Abstract: A Sea of Debt: Histories of Commerce and Obligation in the Western Indian Ocean, c. 1850-1940 [Krooss Session]

Fahad Ahmad Bishara


A Sea of Debt is a legal history of economic life in the Western Indian Ocean during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The project unpacks the ontologies, practices, and shifting juridical landscapes that shaped how Arab, Swahili, and Gujarati commercial actors fashioned exchange, and how they transformed commercial and legal categories and instruments to adapt to the emergence of modern capitalism in the region. As the world of Indian Ocean commerce confronted a burgeoning British Indian empire, its participants had to cope with the growing presence of British judges, Parsi lawyers, and Indian court personnel, all of whom brought their own notions of contract and economic order. The encounter between the two legal cultures set into motion a long process in which merchants and plantation owners clashed over the legal and epistemological foundations of economic life, inside and outside of the courtroom. Through this history, A Sea of Debt argues for a rethinking of the place of Islamic law in the history of modern capitalism. It highlights how Indian Ocean actors mobilized legal concepts to facilitate expanding commercial activity, and how they constructed and negotiated these concepts within a changing juridical, political, and economic world.