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Merchants, Mamluks, and Murder: The Political Economy of Trade in Eighteenth-Century Basra

Posted on June 24, 2009

As historians have attempted to discuss the history of Basra they have been torn between two worlds: the whirlwind of trade in the Middle East and the booming economy of the Indian Ocean.  Although authors such as Geoffrey C. Gunn feel that the eighteenth century marks the first global economy, many historians feel that there was a complex disconnect between the two markets.  For example, historian Andre Wink feels that the historiographic contexts of Basra are too far east to be incorporated with those of the Indian Ocean.  Unlike both these authors, Thabit A.J. Abdullah combines both historiographic methodologies in order to view the political aspects of the trading communities in Basra in his text Merchants, Mamluks, and Murder. Ultimately, by utilizing Immanuel Wallerstine’s world systems perspective, this text, among others, views the expansion of trade and human relations in the eighteenth century both regionally and globally.

Abdullah’s text specifically deals with the death of a merchant in the city of Basra, while using the motives for and repercussions of this event on a larger scale in order to discuss the economy of trade in the Middle East.  As he explores the death of this Jewish merchant he finds that the murder caused an uproar between the local Jewish and Armenian trading communities, an event which halted trade in the immediate region.  However, as he explores this event he finds that this murder helped to further a rivalry that caused a rift between the authorities of Basra, Baghdad, Britain, and ultimately the East India Trading Company – thus effecting global trade.

In creating his argument, Abdullah effectively utilizes historical documentation in conjunction with letters written to and from merchants in the area.  By utilizing this information throughout the text he is able to expand on the local issues between the Armenian and Jewish merchants and their powerful supporters.  As he shows, the Armenian merchants were backed by the English, whereas the Jews were supported by authorities in Baghdad.  By the end of the text he reveals that the Armenian accused of the crime was released as a result of British influence.  When Abdullah examines the political situations that surrounded this one decision, he argues this was the final straw in a struggle that had been building throughout the eighteenth century.  Resulting from their involvement in this regional strife, Britain was able to establish its stronghold over the Middle East trading companies as well as global trade as a whole.

The death of this merchant provided Abdullah a lens through which to examine the trade of Basra and the Middle East; however, he also took time to consider the location and climate of the region in order to see how it affected the area.   Utilizing poetry and travel narratives from the time, he shows that Basra was plagued by harsh sandstorms and terrible rainstorms that often caused the river to overflow and flood the desert. These conditions made the area undesirable for trade as well as habitation, making it difficult for the merchants to deal with outside ports and larger trading companies.  However, its location still held its beneficial aspects due to the inland ports, which were easily defended from pirates and warships, and its location in relation to other major trade routes.

Abdullah also discusses the people who inhabited the city, from the Sunni Arab families to the Indian Sarrafs and their general role in helping to further economic trade.  Most importantly, he delves into the relations of power, taking account of the military administration that was manned by the mamluks and local militia.  By viewing these local relationships, Abdulla begins to consider the larger role of the English and how their political “influence over the port was generally growing during the period” (36).   Here, he lays the groundwork necessary to help the reader understand how the trade in Basra affected the global economy by explaining the terrain, the government, and the inhabitants, which caused fluctuations in trade in the area.

Abdullah’s ability to present trade patterns between the Middle East and India by applying information from first hand letters and journals as well as secondary sources in the field greatly helps illuminate the content. Moreover, this information allows him to show the reader how the nature of trade in Basra forced each of these groups to take odds against one another in order to use the land and its resources to further their own trade. By exploring the general area of Basra, the people living there, and the structure of power, Abdullah presents the reader with a strong foundation in which to continue with the text. Through scaffolding the information in such a way, the reader is able to make the logical connections between how trade in the area formed and why it ultimately declined by the end of the period under study.

In initially utilizing the story of the murdered Jewish merchant, this text succeeds in gaining the attention of its audience, giving them a reason to continue through the text in order to understand the situation in greater detail. Unfortunately, aside from being mentioned in the first paragraph of the text, the murder case is not mentioned again until two thirds of the way through the reading.  The way in which the chapters are composed leave the reader wondering how the information presented relates to the murder just discussed.  While the structure helps the reader understand the latter portion of the book, and the connectedness becomes obvious, an association between the opening section and the beginning chapters would certainly help keep the reader’s attention and focus.  Despite this drawback, the text is informative and utilizes sources effectively in order to present its argument to the reader in a clear understandable way.  The result is a text that provides the reader a great deal of information about the region and time period, which makes it useful for research in trade and political relations of the eighteenth century.