Merchants crossing the shores of the western Indian Ocean have traded gold since antiquity. Archaeological evidence shows its presence in Malabar even before the first millennium when Romans seeking pepper sailed to this little coastal strip in southwestern India in their ships laden with gold and silver. Worn as jewellery, circulating as coins, transacted as gifts, and venerated as sacred objects in ritual worship, gold played a significant part in structuring society, religion and politics in the region. Transformed into an emporia that supplied the eastern parts of the peninsula with precious metals, horses, and other valuable commodities, gold remained Malabar's link to the Indian Ocean economy for as long as its pepper trade was denominated in the metal. However, with pepper yielding to an agrarian land-based economy and feudal order in the 18th century, its ports lost their prominence in the western Indian Ocean trade–only to find their way back through gold smuggling in the decades after Indian independence. A phenomenon that bound Malabar to fraternal ports like Dubai and Bombay, gold smuggling helped reconfigure the western Indian Ocean as an illicit geography and commercial nexus of city-states, merchants, banks and oil corporations. Covertly, it also preserved this maritime space as a sanctuary for the global economy and imperial capital, which had become peripheral to the post-war order of nation-states and their domestic economies.
The talk pivots around two questions: What social weight did gold historically carry in Malabar that enabled it to re-emerge and offer itself as an anchor point for a revived maritime geography in the western Indian Ocean? Two, what forms did gold take on and alternate between as it circulated through the three nodes of Dubai, Bombay and Malabar that allowed it to shield the global economy from the political headwinds of postcolonial states like India?
Nisha Mathew is a historian of the Indian Ocean, specializing in maritime trade relations between Arabia and western India. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and was the Muhammad Alagil Postdoctoral Fellow in Arabia-Asia Studies at Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. Her recent publication was "Bhakt Nation: The Return of the Hindu Diaspora in Modi's India," with the journal History and Anthropology. Dr. Mathew is currently Associate Professor at the School of Law, Mahindra University, Hyderabad.