|Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean|
One thing in history which is often overlooked is the importance of trade. Trade brought cultures together, spread ideas, and even shaped governments. Today we shall be looking at two key centers of trade: the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean. These two bodies of water are very similar but simultaneously very different. Ever since around 100 BCE these two areas have even been connected! As both these bodies of water are still major centers of trade we'll only be looking at them from a select period of time. For both we shall start just after the rise of Islam and will finish around the 'Age of Discovery'.
What were these trading centers?
A while ago we looked at the Silk Road and how it helped create a network of trade stretching from Han China all the way to the Roman Empire. The Mediterranean trading route of the Medieval era had been born through this trade. Trade in the Mediterranean long predated the Romans but it had never been as large as the Roman scale. The Roman Empire did not collapse with a bang but a whimper so Rome's collapse did not disrupt the Mediterranean connections as badly as we often think when looking at the fall of Rome. With the rise of Islam creating a connected world stretching from Egypt to the Indus Valley this created a connection, (or preserved the connection), between the Mediterranean and the wider world. In particular the Italian city states and the Byzantines prospered most from this trade. Fernand Braudel puts geography down to this. Constantinople (modern Istanbul) was the second Rome and its location linked Anatolia, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean. This let the Byzantines prosper. Italy was also perfectly situated for taking advantage of trade. With many coastal cities, a good climate for growing luxury crops like grapes, many resources and being in peninsula in the middle of the Mediterranean this allowed Italy to prosper.
The Indian Ocean was different. For one, it is far larger than the Mediterranean. While the Mediterranean bordered only southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East the Indian Ocean bordered India, East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, and South East Asia. You would imagine that this would hinder a prosperous trading network but this was exactly the opposite. This was down to the very predictable monsoon systems. Trade is done by merchants and merchants only want to make safe investments. Any bit of uncertainty can deter trade; during the most recent election in the UK the pound briefly dropped over the uncertainty of who would be prime minister. In the Indian Ocean ships relied on oarsmen and wind to sail which is a dangerous prospect, mostly because winds could either destroy your ship or cause your ship to arrive late. The Indian Ocean had (and has today) winds called monsoons which occurred in seasons. These seasons were so regular that guide books stated the best day to leave to trade. April to September monsoon winds can take you from Africa to India, and September to February the winds could take you back to Africa. This allowed the Indian Ocean trade to possibly be even more prosperous than the Mediterranean trade. This is exemplified by the Book of Curiosities written sometime between 1020 and 1050 by an Egyptian scholar. As early as possibly 1020 a detailed map of the Indian Ocean was made. Only through a prosperous trade could this have been done.
What was traded?
|A Chinese sculpture made of ivory|
Both trading centers had a wide variety of goods change hands. However, actual currency was not traded as much. We shall start with the Mediterranean. Goods were swapped for either precious metals or other goods. In 1603 a Venetian merchant called Banco di Rialto said 'capital has always returned from the Levant in the form of merchandise'. Europe received 'spices' from the Middle East, (a catch all term for any exotic goods), including: sugar, dye, glue, pepper, perfumes, cloves, and nutmeg. A connection to the Black Sea via Constantinople (and later Istanbul) brought slaves, gold, silver, jewelry, gold, silver, cotton and raw silk to Europe. Africa also took part in the Mediterranean trade. Gold from Sudan made North Africa and Muslim Spain extremely wealthy, and trade through Egypt brought Sudanese gold to the Middle East and Italy. Christian merchants in the fifteenth-century settled in Oran, Tunis, Tlemcen, Tangier, Bougie, Constantine, Fez and Ceuta to take advantage of African gold. Unfortunately slavery was brought into this. Africans from modern Sudan were taken as slaves and sold across the Mediterranean, (and the Islamic world as a whole including in the Empire of Mali). In fact, the English word for Sudan comes from the Arabic bilâd as-sûdân, which means 'Land of the Blacks'.
The Indian Ocean trade was larger than the Mediterranean trade so a wider range of goods were traded. The picture above is a Chinese sculpture (no date given of when it was made) made of elephant ivory. Elephants, however, do not live in China. Ivory was traded from either India or East Africa. China, India, South East Asia, East Africa and the Middle East traded goods with each other. Ivory came from India and Africa, gold from Africa, books from the Middle East, spices from Malaysia and Indonesia, porcelain from China, and timber from Africa just to name a few of the goods traded. The site of Great Zimbabwe in particular donated millions of pounds of gold to the trade with it being traded up to Zanzibar through Sofala and then across the Indian Ocean. Also, many spices which came to Europe via Arab and Turkish merchants originally came from the Malay peninsula and Indonesian archipelago. Although not directly connected there were connections between the two bodies of water.
