The Global World of Indian Merchants, 1750-1947: Traders of Sind from Bukhara to Panama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xv + 327 pages.
The subjects of this erudite and elegant study are a liminal people of South Asia, the Sindhis of Shikarpur and Hyderabad, the two cities of Sind in modern Pakistan. They are Hindu but their original home is situated in the land of the Muslims. They claim an Indian identity and yet remain an isolated community among other Indians. Long before the partition of British India into the republics of India and Pakistan in 1947, the Sindhi baniyas (trader castes) had been actively engaged in trade and finance on a global scale, spreading all over Asia, Africa, parts of Europe, and even in Panama. Yet the history of these entrepreneurial folks has not attracted attention of scholars either in India (they being regarded as not forming a part of Indian history) or in Pakistan (they as merchants and moneylenders being regarded as exploiters of the Muslim peasantry). Even the Sindhis themselves, historically peripatetics for economic adventure and survival, have not found the time to search for their own historical roots.
Claude Markovits’ research seeks to fill this gap not only to rescue these communities from historical obscurity but, more importantly, “to bring into focus the existence in the longue durée of a widespread circulation of merchants and commercial employees between India and many regions of the world, a phenomenon which spanned the transition between indigenous and colonial regimes.” However, countering the current South Asian scholarship that is predicated on a unitary notion of a South Asian diaspora, the author focuses on a wider but more complex theme of “circulation” which accommodates the occupation, caste, and class distinctions as well as their practice of going abroad to make economic fortunes for building a better life back home. Dr. Markovits thus studies the Sindhis of Shikarpur and Hyderabad—their history, business organization politics and practice, as well as patterns of circulation from the mid-eighteenth century down to their diaspora following Partition in 1947.
This research is based squarely on a variety of archival, printed, and published secondary sources. The result has been a balanced and convincing account of the Sindhi Hindus of Shikarpur and Hyderabad, the two “micro-world cities,” who “managed to establish themselves firmly in…international trade and finance, and contributed in no small way to the recent emergence of an international bourgeoisie of South Asian origin on the global scene.” Scholars as well as informed and interested lay readers, and most especially, the Sindhis of the present generation, will remain forever in the debt of this formidable historian whose painstaking researches have brought the odyssey of a people from liminality to limelight.