Chasing commodities over the surface of the globe

Author: Sandip Hazareesingh

Working Paper Number: 1

PDF file: PDF icon WP01.pdf

Glasgow and Bombay emerged almost simultaneously as modern ports in the second half of the nineteenth century. This paper argues that this synchronicity was not accidental but similarly driven by one of the most important artefacts of the industrial age, the Glasgow-built steamship, and more particularly by the wide range of commercial and political interests that coalesced around it. Indeed, the steamship was itself a technological response to the demand for ever faster connections between Britain and the southern world, for the purposes of both commercial penetration and imperial expansion. The emergence of the steamship led to new geographically stretched out networks which encompassed Glasgow and Bombay and tended to be centred on Scottish colonial firms such as the Bombay-based William Nicol & Co. In turn, the widening range of this firm’s activities, from simple agency house in the import/export cotton trade on behalf of Scottish manufacturers to management of steamships and ownership of port accommodation sites, made it an appropriate conduit for a new type of imperial merchant/shipper who could now operate on a transnational basis and envisage an increasingly global business empire. Nonetheless, in spite of their superior economic and political clout, imperial shipping magnates like William MacKinnon were still unable to dislodge Indian merchants from some of the most lucrative Bombay-based trade routes.