Michael O’Sullivan on Vernacular Capitalism and Intellectual History

Cover of the May 2021 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies.

Michael O’Sullivan is a Junior Research Fellow in the Center for History and Economics at Harvard University and author of “Vernacular Capitalism and Intellectual History in a Gujarati Account of China, 1860–68,” which appears in the May 2021 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies. O’Sullivan’s article discusses a travelogue published in 1868 by Damodar Ishwardas, a Hindu resident of Bombay and a clerk for a Sunni Khoja commercial firm, who wrote about his three-year sojourn on the China coast. In this JAS Author Interview for #AsiaNow, O’Sullivan discusses his piece, which is one of several articles in the May issue of JAS about India-China connections, with Tansen Sen (NYU Shanghai).

This is Number 10 in the “JAS Author Interviews” series at #AsiaNow. Click here to see all posts in the series.


Tansen Sen: Where does the article on Damodar Ishwardas’ fascinating account of nineteenth century China fit into your current and future research plans?

Michael O’Sullivan: The article is actually a brief detour from my main project. I am currently writing a book on the economic and religious histories of the Gujarati Muslim commercial castes, and I came across Ishwardas’ account while looking for material on Khojas and Bohras in the China trade. It was one of those thrilling discoveries that made me completely rethink one of the core arguments of my project—a detour that re-routed my original itinerary. Much of the work on Indian merchant communities—and the scholarship on Gujarati Muslims more generally—assumes that they are self-enclosed communities who tend to employ only those from inside the caste. Yet Ishwardas was a Hindu clerk involved in a number of local associations and employed by a leading Khoja firm, the proprietor of which was involved in the bitter controversy over the Agha Khan Case. Ishwardas’ account was a crucial reminder for me that any historian of Indian capitalism has to cast a very wide net—pulling in hard-to-access travelogues, commercial ephemera, and vernacular newspapers, to name a few—in order to best capture the vibrancy of Indian commercial networks and their concomitant intellectual productions.

Sen: How did you find Ishwardas’ travelogue and what difficulties, if any, did you encounter reading and analyzing it?

O’Sullivan: Ishwardas’ travelogue is one of the innumerable array of Indian vernacular texts housed in the British Library that were catalogued well over a century ago and still remain unstudied. (One can also find a poor quality scan on archive.org.) There were several practical difficulties involved in translation, including the fact that Gujarati spelling has changed a good deal since the 1860s. However, I was lucky enough to have a first-rate Gujarati teacher to help me when I got stuck with especially tricky sections. The biggest challenge—which is general to all Indian vernacular accounts on East Asia—was deciphering the transliteration of Chinese words into Gujarati. Usually, the author provides a gloss on the term, but no Gujarati dictionary will contain entries of Chinese words. That makes Ishwardas’ powers of description all the more impressive, and made me all the more enthusiastic about sharing his book with a wider audience.

Sen: Could you explain Ishwardas’ travelogue and his “vernacular capitalism” in the context of the more famous Parsi trader Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy and his writings?

O’Sullivan: That is a fantastic question. Of course, there are many similarities between Ishwardas and Jejeebhoy: both were non-Muslims who collaborated with Muslim entrepreneurs in the China trade, pursued projects of religious reform in India, linked to colonial officialdom in some capacity, and were members of several civil associations in Bombay. But we must remember that the decades that separated them witnessed a drastic change in the character of the India-China trade. For one, Parsis no longer dominated the China trade by the time Jejeebhoy died in the 1850s, and the enormous commercial fortunes won by Jejeebhoy and his partner Rogay in China were largely a thing of the past by the time Ishwardas set sail in 1860 (for Indians at least). To be sure, Indian capitalists continued to be active in the China trade, but as I argued in the piece, Ishwardas’ text was published at the moment when China’s share in Bombay trade was soon to be supplanted by other parts of Asia and Africa. Finally, I think Jejeebhoy was representative of a very different moment in the history of vernacular capitalism. Towards the end of his life, he and his colleagues were slowly being subordinated to the political structures and economic inequalities of colonial capitalism, but exercised a degree of leverage in the commercial and even political spheres that made them the equals of Jardine and Matheson. Commercial cooperation with the East India Company before 1857 was a different ball game than commercial activity in the high colonial period. Indeed, many Indians in the China trade from the mid-nineteenth century had to content themselves with smaller pickings, thanks to the stricter racial divides in commercial life and the diminution of Indian enterprise to a second-tier status with the influx of European firms. Although Ishwardas’ employer (Cassumbhoy Nathubhoy) was no shoestring operation, it was hardly on the scale of Jardine & Matheson, and along with many leading Indian firms, it had a short life-span owing to the general precarity characteristic of Indian firms. The challenge of the historiography is to do more to people our accounts with the likes of Ishwardas and Nathubhoy since the Jejeebhoys have long had their due.

