Monday, 20 January 2014

Work from the Other Side

by Tim MacBain OP

I always wanted to keep writing for Portsmouth Point once I’d left; I noticed that there didn’t seem to be many Old Portmuthians posting on the blog, but there were enough to give precedent to me submitting the odd article! However, the subjects that I used to post on, mainly sport, are being covered so exceptionally by the current contributors that it would seem like I was trying to detract from them. Therefore, I began to think about what would be appropriate and, crucially, interesting to post on the blog. The second I think I may have fallen down on, but I began to think about my current position at university (York, if anyone’s interested), and an idea started to coalesce in my mind. Why not put my essays on the blog? They aren’t fantastic pieces of scholarship – far from it – but it might give any pupil interested in going on to university to study history an idea of what a history essay is like, or for those thinking of an essay based subject what the essay itself is like. Therefore, here starts an infrequent series of essays; if allowed, I will submit a few here and there over my degree, so as I (hopefully) improve it can be of interest or use to those who want to write essays at university.

As I’ve already said, these are not fantastic, shining examples of scholarship. Alongside the essays I will put the feedback I have received from my tutors, so as the weaknesses of the essays can be made completely obvious. DISCLAIMER: GCSE, IB and AS/2 Level students, DO NOT write any essays like this unless told to by a teacher (which is highly unlikely). ESPECIALLY the first essay. I will become the most despised man amongst the history department if you do. Thanks.

This first essay was written as a procedural (non-assessed) essay for the module Cultural Encounters in Asia, 1400-1700. An unfamiliar topic for me, and thus I struggled a bit to get going, as you can see. The title was “What effect did European commerce have on Asian trade networks?” My tutor’s feedback is at the end. Please excuse the referencing and bibliography; if I don’t do them then bad things happen; plagiarism is taken very seriously at York.

When the likes of Vasco da Gama, Marco Polo and John Mandeville ventured east and hitherto undocumented and unexplored by Western Europeans, they opened up a trade system rich in diversity and depth, which could stimulate and facilitate new commercial ventures whilst exposing European markets to new and exotic goods. It is within the implications of this statement that the argument of this essay lies; conversely, Asia networks of trade were an already fully functioning and diverse system into which the European traders were entering. They were not needed to reciprocate the stimulation and facilitation these networks provided them with. Their impact was limited, predominantly to shifting the focal points of trade within the Indian Ocean; Prakash’s idea of “the Asian loci[1] of trade can be applied at a more localised level, with the fall and rise of ports such as Malacca and Aceh (respectively)[2] examples of this. However, it is also evident that different Europeans had different effects on the Asian trade networks; the more heavy-handed top-down approach of the Portuguese had a greater effect than the Dutch and English who joined the system to a much greater extent (although it should be noted that the official EIC (English) line did not involve itself in intra-Asian trade; the private English merchants were the more prevalent participators.[3] For the VOC (Dutch), it was company policy.[4])

To fully assess exactly what the effect European commerce did have, one must first understand what the networks within Asia actually were. It would be beyond the scope of this essay to describe them all in great detail, but a general overview is necessary. As stated above, the system of Asian networks was rich in both diversity and depth. There was a wide range of materials and products traded from the unaltered raw materials such as cultivated cotton[5] to the refined products such as Chinese silk garments and Indian cotton textiles,[6] and the process merchants went about in the gaining of these goods were enormously complex, as Bouchon demonstrates; “For example, junks [Asian trading ships] from Malacca brought bars of copper to Pasei in the north of Sumatra to be exchanged for pepper, which was in turn traded at Martaban for rice for Malacca.”[7] This quotation originates from a discussion on the “secondary circuits”[8] of trade caused by the demand for rice within the Indian Ocean; such complexity with a subsection of the trade for a foodstuff is a demonstration of just how diverse the Asian trade networks were.

The aforementioned depth of these trade networks is best conveyed through the merchants themselves. Although Bouchon contends that they were “dominated … by Indian Muslims”,[9] Pearson does propose a somewhat broader idea of the religions of those who participated in the trading networks, with varieties of Muslims, Hindus, Confucians from China, and other, more minor, religions, such as those indigenous to the islands of South East Asia.[10] In addition, these merchants were highly able; the Europeans felt “at no particular advantage”[11] when they traded with them.

Overall, then, it is evident that the system of Asian trade networks was independent and fully functioning. The impact of European commerce, therefore, was never going to be particularly extensive. However, the introduction of a new group to any economic system will always cause some sort of change; this area shall now be explored.

