Business Households, Financial Capital, and Public Authority in India, 1650-1818

Business Households, Financial Capital, and Public Authority in India, 1650-1818
Sudev Sheth


Characterizing major transformations in Indian state and society during the twilight of the Mughal Empire (1707-1793), the emergence of regional successor polities (1721-1818), and the consolidation of British colonial rule (1757-1858) has engaged historians of South Asia since Irfan Habib’s landmark study The Agrarian System of Mughal India in 1963. Habib argued that the Mughal state extorted surplus produced by peasants, effectively reducing them to low levels of subsistence. As a response, peasants revolted and their shifting allegiances contributed to the growth of regional polities across the subcontinent. Over the years, various scholars have responded to Habib’s contention. Historians of Mughal India have offered new theories of imperial crises or have rejected the decline thesis altogether, while scholars of the early colonial period have shown how mercantilist regimes like the British East India Company infiltrated South Asian political economy and paved the way for colonial rule. While empirically rich, these studies are inadequate in their portrayal of local life during political unrest. Simply put, most scholars rely too heavily on documentation produced by mature state bureaucracies. As a result, historical work on how locals experienced a deteriorating Mughal administration and the mechanisms by which provincial warlords became significant nodes of public authority remains long overdue. Focusing on eighteenth-century Gujarat, I investigate how the Mughals lost control of Empire and how an upwardly mobile, tribute-seeking lineage called the Gaekwads became a prominent state in its wake. I rely on manuscript sources in Persian and Gujarati, and archival materials in Sanskrit, French, Marathi, and English to understand the merchant-bankers who supplied finance to a Mughal administration in distress, and on newer financiers who were becoming the lynchpin of various reorganizational schemes of its successors. Finance was becoming a prized commodity, and analyzing how different groups positioned themselves around maneuvering capital is essential for understanding statecraft and local power relations. By analyzing how the regional apparatus of an early modern empire waned, and how roving bandits became legitimate nodes of authority in its place, this dissertation contributes to the literature on state formation, land rights in late-precolonial South Asia, and Indian business history.


Sudev Sheth

Defended in


PhD defended at

University of Pennsylvania




South Asia