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Article

The Cowrie World  

Bin Yang

For a long time cowrie shells originating in the Maldive islands had been used as a form of money in various Afro-Eurasian societies The use of cowrie shells as money was first adopted in Bengal around the 4th century, and cowrie money soon expanded into the Tai world, then into Yunnan province, on China’s southwestern frontier, where it became a legal currency. Local shell money was also adopted as early as the 10th century along the great bend of the Niger River in West Africa, and cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean were also shipped there by way of the Mediterranean. From the 16th century onwards, European merchants, led by the Portuguese, initiated the cowrie slave trade and the cowrie palm oil trade by shipping Maldivian shells through Europe to West Africa, thus reshaping the cowrie monetary zone in West Africa and creating a broad network that connected two oceans (the Indian and Atlantic oceans) and two worlds (the Old and New Worlds). The cowrie trade and cowrie money enabled the acquisition of Asian and African resources by Europeans and so promoted European dominance across the world, until a glut of cowrie shells destroyed this monetary system.The case of early China is different. While cowrie shells shared the same origin of the Indian Ocean, and played a significant role amongst the Chinese elite, they did not constitute a form of money.

Article

Islam and the Indian Ocean: Legal Culture and Economic Life to c. 1900  

Fahad Ahmad Bishara

For historians of the Indian Ocean, the stakes in thinking about law and economic life are very high. As a key arena of world history, the Indian Ocean world has emerged as a site for reflecting on issues of connectivity and circulation, and for writing histories that cover broad spans of space and time. Many of these histories—and indeed, the pioneering works in the field—have focused on matters of trade and empire, the twin pillars of world history more broadly. Since around 2000, research has taken on different forms of migration as well as matters of ideology, culture, epidemiology, and more, but many of these discussions are still built on foundations of trade and empire: people, books, ideas, and diseases primarily circulate through networks forged via trade or through imperial channels. All of it, however, requires a rigorous engagement with questions of law, which undergirded production and trade in the region. The history of law and economic life in the Indian Ocean might be mapped onto three arenas. First, law played an important role in the politico-economic constitution of empires (Muslim or otherwise) in the Indian Ocean. Beyond that, though, one must consider the legal dynamics of trade networks within this world of empires, examining the intersecting private-order and public mechanisms that merchants drew on to regulate their commercial affairs. And finally, the histories of law, empire, and economic life all intersected in courtrooms around the Indian Ocean world, as economic actors took their disputes to different tribunals, shaping the contours of the legal history of the region.

Article

Medieval Jewish Sources for Asian Trade  

Roxani Eleni Margariti

Epigraphic materials, travel narratives, religious-legal literature, and documents of daily life produced by or for Jews between the 7th and the 13th centuries add significant dimensions to our understanding of the history of trade across Asia. Written in a variety of Jewish languages, these sources hail from places across the Afro-Eurasian geographical continuum and speak to the two well-known circuits of medieval trans-Asian trade: the Silk Road and its maritime Indian Ocean equivalent. While there has been a tendency to look at medieval Jewish sources scattered across Asia as vestiges of a unified trading diaspora, a consideration of these sources’ volume, chronology, and the circumstances of their production and use reveals several disjunctures and suggests a more fractured history of Jewish participation in Asia trade. Even so a survey of these sources illuminates a variety of topics that relate to Jewish mercantile activity along well-trodden avenues of exchange, transactions and relationships across confessional lines, and the structures and institutions of transregional commerce.

Article

The Portuguese Estado da Índia (Empire in Asia)  

Zoltán Biedermann

The origins of the Portuguese Estado da Índia—the sum of all Portuguese Crown possessions east of the Cape of Good Hope—can be traced back to the late 1400s, most importantly to the inaugural voyage of Vasco da Gama from Lisbon to Calicut (Kozhikode) in 1497–1498. After some initial hesitations, the Portuguese Crown created a governorship for India in 1505, with a seat at Cochin (Kochi) later transferred to Goa, to oversee commercial, military, administrative, and other activities in an increasing number of possessions along the shores of East Africa and Maritime Asia. Portuguese trading posts (feitorias), forts, and fortified towns across the region resulted from conquest or, more frequently, from negotiated agreements with local rulers, on whose cooperation the Portuguese generally relied. The Estado reached its apex in the second half of the 16th century, drawing vast resources from trade around the Cape and within Asian and African waters, while investing increasingly in military and religious campaigns in a variety of regions from southeastern Africa to the Moluccas (Malukus) and Japan. Despite significant losses to the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the English East India Company (EIC) during the 17th century, the Estado survived until the 20th century. Goa became a part of the Indian Union in 1961, and Macao integrated into the People’s Republic of China in 1999. The perceived decadence of the Estado during much of its history is at odds with its longevity and has prompted longstanding debates about the nature of Portuguese power in Asia; its reliance on trade, military might, and imperial ideas; and its intertwinement with Asian polities and societies.