Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Indian Subcontinent: Hinge, but not hegemonic.

The Indian Ocean was divided into three major interlocking units in the thirteenth century mainly for geographic reasons coordinating with the monsoon cycles. These included: 1) the western-most circuit dominated by Muslims, 2) the center Hindu circuit, and 3) the Chinese circuit of Buddhists and Confucianists. While several “locally hegemonic powers” coexisted, there was no single power dominating the whole system. The monsoon wind patterns had such fatal potential for any would-be traders that manuals were created to guide them across the treacherous waters. Interestingly, directions for Arabs included how to get just about anywhere within the first two circuits, but not how to reach any of the Chinese ports. This is because Chinese ports weren’t welcoming any foreign traders by the late 1300s – a key point in explaining the demise of the old system and opportunity for the construction the Euro-centered system to come.

Contrary to traditional thought and my former impressions, Southeast Asia was hardly of passive, primitive peoples who were instructed by the more advanced Indians or Chinese; rather, it it was Southeast Asia who developed refined metallurgy and agricultural advancements first and likely influenced India and China through their traders as early as 1000 B.C. The nature of trading communities along the Indian coast were unified governing bodies, but rather more like an “archipelago of towns” that had more in common with the communities they traded with across the ocean than they did with eachother.

Appropriately, Abu-Lughod describes India as the “hinge” for cultural diffusion and economic exchange between all peoples to the east and west of sub-continent. Both the peoples of Malabar coast and of the Coromandel coasts, though the regions were very different in ecology and social organization, were involved in primitive world economies before the middle ages: Malabar with the Middle East and Coromandel with Southeast Asia thousands of years before Christ. After 1200 there was a significant change for Indian trade along the western coast. Trading and carrying capacity had improved greatly so that in addition to luxury goods, bulk commodities became important to meet basic needs, including even live horses and bulk foods. Why? Mediterranean trade was expanding and powerful Muslim states in northern India were emerging and reinforcing trade with the Mediterranean. When Gujarat was absorbed by the Sultanate of Delhi, it was reinfused with luxury goods to support the elite despite counterforces of the Mongols’ conquest of Persia and Iraq by the mid-thirteenth century. Between them, the Arabs and the Indians (perhaps most so in Malabar) shared hegemonic rule over the western Indian Ocean throughout the medieval period.

Unlike in the Mediterranean, commerce in the Indian Ocean was never characterized by naval warfare, because it wasn’t necessary. The trade was generally peaceful and before the Portuguese arrival in 1498, there had been no attempt by any political power to dominate the circuits. Merchants didn’t depend on convoys like the Italians did; ships traveled together for mutual assistance and because times for good travel were so limited due to the monsoon winds that everyone depended on. The Portuguese gained power with the originality of its practices. Its way of trading – according to a complex system of compulsion – was entirely new.

Even though India could have easily dominated the world trade system, it did not. Abu-Lughod credits this to India's absorption of trade surpluses. It produced itself many of the of or products and goods in demand in the world market, while it imported very little: "Ironically, wealth rather than poverty seemed to keep her from playing a more aggressive role in the thirteenth-century world system, a system driven more by need than satiety" (285). As the Arabs to the west pushed east and the Chinese to the right pushed west, trade at the center declined, leaving the Indian zone displaced and vulnerable. When the Chinese then withdrew , the zone was free to be exploited by the Portuguese.

Abu-Lughod describes the coexistence of several locally hegemonic powers as being the “natural condition of the Indian Ocean.” This is very interesting and also not entirely clear to me. In what way was it this natural for the region and why?

1 comment:

  1. Valid point, and an interesting question. Try looking at the history of the region to find the answer.