Indian Merchants From Gujarat Played Key Role In African Slave Trade – Analysis


By P. K. Balachandran

They not only traded in slaves but financed the trade and helped transport them in their ocean going vessels.

The trading communities of Gujarat and Sindh had been in world trade in African slaves in one way or the other since at least the 15th Century. But it was in the 18th and 19th Centuries that these merchants became central to the international trade in African slaves.

Prof. Pedro Machado of the Department of History, Indiana University, Bloomington, in his fascinating book: Ocean of Trade: South Asian Merchants, Africa and the Indian Ocean traces the history of the involvement of Indian merchants cum shippers in slave trade.

In collaboration with the Portuguese, who ruled Mozambique and had territorial possessions in Daman and Diu in Gujarat in Western India, the Gujarati merchants extended their business across the Atlantic to Brazil. They managed to be in this lucrative business long after the British imperial power banned slave trading in 1807 – this again with the help of the Portuguese who were allies of the British.

Early Involvement

Abyssinian or Ethiopian slaves (also called Habshi or Siddi) were used in military service in Bengal in the third quarter of the 15 th. Century. African captives were in the Deccan plateau in central India. In Gujarat they served prominently in the armies of domestic rulers and their navies. By the 1630s and 1640s, Indian merchants were purchasing African slaves at Red Sea ports such as Mocha and Jidda for markets in Western India.

Modern Era

Later in the 18th and 19th Centuries trading communities from Gujarat like the Vanias (Banias), Bhatias, Khojas, and Bohras, both Hindu and Muslim, were part of the world slave business network as traders as well as financiers and slave ship owners.

The trigger for this enterprise was the rising French and Brazilian demand for African slaves from Mozambique from the early 19 th., Century onwards. West Africa had dried up as the principal source of slaves because of British policing following the abolition of slave trade by law in 1807.

By the 1810s, Gujarati merchants were in the center of the business as the trade was relying on Gujarati currency, which, interestingly, was cotton textiles! Gujarati cotton textiles were very much in demand in East Africa and naturally these became currency. The Gujaratis were trading cloth for ivory, for which there was a craze in India. Ivory was used in royal decorations and on Hind religious occasions.

Machado says that although Gujarati traders dealt in slaves, their focus  was not on slave trade. Their main interest was in ivory. They began their involvement in slave trade as financiers using cotton textiles as money. But it did not take them very long to become slave traders themselves, supplying African slaves to South America (especially Brazil which needed slaves to work in the plantations) and to South Asia, where African slaves were seen as good soldier material and as loyal domestics in the houses of rich merchants.

Indian rulers in Gujarat and Maharashtra used African slaves as bodyguards. Having Africans in service was considered a mark of high status. The Brahmin rulers of Maharashtra called Peshwas even used them as cooks as the Africans did not form part of the Hindu caste hierarchy of high and low castes or clean or unclean castes. Merchants who were in seaborne trade found the African slaves to be excellent seamen and invariably used them on their trading vessels. Often joining as boys, African ship laborers gained experience in navigation even  through rough waters.

Pioneer Shobhachand Sowchand        

Indians got into the Mozambique-based slave trade in 1805-1806 when  the wealthy Gujarati trader, Shobhachand Sowchand bought the vessel General Izidro from Joaquim do Rosario Monteiro, a leading Portuguese slave merchant with whom he had a business relationship since the mid-1790s, Machado says.

Shobachand was keen on exploiting the expanding trade in African slaves who were in demand in the French islands of Mauritius and Réunion. There was a demand for slaves from the Arabian peninsula also. Slaves were shipped to Cape Town for use by Dutch and English companies who in turn shipped them to South and Southeast Asia.

“Such was the expansion in African slave trading that, by the second decade of the nineteenth century, slaves were a mainstay of the export economy of northern Mozambique,” Machado notes.

Money Lending 

Before the Vaniya merchants joined the slave trade they were buyers and users of slaves. They used saves as workers in their ships, loaders and even as navigators. As money lenders to slave traders they were underwriting the business and therefore were part of it, albeit indirectly. The borrowers included the Portguese, the Dutch, the French and the English besides Arabs who were major slave traders before the Portuguese arrived in the 15 th.Century.

The Portuguese were hard on the Muslim Arabs as they feared that they would convert the African slaves, especially the Catholics among them, to Islam. The Portuguese rulers of Mozambique banned the sale of slaves to the Arabs and also to the Indian Hindus. Shocked the Hindu merchants petitioned the Portuguese authorities to exempt them on the plea that Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion. The Portuguese relented and allowed the Hindu Gujaratis to resume slave trade.

In 1746, Indian merchants were allowed to own and openly trade in slaves. This happened because of a growing demand for slaves across the world. No Gujrati Vaniya ship sailed from the Mozambique coast for Diu or Daman in India without a cargo of slaves, Machado notes.

Silver Currency

From the mid 18th Century onwards, slave merchants began to finance their purchases of Gujarati textiles with Spanish silver dollars brought by French and Brazilian slave trading vessels. But the introduction of silver currency did not affect the Gujarati merchants because there was a huge market for silver in India. In India, silver could be utilized by merchants to secure credit from bankers and fellow merchants. Machado cites data between 1600 and 1800 to show that around 28,000 tons of silver, which represented about 20% of the world’s production of 142,000 tons, had entered the Indian subcontinent from the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, Central and Southeast Asia and Europe via the Cape of Good Hope route.

British Abolition of Slave Trade

The abolition of the slave trade by Britain in 1807 resulted in a great deal of pressure on the merchants dealing in slaves, especially the Portuguese. But being Britain’s ally, Portugal was allowed to trade in slaves only between Portuguese territories. In 1815 and 1817 trade was further restricted to Portuguese possessions in Africa south of the equator. Nevertheless, slave trade boomed as more than 150,000 slaves were transported from Mozambique to Brazil. Indian merchants were co-beneficiaries.  Prominent Indians in the Brazilian slave trade were Premchand Virji and Narsin Kunwarji.

Slaves as Currency

In those days, slaves were used as currency apart from cotton textiles and silver. Textiles could be bought or debts could be settled with slaves as a medium of exchange. Ruling families gifted slaves to loyal and favored officials. Slaves were also acquired through outright purchase. Subordinate chiefs, in their turn, sent female slaves to the Maratha rulers called Peshwas, as a form of tribute.

Female slaves and young boys were shipped to India throughout the 18 th., Century. Kutchi women were sent to East Africa to acquire young girls, some of whom were imported to become the wives of African slaves. African female slaves performed ancillary military tasks in the Maratha armies  in Maharashtra. East African slave women prepared gunpowder in the arsenals of the Maratha forts.

However, Brazil’s ban on the import of slaves in 1830, and the Royal Navy’s Anti-Slave Trade Patrol along the East African coast and Mozambique Channel gradually brought the curtains down on slave trade and the Indian merchants’ involvement in it.

P. K. Balachandran

  1. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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