This talk is part of a larger project reimagining the contours of modern world history and the emergence of global capitalism from the perspectives of peoples comprising the Omani Empire, which, by the mid-nineteenth century, stretched from Zanzibar in East Africa north to the Gulf. Cosmopolitanism is a refrain in Indian Ocean histories. Indeed, the domains of the Omani Empire were fundamentally cosmopolitan spaces: including or containing people from many different countries. In Omani memory and mythologies such cosmopolitanism has taken rosy hues. As an Omani proverb says, in the first half of the nineteenth century if someone had played a mizmar in Zanzibar, people would have danced on the Great Lakes. Historians have been calling for a more precise analysis of what cosmopolitanism has been in various Indian Ocean settings. In this talk I suggest that cosmopolitanism was part of a political and economic strategy taking root as Omani leaders forged a central place for their markets in transoceanic commerce. The Omani Empire was rooted in strict social and religious hierarchies – it was founded in dramatic acts of violence and an engine for human trafficking - but but it was also cosmopolitan. In this talk I show how Omanis used cosmopolitanism as a strategy for commercial aggrandizement, not for ensuring more competition in a marketplace, but rather for commanding competition and monopolizing markets. I end by speaking to another related debate among Indian Ocean historians, that of connectivity, showing how the focus on connectivity can perhaps take for granted (non-European) violent processes of disconnection requisite to either cosmopolitanism or connectivity.
Nick Roberts is Assistant Professor of History at Norwich University and, in academic year 2022-2023, was the inaugural W. Nathaniel Howell Postdoctoral Research Associate for Arabian Peninsula and Gulf Studies in the Department of History at the University of Virginia. His interests include the Middle East and Indian Ocean in world history, the history of capitalism, and questions of scale and perspective in crafting History.