Friday, September 25, 2009

The Hinge

The Indian Ocean subsystem of the thirteenth century was composed of three adjacent zones, divided principally for geographic regions. These three zones could be delineated for their differences in culture, with the Western zone falling under the realm of Islam, the Eastern region under Buddhism, and the Central zone under Hinduism. These separate cultures, however, intermixed, and were not as much a determinate of the boundaries as were geographical and meteorological factors. The foremost influence on these boundaries was the varying monsoon seasons and the accompanying winds. With travel primarily by sea at that time, wind was obviously an extremely relevant factor. Because of the cyclical changes in wind, certain parts of the voyage could only be completed within limited time ranges. In this way, the Indian Ocean subsystem was divided into three parts, resulting in “two interchange points that remained relatively constant: the south Indian coast…and the Strait of Malacca.” The southern coast of India served as a “hinge,” in other words, a natural divider in the seaways that connected the Middle East and China. Because of its location, South India was a major component of the world trade system.

Both the western (Malabar) and eastern (Coromandel) coasts of India, despite differences in climate, culture, and social organization, were engaged in world trade for thousands of years before Christ. Malabar served as a link westward to the Middle East and into the Mediterranean while Coromandel was the link to Southeast Asia. Beginning around 1200, trade from the western coast of India diversified to include “true bulk commodities” in addition to the luxury goods trade it had been facilitating for centuries. This increase and change in demand was created by the growth of Mediterranean trade and the appearance of Muslim states in North India to further the link with the West. Because of these deep connections between India and the Arabs from the West, an Arab-Indian hegemony formed in the Western Indian Ocean, ended only when Chinese withdrawal left the Indian Ocean vulnerable to new domination, an opportunity taken advantage of by the Portuguese.

The chapter revealed a couple of intriguing aspects of the Indian involvement in the world system. Trade in the Indian Ocean was consistently peaceful, despite the “existence of at least four sea powers sharing…the continuous sea expanse.” This stability was in stark contrast to the persistent naval warfare that was taking place concurrently in the Mediterranean. On a related note, merchants did not depend on military convoys as Italian merchants did. Rather, ships in the Indian subsystem traveled together “for mutual assistance and because propitious sailing times were so strictly limited by the monsoon winds on which all depended.” As mentioned above, the Portuguese were able to take over control of the Indian Ocean by force in large part because the existing players were unprepared to deal with such power. Additionally, with south India’s strategic geographical position as the hinge of the Indian Ocean, it is a valid assumption that the Indian subcontinent was hegemonic. While south India did include many valuable ports at which most if not all traders stopped, it did not develop itself as a dominant sea power. The book does provide a few explanations. Self sufficiency left India indifferent to many of the goods traded in the rest of the world market. India was much more a supplier than a buyer, as India already had abundant wealth, raw materials, agriculture, and industry. Also, India’s geographic location left if vulnerable to incursions by the Muslims from the west and Chinese from the east, as increases in their sea power led to a decreased focus on sea trade on India’s part.

While these are recognizable factors that contributed to the prevention of the establishment of India as a major world power, it is still questionable as to why India didn’t rise to further dominance. Her ports were of absolute necessity, as technology at the time did not allow ships to sail the open ocean. They instead hugged the coastline, increasing the value of these already geographically central Indian ports. Furthermore, demand for Indian goods, both necessary and luxurious, was very high, leading one to believe that India was in a position to massively increase wealth, power, and control over the flow of trade. Why, then, in the emerging capital system of the time, did India refuse to take full advantage of their position of power? Why was India satisfied while many other world players looked to increase their influence? It seems that India’s actions go against the natural human desire to increase wealth. One possible reason is that the costs of increasing prices, taxes, etc were too much in comparison to the benefits. As mentioned in class and in the book several times, merchants had to stop in India. There was no feasible alternative. A potential alternative, however, is war, as it is very possible in my opinion that India feared that excessive taxes and prices would drive visiting merchants to the war path because they had no alternative. Rather than give up trade between west and east, merchants would be likely to fight against suppressive Indian control. Additionally, the book does not make enough of the fragmentation of India itself as a factor in its inability to establish its dominance. Without unification, the country as a whole was not focused on consolidating its position of power as a whole but was rather instead concentrated on maintaining the power of individual states. Many local rulers received hefty financial benefits and may not have been willing to risk these profits to improve the country’s standing as a whole. If anyone else has additional reasons on this discussion, I would appreciate hearing them.


  1. I completely agree with and understand your analyzation of India. To me, you already stated the reasons. The book definitely could have further emphasized India's disunity, and India's self-sufficiency was a major reason it did not look to expand. I think another aspect of it was India's culture compared to the other countries. I am not in any way able to accurately expound on this view, but India seems to promote achieving your best while not overstepping others' boundaries. While other countries felt like they needed to gain territory in order to improve their standing, India was satisfied with merely maintaining its level of proficiency, perhaps because it was scared to upset the balance and come out worse.

  2. Your points are very interesting. I think a part of the reason why Indian traders were reluctant to exert influence and/or power over the rest of the world was a fear of disrupting the very profitable system that existed. Also, it would be interesting to see how the power was distributed on the subcontinent at the time, and what the composition of a unified India would have looked like. If one region moved out and conquered the rest of their neighbors, continued aggression might have persisted, had there been some peaceful union, that may have been less likely...