Capital and Community in Aden: Three Parsi Origin Stories

Over the past decade, important new scholarship on Indian Ocean connectivities has promoted the incorporation of the maritime Global South as constitutive of, rather than peripheral to, contemporary capitalism. Recent work on the legal underpinnings and the adaptability of vernacular capitalism has challenged older notions of the ebb of regional networks in the face of European imperialist flows. Important as this substitution of a decline narrative to one of resilience has been, it has fallen short of addressing an important yet much overlooked aspect of first-wave globalization: the role of overseas Indian merchant communities as partners and drivers of empire. The “outsourcing” of commercial, transportation, and diplomatic functions to private firms such as the Parsi Cowasji Dinshaw & Bros. of Aden allows us to rethink the means of imperial expansion into ostensibly peripheral areas such as the Red Sea and Horn of Africa, while looking at port cities and tracing alternative networks of capital flows provides us a different lens with which to examine the dynamics of the liminal space between empires. Moving forward in the century, the use private Indian firms made of the imperial legal system in places like Aden allows us to reorient eastward a hitherto predominantly Western perspective on the changing landscape of post-war labour relations. By drawing on both colonial and Gujarati- language materials, I will present early insights into the entanglements and enmeshing of vernacular and metropolitan capitalisms as a historical driver of modern global connectivity.