The Maritime Bazaar

By Fahad Bishara

In my first blog post, I introduced the idea of the bazaar as a site for thinking about the intertwined histories of law and economic life in the Islamic world, and ended by promising a couple of more focused explorations of the topic. The first of these is something I have direct experience researching and writing in: the maritime bazaar of the Indian Ocean world.

The history of transregional trade in the Indian Ocean is a long one: there is direct evidence of a robust trade in the area from at least the 1st century AD. With the expansion of Islam into India, East Africa, and Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean began to cohere as a singular world-economy – one always anchored in commerce, sometimes joined by different vectors of political expansion, and invariably bound up in law. The resilience of this world in the face of wave after wave of European imperial expansion (beginning in the 16th century with the Portuguese, but including at various junctures Ottoman, French, Dutch, and English imperial designs) forces us to think more deeply about the sinews of law that bound it all together, and the way in which they were shaped and reshaped by centuries of imperial encounter.

For the purposes of a deep dive into the bazaar, though, we might settle for a more focused slice of that long timeframe: the Western Indian Ocean during the 19th and early 20th centuries (coincidentally, the subject of a book I published a few years ago!). It was during that time period that the region became more deeply integrated into a global economy dominated by the West rather than the East. Indian Ocean commodities found new markets in Europe and the United States, and merchants and financiers around the region responded to these new opportunities with more energetic investment in different economic sectors. In part as a result of these transformations and realignments of labor and capital, actors around the Western Indian Ocean began generating lots of documentation – contracts, principally obligations of different forms – as the twin forces of debt and credit began to remake economic life in the region.

In my book, I take these obligations as entry points into the regional marketplace, using them to study the legal transformation of the Indian Ocean world in a time of emerging modern capitalism. Drawing on these documents (and combining them with other archival materials) I shed light on the ways in which Indian Ocean actors were able to engage in contractual innovation, stretching concepts in Islamic jurisprudence in creative ways so as to meet the challenges of a changing transregional commercial arena. In this world, “lawmaking” fell to a range of different actors: jurists and qāḍīs, yes, but also scribes (kātibs), merchants, planters, and everyday debtors – and over time, British judges and Indian lawyers as well. I trace the movement of these obligations from the marketplace and into different legal forums through various genres of legal writing – fatawā, fiqh texts, court cases, deed registers, law reports, and administrative files – to tell the legal history of economic life in the region.

There was, however, much that I could not write about – not for lack of interest, but for lack of time and space. My friend and colleague Thomas McDow took a different approach to these same materials, using them to paint a much more detailed picture of Indian Ocean commercial society than I was able to give. We both knew, however, that what we were able to write took on just a small fraction of what was out there, and so we teamed up together and, with the support of the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, we were able to put together the site Ocean of Paper, a searchable database of some 5,000 contracts from East Africa. The contracts in the database span the last few decades of the nineteenth century and involve economic actors from Arab, Swahili, Indian, Comorian, and other backgrounds, all of whom mobilized a range of different assets to participate in the regional economy.

There are many ways in which one can use Ocean of Paper. Users can track particular individuals (the easiest way to search), can search different types of contracts, or can search by the types of property people put up as collateral in their contracts (if they put up any at all). Users can download high-resolution images of all of the documents as well! Although the search function is open-ended, it is deliberately so; the point is for researchers to use the materials there to think about the Indian Ocean world however they want to. Our hope is that the material on the site can generate interesting papers, but more than that, we hope that the site stimulates interest in the archives of law and economic life in the Indian Ocean. They constitute a single entry point, yes, but read together with other materials, they spring to life.

But this post wasn’t meant to be a shameless plug for the website (even though it is an excellent site!). In highlighting this sort of material, I want to think about how we write histories of law from the bazaar. By starting with these sorts of documents, rather than with legal manuals, we might be able to paint a more dynamic and historically-contingent picture of law – one that harbors no preconceived notions of what Islamic law is and what it ought to look like (a problem, in my opinion, that plagues much of the research on Islamic finance), but one that looks at the history of legal praxis in Muslim communities. In the maritime bazaar of the 19th century Western Indian Ocean, as elsewhere in the Islamic world, historical actors responded to the challenge of economic and political change in interesting ways; and law often constituted the toolkit with which they met these new opportunities while still anchoring themselves in a more transcendent vision of what their communities ought to look like.

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