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Journal of World History 11.2 (2000) 173-225

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Trade and State in the Arabian Seas: A Survey from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century 1

R. J. Barendse
University of Leiden

While discussing some themes of my The Arabian Seas 1640-1700 and considering wider implications as well, this essay touches on a number of broad topics, so that if readers are not familiar with the facts they will at least be able to comment on the theoretic casting of this article. 2 There are disadvantages, though, to writing in this manner. Some readers will feel that I skim some topics too easily, often because I'm trying to voice broad questions for further research. However--to quote a useful truism--voicing the right question is half the research.

But, however beautiful the questions, for the early modern period we often simply do not have the evidence to answer. This particularly applies to figures. If I'm permitted to quote myself on a time and place for which we dispose of reams and reams of statistics: "They are like drugs: you want ever more of them and using them always leaves you dissatisfied." 3 Historians of early modern Asia often have to be creative with the slender evidence they have.

With this caveat in mind, let's start with defining which area constitutes [End Page 173] the Arabian seas. I call the Arabian seas the coastlines surrounding the Arabian Sea and the interior of the Red Sea and the Persian/Arabian Gulf. 4 How are we to define this area? This is not an easy task, for books on other "seas" are mostly not very clear in their definitions. Braudel talks in his classic on the Mediterranean--the example for most other "seas" books--mainly in metaphors, of the sea as "a magnetic field feeding other areas," "a field of high economic pressure," and so on. 5

The metaphors here clearly obscure the reality, for Braudel is out to look for some long-term defining element of the sea--and this is a fundamental error one should not fall into. It would be all too easy to look for such elements in the Arabian seas, "the wandering of Sindbad in a later age"--the monsoon winds, the dhows, or the teak verandahs of houses throughout the Arabian seas, and so on. But this is really too obvious to be true: let's leave it to the writers of glossy coffee table books. 6

Such a supposed eternal essence implies a convenient "Orientalism." Here, some unchanging essence of "Asia" is distinguished and contrasted with a mostly post hoc ergo propter hoc "European" essence, where "Europe" embodies "modernity" viz. the many forms of "traditionalism" in Asia. The term "Orientalism" is here meant in a narrower sense than Said's: too many studies of "Asia" tend first to set up "some idea of Europe" and then use that as a measuring-rod of how Asia had to have or should have developed or where it is "different" or "traditional." 7

I don't belong among those who would advocate the use of specific "Asian" categories to tackle the Asian reality, though, as is common in the study of the Middle East, for example. 8 It not only makes the [End Page 174] field quite impenetrable to all but a tiny circle of specialists but also envelops it in its own self-contained terminology, thus inhibiting comparisons with either Europe or South Asia and perpetuating a terminological and methodological void around "Islam," ignoring time, place, and context. 9

I therefore think we should be very careful when working with supposed long terms and unchanging essences, not only in the Middle Eastern but in the Indian context, too. To use Braudel's terms: in India we have a surfeit of longue durée theories and of court durée evenemental history, while what we need are more studies focused on the moyen durée. 10

Rather than looking for "essential elements" and longues durées...