Sen: Methodologically, how does your analysis of Ishwardas’ travelogue contribute to the field of China­­­–India studies and the study of intra-Asian interactions?

O’Sullivan: I hope readers will agree, but I think it does several things. Above all, the piece makes the case that Indian vernacular accounts of China not only give us insight into the worldview of Indian travelers in China, but allow us to write novel, integrated economic histories of these two regions that do not put the colonial archive at the center. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to dismiss Ishwardas’ account as nothing but a quaint artifact of cultural history; if not a one-off, then a text that fills in only the outer edges of a narrative of colonial capitalism that has already been worked out to our satisfaction. Yet his source and the world it points to shows that Indian capitalists were not merely mimicking colonial capital or parroting the categories of European political economy. Rather they were thinking about exchange, race, and ethnography in various registers. Ultimately, the point is that more needs to be done to marry sociological theories of capitalism taken from Euro-American paradigms with vernacular materials from the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, and to let the latter speak more. Considering how inspired I’ve been by your own collaborative work with Brian Tsui, it might also be worth adding that I am convinced that texts like Ishwardas’ permit us to transcend some of the limitations of the scholarship on pan-Asianism. Put another way, books like Ishwardas’ point to other imaginaries, by no means pre-political or apathetic about the injustices of colonial rule, but which do not conform to the model of primordial Asian solidarity put forward by pan-Asianists.

Sen: As you point out in your article, there were other Indians who visited China during the late-Qing period. How does Ishwardas’ perspective of Qing China differ from theirs?

O’Sullivan: What is exciting about this question is that any answer given now must be provisional, and will likely be revised as we get a better sense of the scale of Indian writing on Qing China over the next few years. Even as the article was about to go to press I found a new Gujarati text on China that pre-dated Ishwardas’. I am certain more will follow. With that said, I can safely say now that Ishwardas’ book is a moment of transition between the precocious effort in the 1840s by Indians to compose the first full-length treatments of China—but which remained hamstrung by a dearth of available vernacular material—and the late-century moment which saw complex ideas of pan-Asianism and Sino-ambivalence mixing with traditions of colonial sociology. That early moment shows an Islamicate proclivity for chronicling the strange and wonderful (ajib-o-garib) and sometimes falls victim to an enthusiasm for all things Chinese, a temptation which Ishwardas found hard to resist. Speaking very generally, the later period is more sober in its evaluation of China and the Chinese. As I mentioned in the piece, at least one Indian author at the turn of the century felt compelled to write a text on China to counter negative stereotypes of the Chinese among Indians. On the other hand, Ishwardas largely had a tabula rasa upon which he could paint his canvas, although his admission that he had long wished to visit China before embarking in 1860 suggests a percolating interest in China’s history and economy among Indian capitalists in Bombay. He was the one to give textual expression to that interest. Lastly, Ishwardas is a transitionary figure because he exemplifies that ambition to construct objective vernacular accounts of the Chinese, while simultaneously gesturing toward a vision of Indians and Chinese as faced by similar predicaments, all the while never making the interpretive leap that the pan-Asianists did.

Sen: Are there interesting episodes from the travelogue that you could not include in the article?

O’Sullivan: There are indeed many, and the sad reality of article word limits ensured that many of these were left out of the printed version. I spoke at some length in the article about Ishwardas’ observations of Chinese family life and commercial habits, but the text is littered with many more. One aspect of his text I did omit were his many compelling reflections on Chinese government institutions and religious practice. On the subject of the latter, it is utterly fascinating to see a Hindu librarian and commercial clerk attempt to make sense of Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism and render it comprehensible to an audience that knew close to nothing of these traditions. To see Confucius described as a pandit, and Daoist practices of meditation linked to samadhi, is a crucial reminder of just how much intellectual work remained to be undertaken to make India-China intellectual and political connections commensurable and meaningful before the onset of formal Pan-Asianism.

Sen: Are you planning to translate Ishwardas’ travelogue?

O’Sullivan: Rather than a full translation, I think the best option would be an anthology comprising selections of Indian vernacular writing on East Asia, with Ishwardas one among many contributors. That would give the best sense of the rich material out there demanding attentive study, and the range of opinions that intellectual exchange with Asia elicited among Indian commentators.

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