Beaujard, Philippe. The Worlds of the Indian Ocean: A Global History, vol 1 (From the Fourth Millennium BCE to the Sixth Century CE) and vol 2 (From the Seventh Century to the Fifteenth Century CE). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 1908 pages.
By Fabrizio Martino
Starting from the birth of the state, during the fourth millennium BCE and arriving to the Age of Modern Colonialism, in the 16th century, Philippe Beaujard proposes to a vast audience of scholars, professors and people interested in global history, a solid point of reference, consisting in two highly detailed volumes, enriched by a copious series of illustrations and tables. Professor Philippe Beaujard, who is Emeritus Director of Research at the Centre National de la Reserche Scientifique, at the Institut des Mondes Africains of Paris, originally has written this book in French in 2012, and then personally translated it into English in a new edition, on which some parts have been updated.
The historical method used in this book is the systemic approach, with the inclusion of other subjects, such as economy, historical botany and genetics. The approach used by Beaujard can be summarised by the concept of geohistory, that reflects a permanent connection between space and time, and that allows him to explain historical cycles according to geographical features and climatic changes. Another factor considered is the dichotomy core-periphery, with the inclusion of semi-peripheral areas in certain regions, that determines the formation of social elites and structures of power, that along the centuries have affected the development of trade networks and the spread of technological and ideological innovations.
Despite the title, the history covered in this book is not confined to the states bordering the Indian Ocean, but involves also the whole Mediterranean area and the states of West Africa. Beaujard’s book cannot be simply considered as a history book of all countries that are linked to the Indian Ocean, but as a more complex work, on which many aspects are deeply analyzed. One of these is the system of Monsoon and marine currents that characterize the Indian Ocean, and that has influenced the maritime communications between South and Insular Asia and East Africa. In particular, these winds are originated by the presence of high-pressure zones in the North and South Hemispheres. From these zoned, the flow of air goes towards the Equator, giving origin to the austral and boreal trade winds. But, because the equatorial zone is subject to seasonal translational movements of low-pressure zones, there is a periodical alternation of winds that affect the coasts of the Indian Ocean. If during the Boreal Summer (between May and September) the Southwest Monsoon helped the ships to reach China from Southeast Asia, between January and July the monsoon flowing from North-East allowed the merchants to reach East Africa from South Asia. The current system also influenced the navigation in the Indian Ocean, alternating flows directed towards East Africa (February and March) and oriented towards South and Insular Asia during August and September.
A particular attention is reserved also to the history of money, whose use started to reflect the ruler’s sovereignty and social relationships. It started to be used also to compensate commercial deficits. In particular, “a money can only be used between regions if the difference in price of the materials from which it is made renders its transport profitable” (p. 5 – Volume I). In the introductory part of the book, another aspect covered is represented by all navigation tools used until the 16th century, and the author proposes a linguistic hypothesis, based on word similarity between different languages, to explain the diffusion of certain tools and geographical concepts among different civilizations.
The first volume, that comprises a long historical period that starts from the birth of the state in Southern Mesopotamia (3600 BCE) to 6th century CE, gives us a complete overview of all exchange networks that characterized the Ancient World. For Beaujard, the birth of the state is one of the three most important steps in global history and its origin was caused by the presence of multiple factors: the introduction of new agricultural tools (the plough and the use of animal traction), the development of distinct demographics, the presence of an efficient transport system based on a riverine network, and the beginning of a social differentiation. All of these factors favored the development of more city-states, among which Uruk became preeminent.
The introduction of bronze metallurgy triggered the formation of trade networks between Mesopotamia and the Indus valley between 2600 and 2500 BCE, while the first contact between groups from South Asia and Arabs coasts dates back to 3000 BCE. In China, the passage from the Neolithic Age to the use of the bronze determined the decline of many small cultures, during the early second millennium. This period was characterized by a process of aridization that involved both China, South Asia, Egypt and Levant and that lasted from 2200 to 1900 BCE. Bronze metallurgy spread later in China, during the half of the second millennium, under the Qija culture. In the same period, the first form of state started to take hold.
The analysis of climatic changes is another key of interpretation, if not the main one, used by Beaujard to explain the demise of certain cultures in favor of others. The same period determined the invasion of Northern Mesopotamia and the decline of the Third Dynast of Ur, while the Egypt experienced the passage from the Old Kingdom to the Middle Kingdom. The Bactria-Margiana culture was one of the new cultures to develop during this period in Center Asia.
Beaujard has highlighted many cycles of recession, which were caused by climatic deterioration due to poor solar activity. According to the author, “environmental disruptions and the cycles themselves may be linked to climatic changes, usually connected to the cycles in solar activity” (p. 642 – Volume II).
