Merchants, Companies and Trade: Europe and Asia in the Early Modern Era
Eds. Sushil Chaudhury and Michel Morineau

Notes on Four Articles

1) Trade in the Indian Ocean at the dawn of the sixteenth century
Genevieve Bouchon  (Trans. Cyprian P. Blamires)

Shortly before the Europeans arrived, two important sultanates appeared (early 1400s):  Gujarat on the western coast of India, and the sultanate of Malacca , in the south of the Malay peninsula (42).  Also, the Chinese cleared out of the region and the Egyptians took over the spice trade from the Kamiri merchants.  In sum, Islamic trading communities were those that the Portuguese had to deal with when they arrived in the first years of the 1500s.  There were three important trading networks:  military animals, foodstuffs and textiles.  Military animals came from Ceylon, and also were trained and raised on the west coast of India.  The Vijayanagar empire, watered by the Krisha, the Kaveri and Mhanadi, was a source of rice, as was the Ganges across Bengal.  Java "supplied the Malay peninsula and archipelago." (45)  Foodstuffs were important in all the ports and "[i]t was with rice that spices were invariably obtained in their place of production." (45)  Some of regions that produced rice also held the cotton industry -- Bengal and Gujarat. The Coromandel produced painted cloths.  Most towns specialized in a type of weave and dye and print.  "The trade in foodstuffs and the trade in textiles were thus closely linked with the trade in spices, and they split the Indian Ocean into two zones.  In the Western Ocean, pepper, ginger, and cinnamon were traded for rice, then for gold or metals in the distributing ports.  In the Arabian Sea pepper, cloves, nuts and nutmeg mace were traded on the spot essentially for rice, then for manufactured products (arms, porcelains, and above all textiles) on the markets of Malacca and the archipelago." (46)  Muslims dominated sea trade; Hindus dominated banks and the precious stone markets.  Gujaratis were everywhere, somewhat like the Genoese in early Modern Europe.

2) Eastern and Western Merchants from the sixteenth to the eighteeth centuries
Michel Morineau   (Trans. Cyprian P. Blamires)

Morineau opposes the economic characterizations of  historians like Braudel, and challenges the notion that there was a systemic weakness in the "capitalism" of Asiatic markets.  However, he agrees that the an imbalance in economies East and West must be acknowledged, and asks when did the imbalance first develop? Why were Westerners  perceived to be better at trading? One possible problem was the habitual taxation-raiding of coastal sultans and rajahs (119).  But these sultans were partners in ventures, as well as raiders, and they didn't entirely control or stifle local initiative.  Furthermore, Europeans did much the same, with rulers partnering on some trade, and exacting high and arbitrary tolls in other places. A second supposition was that Asians were "just pedlars."  Morineau argues that the number of small merchants who moved around in Asia was high, but there were also great merchant houses, well-organized, and well-known, just as there were in the West; only those in the West have been studied rather more by Westerners.  The proportions of small merchants to large were not so different East to West.  What made the difference?  "If they had allowed themselves to be paralysed by the Orient, the sheer weight of numbers would have dissuaded the Portuguese, the Dutch or the English from trying anything on in many Far Eastern countries, and it has to be said that the East did often leave them stunned or even terrified.  But the fear evaporated of course when it became clear on the battlefields that the weaponry, discipline and command of a few Europeans was carrying the day against the hordes of infantry, cavalry and elephants." (132).  Morineau suggests that military might -- coupled with gold from the Americas -- made the difference.  (Morineau doesn't quite say this, but ... precisely because they made nothing that could be easily traded in the East, Westerners  and their gold became essential?)  He also suggests that a consideration of politics, not economic organization, contains the relevant information -- but really, the question is unresolved, or improperly resolved, at present.

