Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean

K.N. Chaudhuri, Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean, An Economic History from the rise of Islam to 1750, Cambridge University Press, 1985.

            This seminal book of Chaudhuri is among pioneer works on Indian Ocean studies, as well as contributes significantly to the field of world history. In this book, the author applies the central-place theory to explain the emergence, development and demise of series of urban centers along the coasts of Indian Ocean. This book, as the author affirms, was inspired by F.Braudel’s la longue duree[1] and apparently shed a new light on the Indian Ocean’s economic and social history.

            This book is divided into two major parts: The first part describes general issues and major historical events in Indian Ocean from the rise of Islam in the 7th century to 18th century when European Sea-powers arrived and played a dominant role in the region. In Chapter 1, Chadhuri points out fundamental issues those will be discussed analytically in following chapters, such as the chronological coherence of Indian Ocean during one millennium of year, the unity and diversity of the Indian Ocean, the relationship between the random time/events with stationary time/la longue duree, and especially the role of long-distance trade in the process of economic, cultural and social integration. According to the author, the formation of the Tang China and the rise of Islam in Arab region and its following expansion marked a new chapter in the history of the Indian Ocean. Both China and Islam world by then became two major economic centers and played principal role in shaping the economic system of the Eurasia (via the terrestrial trade route) and Indian Ocean (via the maritime trade route). Along either the terrestrial or maritime routes, there were chains of emporia (coastal cities and caravan towns), and these major cities served as not only economic centers but also cultural and political centers. In chapter 3 and 4, the author examines the rise and expansion of Portuguese seaborne empire, the Dutch and English East India Companies and their gradual establishment of the bureaucratic form of trade in the Indian Ocean. Chaudhuri’s main argument here is that, before the arrival of European, there was the existence of a traditional trading system in Indian Ocean embodied in the active role of emporia networks, and these rich urban emporia distributed from the coast of China to the eastern of Mediterranean once served as the driving forces of Indian Ocean history during the period under review. The structural unity as well as the volume of trade in the Indian Ocean were impacted profoundly by the formation of central-places.

            In the second part of this book, Chaudhuri adopt the method of la longue duree and discusses about the structural systems of the Indian Ocean history from the rise of Islam to 18th century. Chapter 6 examines the seas and how peoples in Indian Ocean could master and took advantage of the seas. Readers might find it interesting in the author’s observation on the attitude of people towards the seas, their traditional experiences in managing the sea, such as the art of navigation, understanding the wind-systems, the risks of shipwreck, etc… The technology of ships and shipbuilding in various regions in Indian Ocean are also studied comprehensively in the chapter 7. Chapter 8 looks at the connection between the terrestrial and maritime trading networks connecting the China world and Arab world. According to the author, both caravan trade routes and long-distance sea routes constituted a network of commercial exchange in the Indian Ocean. A comparative study of trading cities and the urbanization along the caravan routes and maritime routes has been done in this chapter as well. In chapter 9, Chaudhuri focuses on two fundamental aspects of commercial exchange, i.e. commodities and markets in Indian Ocean during one millennium. The author makes an interesting observation about the relationship between the luxury and bulk goods, the distribution of commodities as well as the link between the distances with types of goods. The structure of markets and the typology of markets in the Indian Ocean are also checked up in this chapter. The chapter 10 turns to capital and trade in the Indian Ocean by investigating the sources of capital, the connection between long distance trade, merchants and capitalism in Asia, and evaluating the commercial capitalism in Europe and Asia.

            Throughout his book, Chaudhuri emphasizes the substantial role of long-distance trade and string of emporia as the driving force for development and integration in the Indian Ocean history. In his view, study of the long distance trade that took places across geographical and cultural regions could be a fruitful measure to understand the cohesion/unity as well as the diversity/disunity of Indian civilizations (p.2, p.4, p.5). Long-distance trade and communities of merchants along the caravan routes and maritime routes played a crucial role in the process of economic, social and cultural integration in the Indian Ocean during a long period of time (from the Seventh century to the Eighteenth century). In the framework of trans-continent commercial network, the author aims at explaining the emergence, prosperity, demise and the connection of major urban centers in Eurasia and Indian Ocean. The merchant communities, the Muslim merchants in particular, who crossed cultural and geographical borders played a dominant part in operating the trading network, as well as connecting various civilizations and communities in Asia. The active of emporia and merchant communities along the long-distance trade routes led to the dynamics of the economic systems of Indian Ocean before the arrival of major European sea-powers. 

            The author also takes the rise and expansion of Islam into consideration. According to Chaudhuri, “the astonishing success of Islam as a religion, a political empire, and a way of life was fully measurable in term of our triple dimensions of time, space, and structure”(p.3). The emergence and spreading out of Islam in the Indian Ocean were considered by the author as the major framework and influenced enormously to all major civilizations and communities in Asia. By examining the expansion of Islam and the active engagement of Muslim merchants in every emporium in Indian Ocean trading networks, this book would be also considered as a significant contribution to the field of Islam studies in Asia.

            By this seminal work, Chaudhuri not only shed light to the field of Indian Ocean studies, but also contributed significantly to the large-scale economic and social history. Chaudhuri’s Trade and civilization along with Curtin’s Cross-cultural trade[2] have been so far considered as the monumental works of the trend examining the world’s economic and social history through large-scale pattern.[3] Both of these books are influenced from F.Braudel’s la longue duree and central-place theory as well; and shaping the role of long-distance trade as well as merchants in world’s economic, cultural and social integration was their identical goal.


[1] Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

[2] Curtin, Cross-cultural trade in World history. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984        

[3] Jerry Bentley, “Shapes of World History in 20th Century Scholarship”, American Historical Association, 1997.

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