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22 February 2015

Traders: The powerful

Earlier, historians concentrated their research on the ruling classes as makers of history and neglected the marginalised groups including traders and merchants. They began to focus their attention towards the role of trading activities, when they realised that trade brought external and internal, social, cultural and economic changes in society.

For the sake of profit, traders travelled to far off countries, risked disasters, bandits and endured all sorts of trouble to accomplish their missions.

They brought unusual and extraordinary merchandise from other countries and introduced them in their society.

Trade networks crisscrossed continents, inextricably linking cultures throughout history
They also increased the knowledge of language, culture and history.

Historians made efforts to find various sources of their commercial activities and brought to light their contribution to history. Rulers patronised them, built rest houses called serai on highways for their convenience and arranged protection for their caravans. In exchange, they got revenue as well as precious commodities from other countries.

Correspondence between the Assyrian merchants and their families is on record. One merchant wrote a letter on a clay tablet in cuneiform script, asking his wife to send him textile and other goods which he needed for the market. She replied saying that she had financial issues and had spent all the money that he had left behind for expenses. It indicates how the merchants communicated with their family to supply them with merchandise that they needed.

In the Islamic world, the Arab traders played a significant role. Just after the advent of Islam, the Arab traders reached South India and settled there under the protection of the local rulers.
The other famous trading community was of the Phoenicians who originated from Lebanon and built the famous city of Carthage in North Africa. They had settlements in Spain, Sicily and Marseilles. After a conflict with the Roman Empire, they fought a number of battles known as the Punic Wars. Finally, Carthage was destroyed by the Romans and the Phoenicians lost their control of the Eastern Mediterranean region.

Another reputed trading community was of the Jews, who excelled in the art of trade and commerce. Recently, the business record of some Jewish firms written on papyrus was discovered in Egypt. It shows their commercial relations with different Jewish traders who were scattered in different countries.

Werner Sombart (d.1941), a German economist, highlighted the role of the Jews and their contribution to the rise of Capitalism. According to him, when they were expelled from Spain in 1492, they arrived at Antwerp, the port city of Holland which became the hub of commercial activities. When they moved to Amsterdam, it became the city of commerce and trade. When they moved to London from Amsterdam, their presence promoted commercial activities. On the basis of this argument, Sombart proved that wherever the Jewish community migrated, it contributed to the economy.

In the Islamic world, the Arab traders played a significant role. Just after the advent of Islam, the Arab traders reached South India and settled there under the protection of the local rulers. They married local women, adopted the local culture and language and became known as Mopalas. Other Arab traders reached Sri Lanka, South East Asia and China. It was because of these traders that Islam spread in South East Asia as they settled there with the local population.

In the medieval period, the Italian cities of Venice, Genoa and Florence played an important role in trade with the East. The traders of Venice earned so much profit that they built huge and imposing buildings in their city. They also founded the Padova University where scholars taught law, medicine and theology. The merchants of Florence specialised in woollen trade and flourished in their trading skills to become the bankers of Europe.

They became so powerful that they expelled the nobles from the city and took control.

The Medici family of Florence became so wealthy and influential that they got a member of their family elected as the Pope. Since they patronised artists, architects, sculptors and writers, during the Renaissance, Florence produced Machiavelli, Dante, Michelangelo and Galileo.

The European travellers were responsible for not only trade and commerce but also for encouraging Imperialism. When Vasco da Gama reached Calicut in 1493, he opened the gates to Portuguese colonialism in Africa and Asia. The Portuguese established their trading centres on the coast of Gujarat and captured the city of Goa which was ruled by the Sultan of Golkanda, and was populated by the Muslims and later became the Portuguese headquarters.

The other European powers followed in the footsteps of the Portuguese. Holland, England and France founded companies to trade with the East. The contribution of Holland in commercial activities was somewhat more than the other companies as they introduced an insurance system for its merchant ships as well as launching a scheme of shares for the public.

These European countries brought spices, textile, indigo and saltpetre. Taking advantage of political weakness, the European forces occupied Asian and African countries with the help of naval and armed forces. As a result, this direct political rule further benefitted trade and commerce.

The importance of traders continues to the present day with the process of modernisation and technological development. Business has become a special profession and traders have earned a high social status.
Past present: Exchanges of value
by Mubarak Ali, dawn.com