In the second half of the eighteenth century, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) employed hundreds of Indian sailors in Surat in western India to man its ships plying the Asian waters. The Moorse zeevarenden (Muslim sailors) performed a variety of tasks on board ships and in the port of Batavia, and made it possible for the Company to carry out its commercial ventures across the Indian Ocean. The relationship between the two, however, was rather complex and even contentious. Based on Dutch sources, this article investigates the political-economic contexts of this relationship, examines the structure and organization of the maritime labour market in Surat, and illuminates the role and significance of zielverkopers (labour contractors) and of the local administration. The analysis of the social, economic, and familial aspects of the market and labour relations in Surat sheds light on pre-capitalist forms of labour recruitment and the institutional dynamics of the Indian labour market.
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