Monday, 16 November 2015

'Monsoon Marketplace' vs. 'Silk Roads'

      I want to look again at the importance of Southeast Asia in world history, which I do with some regularity on this blog. Peter Frankopan's view of Central Asia and the Middle East as the 'central nervous system' of our world seems totally wrong to me. I'm sure a more nuanced view is presented in his book (I now have a copy), but in any case the view that the stretch of land between Mesopotamia and Xinjiang is of utmost importance to the world is surprisingly common. Central Asia is prominent in world histories, and the Middle East even more so; they take up pages and pages, while Southeast Asia barely gets a mention. I was amazed looking through the index of Andrew Marr's popular History of the World that Angkor, the world's largest preindustrial city (by area), was totally absent. That's an extraordinary absence.

      Why do the Middle East and Central Asia get so much attention and Southeast Asia, especially island Southeast Asia (ISEA), gets so little? Are those really such vital regions, and is ISEA really so peripheral? Let's look a little at the factors considered so important in Central Asia and see to what extent they apply as well in ISEA.

      When people think of Central Asia they tend to think of the 'silk road' or 'silk roads' (as Peter Frankopan has it, based on Ferdinand von Richthofen's original formulation, Seidenstrassen), and they also think of on-going attempts by European or Euro-American powers to maintain some kind of influence there - in Afghanistan, Bukhara, and so on. They might be aware of earlier Arab, Tibetan, and Chinese attempts to take control there as well. The image of the silk roads is entrenched in our minds: a melange of exotic merchants stopping at caravanserais while their camel-steeds spit and groan in the background (and all that). 'Silk road' is a catchy name, too, and that certainly helps recall. Scholars are attracted to the region, but so are travellers, and there are big, glossy popular historical books filled with beautiful photographs on Central Asia in all periods.
The exotic Silk Road(s). Dunhuang - a Han dynasty watchtower. h/t The Real Bear.
      The books on the Indian Ocean trade are generally much less glamourous, presumably because it's hard to photograph the sea (and all of the ports involved have changed beyond all recognition). It also has a less catchy name ('Indian Ocean trade'< Silk Road), although the novelist and wonderful human being John Green has tried to popularise the term 'Monsoon Marketplace', which I think is rather nice.

        But let's be clear here: the volume of trade on the overland routes was probably always smaller than the volume traded across the sea. Connections by sea were not necessarily more reliable than overland ones - piracy has been a problem on the Indian Ocean as far back as records go - but the pay-off is much greater if you have a ship full of produce than if you have a wagon, and you can also carry a greater range of goods (including porcelain, which is trickier to transport overland). Most of the famous travellers of the overland routes between Europe, India, and China - like Marco Polo, Xuanzang, Yijing, Niccolo de' Conti, Ibn Battuta, and so on - also went by sea, and as soon as the sea routes opened up after da Gama, most European voyages to China and 'the East' went by sea, partly due to political necessity and partly due to the comparative ease of using ships.
The Portuguese settlement in Melaka - not exactly the image we have of ancient trading routes... h/t Chongkian.
       If you look at Roman trade with India, most of it seems to have been conducted via the Indian Ocean routes from Egypt's southeast coast and not overland, as Roberta Tomber's Indo-Roman Trade (2008) makes clear. The existence of Arikamedu, a site in South India full of Roman goods first excavated by Mortimer Wheeler, tells us that the bulk of Roman trade wasn't coming from the north, through the 'central nervous system', but in ships from Egypt. Roman documents - including the famous Periplus Maris Erythraei (c.70 CE) - tell us that Greco-Egyptian sailors had an advanced understanding of the sea routes to India and Arabia (although perhaps not Indonesia at this stage - the Malay Peninsula was only dimly known to the Romans, and they probably knew of it from Indian sources). The presence of graffiti in 'South Arabian, Palmyrene, Axumite, and Tamil-Brahmi' as well as glass beads from India and East Java at Berenice Troglodytica on the east coast of Egypt also attests to the importance of this trade in the Roman period (see Alpers 2014:28-29).

