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Commercial exchange networks in the Northwestern Indian Ocean from the 4th millennium BC to the 13th century AD
(A case study in thalassology)
³Historians of the Indian Ocean, despite their divergent opinions and debates, are largely inspired by the seminal researches of Fernand Braudel, who, in the context of the Mediterranean region, emphasized the unity between the land and the sea.´1
Indian Ocean studies have been experiencing a revival in the past two decades. An exhaustive list of relatively recent publications can be found in Markus Vink¶s article ³Indian Ocean and new thalassology.´2 As the title of the article suggests, Vink elaborates on the concept of thalassology, first propounded by Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell3 in the June 2006 American Historical Review Forum on µOceans of History¶, which issue covered the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Pacific regions, but regrettably omitted the Indian Ocean Basin. Vink, in his detailed study, fills in this lacuna, and admits that Indian Ocean studies are less known in the scholarly world than the other three areas, despite the fact that there are centers and institutions devoted to Indian Ocean studies in India, in Mauritius, in Australia, in Germany, and in Canada, which regularly hold conferences. Indian Ocean studies gained an impetus in the 1980s from a blend of Braudelian ³Mediterraneism´ with its emphasis on geo-historical concepts, and the French µAnnales¶ school, together with Immanuel Wallerstein¶s world systems approach. Three historians of the Indian Ocean area provided influential works that determined subsequent historiography:
Chakravarti, 1998, 100 Vink 3 Horden and Purcell, 2006
Especially the coasts of the Arab peninsula and the Red Sea are inhospitable to farming. which characterizes the Mediterranean. people. it was not only luxury trade on the Indian Ocean. can be considered as trade in necessities. all three historians agree that the vast area of the Indian Ocean can be divided into several sub-categories (³sub-Mediterraneans´. Himanshu Prabha Ray6 emphasizes this: ³This argument [of luxury trade]. 2 . however. Michael Pearson and Kenneth McPherson4. the Indian Ocean is just as fragmented as its Mediterranean sister. Why would people risk so much at so long distances for dispensable items for such a long period of time. the question of long-distance trade has to be re-considered as it offers such a riddle that has not been efficiently addressed in historiography. religions and ideas. 44 Vink 46 6 Ray 41. as the mediterraneanist term has been used to denote sub-regions of the Indian Ocean). persistent through centuries? Three answers present themselves. which facilitated an exchange of goods. the driving force of long-distance trade was luxury items instead of bulk trade of necessities ± thus the traditional historiographical conceptualization of long-distance trade in the Indian Ocean Basin. 4 5 Vink. First. garum and wine were exported to India from the Mediterranean. who pointed at the lack of interdependence between regional economies. so grain might have been imported. All three scholars approach the Indian Ocean in truly and consciously Braudelian terms. does not take into account the uncertainties of agricultural production in the ancient period and the fact that while agricultural output varies annually.Kirti N. the demand for food does not. In the case of the Indian Ocean. but the amount of bulk trade of necessities is underplayed. even according to Horden and Purcell. which all have their distinctive characteristics ± in this respect. The unity of the region is analyzed variously. Chaudhuri. climate. These food items. Despite these factors. long-distance trade and travel (both means of travel and travelling people) represented cohesion. Oil. regarding the area an analytical unit. Thus the hazardous nature of early farming and variations in output would presuppose a sizeable flow of trade in staple products´. In my opinion. but natural geography of the littoral. along with trade in raw metal or cloth. One of the main criticisms of the µnew thalassology¶ paradigm applied to the Indian Ocean was put forward by Niels Steensgaard5.
