Abstract: A Malleable Instrument: Reading Writing in the Indian Ocean

Fahad Ahmad Bishara


When Indian Ocean merchants contracted a debt, they wrote it down on paper. This ostensibly simple practice had broad and complex implications. On its own, it questions the widespread presumption that merchants of that time and region trusted one another on the basis of a shared culture, religion, or locality, and that they were content enough with informal agreements. Indeed, what emerges from the documentary evidence is that Indian Ocean commercial societies were highly documentary in their inclinations. Almost every transaction, from high-profile customs forms to workaday loans, went recorded, leaving historians with a treasure trove of mundane legal documents scattered around the entire region. In my paper, I introduce these deeds to the study of economic life in the Indian Ocean. When seen through the prism of the deed, what emerges is a commercial world structured not by trust, but by debt and obligation. In this world, virtually every economic actor in every port from Bombay to Zanzibar was to some degree enmeshed in crisscrossing webs of debt. Through debt, Indian Ocean economic actors forged long chains of obligation—chains that stretched across deserts, oceans, and jungles, while remaining firmly grounded in law. By focusing my view on and around the commercial deed, I explore the sinews of commercial life in the Indian Ocean, moving along the frontier between a world of obligation on the one hand and a long genealogy of Islamic commercial jurisprudence on the other. In doing so, I engage with ongoing debates surrounding trust and transnational commercial exchange, while suggesting how historians can begin to write a textured legal history of economic life in the Indian Ocean.