Associate Professor Nancy Um will be speaking on Wednesday, April 11 as part of the lecture series of the Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies. Join us in LN 1324C at 3:00 p.m. for “English Gifts in Yemen: Merchant Tribute and the Social Protocols of Trade in the Early Eighteenth Century” (abstract below).
Although scholars of early modern trade acknowledge the difficulty that European merchants experienced in calibrating the expectations surrounding gifts in Indian Ocean ports, none have delved into the details and specific dynamics of merchant tribute. In fact, this activity is often understood as external to the trade, which is circumscribed in limited financial terms. Additionally, modern readers have followed the tenor of their sources, which dismiss these requisite bestowals as vexing examples of local extortion or the petty greed of Oriental despots. Drawing on the eighteenth-century trade registers of the English East India Company in Yemen, this paper posits gifting as a serious and necessary aspect of the Indian Ocean trade encounter. Replete with details of the gifts that were given to the governors of Mocha and Bayt al-Faqih (Yemen’s coffee emporium), and other local officials, these registers reveal that tribute objects were chosen carefully and enumerated with many specifications that allow us to gain insight into the material aspects of these objects of exchange. Moreover, annual gifts operated within Yemen’s tightly intertwined local economies of trade and tribute, as represented in the types of currencies that were used to reckon value, the temporal cycles of gifting in relation to the local schedule of trade negotiations, and the implicit and explicit values that were attached to these imported goods.