The Parsis of Gujarat in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century: An Economic Profile of a Vibrant Community
This research project explores the economic history of the Parsis of Gujarat and their networks of commercial and cultural exchanges across the Indian Ocean world during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Parsis, a small community of Zoroastrians, had emigrated from Persia and settled down in various parts of Gujarat in western India. Through their active involvement in production and trade, the Parsis became one of the most versatile economic actors in the region. As shipowners, long-distance large-scale traders, brokers, bankers, suppliers of goods to Europeans and Asian merchants, retailers and small-scale traders, weavers, shipbuilders, and craftsmen, members of the Parsi community played a vital role in the growth of Gujarat’s economy and Indian Ocean trade. They were prominent merchants and shipowners and their networks of commercial exchange spread across and beyond the Indian Ocean world. They formed diasporas in East Africa, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf regions and Southeast Asia. By the mid-nineteenth century, the networks of Gujarati Parsi merchants extended up to Britain. They maintained good professional relations with other Indian merchant communities and the Europeans. In colonial India in the nineteenth century, they were the partners in the empire and contributed immensely to the rise of Bombay as a major British colonial port city in western India.
What contributed to this remarkable commercial success of the Parsis in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? To what extent their socio-cultural and institutional dynamics contributed to it? This research project aims to address these questions.
One of my hypotheses is that in their professional world the Parsis were less inhibited by social and cultural taboos than were the Muslims and Hindu and Jain Bania merchants. This broadened the range of professional career opportunities open for them to choose from and also allowed them to spread risk by diversifying their activities and investing in multiple businesses. Many Parsi merchants combined ship-owning, commodity trading, brokering, tax farming, and banking.
Another major question this research aims to address is the impact of early nineteenth century British colonial takeover of Gujarat on the commercial fortunes of the Parsis. The Parsis of Surat benefited from their close association with the English Company. Surat closely followed Bombay in terms of community development and institution building and it continued to be the hub of production and trade activities. For the Parsis of Surat, there were myriad possibilities and new commercial opportunities. How they took those opportunities and what facilitated them to do so? To what extent they were able to ensure intergenerational transmission of familial wealth? By addressing these questions this study seeks to explore a long-term historical continuity in their commercial affluence, examine to what extent the community’s commercial fortunes were linked with those of the European East India companies and evaluate the notion of an ‘Anglo-Parsi order’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the light of evidence from Dutch, English, Gujarat, and Persian primary archival sources.
This will be a major contribution to the study of merchant communities in India and their trading networks as well as their responses and survival strategies during the region’ transition to a colonial economy. During my stay in the Netherlands, I will explore the VOC archives and collect data on Parsi merchants and intermediaries for this research project. I will also have the opportunity to interact with the IIAS fellows and Leiden University faculty and share my research findings with them.
This study attempts to illuminate various dimensions of indigo production and trade in India in the last five hundred years. As a source of natural blue dye, indigo was produced in India since the ancient period. From the sixteenth to the early twentieth century, its production had been substantial because of a large European demand for this commodity so also because of its huge consumption in the flourishing local textile industry. What was the nature and scale of production, how this was organized in terms of labor, technology and capital, and in what way the relationship between growers/producers and entrepreneurs/companies changed in the colonial period, are some crucial issues that will be taken up in this study. In a broader framework, this is an enquiry into the implications of indigo industry and trade for the political economy of India in general and for the groups of people involved in the various stages of production and their mutual relationship in particular.
The records of the English and the Dutch East India Companies and the documents of the British colonial government in India constitute the basic source of information. Crucial evidence on the organization of indigo production and trade will also be culled from the memoirs, travel diaries and some local indigenous sources.
A comprehensive study, like this, is essential for understanding the changing dynamics of the agrarian economy and commerce of India from the pre-colonial to colonial times. This will also help us develop a global framework for the study of the Indian economy. Looking at indigo from this perspective will help us evaluate the role and position of South Asia in the emerging world economy since the early sixteenth century.