In the 12th century, when Constantinople was the biggest market in the eastern Mediterranean, the poet John Tzetzes boasted he could speak to the residents of the Byzantine capital in seven languages, including Persian, Arabic, Russian and Hebrew. In Izmir (Smyrna in Greek) many centuries later (at the start of the eighteenth century), in addition to lingua franca (that is, Italian without tenses or syntax; a purely spoken language used throughout the Levant till the 19th century), ‘twelve languages could be heard in the streets of Smyrna: Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Greek, Russian, Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese, French, English, and Dutch’ (Mansel, Levant, p. 30). At the other end of the world, in Malacca early in the sixteenth century, according to the reliable Portuguese witness Tomé Pires, on any given day one could hear up to 84 (!) different languages spoken.
Istanbul c.1875, in an early photo by the Swedish photographer Guillaume Berggren
Port cities like Constantinople, Smyrna and Malacca were microcosms of the world market in the sense that people from all or most parts of the world were drawn there, so that many different languages could be heard. When the state was committed to maintaining this cosmopolitan character, rulers consciously sought to encourage a culture of religious tolerance. One can hardly say this about the present government of India, despite all of Modi’s international pretensions!
Religious tolerance was the main feature of Calicut / Kozhikode that impressed the shipwrecked Breton navigator François Pyrard, who wrote (in the early 17th century), ‘it has merchants from all parts of the world, and of all nations and religions, by reason of the liberty and security accorded to them there: for the king permits the exercise of every kind of religion…(he) holds that to be a cardinal maxim of government’. ‘Everyone lives there in great peace and concord, notwithstanding the great diversity of races and religions…and of strangers and sojourners’. Calicut was ruled by the Nair Samoothiris. On the other coast of India, Masulipatnam in the 17th century was another case of a cosmopolitan port with a mixed population where the rulers (in this case the Qutub Shahis, who were Shias) ensured what Arasaratnam describes as ‘communal harmony’ at a time when most east-coast ports were plagued by ‘civil strife’, mainly caste rivalries among Hindus.
Against Kirti Chaudhuri’s strange view that ‘it was unusual for a Hindu merchant to conduct business with a Muslim’, Irfan Habib was able to show that ‘the brokers of Muslim merchants (in Surat) were invariably Hindus’, that is, Banias.
This image of an early capitalism characterized by cosmopolitan cultures of trade partly survives in the pages of the Communist Manifesto, only there it is transposed to industrial capital with its restless search for markets and sources of raw materials. What doesn’t characterize capital in the pages of the Manifesto is the fierce nationalist rivalries that would start tearing the world apart from the early part of the twentieth century. Nationalism, prepared by the struggles between mercantilist powers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, only finally blossomed in the age of industrial capital. And we are still living with its hideous legacies.
Take the latest example of this: the NRC is overloaded with meanings. At one, totally prosaic, level it is an elaborate attempt to manipulate the voter lists, so terrified is the BJP of losing the next election. At another, more purely ideological, level it is an exercise in communalism, a drive to purge some mythical ‘nation’ of so-called ‘illegal’ immigrants (read: unwanted Muslims) in a way that mimics Trump and goes way beyond him. And it tries to do all this by deliberately stirring up sub-nationalisms throughout the country, destroying the very idea of ‘India’ itself.
(From the author’s FB Profile)