3) The other species world:  speciation of commodities and moneys, and the knowledge-base of commerce, 1500-1900
Frank Perlin

Perlin deconstructs the concept of species and defends the presence of complexity -- or jumble -- of financial instruments as a sign of a developed economy, able to respond to a variety of economic opportunities.  He begins with the problem:  "Multiform payments instruments, highly differentiated measurement standards, profusions of varieties of particular kinds of commodities, and much else, are seen to have derived from a general absence of central control and standards, thus from an organizational confusion and fragmentation resulting from the numerous autonomous localisms said to predate and hinder the development of more generalized economic ties." (146)  To counter the idea that a lack of control hindered development of trade economies, Perlin focuses on the "conception of differentiation" itself. (147)   Perlin studied sources in French, Dutch, English, and Latin to understand how species was used, applied to both money and merchandise.  Species (not used biologically before the 19th century) was used in commercial dictionaries and manuals to refer to "kinds of ordered diversity," or classes of objects, and was often organized in tables to allow for quantifying difference. (151) The stability of types allowed for exchange, and fluctuations of type allowed for economic opportunities.  In other words, species allowed for "constant adjustments and creations of new categories" (153) and such imprecision -- played out across time and space -- was expected, and needed.  (Perlin here and later contrasts this understanding of species with the Darwinian understanding.) Perhaps it is not surprising that species and spices are derived from the same Latin root.  Two other points are worth noting: "the species concept affected both the order of what was observed and the dimension of practical action." (159)  Whether it inhibits or enhances trade, pre-established categories create and limit an understanding of what can be traded. Perlin also says -- maybe undercutting his argument a bit -- "When we consider exchange as involving trajectories through time and space, thus mediated by institutions and specialists, involving communication, thus language, name and identity, it will be clear that predictability was a fundamental perquisite:  to be able to assume that 'x' will translate as 'x' at, say, 2000 km and two months' distance.  Not surprisingly, therefore, metrology, content and appearance might be intensively regulated and policed...and were generally the focus of intense commercial and social conflict in these centuries. What was regulated and disputed were the properties defining the criteria according to which a coin or cloth was accepted as a 'member' of this type, or else rejected..."(159-160)  Perlin doesn't say so, but I suppose the question is one of efficiency versus opportunity.

Perlin's general line of argument is in consonance with Lakoff's -- that is, basic categories shimmer, shift, change as needs change  -- they are humanly created, not Created, not Platonic.  Perlin offers a specific consideration of wheat as it was grown and developed for markets and a gloss on Darwin as he was co-opted by the human-led speciation (not out-there Nature).  Darwin struggled with the language for developing species -- he wanted species as found in (capital N) Nature, but ran into difficulties when he got his examples from humanly-organized banks and breeders.  (Perlin wouldn't say this, but to look at the problem in my own terms, something obstinate stands at the back of the shifting terms, holding together the edges of meaning. God keeps cropping up, even when badly reflected upon as He is by human creator-cultivars.)

4) The Portuguese and Dutch in Asian Maritime Trade:  a comparative analysis
Om Prakash

Prakash compares the Portuguese, who set up their trade through state concessions, with the Dutch, who created goods networks.   The Portuguese crown declared a monopoly on the newly-discovered sea routes (there's a strangely familiar leap of imagination) and then sold concessions -- the rights to trade in pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace and cinammon.  Indian Tamil merchants were partners, helping the Portuguese gain entrance at Malacca, which they used as a center of operations. The Dutch East India company was simply a different animal.  It focused on country trade, on eliminating rivals, on controlling costs and cargo amounts, and on linking one port to another by profitable trades within Asia itself.  Hopscotching across the region, they derived their resources for trade in Asia from Asia itself.  Critical were sources of metal, which they found in the Philippines, Japan and China. Prakash concludes "[t]he above analysis suggests that the two key factors that enabled the Dutch to achieve their enviable position were the near-monopsony privilege in spices other than pepper, and more importantly, the exclusive trade with Japan. The spice monopsony entailed an extraordinarily high rate of return on spices, besides providing the Company with a staple item of trade in demand all over Asia." (186-87) And silver in Japan was cheaper than silver in Europe. Trouble with obtaining Japanese silver meant trouble with trade overall, and Dutch trade declined through the 18th century.

Note:  monopsony: a situation in which there is only one customer for a company's product. Also called buyer's monopoly. See also oligopsony.