Racial Futures: Early Nineteenth-Century Indian Investors and the Business of Life

The stock market boom of 1824-25 led to ‘waves of start ups’ (Alborn: 2009) of insurance companies through to the 1860s, marking the global ‘export’ of life business to the British Empire’s white settler colonies. Even though it only catered to Europeans, the insurance sector in India boomed, too. This paper argues that Indian entrepreneurs’ attempts to set up life insurance businesses in Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta were viewed as a threat to British racial supremacy. Access to international and national insurance markets was closed off by political rather than economic means. Specifically, Indian businessmen and investor partners in various imperial trades were denied permission to use data gathered by the Indian Government, on the grounds that this violated the necessary separation between public and private organizations. Company rule in India continued to countenance the financial and economic partnership of business elites for several more decades, but this paper argues that the 1830s were the crucial period. This was the moment of foreclosure for Indian businesses’ chances to tap into nascent international financial infrastructures. Both Indians and the Company government recognized insured Indian lives as a new iteration of “national” wealth. Effectively restricting who got to invest in futures and whose futures were deemed investible, this characterization shaped the future of Indian capitalists and development in South Asia over the following century. Ultimately, this early curtailment of Indian participation in international infrastructures of futures financing and investment, must be seen within the larger political economic context of a new scalar relationship between the Indian economy and the Britain centered global economy. Cemented in the aftermath of the railway mania and stock market crash of the late 1840s, this scalar relationship shifted India decisively from a space of production and productive investment to the classic imperial relationship of a site of resource extraction.