       There are no Roman coins known from China, even western China, and very little evidence of Roman influence in Central Asia - but there is a Chinese record of a visit in 166 CE by Greeks claiming to represent Marcus Aurelius, and they arrived on the coast in ships, not overland in a caravan. Roman coins have been found in what is now Thailand and Vietnam; Roman pottery has been found in Bali, along with Indian pottery of a similarly early period. There's even a claim that the name Theophrastus gave to the cubeb, komakon, comes directly from Javanese kumukus (presumably a slightly different sound 2,300 years ago). That wouldn't be too surprising; sailors from ISEA seem to have had no problem travelling to Africa (and Madagascar specifically) and South Arabia in early historic times, and medieval Arabian sources claim Malays were present even in Ptolemaic Egypt. It's certainly possible, if unverifiable.

       And that's not to even mention the enormous number and range of Chinese products found in Southeast Asia from a very early period - in prehistory, in fact - as well as Indian ones and, later, Arabian, and Persian ones. It's also not to mention the Southeast Asian products found outside of Southeast Asia at a very early period, including cloves, bananas, and cinnamon (mentioned in the Old Testament; cinnamon is generally considered to be a loanword from an old Malayo-Polynesian language). It's also not to mention the vocabularies of Southeast Asian languages, which are packed full of words from other languages from throughout Eurasia. Malay is basically an Austronesian language, but it has a huge amount of Sanskrit and Arabic in its lexicon alongside Chinese and Portuguese and, depending on the dialect, more or less Dutch, English, and Javanese.

       Melaka in 1511, the year of the Portuguese conquest under Albuquerque, was probably one of the richest city-states in the world, and it had districts full of Chinese people, Persians, Armenians, Arabs, Javanese, Thais, Tamils, Gujaratis, and just about everyone else on earth who had any business in the Indian Ocean. There was a lot of mixing going on. People were attracted by the wealth of the place, and the fact that they could buy, almost from the source, things like pepper and cloves, something totally impossible in Central Asia. Albuquerque's plan for world domination rested on taking over emporia like this around the Indian Ocean, forcing global trade into Portuguese hands. You'll note that he didn't try to take the whole of Afghanistan or establish a crusader state in Palestine.
Possible locations for Thai canals on the Peninsula, linking the Gulf of Siam/South China Sea with the Indian Ocean. You can see the Straits of Malacca and Sunda on the map as well.
       Today, about a quarter of the world's goods pass through the Straits of Malacca (=Melaka) between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, and large amounts are also transported through the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. That seems to have always happened, as far back as the historical sources and archaeology take us. The Thai government has long had plans to cut a canal through the Isthmus of Kra on the Malay Peninsula to create an extra route between the China and the rest of Afro-Eurasia, and the Chinese government has even offered to fund them, although it seems unlikely this will get off the ground in the near-future. In fact, some archaeologists - notably H.G. Quaritch Wales - believe(d) that the Isthmus was used in early historic times as a portage between the eastern and western sides of the Peninsula, and this has passed into the historical lore of the Malay world despite the lack of archaeological or direct textual evidence for it (Michel Jacq-Hergoualc'h has doubted the claim explicitly).

       Needless to say, no similar volume of goods travels overland between China and western Asia/Europe in 2015, and there's every reason to believe that that's always been the case. Chinese and Russian attempts to re-start the 'silk road' have yet to really get off the ground, and they seem more political dream than viable commercial reality given the low population densities of Central Asia and the sheer convenience of container ships.

       So why do we have this impression that the overland routes were so important? I suspect it's partly because of the exotic beauty of the landscapes and architecture of Central Asia, but it could also represent the political interests we have in the area. Protecting British/Russian/American/Chinese interests in Central Asia and the Middle East has always been an important aim, even up to the present day, and I suppose there's a natural assumption that this reflects the inherent importance of the region, which I don't think it does. We tend to think about Central Asia and the Middle East a lot anyway.