littoral and farther terminal societies in the hinterland did produce and possess a surplus which they could offer as exchange for the products imported. from the emergence of the early civilizations of Harappa. etc.´7 I would argue that pepper became a necessity even in Roman times. ³Although Wallerstein qualifies pepper as a luxury. This 7 8 Vink 50 Ray 54 9 Vink 50 10 Parker 150 3 .. Even from the earliest known historical times. Wallerstein. exemplifies the changing categories of µluxury¶ and µnecessity¶. Indian pearls were known in ancient Greece from the 5th century BC.The second answer addresses the question of luxury items. glass vessels or intaglios. economies. even more so if we consider them as the main source for medicine. The case of pepper. so pharmacology10. places and societies. Another ramification of this argument about the value of the trade items concerns societies involved in the trade: there is a strong solvent demand in the importing society for these goods. One should bear in mind that chemistry and the industries connected with it were not as advanced as we have it today. and pepper from the 4th century BC8. one of the top products of import trade from India. hygienic products were dependent on incenses and spices. based on a simplistic and inconsistent interpretation of µnecessities¶ and µluxuries¶. which indicates the complexity and wealth of the receiving society. perfume industry. where they underpinned the synchronous operation of complex indigenous states. Another example is precious metal: ³precious metals imported from beyond the Indian Ocean were a vital commodity of fundamental importance for the Indian Ocean Basin by the ninth century. On this basis. which places them into the category of µnecessity¶. which can become indispensable. the founder of world systems analysis himself regarded the Indian Ocean external to the European system before the coming of the Portuguese to India. the Middle East and North Africa from the fifteenth century onwards. The application of incenses could be prominent mainly in rituals. I do not intend to question the existence of a luxury trade of jewelry or silk. The same can be said about spices. but simply attempt to indicate the permeability and vagueness of the alleged binary opposition of µnecessity¶ and µluxury¶. we have evidence of much more complex societies with well-established long-distance overland and maritime connections. or products of fine craftsmanship as sculpture. Mesopotamia and Egypt in the 4th millennium BC.´9 Incense and spices can be regarded µluxury¶ items if we conceive a society as primarily self-sufficient based on local agriculture. it was clearly a necessity for many in Europe. as these categories shift according to the times. While stating this. societies and cultures. we can conclude that since the beginnings of maritime networks.
´15 Historians are still limited to making assumptions based on the variously reliable sources. the bulk of the cargo in general from antiquity.g. Rome. To fully unfold the implications of this statement. distinct unit. 186 15 Chakravarti. Unfortunately. fashion and perfume industry products. Furthermore. but it was a natural way of travel and transport12. where ordinary citizens travelled between Egypt. there are very little and random data preserved from these times concerning economic activities between the Mediterranean and India. Athens. It seems to me that a merchant crossing the Red Sea or the Arabian Desert might have felt the same way: it is uncomfortable. I would question the arduousness of the route. as stated by Pliny13. 48 12 11 4 . but looking at the boosting numbers of air traffic. ³The extreme paucity of data on commercial activities and the virtual absence of any statistical information are major obstacles for the economic historian of early India to present the case. as well as their effects on employment´11. Contemporary economics terminology could help better understand this long-lasting and persistent long-distance trade as it yielded such a profit that made it lucrative for the most practical-minded businessmen from antiquity on. Neither are there sufficient data to make statistical analysis concerning the volume of trade. µprimitive¶ societies of the early millennia of human history. 1998.98 16 Vink. 13 Pliny. external to the European system. The alleged 50 million sesterces which India draws out from the Roman economy annually. even dangerous. 14 Parker. self-sufficient. some items have much higher price due to their prestige value.101. especially regarding the late Vink 10 This is even more true in a Mediterranean context in the Roman times. it seems to be a reliable way of long-distance travelling. for private and public matters alike.conclusion also undermines the concept of the simple. Palestine naturally. such as special brand items. The scientific way to support the above arguments about long-distance trade in Antiquity would be using statistics. e. which treated the ³Indian Ocean world economy´16 a single. ³one should not only consider the volume. but also the profits involved and the prestige µinvested¶ in those products. together with the numbers of ships sailing annually. Wallerstein¶ world-systems analysis. Historia Naturalis 6. Consequently. Turning back to the historiographical path. we need to observe the parallel of contemporary economics: contrary to common sense expectations. has been questioned on many grounds14. A parallel of modern-day air travel jumps to mind: flying an aircraft can seem frightening and dangerous. triggered various responses from historians of the Indian Ocean.
