The Indian Ocean World (IOW)

The Indian Ocean World (IOW) — The Making of the First Global Economy in the Context of Human-Environment Interaction


This project is being sponsored by the MCRI (Major Collaborative Research Initiative) sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. My sub-project is also supported by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Gent University, Belgium.

Emergence and Development of Maritime Commerce in the East Asian World (2010-2018)China constituted one of the most important ‘core’ IOW economies, a ‘centre’ in the IOW. Whereas conventional studies do little justice to the complex trans-frontier, trans-IOW exchange of commodities, monies, technologies, ideas and people that characterized the pre-colonial era, our research concentrates on exchange relations in the East Asian World and beyond.

The time periods under investigation (c. 5th to 16th/17th centuries) attest to an increasing interest and activity in maritime commerce. Traded were in the beginning mainly luxury and religious items, which until the Southern Song (1127-1279) were brought to China by foreign, primarily Indian, Persian, and Arab or Southeast Asian merchants. While some attention has been paid to the early maritime trade in such luxury and religious items, knowledge in the fields of science and technology (mainly naval, military in general, cartographic, and medical) that crossed the borders as a part of this maritime commerce as well as the particular relationship between religion (primarily Buddhism) and commerce have so far received little attention. Also the characteristics of human movement and migrations have so far been rather neglected.
The aim of this part of the project, therefore, is to obtain a better picture of how the first global economy emerged in the East Asian world. Which roles played the Chinese state in the form of institutions, officials, and emperors (official)? Ho imortant were Chinese and foreign merchants trading in the East Asian world, that is the private sector, within this development? To what extent were either military/political (state) or religious interests (religion) conducive or obstructive to a further development of maritime trade. To what extent were official and private actors and elements (including smuggling) involved with each other?
As part of the project also aspects of science and technology that were conducive to the development of naval technology, navy supplies including medical care, and shipbuilding in China, a conditio sine qua non of maritime trade, shall be investigated. What kinds of naval, military in general and medical knowledge and products crossed the borders? Was it rather private merchants or official governments that were interested in related knowledge and commodities? Who transferred and transported these kinds of knowledge or products? Was the transfer of scientific knowledge or of particular commodities a side effect of state military or religious purposes or was it “traded” intentionally? Can we detect specific patterns of relationship between peripheries (nomadic or half nomadic societies and small countries) and empires (core regions like China) in relation to such foreign knowledge and commodities imported? In this context, the specific relation between official and private commercial interests as well as between state, individual and religion will also be examined.
Due to the much better archaeological evidence the main emphasis will be laid on the Wudai, Song, Yuan and Ming periods (9th/10th to 16th/17th centuries), but earlier time periods shall also receive attention. Comparing Chinese sources with written and/or archaeological evidence from other countries, we will also try to bring more light in a time period when maritime commerce experienced its first significant upswing in the course of the late 4th to early 6th centuries – which at the same time was a period when a Chinese peripheral state (not a centralized China) founded its first permanent standing navy.
Written sources shall be critically analyzed and compared with and complemented by archaeological sources, above all cargoes, commodities, and shipwrecks. New archaeological evidence and new possibilities in the field of written sources can greatly contribute to our research. In this context, shipwrecks recently found in the East or Southeast Asian and Indian Ocean waters constitute a very valuable source, which has so far received little attention. This research will enable to us to obtain a much better insight into the complex trans-regional and trans-frontier exchange networks that existed and into the qualitative characteristics of their development.

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