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The Arabian Seas: The Indian Ocean World of the Seventeenth Century

Author(s):Barendse, Rene J.
Reviewer(s):Heston, Alan

Published by EH.NET (February 2003)

Rene J. Barendse, The Arabian Seas: The Indian Ocean World of the

Seventeenth Century. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2002. xvi + 589 pp. $85

(hardcover), ISBN: 0-7656-0728-x; $34.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-7656-0729-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Alan Heston, Departments of Economics and South Asia

Regional Studies, University of Pennsylvania.

This is an extremely rewarding book to read, but not at one sitting. It is

quite long, focusing on one century of transport, finance, business practices

and commerce in the economic center of the world at the time, the seas from the

Ottoman to Mughal Empires. The command of detail that Barendse displays is

impressive. The extensive use of Dutch, Portuguese and French materials

provides a very rich base for his study, as these include many translations of

Arabic materials. Begun as a dissertation in 1985, published in Dutch in 1998,

and now in English, it is a mature study that continually tries to relate its

findings to other work in the field. The author, an Associate Research Fellow

at the International Institute for Asian Studies in Amsterdam, provides a

curious mixture of traditional scholarship combined with the vocabulary of

contemporary industrial organization.

In terms of the buzzword, globalization, The Arabian Seas is right

there. Kirti Chaudhury conceptualized trade in Asia at the time of European

incursions as involving three circles, joined at major ports that served to

assemble and disperse cargoes for shipment to other Asian ports with a small

percentage to Europe. In the East was Canton and Macao linked to Malacca, a

circle embracing at times Japan and of course, the Spice Islands. From Malacca

merchants went to Calicut or Cambay on the west coast of India, this circle

also embracing Bengal and Ceylon. Some ships covered more than one circle, such

as the Portuguese annual voyage from Goa to Macao, but the bulk of the shipping

in volume and value was within these circles and remained that way during the

seventeenth century, the focus of this book. The third circle and the major

focus of this book was from Cambay or Calicut to Hormuz and the overland route

through Alleppo and Damascus, and to Aden and the Red Sea. This third circle

also provided access to silk route goods at a number of points.

What Barendse does very nicely is document the fourth and fifth circles that

took in the trade on the East Coast of Africa and linked that to the West Coast

and the Caribbean and the Americas either directly or through Europe. The fifth

circle had its own independent relationships with Europe through the trade of

Spain with the Americas, with links to the fourth circle through several common

commodities including textiles, coffee and silver. Barendse does not attempt

any treatment of the world-closing circle from the Spanish Pacific ports to

Manila, Formosa and Macao; his story is full enough as is.

The book begins with a tour of the terrain providing some maps, though still

more would have been useful. The maps are informative though not well

reproduced. In Chapter 3 Barendse introduces the “European Natios in the

Arabian Seas,” intentionally rejecting diasporas as a term which he thinks does

not capture the nature of relationships in the seventeenth century. It is

doubtful his terminology will catch on, but Barendse does have a point in that

there was a grouping of all Europeans in many ports. Chapter 4 “Diplomacy and

the State,” deals with the very different relationships of merchants and rulers

prevailing in Europe compared to those in the Arabian Seas, which in turn

varied greatly among different states. In Chapter 3 and later in his treatment

of the Dutch, Barendse makes clear the tension between the perception of the

Atlantic Ocean as mare liberum where all vessels are free to trade in

times of peace and the perception in other seas. The Dutch East India Company

(VOC), though nominally under Dutch authority, was clearly a state in Asia and

asserted mare clausum not only around the Spice Islands but also in

parts of the Indian Ocean. This took the form of issuing, upon payment of a

fee, navicerts, which like the Portuguese cartaz was a safe

passage certificate.

