Journal of World History 14.1 (2003) 95-98
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Asian Merchants and Businessmen in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea. Edited by DENYS LOMBARD and JEAN AUBIN. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000. ix + 375 pp. $35.00 (cloth).
The book under review has taken a long journey to reach its present form. It originally appeared in French in 1988 (Marchands et Hommes d'Affaires dans l'Océan Indien et la Mer de Chin 13 ème siécles—20 ème siécles, Paris: École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales) as a collection of papers presented at a conference held in Paris a few years previously.
Lombard and Aubin conceived of the conference as a forum for scholars to challenge what was once, as they claim, the dominant interpretation of the development of international trade in Asia, which centered largely around the actions of the great European-chartered trading companies of the early modern period (p. v). The editors of this volume claim that the papers they have gathered offer a corrective to previous understanding of the dynamics of the transition from premodern to modern trade, when the European commercial presence expanded in Asia after the sixteenth century. This volume aims to measure the responses of Asian merchants to that increasing presence of Western trade.
The result of this endeavor, though, is not without its flaws. While [End Page 95] many of the papers collect interesting data about trade practices in premodern Asia, many fail to draw a conceptual link to theories on the development of international trade. Readers will not find any mention of how Immanuel Wallerstein and other commercial theorists fit into these studies. The present volume is therefore an interesting collection of isolated case studies rather than a qualitative and conceptual reanalysis of the development of international trade in Asia.
The volume is divided into four parts. In "The Harbour Town as a Commercial Crossroads, 13th-16th Centuries," three essays discuss the ability of various Asian ethnic groups to establish a trade presence outside their native lands, and how the arrival of the Portuguese began to disrupt their traditional trade practices. The response of these ethnic commercial communities to the arrival of Portuguese merchants was mixed. As Chen Dasheng and Lombard show in their short study (five pages), the thriving foreign merchant communities in Quanzhou (Zaitun), which comprised Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Muslims, began declining before the arrival of the Portuguese. Both Luis Thomaz's paper on "Melaka and Its Merchant Communities at the Turn of the Sixteenth Century" and Geneviéve Bouchon's "A Microcosm: Calcut in the Sixteenth Century" discuss how the more powerful Portuguese merchants attempted to eliminate Muslim merchants from these areas and appropriate their dominance of the spice trade. In both cases, Muslims resisted with varying degrees of success.
In part two, "The Great Asian Trade Networks under Islamic and European Domination," the seven essays focus on how Muslim merchants in non-Muslim Asian centers responded to the expanding presence of European commerce. These authors raise some of the most fundamental questions of commercial history, such as: How did ethnic commercial communities establish a presence in foreign lands during the premodern era? And, how did these expatriate communities adapt to changing commercial patterns in the modern era? Through the examples in this section and throughout the volume, the papers show that foreign merchant communities employed similar strategies of endogamy and maintaining strong ties to religious leaders in response to the transition from premodern to modern trade.
For example, in Aubin's distinguished paper, "Merchants in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf at the Turn of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries," she shows how Muslim merchants drew upon their Islamic identity to solidify their presence in coastal India during the period of increased European trade. Many of the prominent Muslim merchants on the Indian coast had more than a perfunctory understanding of Islam, having pursued a religious education before becoming merchants. [End Page 96] They confirmed their strong ties to Islam through marriages to families...