The Enlightened Merchant | A Story of East Meets West

The word Enlightenment means very different things in the East and in the West. In the East, the process of gaining Enlightenment takes place through the journey within. It is when one self-realises and discovers The True Self. In the West, the Enlightenment is the Age of Reason. It is defined as a period during which rigorous scientific, political and philosophical discourse began to shape and characterise European society. The certainties of the past–a unified Church with the Monarch espousing the divine right to rule–had begun to collapse.

When we place trust in institutions and those institutions begin to fail us, we create new institutions. But when we believe in those institutions, and a foreign invader comes in and destroys them; we naturally reconstruct, resurrect and get back to business after a period of short-lived death.

In England, the Civil War between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians culminated in the king losing his head. Throughout Europe, ongoing conflict waged on between the Catholics and the Protestants. Blind faith was no longer enough.

And so it transpired that by the 18th century, merchants who traded in foreign markets developed a network of relationships which crossed national boundaries, religious affiliations, family ties, and gender. It heralded the beginning of a new “cosmopolitan merchant mentality” based on trust, reciprocity and a culture of communal support. This developed and helped to unify, what was in European eyes, the early modern world.

In India, however, the so-called modern world has been constructed, destroyed and rebuilt many times over. The one particular story that comes to mind is a raid which took place in 1026 CE by the Turkic Muslim ruler Mahmud of Ghazni. This raid is confirmed by the 11th-century Persian historian and translator Al-Biruni, who worked in the court of Mahmud. The desecration of Somnath Temple in 1026 CE has also confirmed by other Islamic historians.

Mahmud of Ghazni raided and plundered by Somnath Temple. He broke its jyotirlinga and stole a booty of 20 million dinars. Al-Biruni obliquely criticises these raids for “ruining the prosperity” of India, creating antagonism among the Hindus for “all foreigners”, and triggering an exodus of scholars of Hindu sciences far away from regions “conquered by us”.

The Booty

Unlike the military or the clergy; cosmopolitan merchants, who were embedded within their societies, participated in the highest level of exchange. They transferred a more outward-looking mindset and system of values to their commercial-exchange transactions. It helped to disseminate a global awareness to broader society and acted as agents of change for local society.

Successful, open-minded cosmopolitan merchants began to acquire a more esteemed social position within the political elites. They were often sought as advisors for high-level political agents. The English nabobs belong to this era. A nabob was the term used to describe a conspicuously wealthy man who derived his fortune in the east, especially in India, during the 18th century with what was then the privately held East India Company.

Why did one particular relationship–the one between the British and the Indians (who were not called Indians back then)–turn out to be such a profitable and prosperous one? If you think about it, imagine if it was the French who arrived in India, would they have been able to have create that 300 year old relationship? The answer is no. So why were the British able to achieve this in India?

Why do I think this relationship lasted and continued for so long? First and foremost; it changed, reorganised and reallocated itself throughout the course of its journey. It took on new shapes and new forms. In the aftermath of the Indian rebellion of 1857 and under the provisions of the Government of India Act 1858, the British Government nationalised the East India Company.

By this stage, the EIC had already divested itself of its commercial trading assets in India in favour of the UK government in 1833. The UK government had assumed the debts and obligations of the company, which were to be serviced and paid from tax revenue raised in India. In return, the shareholders voted to accept an annual dividend of approximately 10 percent guaranteed for forty years, which was to be funded from India, with a final pay-off to redeem outstanding shares. The debt obligations continued beyond dissolution and were only extinguished by the UK government during the Second World War.

The EIC remained in existence as a vestige of its former glory, continuing to manage the tea trade on behalf of the British Government. This lasted until the East India Stock Dividend Redemption Act 1873, which came into effect the following year. This Act provided for the formal dissolution of the company on 1 June 1874, after a final dividend payment and the commutation or redemption of its stock.

In the West, then, it seems that the Enlightenment Era went hand in hand with a shift towards Mercantilism; when new structures emerged to replace the old. In India, however, it seemed that each time a structure was destroyed, usually by a foreign invader, it would later resurrect itself from the ashes of its former glory and stand tall once more.

Somnath Temple

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