The Merchant’s Soul: Gujarati traders of the Singapore Strait

I close my eyes and I see it. The big blue mysterious ocean that my ancestors braved as they charted the unchartered terrains in the name of commerce.

When I visited Malacca last year, I inadvertently found myself staying next to the Gujarati Vanik Sangh. I laughed inside at the irony of the moment. I had taken a five hour bus ride away from home to be confronted with my mercantile heritage.

Gujarati traders came to Malacca as early as the fifteenth century. Their main commodities were local products like textile, cotton, opium and camphor. In addition, Gujarati merchants also brought goods from Europe: metals, glass, weapons, beads and nails. 

As a descendant of textile traders based in Singapore, I have fond memories of meeting customers and suppliers from all the seven seas. By the time I was born, air travel had replaced sea voyages – but the need to explore the world with a deep sense of wonderment and curiosity is something that runs in my blood.

My grandfather Ratilal Mancharram was in charge of the wholesale business here in Singapore. Back then, many of the goods arrived already sold – en route to other destinations. Singapore was an entrepôt city where merchandise was temporarily stored en route to its next destination. Such ports played a crucial role in trade during the days of wind-powered shipping. 

During my last trip to Malacca, I had the opportunity to visit the Melaka Sultanate Palace Museum, which showcases the history of the trade in the region.

In addition to trading their wares, merchants brought along with them their ideas and their cultures – which resulted in an ancient melting pot that we call ‘globalisation’. I’ve always maintained that globalisation is nothing new. 

The concept of people packing their bags to explore new territories is as old as time itself. And despite coming from a long lineage of Gujarati merchants – I know that we are not alone in our desire to chart uncharted terrains in the names of commerce. There are others like us – from all cultures and creeds from around the world. 

As our cultures met, mixed and evolved – new cultures were born. At the same time, customs that ceased to exist in their home countries remain carefully preserved in immigrant communities that continue on in the traditions of their ancestors from generations ago. 

When I left home in my early twenties and travelled across the seven seas, I often found myself wondering – where is home? When I am at home, I feel compelled to travel to someplace I’ve never been before. When I am overseas, I find myself longing for that elusive place called home. 

It took me over a decade to realise that to be a merchant is to know that when you look out at that big blue mysterious ocean – you’re at the only place you’ll ever call home. 

About the Author

IMG_4767 2.jpgDipa Sanatani is the Merchant of Stories. She delights in gazing out at the ocean and jumping in. She sees life as one great adventure and is an ardent student of the human experience. She is the author of The Little Light and the Founder of Mith Books. She works in a top secret day job. 

Author: Dipa

Editor-in-Chief & Founder | Mith Books | The Merchant of Stories

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