Saturday, April 04, 2009

The secret network   posted by Razib @ 4/04/2009 10:37:00 AM

A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World is a work of economic history focused on trade. It suffers like many in this genre due to a sloppy grasp of the historical record (the numerous trivial errors are a good sign of a very thin grasp of secondary sources).* But when it comes to the details of trade networks it is relatively informative (though do check the notes!). One of the more interestings aspects of A Splendid Exchange is the deep treatment given to the Indian ocean trade network from antiquity down to the early modern period (also see Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium fora more scholarly take on this topic). The standard model from the extant sources suggest that the trade from Egypt to China had a hinge at Sri Lanka, so that Western and Eastern traders went no further than this point. But there are references by Portuguese soldiers and missionaries to "Roman colonies" in the trading cities of the Malay archipelago in the 16th century, strongly suggesting that the Italian's networks extended very far to the east. Additionally, during this period the Acehnese of northern Sumatra were a notable presence in the western Indian ocean, as evidenced today by the Malay features of some individuals in the Hadhramaut in southern Yemen. Finally, there is circumstantial evidence that the mercentile elite of Cairo during the phase of Mamluk ascendancy was of Indian provenance, specifically Tamil.

When I say "secret" I mostly mean that though the trade network was well known to the principals, because of minimal documentation our knowledge of it is thin. And when we do not see records of something, it does not exist. The copious amounts of gold & silver coins in 1st century from the Malabar Coast in India are witness to both luxury and non-luxury good consumption by the Roman world (gold = luxury, silver = non-luxury) of Asian products, while the shift to gold in the 2nd century suggests a decline in the non-luxury sector. Of course these inferences can be made only because of the durable nature of coinage and its known exchange rates with goods & services.

These data and the hints of wider patterns which we can discern make some paradoxes more comprehensible. Consider the fact that the origin or transit of the Malagasy language from southern Borneo is highly likely. Settlement of Madagascar by a people who speak and Austronesian language seems exceedingly peculiar. By analogy some have suggested it was as if Cuba had been settled by the Norwegians in the 10th century. Interestingly the linguistic relationship to Borneo is supported by the genetic data. The fact that the Malagasy has loan words from Swahili, Arabic and Sanskrit indicates a deep integration with the Indian ocean network. A bigger point is that unfortunately when it comes to modeling human history we don't tend to take into account what we don't know (naturally) as much as what we know. The Indian ocean network's outlines are detectable because of its scope, but it is almost certainly the tip of the iceberg in terms of these patterns in human history.

*Though to be fair this is not a scholarly work.

Labels: ,