49 Vink. The global historians of the µCalifornia School¶ argued that before the 19th century. and the intensity of connections 17 Andre Gunder Frank and Barry Gills. I would agree with the scholars who maintain the connection of the Afro-Eurasian ecumene. historians seem to stay out of the discourse. without a single prominent centre. 50 19 Vink. on the basis of a fourfold classification: economics. Steven E. the Amber Route area. Some17 argued that the Afro-Eurasian economic system had already been created due to the flow of goods and merchant networks before the beginnings of the European colonization. new and new areas became involved in the networks. which all had their subnetworks. Roberta Tomber. the Silk Route area. a polycentric world-system prevailed. From the beginnings of the three ancient civilizations up to the 19th century. 51 18 5 . politics. Regarding the period of Hellenism and Late Antiquity. The reason why I included the above synthesis of the discourse concerning Medieval history of the area is that the categories of the debate could well be applied to Late Antique history. culture. such as the Mediterranean. Muslim Indian scholars. Their works concentrate rather on data and palpable results than on abstract constructions of systems. As is clear from the above synopsis. which belonged both to the Mediterranean network and to the Indian Ocean one). Braudel and others held the view that between the 16th and 19th centuries. Mediterraneism and new thalassology terminology and conceptualization seem to be missing even from their most recent works. quoted by Vink. Samuel Adshead. These historians work in the field: they provide the basic data on which theoretization can be built. and social hierarchy18. Although separate and distinct networks did exist. the time after 1500 AD. the Indian Ocean trade became incorporated into the European system as a lower component. Himanshu Prabha Ray and other specialists in Late Antique maritime history and archaeology of the Indian Ocean Basin seem to avoid direct engagement in the ongoing theoretical discourse. etc. and especially the Muslim-Nationalist µAligarh school¶ argues that ³an autonomous µIndian Ocean world-system¶ or µIslamic world-economy¶´ was centered on India.Middle Ages and the early modern period. Sidebotham. while washing away the distinctive and unique features of the region. Janet Abu-Lughod. the Indian Ocean Basin. due to its ³halfway-house´ position between Europe and Southeast Asia. all these networks were connected to form a single unit. Late precolonial and early colonial historians 19 maintain that the Wallersteinian analysis ³overlooks the internal dynamism´ of the area. and had overlapping areas (such as the Arab Peninsula. the most recent historiographical debates are focusing on the Medieval and Early Modern periods. as well..
Mozambique Channel. together with scholars of the Arabian Peninsula both before and after the rise of Islam.between the separate areas were changing. just as the Mediterranean. Gulf of Oman. Strait of Malacca. has its fragmented and separate units.wikipedia.e. deserves research. historians again are talking about an immensely vast territory on Earth.20 It includes the Andaman Sea. Southeast Asian. results from the studies of trade connections point to this direction. historical analysis and conceptualization. Savu Sea. i. and from the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent in the North to the Southern Ocean in the South. which. Java Sea. covering approximately 20% of the water on the Earth's surface. Bay of Bengal. an extraordinarily large material and feel for analysis and synthesis is needed to interpret the history of this large area. Flores Sea. The main Greek literary source for the study of the trade between the Mediterranean and India for the first centuries AD is the Periplus Maris Erythraei by an anonymous author. Although the research seems rewarding. and Australian history.html 6 . with an outlook to preceding and the following periods. Although this seems to be an even more ambitious project than Horden and Purcell¶s Mediterranean.21 Taking all this into consideration. Gulf of Aden. how the smaller networks became connected and started to be organized in larger systems. The processing and understanding of its history requires the work of many specialists of African. The Indian Ocean is the third largest of the world's oceanic divisions. The scope of my study is less ambitious: the focus is on the trade between the Mediterranean and India in the beginning centuries of Christianity.cia. while 20 21 http://en. The geography and toponymy of the Indian Ocean Basin The body of water which is today called Indian Ocean. and other tributary water bodies.org/wiki/Indian_Ocean https://www. stretches from the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa in the West to Indochina. The development and the gradual formation of the bigger unit. Red Sea. Timor Sea. the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xo. Arabian Sea. Persian Gulf. but not later than the 13th century AD. from the 1st to 6th centuries AD. the Sunda Islands and Australia in the East. South Asian. Great Australian Bight. This trade involved three major bodies of water: the Persian Gulf. He calls the area of the present-day Red Sea and present-day Arabian Sea together Red Sea.