      And we don't tend to think about the Indian Ocean or ISEA. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines are all reasonably stable countries that don't tend to make trouble on the world stage. They're all supporters of the West and allies of the USA. The Philippines has been an ally since the war, as has Malaysia (which only became independent in 1957); Indonesia has followed the way of the West since its anti-communist genocide and Suharto's coup in 1965. These aren't countries we pay much attention to because they tend to tick along without offending us, even if the world's most apocalyptic environmental disaster is currently happening in Indonesia.
A Nasa photo showing the extent of the kabut asap (smog/haze) over Borneo, Sumatra, and the Malay Peninsula this year.
       But let's not forget how vital these places were and are, whether in prehistory, modern history, or today. Think of the importance of the loss of Singapore in the Second World War or the fact that England exchanged a miniscule island in eastern Indonesia (Run) for the whole of Manhattan; think of the wars fought to ensure that the trade in sandalwood, cloves, pepper, or nutmeg stayed in Portuguese/English/Dutch hands, or the way in which the Spanish transformed (or crashed) the Chinese economy by trading Mexican silver through Manila. You might also think of the wildlife of Indonesia (the second most biodiverse nation on earth) inspiring Alfred Russel Wallace to send off his Ternate letter, causing Darwin to lecture on evolutionary theory and publish On the Origin of Species without further delay in 1859. I have to emphasise that this simply isn't a peripheral part of world history, but an integral part of it, and in many ways more consequential to our way of life than developments along the so-called Silk Roads.

Alpers, E. A. 2014. The Indian Ocean in world history. Oxford: OUP.
Tomber, R. 2008. Indo-Roman trade. Bristol Classical press.


  1. Have you seen the short article by Duncan Campbell in Ancient Warfare IX-2? Its not a peer-reviewed venue but he is a good historian.

    As a specialist in Southwest Asia in the first millennium BCE, I am skeptical that there was frequent travel any further than between the upper Red Sea or the Babylonian marshes and the Indus (early on) or with Ceylon and Arikamedu (at the farthest). Regular travel farther than that does not really fit with what we know about travel and trade and knowledge of distant lands in general in that period.

    1. I don't subscribe to Ancient Warfare - not normally my field, I guess - but I'll grab a copy of that one and see what Campbell says.

      I suspect there was travel from Southeast Asia to India and elsewhere in and before the first millennium CE - whether it often went the other way is of course a different matter.

      We know that sailors within SE Asia were travelling at a very early period between islands east of New Guinea (like the Trobriands) and Borneo - a distance of about 5000 kilometres - based on obsidian and pottery finds from both areas dated c.1200 BCE. Madagascar was settled from Borneo (a distance of around 7000 kilometres) in the middle of the first millennium CE, and bananas, sandalwood, and sugarcane - all eastern Indonesian products - are mentioned in a variety of sources (especially Indian ones) or found at archaeological sites around the Indian Ocean dating to somewhere in the first millennium BCE. There's even a disputed find of cloves at Terqa from 1700 BCE or so. I think that's reasonable evidence to make the case that SE Asian people were binding this trade together by making long-distance voyages across the whole system.

      Given that sailors from Near Oceania were voyaging far out into the Pacific (to Tonga, Samoa, and so on) in the early first millenniu BCE, it actually seems quite likely that Malayo-Polynesian-speaking sailors were voyaging across the Indian Ocean, perhaps all the way to Egypt, at the time of the Roman empire. Kenneth Hall, the historian of SE Asia, has tried to link the kolandiaphonta of the Periplus Maris Erythraei to Malay vessels, noting the (sort of) similarity to the Chinese word kunlun, a word referring to dark-skinned foreigners in general. I think it's a flimsy argument, especially because in Middle Chinese kunlun would be rendered something like kwonlwin and in Old Chinese *[k]ˤu[n] [r]u[n], which is even further from kolandia than the modern Chinese. But most scholars of Southeast Asia don't really doubt the idea of regular travel across the Indian Ocean from Southeast Asia at an early period.

      Either way, I'm sure you're right about the Romans only making it to India and Sri Lanka.

  2. Its not just the Greek and Latin tradition, though, but also the cuneiform one. Its usually thought that in Ur III times (end of the third millennium BCE ish) there was trade by sea between Sumeria and the lower Indus (Meluhha), possibly via intermediaries somewhere in the Persian Gulf or eastern Arabia (Dilmun and Magan). The written and material evidence looks pretty strong, although there are some doubters especially among archaeologists, and evidence for contact between say 1500 and 500 BCE is pretty slender. But to the best of my knowledge, until the death of cuneiform the Indus valley seems to have been the farthest land in the Lower Sea which people in Mesopotamia knew of, and I don't know of any out-of-place artifacts or mysterious traders who arrived from the Lower Sea. So if people from anywhere east of Ceylon were sailing to anywhere west of the mouth of the Indus in the first millennium BCE, why didn't some of them make it up the Persian Gulf? Chickens and sugar cane can spread via a series of trade routes without anyone making the whole journey.

