a1 Delhi School of Economics
Certain European notions of the nature of the Asian economies — especially the peddling character of Asian trade and its contrast with the rational capitalist business organization which was supposed to be a purely European enclave superimposed by conquest on the peddling, precapitalist basis of Asian production and exchange — were formulated most clearly of all by Dutch sociologists and economists from their experience of Netherlands India of the nineteenth century and of the Eastern Archipelago in the age of Portuguese and Dutch voyages. They were not unaware of the existence of Chinese and Indian business groups in Southeast Asia with some of the features of early modern capitalism, but these were regarded as the bastard offspring of developed European capitalism. Such immigrant Asian groups were supposed to have sprung from the need of the Europeans for intermediaries to deal with the economically innocent natives and were thought to be completely dependent on servicing the European enclave with no autonomous business concerns of their own. This essay focusses on the Chinese financiers and Chetti bankers operating long distance credit networks in the Southern Ocean (Nanyang) before and after the opening of the Suez Canal (1869). The aim is to show that these immigrant business groups derived from a sophisticated financial and mercantile background in their home countries and that they conducted autonomous operations in the Eastern Archipelago with their own capital and business techniques: a large volume of such operations were conducted within a purely inter-Asian framework quite apart from the colonial trade with Europe, and in their dealings with the Dutch and the English banks and corporations, these towkays and nagarathars showed a strength and resilience which made ‘dependence’ and ‘collaboration’ a mutual process.