Chapter 5 on the “Merchants’ World,” is one of the most interesting in the

book. A large section is devoted to information, and though Barendse does not

seem enamored by the concepts of agency or information asymmetry, they are very

much up front in the way he describes the world of trade. He tells us of

“bazaar walkers” who spent their days collecting price information in markets

like Surat, in order to know both whether there was a probable return on

trading an item, but also the risk as indicated by the extent of price

fluctuations in various markets. The price information was then conveyed back

to Europe or other relevant locations. And Barendse describes the attempts to

mail or courier this and other information overland through the Ottoman Empire

domains so as to avoid the cost in time by ship around the Cape. Needless to

say the opportunities for undermining the competition were immense as were the

temptations of agents to switch masters. Further, the very current notion of

dis-information was a common way to divert potential competitors from direct

access to suppliers or buyers, e.g., Egyptian traders embellishing the dangers

to Europeans of being eaten alive along the routes to interior markets in


The book includes separate chapters on the Portuguese, Dutch and British

experiences in the century; the Portuguese were in relative decline, the Dutch

reaching their peak, and the British finally getting their act together by

1700. Barendse sees little difference between the rent-seeking behavior of the

trading companies and the Portuguese; in the case of the companies, it was

centrally directed and the fruits were shared with employees, while for the

Portuguese, it was mostly private citizens who took advantage of their

situation. Holden Furber (1976) provided similar coverage in Rival Empires

of Trade in the Orient, 1600-1800, a book curiously absent from the

extensive bibliography, even though references are made to earlier research by

Furber. The two books are very complementary. Furber focuses much more on what

is going on in Europe and of course, includes East Asia in the discussion.

However, Furber treats trading, markets and the like in a very traditional

manner while Barendse’s illustrations and discussion are much more in touch

with recent microeconomic concepts. It should be mentioned that neither book is

very strong on the macro-world economy of money supply, prices, and currencies,

though both are good on forms of commercial paper and credit.

It is hard to read the Arabian Seas without learning something new about

old subjects. For example, Europeans had many ships built in Asia, often

because teak was more durable in warm seas. And often the ships were replicas

of ships built in Europe, but not necessarily because of design; rather pirates

were less likely to attack European appearing ships because retribution was

more likely. Interestingly, there often was no cost advantage to building ships

in Asia as opposed to Europe.

Barendse makes a good case against received views that the Dutch permitted much

less private trading than the British and this reduced their innovativeness in

developing new sources of supply and new markets. It is true that the British

explicitly permitted private trading by company servants and the Dutch did not

formally permit it. However, Barendse suggests the VOC employees carried on

substantial private trade. If there was anything inhibiting trade innovations

by the Dutch it is more likely due to the highly centralized administration of

Asian affairs at Batavia and the obsession with monopoly in Holland. And on

some matters the VOC was ahead of the times. Their armies were not composed of

mercenaries but were employees of the company, unusual practice for the time.

And the VOC introduced more merit into appointments than most institutions of

the time, and certainly their British counterpart.

In discussing issues of agency and corruption in the companies Barendse notes

that the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC, was often referred to as

“Vergaan Onder Corruptie” (sinking under corruption). Many of the VOC outposts

were so remote and removed from easy communication, that activities were hard

to monitor as suggested by this quote of a supervisor in Bandar Abbas about his

employee in Persia (p. 403), ” I do not know what the Hon. Mr. van de Heuvel is

doing at Isfahan. I believe he sleeps the whole day. Yet he has delicious

roasted game, good wine and beautiful girls there, as well as healthy air,

while we here, have to muddle through in such a miserable way.”

Other issues dealt with in an innovative way are overhead and piracy. The VOC

was a large multinational organization with 18,000 employees worldwide at its

peak. They faced formidable accounting problems not only between Europe and

Asia, but within Asia. How do you treat centers that primarily have a military

function of facilitating Dutch trade but produce little in revenue compared to

costs. The VOC simply did not have any satisfactory system to allocate overhead

among its various profit centers.

Throughout the book Barendse examines piracy in its various forms, including

interlopers, of whom Elihu Yale was considered the King in Madras (p. 443). A

principal center where the paths of traders sanctioned by the British, Dutch,

French and Portuguese crossed those of non-sanctioned traders was Madagascar.

In addition to plantations there developed in Madagascar by the middle and late

1600s a very active slave trade both to Asia and the Americas. Given its

strategic location Madagascar became a center for a large volume of trade of

trade and commercial activity.

Beyond a wealth of detail and insights, is there a big picture that emerges?

Barendse uses the term world system and clearly sees his study as contributing

to that literature, though not in its more grandiose forms. Rather he presents

the seventeenth century as a major period of expansion of trade between Asia

and Europe and especially Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean and eventually North

America. And he persuasively argues that the Arabian Seas are the crucial link

area for this trade expansion, not a new idea, but one which Barendse

impressively documents.

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):17th Century