    But the western half of the Indian Ocean is not my region.

    1. There is very little evidence, aside from the find of cloves in Syria from the 18th century BCE, of Indonesian products in western Eurasia before 500 BCE, as you say.

      I'm quite sure sugarcane first went to India from Indonesia, as did sandalwood (Santalum album is not native to India, but to eastern Indonesia; its distribution in India reflects its relatively recent introduction). I think these products went to India very early on - by the Vedic period, for sure. There's no reason to believe they were introduced any further west than that at such an early time, even if they were capable of traversing the entire ocean by that point (as they probably were). The presence of cassia, several kinds of cinnamon, and cubebs in Greece by the fourth century BCE says something about the later period, though.

  3. Hear, hear.. And, according to Pram, this region also kickstarted the process of decolonization.
    He, John Green, indeed seems like a wonderful bloke. Enjoyed his crash course very much. Even with, understandably, lots of over-simplification and factual errors.

  4. Claudius Civilis29 April 2016 at 22:40

    "the fact that England exchanged a miniscule island in eastern Indonesia (Run) for the whole of Manhattan"

    This makes a very good story.
    But it just isn't true.

    The whole of New Netherlands (including Manhattan) was exchanged for Surinam - as a potential sugar colony considered rather more valuable at the time. Run was simply the icing on the cake.

    It must be remembered that the Dutch overseas empire was not really one, but two empires - the VOC and the WIC ran their own separate operations and the VOC couldn't care less what happened to the WIC; as illustrated when the WIC lost Brazil while at the same time the VOC conquered Ceylon and Malabar.

  5. Hello, and thanks for this very interesting post.
    I'm a PhD student and I'm interested in South East Asia and South Arabia in ancient times. My attention was captured by your statement that "sailors from ISEA seem to have had no problem travelling to Africa (and Madagascar specifically) and South Arabia in early historic times, and medieval Arabian sources claim Malays were present even in Ptolemaic Egypt." Now, a few months ago I came across a similar statement in Ned Alpers's book "The Indian Ocean in World History". On page 33 his states "indirect evidence from a 13th century Arab text mentions Malays settled south Arabia at the time of the Roman conquest of Egypt in 31 BCE". I emailed the author to request further information about the 13th century text, but he apparently had forgotten.
    Do you know anything about it, by any chance?
    Thanks a lot

    1. Actually this might be one of those things that have become academic folklore instead of having a proper foundation in fact - I'm pretty sure I got it from Alger, and if Alger can't remember then I can't go further than that. I'll check the usual sources a bit later (Paul Wheatley, etc.) to see if there's anything verifiable out there. It might be one of those Victorian writers who first came up with the idea - they often misinterpreted that sort of thing.

    2. Thanks a lot for your reply. Actually I'm not of the field of south east Asian history, so I'm at a loss for which sources to check. Could you suggest any other text apart from Paul Wheatley writings?

    3. Well, there aren't so many really - you could try the very early stuff for some possible clues. If you know German or French you could try something like Wilhelm Heyd's Geschichte des Levantehandels im Mittelalter - I'm certain there's an online version because I used it fairly recently. I'm not sure how good Heyd or the other Victorian-era scholars are on Arabic sources anyway. Wheatley probably has nothing to say on this topic frankly, but I'll take a look. I think Robin (R. A.) Donkin might have something in one of his books on the trade in camphor or spices, but I'm not so sure.

      I suspect it's one of those things where a vague reference in a primary source has been blown out of proportion by intrigued non-specialists. I don't know Arabic texts at all, but that happens even with easily verifiable things in European languages about Southeast Asia, even when the languages are easy and the manuscripts have been digitised. Nobody seems to like to check the primary sources in the original language and script, I suppose because that isn't always easy.

      I'll have a look at what I have tomorrow evening (European time). I'm recovering from an illness right now and I'm trying to work on a couple of other projects, but this is an intriguing problem so I'll see what I can find.

    4. Thanks a lot, this is much appreciated!


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