A final key point to mention is how ideas were traded. K.N. Chaudhuri talks of how many merchants engaged in both their own cultures as well as living alongside other cultures in the Indian Ocean. In specific he gives the example of an Arab merchant in Calicut carrying their own bread so they wouldn't have to eat food prepared by a non-Muslim while living in a bamboo-and-palm-leaf house. In particular Arabs and other Muslims helped spread ideas across both the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. This is what we shall discuss next.
|Huaisheng Mosque in Guangzhou|
Strangely we can see Muslim influence in China at the port of Guangzhou (Canton). In 920 Abu Zaid Hasan writing in the Persian port of Siraf wrote about a revolt in Guangzhou in 828 in which Muslim traders were specifically targeted:
They raised their hands to oppress the foreign merchants who had come to their country; and to these events was joined the rise of oppression and transgression in the treatment of the Arab shipmasters and captains. They imposed illegal burdens on the merchants and appropriated their wealth, and made lawful for themselves what had not been practiced formerly in any of their dealings.
I feel this quote exemplifies the influence of Arabic trade. China is not an area that comes to mind when we think of Arabic and Muslim trade. When we get onto the 'Hundred Years of Humiliation' for China you may find similarities between this incident and the reactions to the British informal empire. Anyway, the photo above shows the Huaisheng Mosque in Guangzhou built to accommodate the Muslim traders and even acted as a lighthouse for Guangzhou. Arab traders helped spread mainly Islam throughout the world. The two main areas we shall look at is East Africa and South East Asia. The great Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta visited Mogadishu, Mombasa and Kilwa in 1331 showing how entrenched Islam had gotten through trade. Ibn Battuta only visited areas where Islam had become the dominant religion. In particular Zanzibar became a key area for trade. Being a few islands off of the African coast with access to the Indian Ocean it was expected. Islam and Zoroastrianism (from Persian traders) helped establish these religions in the area, although Zoroastrianism has been eclipsed by Islam and Christianity now. An Arab population grew on Zanzibar and they eventually ruled the area all the way until 1964. The Indian Ocean trade can be best seen in East Africa today with Swahili. Swahili itself is an Arabic word and today many Swahili words are of Arabic origin. Somalia and Tanzania in particular have sizable Muslim populations today; all this from the Indian Ocean trade.
Islam was spread to Indonesia and Malaysia through the same Muslim merchants. Today Indonesia is home to 12.7% of the world's Muslims. Rich in spices the Indonesian archipelago and the Malaysian peninsula were prime areas for trade which Arabic and Muslim merchants took advantage of. Islam arrived via proselytizing merchants and missionaries in the thirteenth-century. Coming from Gujerat in 1290 merchants established themselves in Perlak on the northern tip of Sumatra. Close to the Malayan Strait this allowed merchants to control access to the Indonesian archipelago, and inevitably spread ideas. Malay was converted c.1400, Java and the Moluccas c.1430 and then the southern Philippines in the 1500s. It is noticeable that areas which were less involved in the trade like Thailand, Vietnam, and Burma remained Buddhist. However, not only did Islam get spread via trade. In 670 a kingdom called Srivijaya was founded on Sumatra whose main city was Palembang. Palembang was located 80 kilometers upstream from a river and located between the Sunda and Melaka straits giving them a monopoly of trade. Indian merchants came to Srivijaya and we see great Hindu influences in Srivijaya despite being a Buddhist power.
