On Principals and Agency: Reassembling Trust in Indian Ocean Commerce

Monday, 23 July, 2018 - 15:00

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The role of trust in long-distance trade has long been a topic of scholarly inquiry and debate amongst economists, sociologists and historians. Much of this literature hinges on the social, legal and economic structures that undergird – if not obviate – the concept of trust. This article draws on assemblage theory to suggest that trust in Indian Ocean trade would be better understood as a key component of a commercial assemblage. Law or social mores are not external but rather enrolled within an assemblage constituted by people, commodities, profits, and “feelings,” as well as judicial systems. This conceptualization of trust is demonstrated through a close analysis of a trading relationship between a Somali merchant and an Indian merchant based in Aden and trading in the Idrisi Emirate of Asir. They established a partnership to exploit the elevated prices in Asir during the First World War. After several months of trading, accusations of fraud and embezzling unraveled the partnership and entangled both men in years of legal battles. By tracing the changing socio-material assemblage of this partnership, the article demonstrateshow trust should be understood as a dynamic and contingent factor in the operation of commercial agency.

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