During the second millennium, other climatic changes occurred in the 18th century BCE, that caused an economic crisis in Egypt and the demise of Bactrian-Margiana culture. During the 17th century Mesopotamian Empire was affected by a crisis, creating the conditions for the invasion of Kassites, followed by Proto-Indian groups. The end of Babylonian period was accompanied by a phase of global warming, that has seen the birth of another important core: The West Mediterranean area. The Mycenaenans expanded their interests to Sicily, Sardinia and Eastern Iberia, while Crete improved its role in the area during the “second palatial civilization”, establishing trade relations with Mycenae, Anatolia, Egypt and the Levant.
This cyclicality has been also observed in the last 2000 years and has highlighted the correlation between periods of recession and the spread of epidemics in a large scale. Some examples are the epidemics in China and the Roman empire during the 4th century, the epidemics in Egypt and Asia during the 6th century, and the spread of plague in China and Europe during the 14th century. An interesting aspect that has been observed is the progressive reduction of the period of recession, and a decreasing impact on the volume of trade population. According to Beaujard, “the shortening of the phases of recession probably reflects greater integration and ever-increasing forces of acceleration within the world-system” (p. 644 – Volume II).
Trade represents a principal factor of integration between different states, and during the Late Bronze Age, all of them started to develop innovations in a synchronized way. According to Beaujard, this explains in part the systemic nature of their relationships. At first glance, it may seem that all technological and ideological innovation occurred only during periods of economic growth. According to Beaujard, growth favored the scientific, transportation and production technologies, while periods of recession led to the development of new agricultural techniques and the introduction of new ways to exert institutional power. Writing was, without any doubt, one of the most important among these innovations.
Ideological innovation also played an important role in global history, and the birth of city-states and individualism in Italy and Europe in the 13th century determined, according to Beaujard, the beginning of the divergence between the European states and Africa and Asia. In particular, “African and Asian city-states did not form sustainable “merchant republics” capable of influencing nation-states, and their traders remained vulnerable vis-à-vis the political power in place” (p. 679 – Volume II).
All internal and external dynamics of all states can be explained in terms of the core – periphery relationships. The core was characterized by the presence of social elites that maintained exclusive access to resources. As Beaujard asserts, “dominant powers controlled routes and markets, they were able to retain any profits arising from gains in their manufacturing productivity” (p. 656 – Volume II).
In this relation, currency is important as a representation of the ideological domination of the core over the peripheries. In many cases, periods of recession represented opportunities when the semi-peripheries could gain more power and perhaps become new cores. This inversion was made possible thanks to military pressure or to the strategic position of a semi-periphery. One example is represented by the Xiongnu, a nomadic population from the steppes, that in the 3rd century BCE founded in China the Xiongnu empire. Other examples are the Kök Turks (6th-10th century), from Central Asia, or the Srīvijaya in Insular Asia, between 8th and 13th centuries.
The economics and the access to strategic resources has always been the main cause of competition among states and, according to the author, commerce and trade have been encouraged in these periods of weak political integration, when the private entrepreneurs had more freedom. In the Ancient World, the state was generally in competition with the private sector, even if there are many examples of cooperation, such as the involvement of merchants in long-distance trade and diplomatic missions for the state. Commerce prompted the development of networks of transportation infrastructure, based on both terrestrial and maritime routes. Ship development started, as Beaujard asserts, by the need of elites to access to exotic goods. By the Middle Ages, new infrastructure, technology, and monetary systems allowed long-distance financial transactions.
Economic development was one of the factors that favored the introduction of religious doctrines and temples. These spaces represented institutions with autonomous authority that accumulated capital, often entering in conflict with the state. Trade activity and road networks have been perfect tools for the spread of religions across states. An example is the introduction of Islam in South Asia during the 13th century and then in Insular Asia.
Particular attention is reserved to Madagascar, which since the end of the first millennium BCE, was visited by Austronesian, a group that settled in Taiwan around 4000 BCE and that reached the Philippines in the 3rd millennium and Indonesia in the 2nd millennium. Beaujard has dedicated his career to the study of East Africa states, particularly to Madagascar and Comoros Islands.
This book leads the reader to a really interesting journey through the history of all states of Afro-Eurasian World, and the last step is represented by the arrival of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, after having reached the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and captured Colombo (1505) and Malacca (1511). The breakdown of the Indian Ocean isolationism has determined the birth of Globalism, with the end of all peaceful relations that have, in most cases, characterized the life along the Indian Ocean.