Roads and Oceans:An Introduction
This special collection of articles celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of Journal of World History (JWH). Jerry Bentley was the founding editor and guided the journal through its first twenty-four volumes. He was a pioneer in the field and increased its breadth and depth with bold, new research published in the journal. The theme of this collection, "Roads and Oceans," highlights one of the central themes throughout the journal's history—the study of phenomena that transcended "the boundaries of single states, regions, or cultures, such as large-scale population movements, long-distance trade, cross-cultural technology transfers, and the transnational spread of ideas."1
The process for selecting these ten articles began by reviewing the list of the most read articles from JWH available through Project MUSE. David Christian's article, "Silk Roads or Steppe Roads? The Silk Roads in World History," is currently the most viewed article on that platform. Based on its prominence, I selected Christian's work as a jumping off point for a collection of essays.2 Other articles included in this special collection were chosen from Project MUSE's "top 50 list," but several were not. The goal was to provide a broad tour through the extraordinary richness of the original research articles published throughout the journal's history. The choice of roads and oceans is intentional. World history is not contained by border crossings or trade caravans, but movement in general. Placing this selection of articles into context opens a discussion on the importance of human migration, cultural exchanges broadly conceived, and the challenge crossing borders, either from state-imposed restrictions or geographic boundaries.
Migration is the backbone of world history. As these articles highlight, the progress of history has been toward breaking barriers of distance and politics rather than honoring them. These authors demonstrate that these interactions can be traced back throughout mankind's history and are not simply a feature of modern life. These exchanges can be religious, as features in Xinru Lu's article, cultural as I. C. Campbell discusses, or material, albeit as trade or through piracy, as several of these articles reveal. Migration again has become a hot-button political topic, as governments across the world attempt to close borders to migrants, but neither these debates nor the reaction to the movement of people across spaces are contemporary issues alone. Adam McKeown's research on global migration in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, another "top 5" article, provides one opportunity to historicize migration control, but the issue is intrinsic in the other articles reveal.
Much of the work of the journal has revealed the importance of mobility and migration, across roads or oceans. It is perhaps unexpected to discover that one of the most popular approaches to this topic is through the study of piracy. There is no doubt that pirates were among the most notorious mobile communities, and their infamy alone is sufficient to create an outsized imprint on the historical record. The topics highlighted in the work of Tonio Andrade, Jane Hooper, and Patricia Risso situate these historical actors as facilitators of cultural exchanges. Violence is discussed in each article, but not necessarily created by the pirates, but rather witnessed through the history of pirate actions. Piracy, after all, remains defined in the eye of the beholder. One state's pirates may be another's privateer; one man's pirate may be another's merchant. The role of European merchants and navies in defining piracy globally looms large in these articles, disguising one type of mobility as criminal activity. The role of European law is the topic of Laura Benton's contribution to this collection. As legal institutions in Europe extended their authority across oceans, new definitions were imposed on global actors, creating criminals were earlier none may have been found.
Mobility is essentially a human condition. Whether it be in the medieval era as Italian merchants traveled the Silk Roads to discover new markets, as in Roxann Prazniak's article, or in the early modern era when Indian Ocean merchants traversed continents and cultures, as in Jennifer Gaynor's. The modern era only accelerated a historical truth: humanity has also traveled, explored, traded, and learned from foreign cultures. Despite the differences in languages, religions, knowledge, and customs, mobility created opportunities for exchanges. It is clear from the research conducted by the scholars who have contributed to this journal, attempts to hinder or prevent exchanges ultimately fail.
This is not to deny that obstacles to global interactions have existed. When this issue was first conceived a few months ago, part of the idea was that it could demonstrate the benefits of exchanges created by migration and travel. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, where stay- at-home/shelter-in-place restrictions are occurring or are in our immediate future, the danger of unrestricted travel is at the forefront of everyone's thoughts. Historians know that quarantines have been employed for far longer than unrestricted movement has been possible. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, when transmission vectors for many diseases were established by medical research, quarantines were frequently deployed to prevent, or contain, disease outbreaks. This is not to imply they were effective or even recommended by medical authorities. Quarantines have often been used for more objectionable reasons than public health, inspired by xenophobic publics or fearful governments attempting to appear interventionist, among other causes. The transportation revolution of the modern world, particularly following the widespread use of airplanes, has transformed life in ways that would not have been conceivable even in the 1960s. Yet, the increasing speed of the modern world, the frequency of global travel, has rendered us more vulnerable to new diseases than safer; yet modern research techniques allow for earlier understanding of transmission and quicker identification of treatments.
This is not to suggest that pandemics should justify preventing mobility, migration, or cultural interactions. Rather, this is an opportunity to draw on the expertise of a community of scholars who have always argued that challenges can be overcome and that catastrophes such as the modern pandemic create new opportunities to learn and appreciate our shared experiences. The legacy of historical exchanges is that the long-term benefit of foreign contacts, distinct cultures, and diverse identities enriches us all, rather than justifies creating new divides.