Skip to main content

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,

Popular posts from this blog

A historic moment in the Arab world

لحظة تاريخية في العالم العربي
As a democratic revolution led by tech-empowered young people sweeps the Arab world, Wadah Khanfar, Al Jazeera's director-general, shares a profoundly optimistic view of what's happening in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and beyond. In the first talk posted online from the TED 2011 conference in California, Khanfar describes the powerful moment when people realised they could step out of their homes and ask for change. "كما ثورة ديمقراطية بقيادة الشباب التكنولوجيا ذات صلاحيات تجتاح العالم العربي ، وضاح خنفر ، الجزيرة المدير العام والأسهم وجهة نظر متفائلة بشكل كبير ما يحدث في مصر وتونس وليبيا وخارجها. وفي اول حديث له نشر على الانترنت من مؤتمر تيد 2011 في ولاية كاليفورنيا ، خنفر يصف لحظة قوية عند الناس أدركت أنها لا يمكن الخروج من منازلهم ونطلب من أجل التغيير." This talk was given on March 1, 2011 in Long Beach, California. TED 2011 is taking place between March 1 and Mar…

Our Captured, Wounded Hearts: Arundhati Roy On Balakot, Kashmir And India

With his reckless “pre-emptive” airstrike on Balakot in Pakistan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has inadvertently undone what previous Indian governments almost miraculously, succeeded in doing for decades. Since 1947 the Indian Government has bristled at any suggestion that the conflict in Kashmir could be resolved by international arbitration, insisting that it is an “internal matter.” By goading Pakistan into a counter-strike, and so making India and Pakistan the only two nuclear powers in history to have bombed each other, Modi has internationalised the Kashmir dispute. He has demonstrated to the world that Kashmir is potentially the most dangerous place on earth, the flash-point for nuclear war. Every person, country, and organisation that worries about the prospect of nuclear war has the right to intervene and do everything in its power to prevent it.  Keep reading  >>>>

India has built around itself an aura of a global power whose time has come. For at least the last t…

Kashmir Jihad - Analysis & Options


Kashmir is an incomplete agenda of partition of India. Since 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three wars on this issue. According to UN resolutions, Kashmiris have to decide their accession to Pakistan or India through impartial plebiscite, which could not take place due to Indian reluctance. Recently, India revoked Article 370 of the Constitution, which granted special autonomous status to Kashmir, it was done to unilaterally integrate occupied Kashmir. This is a violation of the UN resolutions and the Simla bilateral agreement, which demands to maintain status quo until the final settlement. The US and world powers are emphasizing that Kashmir should be resolved bilaterally, though India has refused to hold talks with Pakistan. In the present scenario, while India has turned Kashmir into the largest prison of 9 million people, denying basic human rights and oppressing the Kashmiris' who want freedom from India, Pakistan cannot watch as a silent spec…