The most logical place to start is in the most obvious changes that could take place; the physical interference of the European traders and merchants in and on the Asian trade networks. The use of the cartaz by the Portuguese, a form of shipping “passport”, and subsequent copying of this system by the English and Dutch,[12] impeded Asian merchants from their free sailing of the Indian Ocean which they had previously enjoyed. This example can be expanded further, in slightly more speculative terms, by the consideration of the fact that, before setting out on a trading voyage, an Asian merchant would not only have to think about the Asian merchants they may encounter, but now also the Europeans who had made their way round the Cape of Good Hope or across mainland Eurasia. Furthermore, one can also observe some Europeans attempted to place on some trade; the Portuguese attempted a monopoly on pepper, both within and without the Indian Ocean in the first half of the sixteenth century[13] (coupled with their monopoly on the sea route round the Cape of Good Hope for a little while after this) is an example; another, although not officially a monopoly, can be found in the fact that the Dutch were the only foreigners permitted to trade in Japan after 1639.[14]

Such impositions on the Asian trade networks were inevitably going to have a great impact on certain areas. One of these was in Malacca, which the Portuguese captured in 1511, whose “attempts to centralize [sic] and tax trade led to an exodus” of the major trading groups in the city to other areas of the Indian Ocean, where they would have more freedom to trade.[15] Pearson lists for other ports that “declined” due to the Portuguese, those of Sofala, Hormuz, Diu and Calicut. The latter is an interesting example; it differs from the others in as much as it was never controlled by the Portuguese, but rather was attacked by the Portuguese from 1501,[16] these attacks resulting in another “exodus” of prominent traders.[17] To return to the argument, note the terminology used; the trade and merchants did not die, nor abate, nor cease, they are merely moving; Prakash’s “loci[18] are being shifted, not eradicated.

Perhaps the most striking example of the somewhat reduced effect European commerce had on Asian trade networks is in the comparison of the ports of Goa and Surat. Goa, “the Portuguese capital”[19] in Asia, was a major trading port, especially of horses, and benefitted the Portuguese Crown a great deal.[20] However, to cite Pearson, “At its [Goa’s] height … Surat alone far out-traded Goa.”[21] Europeans were making little impact on the Asian trade networks; the Asian merchants were so unthreatened by the initial European traders that they treated them as they would any other foreign traders or merchants; Europeans “got a level playing field”.[22]

Up to now, this essay has mainly considered examples relating to the Portuguese in Asia, predominantly leaving the Dutch and English alone. The Portuguese have been presented as one-dimensional traders who hoped to bludgeon their way into Asian trade through force and monopolies. This is by no means the entire case; indeed, Prakash criticises Steensgaard for making this viewpoint predominant,[23] and goes on to show greater subtleties in the Portuguese modus operandi and instances of Dutch and English uses of force. However, there is one key difference in the ideas of the Portuguese when compared to the Dutch VOC and the private English merchants (the EIC are not considered here in an enormous amount of depth, due to the fact that they rose to greatest prominence after 1700). This difference is that of “participation in Asian trade”.[24] It cannot be argued that the Portuguese did not do this, but the private English merchants and – particularly – the Dutch placed great emphasis on taking an active part in the intra-Asian trading networks; “nearly half of the Company’s [VOC’s] ships that left Europe remained in Asia to be used in intra-Asian trade.”[25] The Dutch was especially prominent in this participation, with intra-Asian trade placed at the centre of the corporation.[26] This trade was not insignificant; Prakash gives the figure of 3,644,110 florins for the total value of Dutch imports into Bengal in 1699 alone.[27] This trade was not narrow in scope either, as Table 2.1[28] demonstrates.

However, these facts and figures do not shed much light on the impact of such European commerce in the Asian trade networks. In terms of the Dutch, they came to dominate the spice trade in the first half of the seventeenth century as they obtained agreements with the producers of spices such as cloves, mace and nutmeg on some South East Asian islands. Superficially, this appears to be an overwhelmingly large event that must have had a great impact on the spice trading networks in the region. However, this monopoly of sorts was not particularly effective without control of pepper, “which was a substantially more important … than all the other spices put together”, and thus it did not have an enormous effect on the spice trading networks in Asia.[29]

Therefore, although with similar effects, one can see the distinct difference between the Portuguese and the Dutch and private English merchants; one of modus operandi mentioned above. In their aims, the Portuguese were traders, not merchants; they attempted to control trade remotely, using systems such as the cartaz, and by imposing financial measures from above. The Dutch and private Englishmen, in contrast, were merchants, not traders; although they adopted some of the systems the Portuguese put in place, they were much more interested in being part of the networks that were already in place.

Nevertheless, it is still evident that the effects of this European commerce were not particularly extensive on the already existing Asian trade networks. The Portuguese were ultimately unsuccessful in their top-down approach, and the Dutch and private English merchants were more interested in playing the system; when they did have an effect on the trade networks, it was either minimal, such as the Dutch in the spice trade in the South East Asian islands, or on too small a scale (that is, the private English merchants) to make a significant difference. The main effects were a result of the Portuguese, and these were of a shifting of the emphases of trade, with the fall and rise of differing ports. The Europeans were entering networks in which they were not absolutely essential, and therefore either facilitated a slight shift in the focal points of trade or participated within the networks, resulting in a somewhat reduced effect on the Asian trade networks than one may suppose at first.

