Hubs of the medieval trade
A NUMBER of modern economists relate globalisation as a phenomenon of the twentieth century. In reality, it has been with us for a long time. Hans-Henrik Holm and Georg Sorensen define globalisation, a term that is used very often today, as ‘intensification of economic, political, social and cultural relations across borders.’ So is it really something new? Not really, but in order to reach that conclusion one must look at the past carefully.
Starting from the time of the Roman empire (or even earlier) through the Islamic period and the Mongol era, globalisation manifested itself in many ways—creating trade routes, shared food habits, changing culture, establishing new religions, changing food habits and shaping fashion. Religions such as Islam and Buddhism were transported to new areas and places. The Silk Road was the means for trading between 2000BC to 1000 AD where people, ideas and goods moved, albeit slowly over hazardous terrain—on camel- or horseback—and fraught with losses. The scene was set for an increase in the other means of movement—sea trade.
It was during the period 1000 to 1500 AD that maritime networks in the Indian Ocean set up a brisk exchange between the shores of China, South-east Asia, India, Africa and the Middle East. While many would point out that this was generally known as the ‘spice trade’ or pepper trade, the Indian Ocean trade system involving Indian, Arab and Chinese traders in fact covered much more than spices and existed in an unorganised fashion even before 1000 AD. Spices found great acceptance in Europe during this time and the volume of and profit on these consignments were the catalyst to globalisation of that period, further accelerating the larger Western interest into this lucrative arena, otherwise termed the Indian Ocean emporia. Interestingly, while it was between 1250 to 1350 AD (the Mongol era) that East Asian technology enriched backward Europe, after 1500 AD it was the improved technology from European nations that started to flow back towards Asia.
For trade to thrive amongst dissimilar communities, there has to be a certain order in aspects such as currency and trade rules, an overall trust and faith among people, existence of a methodology of compensation or exchange (barter) and finally an administration in various ports of call that has to allow for arbitration and loss mitigation, should something go wrong. Unwritten rules of trade have existed since time immemorial; they were robust enough and did not depend on the use of organised force or war, and were based on the reputation of the seller and the buyer, the reputation of the ruling authority and his honesty and were generally exemplified by a lack of excessive greed (The Lex Mercatoria trade rules were established much later). The problems which existed with this kind of trade were piracy, petty port theft or troubles arising due to bad weather.
Prominent amongst the Indian ports were Quilon, Muziris, Calicut (Kozhikode), Mangalore and Cambay (Khambhat) in Gujarat. This piece will refer mainly to the well documented port town of Calicut in Malabar and certain Red sea ports such as Fustat (old Cairo) and Aden; to study ‘the intensification of economic, political, social and cultural relations across borders’ which was made effective by the trading communities comprising Karimis, Maghribhis, Bohras, Chettis and Vanias to name a few.
Why was Calicut a confluence for all these different types of people? It started out with an honest reputation of the port and town, its people, its ruler and of course the local implementation of a tough legal system. Calicut—the city of truth—”is a perfectly secured harbour, which, like that of Ormuz, brings together merchants from every city and from every country” wrote Abdu Razzak in 1445, whereas Ma Huan writing at about the same time (1450) noted—”The great country of the Western ocean is precisely this country.” The neutrality of port administration is evidenced by the fact that Ibrahim Bandar, the port official was a Bahraini.
At the other end of the trade route in Fustat, there were wealthy medieval Jewish traders of Tunisian descent dealing through Jewish and Muslim agents settled in Calicut and Mangalore. In the case of Aden, there were both Maghribi and Karimi traders, and many an Indian trader, conducting and directing the disbursement and loading of goods and issuing instructions. The goods landed in Aden went on camel back to Alexandria where Venetian merchants transported them over water to European ports. The Yemen Sultan collected port charges (Marco Polo calls them hefty charges).
In Calicut, the Zamorin’s port agents also collected a fixed customs duty for profit and maintenance of the harbour. Thus trade was not a state administered enterprise in these three distant locations but was in private hands, working with state sponsorship.
Madmun Ibn Bandar, the wealthiest and most influential trader of the 1100-1200 AD period, was the nagid or trustee of the Jewish Aden traders. His network covered the areas between Malabar coasts in India and today’s Spain. Between these individuals and communities, and a cosmopolitan expatriate set-up in Calicut and Mangalore (comprising Muslim and Jewish agents), was built the earliest example of globalised trade. As agents, people like Abraham Yiju settled down in Mangalore, married locally and conducted trade for Madmun for some 14 years, corresponding over letters sent back and forth in the ships that met these shores.
India had the world’s largest economy (around 33 percent of global GDP) in the first century AD. This dropped to around 25 percent by 1500 AD. China and Europe too contributed around a quarter of the world’s GDP.
