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Journal of World History 15.1 (2004) 92-96

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The Arabian Seas: The Indian Ocean World of the Seventeenth Century. By R. J. Barendse. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2002.Pp. xvi + 588. $85 (cloth); $34.95 (paper).

This book has been a long time in the making. It began as a doctoral dissertation in the Netherlands; the first overseas research was carried out in India in 1987-1988; the dissertation was completed in 1992; an earlier version of the book was published in Dutch in 1998; and the current book was published in 2002. In the process, Rene [End Page 92] Barendse has become a respected academic colleague of some of the best and brightest in the field; people such as Andre Gunder Frank and Michael Pearson thank him for references that he has provided. In terms of scholarship one would think his book to be first-rate.

Geographically Barendse focuses on the trading centers of the Arabian Sea, which he designates "'an archipelago of towns' (or rather towns and their wide surroundings) populated by traders, mariners, and fishermen living within various natios, autonomous communities that linked the various coastal areas." He sees this maritime region as constituting an "Indian Ocean World," quite in keeping with the nowadays dominant views of scholars like K.N. Chaudhuri, Frank, and Pearson. His time period is 1640-1700, "the age of Dutch predominance in the waters of the Indian Ocean, and in a broader sense the era of the great monopoly companies." Indeed, two of his major themes are the competition among the great European trading enterprises—the Portuguese Estado da Índia, the Dutch VOC, and the English EIC—and the eventual emerging superiority in trade of the Europeans over the indigenous traders. The Europeans emerged predominant in this trade largely because of the massive support of their increasingly powerful states. In the process, the Europeans reorganized the Arabian Seas trade:

In the beginning of the seventeenth century the contribution of the Arabian seas to world trade mainly centered on bullion, gold, pearls, diamonds, pepper, and to some extent, silk. By the end of the seventeenth century, worldwide trade had emerged in various bulk products from the Arabian seas demanding a massive outlay of land and labor including sugar, indigo, coffee, saltpeter, tobacco, cotton, and even rice and grains, as well as bulk-manufactured goods like calicoes. One can also speak of a growing world market for labor: not only slaves but also indentured labor and mercenaries.

Barendse's theses are, again, quite consistent with contemporary scholarly views. His greatest contribution is to support these assertions with massive scholarship gleaned from archives in England, Portugal, India, and, most of all, the Netherlands. The detail is often overwhelming.

In addition, there are peculiar omissions. For example, Barendse notes that Pearson's recent work on the East African coast, Port Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Modern Era, alerted him to the need to give greater emphasis to East Africa, but for the most part, with the exception of Madagascar, he does not [End Page 93] do so. Nor, unfortunately, is he as clear as Pearson on the need to show systematically the connections between trade on the coast and trade inland—in Africa and elsewhere.

Following Barendse's general introduction, chapter 2, titled "Ports and Hinterlands," presents a 57-page, 252-footnote gazetteer of the ports of the Arabian Sea beginning more or less in Mozambique and arcing around to India's Malabar Coast. Three problems arose for me in this tour de force. First, the accompanying maps are poorly placed and there are not enough of them. The discussion of the East African Coast follows page 20; the relevant map appears on p. 331 (there is no index to the eight, apparently hand-drawn, maps in this volume). Second, the relationship of coastal trade to interior trade is not presented in a clear, systemic analysis (as Pearson does for East Africa), partly because, third, like a gazetteer, the narrative...