Old merchant houses (havelis) made of teak and brick continue to stand in Gujarat’s old port cities, marking long histories of economic circulation across the Indian Ocean in social terms. Located on South Asia’s western coast, these houses sit at the intersection of continents (Africa and Asia) and are home to merchant families who were active across the Indian Ocean from Port Louis to Rangoon. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, havelis were embedded within British free-trade capitalism across the Indian Ocean, linked to the slave and indentured trades, plantation agriculture, and the mass production of commodities. Because free trade was maintained through racial and gendered hierarchies, Gujarati mercantile intimacies were occluded behind the image of the endogamous family and its material twin, the family haveli in Gujarat. Drawing on my book in progress Homes of Capital: Merchants and Itinerant Belonging across Indian Ocean Gujarat, this talk explores the unsettled grounds of these old spaces that continue to exist in South Asia today, examining the histories they tell and those they occlude. Havelis offer a model for understanding colonial capitalism as a spatial project that produced belonging and unbelonging. The talk focuses specifically on itineraries linking Gujarat and the island of Mauritius in the late nineteenth century, delineating the unexpected pathways that connected sugar plantations and havelis, indentured workers and Gujarati merchant families.
Ketaki Pant is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Southern California. Her research focuses on South Asia and the Indian Ocean arena from the late eighteenth century to the present day. Her current projects examine interlinked histories of racial capitalism, gendered belonging, minoritization, decolonization, and displacement centered on Gujarat. Recent publications include an article in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies and a chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Asian Transnationalism.