Merchants, Companies and Trade.
This volume assembles sixteen essays (plus an introduction) from a 1990 conference on trade in early modern Eurasia. The primary focus is on trade between India and other parts of Asia (especially Southwest Asia); one of the main points made by the contributors (most forcefully on Sushil Chaudhury's essay on Bengal) is that this trade dwarfed the better-known trade between Asia and Europe. The volume seems aimed more at economic and social historians than business historians, but both methods and topics vary.
The book fills various gaps. Several essays contribute new data. Niels Steensgaard's essay shows that overland trade from India to Persia remained vibrant longer than most scholars have thought; Chaudhury unearths documents which estimate Bengali purchases made by other Asian merchants. Others take up mercantile efforts rarely written about, at least in Western languages: Helma Houtmande Smedt's essay on Austrian ambitions in India, C. Koninckx's paper on Swedish-Indian trade, Michel Aghassian's and Keram Kevonian's on the Armenian merchant network, and Gilles Veinstein's on Ottoman-Indian trade. The last two of these begin to explore potentially large topics; the first two are for a narrower audience.
Most of the contributions focus on wholesale transactions between merchants at major ports. There is little about finance or about marketing to final consumers, and very little about production. One notable exception is Dietmar Rothermund's essay on the bleaching and printing of Indian cotton cloths. It provides a fascinating account of how the need to maintain very strict quality standards for the bleached Indian cloth bought by English textile printers forced the East India Company to oversee production of these goods much more directly than it did the production of other goods it bought in India, which in turn required far more territorial control than if it had stood back from the production process. (Many of the English artisans sent by the Company to oversee bleaching, a seasonal activity, were soldiers the rest of the year.) In addition to offering an interesting perspective on the Company's growing political role, this essay is one of the few here which highlights the strategic decision-making by a p articular firm that is a central concern for business historians.
When these papers were first presented in 1990, the conclusion that many of them stress--that "traditional" kinds of business practices, transport and so on in Asia were not necessarily inferior to pre-1800 European techniques--would have seemed novel to more readers than it does today. Thus, there is now more interest in reconceptualizing Indian Ocean commerce, but here the volume falls short. Femme Gaastra's essay shows the futility of classifying European enterprises as either productive traders or rent-seeking protection sellers, showing that the Dutch East India Company showed elements of both strategies. In a similar vein, Om Prakash describes how the Dutch fared better than the Portuguese not because they came in less focused on monopolizing spices but because they were driven by exigencies toward involvement in a highly competitive intra-Asian textile trade. The two essays by Michel Morineau, and to some extent the essay by Paul Butel, also emphasize the highly competitive nature of Indian Ocean trad e in this period: competitive both in the sense that no single group of merchants predominated and in the sense that the different groups more often competed against each other than collaborated. The introduction, in fact, suggests that the volume's overall argument is that we should replace the notion of an "age of partnership" with one of an "age of competition." But this suggestion still belongs in the area of clearing out unhelpful concepts, rather than developing new tools, and the concept proposed for discarding does not seem to be a particularly prevalent or harmful one. Surely it is no surprise that these merchants (like those in most other times and places) tried to take markets and suppliers away from each other; the "age of partnership" was always meant more to distinguish this era from a following one in which Europeans seemed able to impose their will unilaterally than to suggest that the rivalries in this era were not often intense, rancorous, and sometimes violent.
Ravi Arvind Palat and Immanuel Wallerstein are much more ambitious, trying to identify a fundamental logic of the Indian Ocean commercial world and link them to supposed characteristics of wet rice growing regions. But some of the inferences from ecology to the social system seem strained (in part because the results look so different from China and Japan), the use of certain key terms (such as "semi-periphery" to characterize Bengal) not well justified, and the "Europe" to which they often contrast this region, seems to be an ideal type of "capitalism," rather than the messier reality of early modern Europe. (The argument, which draws heavily on Palat's dissertation, may be more convincing when presented at full length.)
Frank Perlin's "The Other Species World" (previously published in his collection Unbroken Landscape) seems to this reader the most successful of the broad conceptual pieces. It argues that we cannot understand either commerce or production in this period until we accept that the bewildering diversity of textile grades, crop varieties and moneys that were exchanged does not represent a failure to achieve contemporary levels of standardization, but instead a consciously created diversity that in effect created market niches, expressed emerging status differences, and increased the possibilities for exchange. This seems a promising approach--and might be extended by suggesting that the trading "nations" of this world were often as much created "brands" as were the cloths and coins Perlin examines. (After all, as we learn in some of the other essays, the "Austrian" and "Swedish" companies both included Englishmen in key roles, Dutch pilots served Gujarati merchants, and so on.) If the empirical findings which a re this volume's strength are to become a base for further rethinking, this would be one place to begin.
Kenneth Pomeranz is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. His recent work includes The World That Trade Created (with Steven Topik; 1999) and The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2000).
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|Publication:||Business History Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
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