Maritime Exchange Networks ± A Thalassological Case Study In the second part of the paper I attempt to re-consider the maritime trade between India and the Mediterranean from a broader chronological perspective. which probably extended along all 22 Casson. The island called Dilmun by Sumerian sources was identified as Bahrein in the excavations undertaken from the 1950s on. gold dust. Periplus. 12 26 Lahiri. arguing against the mainstream historiographical position which claims that Roman trade with India was a novelty that started in the 1st century AD. although the territory coincided with the Red Sea of the Periplus author.calls the Persian Gulf the same name as it is called today22. with more or less the same items involved. It is also suggested that the navigation was coastal. a continuation of much earlier trading activities. 181 25 Ray. copper. 441 23 7 . which was intensive around 3300-2200BC24. ³Akkadian texts refer to a number of commodities imported from Meluhha. 150 following Ray 1994 24 Parker. ³there may have been raw materials involved in the long distance trade between the Indus valley. Corroborating the written Sumerian evidence. but archaeological data especially from the northern coast of the Arabian Peninsula from the island of Failaka in Kuwait down to Oman and the mouth of the Gulf shows that the densely populated coastline retained some maritime connections with the western shore of India. Pliny. the Persian Gulf. Whether the items of exchange can be labeled µluxury¶ or µnecessity¶ lies out of the scope of the study in this case. These included timber. there is evidence for long-distance maritime trade from the time of the three known earliest civilizations. The island participated in the trade between Mesopotamia and the Indus valley civilizations. I intend to point out23 that it was an expansion of earlier trade routes. Iran and Mesopotamia. carnelian. the finds suggest that Dilmun dominated trade activity in the Persian Gulf.´26 With the decline of the Harappan civilization in 1750 BC these trade contacts also lost their intensity. As mentioned above. generally identified with a part of the Indian subcontinent. lapis lazuli and birds«´25 Furthermore. the Roman authority on the trade with India. calls the sea mare Indicum.
Scylax of Caryanda was sent by emperor Darius to discover the realm of the sea. then later revived and exported to Western Europe by the Cruseders ± hence the common name: frank-incense. they merely tried to expand the commercial axis inherited by the Achaemenids. gold. The shift affected the Indian ports as well. which lost its vigour during the first half of the second millennium. Suda s. another is the so-called µdiscovery of the monsoon winds¶. 55 29 Periplus 26 30 Frankincense was among the top three commodities of exchange at least from the first millennium BC to about the 4th-5th centuries AD. along with cotton.coasts of the Arabian Peninsula. even at the expense of the importance of the Persian Gulf.´28 The most authoritative work on maritime trade of the 1st century AD. 8 . Southeast Asian islands and East Africa. as the Red Sea became intensively involved in maritime commerce. as now Southern India gained more prominence with sites as Muziris and Nelkynda. Although the legend about Scylax cannot be verified. neither did the Romans discover the trade with India. albeit altering and expanding it. before the time of the writing of the Periplus. and 27 28 Herodotos. Greek population spread over the area. One reason for this is the blocking of the Northern overland routes by the Parthian Empire. though I have not found any speculations about that in the literature). (I suspect that the tree originated in one place and was transplanted and spread in the others. The Achaemenid and Seleucid periods were also witnesses to strong and busy maritime exchange activity. Frankincense was widely used in religious rites in temples and at funerals as an incense. This also supports the assumption that just as the Greeks before them. Scylax Ray. the Periplus mentions the city of Eudaimon Arabia29. as the distribution corresponds so well with the northern Indian Ocean exchange network area. but retained its continuity.. it is an indicator of the Achaemenids¶ geographical knowledge. but only step into an existing trading system. India. who joined in the existing overland and maritime trading activities. The main Roman export goods were wine. There was a shift in the geographical location of the trade. up to its northernmost point27. Thus we can speak of the first exchange network in the Persian Gulf as early as the 4th millennium BC. whose separate species are native to the Arab Peninsula. olive oil. ³The Greeks did not develop the trade routes. and luxury items. Scylax travelled down the Indus river to the Arabian sea. the main commodities of exchange were frankincense30 and spices. Histories 4. It is an aromatic resin obtained from trees of the genus Boswellia. trade in the Gulf was reinvigorated. The main producer was the Arab Peninsula in antiquity. After Alexander¶s Indian campaign. or Arikamedu. A third reason (although I have found no mention of it) can be the cost-effectiveness of the southern. maritime route via the Red Sea.44.v. It was also used in medicine as an anti-inflammation. or else Arabia Felix (present-day Aden) as an old port which used to be an intermediary between Egyptian and Indian vessels. and from there to the Red Sea. In the beginning centuries of the first millennium. compared to the overland route crossing the Arab Peninsula / Anatolia. By Roman times. In the 5th century BC.