To get a perspective of the volume of business conducted, one must study examples of some of the goods and their direction of flow and note that the traded commodity was just not merely spices. In addition, the export from Malabar comprised of iron ore, brass, bronze, dyes, silk and cotton textiles. It imported gold, silver, silk, dry fruits, horses, porcelain and aromatics. Calicut was also a trans-shipment point for paper, ink, spices and much more. Chinese ships also ferried and traded commodities needed in Calicut such as rice from Bengal and Orissa during their voyages. Sugar, and wheat found their way on these ships and fought for space amidst other high-price low-bulk merchandise and sometimes even competed with people and horses for space. Much of the cargo that landed in Malabar found its way to wealthy buyers in the rich kingdom of neighbouring Vijayanagar.
This description would be incomplete without touching upon the Eastern shores of India. Arab traders and seamen generally avoided the oceans on the Eastern side of India. Coromandel trade was administered mainly by Marakkayars settled in Malabar, Ceylon, and Kayalpatanam; the Chinese sailing from Zeitoun; and the Gujarati community trading out from Cambay via Pulicat with the far eastern ports. Chinese junks linked ports on the South China Sea and the Malayan coast with the Malabar.
Chinese traders had been trading with Malabar since very early times, moving through ports —Quilon, Muziris and finally Calicut—as these ports rose up and fell from grace. The Chinese brought in gold, silver, silk, incense and purchased sandalwood and cotton. A major port of call for Zheng He’s treasure fleet during his seven voyages from 1405 to 1433 AD was Calicut.
In order to understand the trading diaspora better, one must also take a quick look at the sailors, the ship-owners and their contracts. The ships were primarily owned by Arab traders and captained by seasoned Arab sailors. Many a dhow was owned by Indians of the trading caste, such as the Vanias of Cambay, the Chettis of the Coromandel, Marakkar merchants and in one case even a Nambiar from North Malabar. These dhows, which ferried goods from ports across the Red Sea to Malabar, were usually about 100 to 250 tonne in capacity and were loaded to the brim. Sometimes these ships—many constructed in Calicut with Malabar teak—also carried pilgrims to Mecca on the Westerly trip.
Major Chinese trade during the Zheng He period was state-sponsored whereas the Arab and Indian traders were private individuals virtually born into that caste or trade. Imagine the trading community in Calicut or Fustat or Aden: the markets would be teeming with Tamil Chettiars, Gujarati Vanias, Tunisian Jews, Karimi traders, Maghrabhi Arabs and Jews, Italians, Turks, Persians, African slaves, Chinese, various half castes, Malabar Moplahs, black Jews and Syrian Christians.
In Calicut, accounts would be kept by learned senior Chettis (who according to Ma Huan in 1430 did not use even an abacus to do calculations) and armed escort was provided by the Nairs. A score of languages and innumerable dialects may have been spoken in those narrow streets. Many religions were practised without animosity, and a port town like Calicut even provided separate areas for living and worship for each community, all laid out in strict accordance to the ancient Hindu Vaastu system.
It was as if nature itself had deemed that trade had to be conducted where the winds stopped. No trader likes undue risks. Once risk was taken out of the trade equation or mitigated, trade continued smoothly with the periodic monsoon winds that brought the ships in and took them out of Malabar ports. Payment was assured by the appointed local agents (usually from the same community or nationality as the trader) and the risk of loss and theft was well covered by the power and reputation of the local king. As far as business itself was concerned, trust was paramount and since it took many months for goods to reach the destination, with payment made using bartered goods or even money going back the same way, the role of the agent and the ship’s captain was vital.
Coinage, contracts, and commodity pricing were also important. A good example of striking an agreement in Calicut is provided by Ma Huan in his book Ying-Yai Sheng-lan or ‘The Overall Survey of the Oceans’ Shores’ which concludes “whether the price be dear or cheap, we will never repudiate it or change it.” With respect to coinage, the Zamorins ruled Malabar with the firm control over the mint.
So important was trade in Malabar that many wars between local principalities such as Calicut and Cochin were fought over trade and port rights. The medieval trade scene changed with the arrival of Portuguese who used force to regulate and control trade and to establish monopolies. With the arrival of the Portuguese, state-sponsored colonisation took root. But in the later part of the sixteenth century, private enterprise rose to prominence once again with the Portuguese Casados taking over state sponsored trade in the late sixteenth century. It later continued with the Dutch and the English East India companies. Trade became subjugation and globalisation became a form of colonisation; the two East India companies became the greatest examples of global corporations.
In time Malabar was incorporated into Kerala when India became an independent country and its history was forgotten. Between 1500 and 2000 AD, the bottom fell out of India’s economic bucket —from a quarter of the world economy to a small fraction of it. The city of Calicut has changed as well. There is no port activity, though the city is still a bustling commodity trading centre and the roads teem with activity. The Moplahs—descendants of Arab traders—are sometimes a discontented lot, but maintain religious harmony and are slowly integrating with the other communities. The Jews, Chettis and Gujaratis are gone, so also all the other paradesis.
Today’s resident of Malabar is a far weaker supporter of globalisation. But the state is slowly opening up and joining the rest of the nation. The famed Calico looms can no longer be found; pepper is still produced but the flourishing trade networks are gone.
Ullattil Manmadhan blogs at Historic Alleys (historicalleys.blogspot.com)