The most visible dimension of the waraqas is the people they involve – a veritable cross-section of the Omani world of the Indian Ocean, including Arabs, Africans, and South Asians from a range of different communities, social groups, and occupational categories. The nature of communal intermarriage in the Indian Ocean makes it difficult to strictly categorize an individual as being a member of just one community or group. However, one does get a sense of more or less clearly defined groups that come into view through the waraqas.
Omani Arabs: Waraqas from both Oman and East Africa feature Omani Arabs from a range of clans and backgrounds. While a number of the Arabs who appear in the documents are Omani Arabs from Oman itself, many would have been Omanis born and raised in East Africa. Telling them apart from one another is difficult without a deeper knowledge of family lineages and migrations. However, what is clear is that the Omanis who participated in the Indian Ocean commercial world spanned a number of different clans. Waraqas involve Omanis from both the coasts and the interior; they appear in the waraqas primarily as land-owning borrowers, though they sometimes (though not often) act as lenders as well.
Banias: Described in the waraqas as "Al-Banyāni," this category primarily (though not exclusively) refers to Hindus from Kachhch, a region that is today located in the State of Gujarat, in Northwestern India; it does refer to Hindus from other areas as well, though. Banias were the principal moneylenders, both in Oman and East Africa; they financed a range of commercial operations, including the ivory trade and plantation agriculture, supplying their debtors with money, textiles, foodstuffs, and consumer goods on credit. They frequently operated as commercial firms, with multiple members in different ports around the Indian Ocean. Members of these firms could be related by blood, but did not necessarily have to be; some Banias worked as agents for people they were not related to. Banias, the waraqas make clear, were an integral part of the Omani commercial and political enterprise in East Africa.
Other Indians: The marketplaces of Oman and East Africa were also populated with a number of Muslim Indians, whom waraqas simply refer to as Al-Hindi. This broad category could include Khojas, Menons, Isma‘ilis, Itha‘asharis, and other religious groups. Many of these Indians hailed from Gujarat, but some also would have arrived in Oman and East Africa from Sindh, Hyderabad, and other regions in Western India. Their work was similar to the Banias in that they often functioned as moneylenders and shopkeepers in the bazaars. Though the overwhelming majority of them were small-scale lenders, offering store credit rather than financing larger ventures, there are a number of notable exceptions: the Khojas Tharia Topan, Sewa Haji Paroo, Lakha Kanji and others were deeply involved in financing commerce and agriculture.
Baloch: A number of waraqas involve Balochi traders, referred to as "Al-Balūshī." This community, originally from Balochistan (today in Southern Iran and Pakistan) were intertwined with Omani political expansion from early on: Baloch soldiers fought wars alongside Omanis, manned forts, and helped Omani sultans consolidate their hold over their new possessions. Over time, these Balochis began to develop their own communities in Oman and East Africa, engaging in extensive commercial activities.
Swahili: One of the more ambiguous social categories that appears in the waraqas is Swahili. The existence of the category itself clearly distinguishes the Swahili from the Arabs, who are referred to by their clan names rather than an ethnic marker. The term Swahili, then, referred to the groups that had been active in East African commerce prior to the arrival of the Omanis: the Shirazis, who were the pre-Omani notables of the East African coast, and other locals. However, some waraqas indicate groups that were referenced by place-name: "Al-Tumbātū" and "Al-Mkhādimī" referred to the people who inhabited the northern and southeastern parts of the islands of Zanzibar.
Comorians: Referred to in the waraqas as "Al-Ingezeji" (after Ngezedja, or Grand Comore), Comorians formed a small, but important constituency in Zanzibar and the East African coast. They appear in a range of different capacities: though they were primarily borrowers rather than lenders, waraqas attest to their deep involvement in East African economic life.
Yemenis: Waraqas and other records point to the existence of a considerable number of Yemenis (primarily from Hadhramaut) throughout East Africa. Yemenis came to East Africa as soldiers, shopkeepers, scholars, and laborers. Although the majority that appear in waraqas were debtors, this was not always the case: Hadhramis sometimes acted as lenders as well, though often on a smaller scale than Banias.
Women: Waraqas attest to a historical fact that historians have known for many years but could rarely evidence: that women formed an integral component of Indian Ocean economic life. Women appear frequently in waraqas, both as lenders and borrowers. As property owners, they often had access to capital that their husbands did not, and they frequently put up their property as collateral against loans that their husbands or their households needed. Female participation in Indian Ocean commerce cut across a range of ethnic lines: waraqas feature Arab, Bania, Khoja, and Swahili women, all of whom performed in some economic capacity.
Katib (scribe): The role of the katib was not one of a mere recorder. It was his job to translate an oral accord into a legal written contract by correctly recording the agreement according to Islamic legal jurisprudence as well as accurately identifying the involved actors. The various forms of waraqa are formulaic in their language but it was the role of katib to choose the correct contractual form and ensure it was utilized legally.
Clerks: Clerks in reference to the Ocean of Paper database refers to the clerks at the British Consulate who recorded waraqas in the official registry. This act noted that the creditor was a British subject, and as such, the British crown should protect their property (including outstanding debts owed to them). This extension of British jurisdiction was not without complication and did not always ensure the protection and enforcement of the registered waraqa.
The need to register a waraqa was reinforced by notices in 1865 from both the British Consulate and the Sultan. These notices alerted that those entering in to a pledge (rahn) or khiyar sale (where the property "sold" was not actually taken possession of by the purchaser) would have to register the waraqa at the consulate in order to have any future claim on the agreement. The registration of a waraqa made the document "official" and in turn allowed the registrant to construct an official narrative of an ongoing commercial relationship, documenting the property rights they secured at every step. The role of the clerk was to translate a waraqa and its Islamicate contractual language into terminology understood by the British Indian Imperial regime.