6 - External commerce and political participation  pp. 298-342

External commerce and political participation

By Sanjay Subrahmanyam

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One of the major themes to be encountered in the historiography on pre-colonial trade in India is of the relationship between Asian traders, on the one hand, and the political structures of Asia, on the other. In part, this question has been addressed in the preceding chapter, for the delicate balance between Europeans and Asians, centering above all on the question of seapower, is intimately related to how Asian political structures viewed external trade. In the present chapter, however, the question of the interface between external commerce and political participation will be addressed far more directly, and it will be argued that there existed a set of persons whom we will term ‘portfolio capitalists’, occupying in the early seventeenth century the middle ground between the worlds of mercantile capitalism and political capitalism.

This view should be counterposed, properly speaking, to the dominant stream of thinking on this question. Numerous writers, including Michael Pearson, K.N. Chaudhuri, and most recently S. Arasaratnam, have addressed this issue for different parts of India in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Pearson, whose argument was initially developed in the context of Gujarat, has since extended it to embrace much of the rest of India. He develops a picture of a society comprised of functionally defined cells in a beehive (closely identified by him with a somewhat rigid conception of caste), wherein one has a ‘militarily oriented elite’, whose ‘culturally sanctioned activities were land activities’, and were counterposed to the activities of ‘merchants’.