html http://www.mei.edu/SQCC/EducationalResources/TheHistoryofFrankincense. and antiseptic plant.aspx 31 Hall 32 Chakravarti 1986. Concerning the acting agents in Indo-Roman trade.com/botanical/mgmh/f/franki31. Jewish merchants became very significant during the period from 10-13th century34. or vice versa.´ In the light of this. I wonder whether this item was considered a µluxury¶ or a µnecessity¶. who own and send ships to India. http://en. or use as bullion. maybe through Egyptian middleman. the Axumite kingdom gained prominence. As Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions attest. three seas are involved without having a common name to address the area. as the two seas were not connected). which was the characteristic Egyptian black µeye-liner¶. After a relatively calm period (of sources?).planetbotanic. and coins ± intended either to melt down and reuse. First of all. From the 3rd to 7th centuries. Internal consumption proved to be effective in Crohn¶s disease.ca/fact_sheets/frankincense_fs2. and on inscriptional and epigraphical basis it is known that there were Indian merchant colonies living on the southern coast of the Red Sea33. we are not dealing with cargoes straight from one port in the Mediterranean to another port in the Indian coast (certainly including an overland transportation somewhere.org/wiki/Frankincense#Traditional_medicine http://botanical. ships often stopped during their course. The actual trading. As is clear from the Periplus.wikipedia. 1990 9 . osteoarthritis and in vitro experiments proved effective for various forms of cancer. to the extent that the most significant legal document concerning Indian trade. Second. garum.fish sauce. the picture in historiography seems to be clear. It is Roman merchants. a southern Red Sea state. It is admitted than Indian merchants also participated. and changed part of the cargo. Cosmas Indicopleustes in the 6th century reports trade between India and Byzantine ports32. but there is no anti-infection. In ancient Egypt. as attested for example in Pliny and in Avicenna. navigation and travel seems more complex to me. the so-called Muziris papyrus35 was written in Greek. overshadowing the Graeco-Roman trade with India. there were instances of Indian merchants living in Egypt. but when did their involvement start? Axumite participants were active from the 3rd century on. Present-day researches have found that its fume has drug-like effects as antidepressant and removes anxiety. but definitely not at their face value of the Mediterranean economy 31. 208 33 Salomon 34 Wink 35 Casson. In present-day Oman. Many peoples lived on the shores ± it is probable that they also took part in the interaction. when we talk about ³trade between India and the Mediterranean´. ³it is used for everything from deodorant and toothpaste to food and drink flavoring. Greeks heavily populated the area. frankincense was a basic ingredient to create the powder called kohl. Arab people are almost never mentioned as possible participants in maritime commerce during Late Antiquity in the secondary literature.htm http://www.