Word Count: 1982 words


Bouchon, Geneviève. “Trade in the Indian Ocean at the dawn of the Sixteenth Century.” In Merchants, Tompanies, and Trade : Europe and Asia in the Early Modern Era, edited by Sushil Chaudhury and Michel Morineau, 42-54. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Dale, Stephen F. “Silk Road, Cotton Road or . . . . Indo-Chinese Trade in Pre-European Times.” Modern Asian Studies 43, no. 1 (2009): 79-88

Pearson, Michael N. "Markets and merchant communities in the Indian Ocean: locating the

Portuguese." In Portuguese oceanic expansion, 1400-1800, edited by Francisco Bethencourt, 88-108. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Prakash, Om. Bullion for goods : European and Indian merchants in the Indian Ocean trade, 1500-1800. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributors, 2004.

Prakash, Om. The Dutch East India Company and the Economy of Bengal, 1630-1720. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Prakash, Om. “The Portuguese and the Dutch in Asian maritime trade: a comparative analysis.” In Merchants, companies, and trade : Europe and Asia in the early modern era, edited by Sushil Chaudhury and Michel Morineau, 175-188. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.



This was a very good attempt at the question. It was tightly focussed and used some excellent examples, and you demonstrated a good awareness of the pertinent literature. It took a little while to get going, and it was not immediately clear what your argument, or indeed your response to the question was. This nearly made me give the essay a much lower mark, but your later analysis of some of the scholarly debates over this subject pulled your mark up considerably. You now need to work more on your structure – making sure that your argument drives the analysis and that every paragraph is helping you to build and prove your case. Your conclusion could also be made a little more punchy.

Specific Points

[I put this as it was written on my feedback form] Ahem. There’s a bit of time between Marco Polo (1254-1324) and Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) – why group them together? As for ‘John de Mandeville’, it’s uncertain how much of his travels were invention… He was also writing in the 14th Century. What changed between these medieval accounts and the period which we’re looking at? In addition, we get to page two and I’m not sure what the argument of your essay is…

In summary, to improve, work on:

Clearer structure from the beginning

A few more examples to support your points

Perhaps a more in-depth case study to show some close analysis

 [Me speaking now] This essay was not very well structured. However, I scraped a 2:1 – but as is evident from the feedback, only just!

[1] Om Prakash, Bullion for Goods : European and Indian Merchants in the Indian Ocean trade, 1500-1800 (New Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributors, 2004), 44

[2] Michael N. Pearson, "Markets and merchant communities in the Indian Ocean: locating the

Portuguese," in Portuguese oceanic expansion, 1400-1800, ed. Francisco Bethencourt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 109

[3] Prakash, Bullion for Goods, 204

[4] Om Prakash, The Dutch East India Company and the Economy of Bengal, 1630-1720 (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1985), 16

[5] Geneviève Bouchon, “Trade in the Indian Ocean at the Dawn of the Sixteenth Century,” in Merchants, Companies, and Trade : Europe and Asia in the Early Modern Era, ed. Sushil Chaudhury and Michel Morineau (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 46

[6] Stephen F. Dale, “Silk Road, Cotton Road or . . . . Indo-Chinese Trade in Pre-European Times,” Modern Asian Studies 43, no. 1 (2009), 79

[7] Bouchon, “Trade in the Indian Ocean,” 45

[8] Bouchon, “Trade in the Indian Ocean,” 45

[9] Bouchon, “Trade in the Indian Ocean,” 43

[10] Pearson, “Markets and merchant communities,” 94

[11] Pearson, “Markets and merchant communities,” 95

[12] Prakash, Bullion for Goods, 20

[13] Prakash, Bullion for Goods, 90

[14] Prakash, The Dutch East India Company, 119

[15] Pearson, “Markets and merchant communities,” 101

[16] Prakash, Bullion for Goods, 14

[17] Pearson, “Markets and merchant communities,” 100-102

[18] Prakash, Bullion for Goods, 44

[19] Pearson, “Markets and merchant communities,” 99

[20] Bouchon, “Trade in the Indian Ocean,” 44

[21] Pearson, “Markets and merchant communities,” 99-100

[22] Pearson, “Markets and merchant communities,” 95

[23] Prakash, Bullion for Goods, 54

[24] Om Prakash, “The Portuguese and the Dutch in Asian maritime trade: a comparative analysis,” in Merchants, Companies, and Trade : Europe and Asia in the Early Modern Era, ed. Sushil Chaudhury and Michel Morineau (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 176

[25] Prakash, The Dutch East India Company, 7

[26] Prakash, The Dutch East India Company, 16

[27] Prakash, The Dutch East India Company, 66

[28] Prakash, The Dutch East India Company, 28

[29] Prakash, The Dutch East India Company, 14

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