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Private Merchants and the Global Trade: Commercial Networking in the Eighteenth Century Indian Ocean

Tim Davies

The Indian Ocean has always been an area of vibrant trans-national interaction, not least because of the extensive commercial connections joining its multiple coasts. In recent years, a large body of scholarship has emerged that has focused on long-distance trade in this region; concentrating on both Asian merchant networks and the role of the European commercial powers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By this period, this maritime arena had been drawn into an emerging world economy with thousands of merchants from all corners of the globe trading at Indian Ocean ports, underpinned by worldwide bullion and commodity flows. European merchants trading in a private capacity also established successful trading networks in the Indian Ocean in this period. However, their roles and experiences have only partly been investigated by historians beyond seeing them just as a part of a process of empire-building in India from the mid-eighteenth century. Focused on an earlier period however, this study explores the world of an English private trading network through the eyes of Robert Cowan, a servant of the English East India Company who participated in widespread trading activities on his own private account. The extensive surviving papers of this individual provide a fascinating insight into many aspects of eighteenth-century Indian Ocean commerce and indeed, the experience of the merchant more generally. Building on recent insights from scholars of Indian Ocean studies, ‘networks’ and economic sociology, Cowan’s commercial connections are situated within the broader plural frameworks of both Indian Ocean trade and an emerging global economy, emphasising the collective activities and exchanges that were vital for the formation and maintenance of an early modern trans-national trading network.

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