets that littered the trail with anachronisms and anomalies.

Furthermore, while it is well known that merchants were adroit and adept dancers, nimbly bypassing regulation and contravention, what makes Mathew’s argument so persuasive is the theoretical understanding of the entangled histories of capitalism and its trafficking “other.” Surprisingly, however, the book has no interest in law, or indeed in networks of trust as conventionally understood in Indian Ocean scholarship. What held the complex networks of partnerships, deals, and manoeuvres together? Personalised relationships, contingent factors of being in the right spot at the right time, informal systems of adjudication and adjustment, and arbitrage? There is also the question of the category of “de-commodification” that Mathew speaks of and which, on reflection, is not entirely legible. Granted that the state inverted slavery, de-commodified money and violence, and thus helped generate a parallel circuit of trade in precisely these items that then assumed centre stage as commodities in the trade of the Arabian Sea. Are we simply using the hyphenated word (de-commodify) to illustrate all that was seemingly different in an apparently peripheral part of the capitalist world? And, if so, why in the Arabian Sea? Do we look at historical and political antecedents? These questions do not in any way detract from the logic of the book, but they continue to arise when trying to make sense of histories of capital from the vantage point of the margins.



Updated On : 16th Mar, 2018


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