The argument presented here. which very early became connected with each other. that smaller networks of trade existed from the beginnings of literacy. trade again shifted to the Red Sea. Conclusion In the paper I delineated the recent historiographical debates concerning Indian Ocean trade in the Medieval times. The participation of the Jewish diaspora became dominant in the India trade until the 13th century. and acquired lapis lazuli from the area of the present-day Afghanistan. On this basis. the long-distance trade between the Mediterranean and India is said to decline gradually from the 4th century. 353 38 Wink. To distinct but interrelated maritime networks were outlined: one in the Persian Gulf. demonstrating the continuous existence of commercial exchange networks from the 4th millennia BC to the 13th century. 350 Wink. Zoroastrian Persians or Christian Persians had dominated commerce in the western Indian Ocean´36. in the purported style of µthalassology¶. competing with Parsis and Persians living on both sides of the Arab Sea. and attempted to apply the concepts of thalassology and world systems analysis to the Northwestern Indian Ocean trade prior to the 13th century. the long duree constituent. when the Persian Gulf became blocked by the SeljuqTurkish interference. He also asserts that a Persianized Arab trading groups controlled a trade diaspora and were influential in the expansion of Islam. state involvement in commerce was limited to taxation only. Jewish diaspora in the caliphate became involved in this trade and grew to great prominence in and due to this commerce. Furthermore. when Egypt had direct trade connections with Anatolia. These networks were in connection with the Mediterranean from at least the 15th century BC. Andre Wink assumes that ³in the centuries preceding Islam. their significance in India also decreased38. 366 10 . the wider geographical unit of the Northwestern Indian Ocean provided cohesion. but when their position in µhinterland¶ caliphate declined. Conventionally. It was in the 9th century Abbasid Caliphate that ³the India trade became the backbone of the international economy´37.evidence for a Roman emporium in India. suggesting ³Indo-Mediterranean´ trade instead. and the other in the Red Sea. and going through a revival in the 10th century. I would contest the term ³Roman´ trade. The intensity of these 36 37 Wink. After 1055. thus creating ever larger units. and became hegemonic in the Persian Gulf commerce. For these three systems. An additional third network in our study area was coastal shipping along the Western Indian coasts.
Other topics of investigation would be also exciting and challenging. an ecological approach focusing on timber as an important resource especially for shipment. An outlook on the nature of the commodities transported was also present. merchants involved. or the intellectual ³commodities´ exchanged. These could supply material for further studies. such as the closer examination of the commodities exchanged. ports. 11 . but the continuity remained. language. In this paper the focus was limited on the existence and interactions of trading networks. navigational techniques. religion being one possible topic among them.connections was changing over time. outlining an argument about the permeable bounderies between the categories ³luxury´ and ³necessity´ item. Secondary material has also been selected to demonstrate this issue.
nationmaster.http://www.com/country/xo-indian-ocean 12 .
Richard. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ³The Mediterranean and ³the new thalassology. Himanshu Prabha. 1906. ³Indian Ocean Studies and the µnew thalassology¶. 2003. resource-access and lines of communication in the Indus civilization. Himanshu Prabha. Wink.´ Indian Economic & Social History Review 23. 2008. D. 3 (2006): 722-40. edited by Karl Friedrich Theodor Mayhoff. 2 (1998): 97-122. 2 (1986): 207-215. 4 (1999): 431-459.´ Journal of Global History 2 (2007): 41-62. 13 . 40822. Nayanjot. Hall. ³Merchants of Konkan. Pliny. Peregrine and Nicholas Purcell.Bibliography Primary sources Casson. Vink. Ray. Winds of change: Buddhism and the maritime links of early South Asia. Ranabir. with an English translation by A. Lionel. Delhi: Oxford University Press: 1994. 35. ³New light on maritime loans: P. G. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 4 (1990): 405-444. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. trade and economy in early South India and its Southeast Asian neighbours. Godley. Steven E. 27. 2011. ³Harappa as a centre of trade and trade routes: A case study of the resourceuse. ³The Jewish diaspora in India: eighth to thirteenth centuries. The archaeology of seafaring in ancient South India.´ Indian Economic & Social History Review. 2008. Vindob. ³Epigraphic remains of Indian Traders in Egypt. 4 (1987): 349-366.´ Indian Economic & Social History Review 36. Ray. Kenneth R.´ Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 84 (1990): 195-206. Chakravarti. Indo-Roman Trade: From Pots to Pepper. Parker. Grant. Lipsiae: Teubner. ³Coinage. Roberta. Ranabir. Horden. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Lahiri.´ Journal of the American Oriental Society 111/4 (1991): 731-736. Tomber. Historia Naturalis. Berenike and the ancient maritime spice route.´ Indian Economic & Social History Review 24. Herodotus. Salomon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Lionel (ed. "Coastal trade and voyages in Konkan: The early medieval scenario. Secondary sources Casson.) The Periplus Maris Erythraei. Sidebotham. Markus P. Histories. The making of Roman India.1920. André.M. Chakravarti." The Indian Economic and Social History Review. London: Duckworth. 1989.´ American Historical Review 111.
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