Arabic merchants also affected Europe. The numbers we use are called 'Arabic numerals' as they were brought to Europe via Arab merchants, although they originated in India. The Mediterranean trade helped create a cultural blending between the Islamic and Christian worlds. At Baghdad ideas from Rome and Greece had been preserved and were spread back to Europe to be 'rediscovered'. Arabs had preserved the writings of Aristarchus and Philolaus so that later Copernicus could use their inspiration to formulate his heliocentric theory and he would cite several Islamic astronomers in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. We even see Islamic style architecture crop up in Italy especially during the Renaissance. Trade had brought Islamic and Christian cultures together.
|Palazzo Sticchi in Santa Ceserea Terme, Pugia|
Italy and the Republics
Italy was unique in post-Rome Europe by being dominated by republics. Although later on many doges of the Italian republics were de facto monarchs (although some were always like that) they still had the pretense of being republics. Like the ancient Greek republics they were oligarchies but by being answerable to some their policies could be shaped by 'popular' appeal. Only the wealthy could vote and the wealthy happened to be merchants. In particular Venice stood out. As Venice was made of canals it needed resources and to get resources it needed to trade. Soon enough Venice became a maritime power in the Mediterranean similar to the Dutch and British in the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries. Venice had the best ships and were creditors making them very powerful. As we saw with the Crusades Venice funded the Fourth Crusade which resulted in the sack of Constantinople which Venice benefited greatly from. The Byzantines had slowly been picked apart by the growing Ottoman Empire so the sack of Constantinople allowed Venice to fill the void left by the Byzantines. Venice grew so powerful that they organised convoys of 10-20 huge galleys to protect their trade. They even became wealthy for trading where others refused to do so. Egypt's connection to the Indian Ocean made it rich in goods, especially pepper which was very lucrative, but because of the Crusades and that Egypt was Muslim Egyptian merchants weren't welcome in Europe. Venice continued to do so and even took advantage of it for political reasons. St Mark was the patron saint of Venice but he was buried in Alexandria so two merchants went to Alexandria and put relics believed to be St Mark's body in crates full of pork. As it was pork the Muslim clerks could not touch it so they accidentally gave Venice the corpse. It is actually depicted in St Mark's Basilica in Venice.
The Italian republics became very wealthy and traded with the rest of Europe. Soon firms emerged hiring merchants to trade for them which William Brulez described as 'the new and important element in the commercial development of the sixteenth century'. Venice employed people called conduttori to move goods across Europe, mainly to Germany. After 1558 there was a huge influx of Italian merchants, mainly Venetian, into Germany which lasted until the Thirty Years' War. This European trade was geared towards the south so much that Sebastian Koch in 1559 offered to represent Danzig as well as his home city. For a select few families in mainly Germany this trade was very beneficial and they became very wealthy.
Venice's domination of the Mediterranean was not entire. Soon Genoa emerged as another major trading power. In 1261 Genoa managed to sign the Treaty of Nymphaeum with the Byzantines which gave Genoa huge trading concessions in return for fifty Genoese vessels whenever the Byzantines wanted it. A poem was even written about the Genoese showing their prolific economic domination:
So many are the Genoese,
And so spread over the earth,
That where they go to settle,
They make another Genoa
The Italian republics also came into a rivalry/accommodation with the Ottoman Empire after it conquered Constantinople in 1453. Venice in particular would wage naval wars with the Ottomans over control of the eastern Mediterranean but in the end after Selim I conquered Syria and Egypt in the early sixteenth-century they sought to trade instead. Here we see a difference to the Indian Ocean. With the Indian Ocean we saw little to no urge to hold a monopoly over sea routes. Only in the Malayan peninsula was this evident. This may be explained by the fact that the Mediterranean states were maritime powers, (Genoa, Venice etc.), while the Indian Ocean was largely land based powers. This contrary views would come into conflict in the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries when Europe came to the Indian Ocean.
Looking at the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean helps show an alternate side to history. Today we have focused a lot less on rulers, sultans, and monarchs instead focusing on the masses. By looking at trade and its impact we see how historical events and ideas affected the lives of ordinary people. We also see how policy could be shaped by people whose names have been forgotten by history. It also shows us how connected our world has been for centuries. Like with the Silk Road we see how globalization is not a new concept that sprung up with the internet, NAFTA and the EU. When looking at it this way present day globalization doesn't seem such a daunting prospect for present day populations. By looking how the past dealt with globalization we can better deal with modern globalization. Thank you for reading and next time we shall look at the Ming dynasty in China, possibly the most famous Chinese dynasty.
The sources I have used are as follows:
-The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Volume One by Fernand Braudel
-Later Medieval Europe, 1250-1520 by Daniel Waley and Peter Denley
-The Indian Ocean in World History by Edward A. Alpers
-Asia before Europe: Economy and Civilisation of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750 by K.N. Chaudhuri
-Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula by Paul Michel Muroz
-A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani
For a full list of the World History posts please see here
For a full list of the World History posts please see here