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9-08-2015, 16:25

Indian Ocean connections

The most regular lines of cross-cultural encounter in the centuries before Columbus were the sea routes of the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea, over which boats carried all types of cargo. Buyers, sellers, bankers, sailors, captains, navigators, and other people seeking their fortunes came together in bustling port cities from Venice in the west to Hangzhou in the east. More than fi fty languages might be spoken on the streets of such cities, for trade offered the possibility of fabulous wealth for merchants and investors, and a steady job for many. Transport over land was diffi cult and expensive, and remained so throughout the early modern period, but travel by sea grew steadily cheaper and more secure with improvements in ship-building, navigational instruments, port facilities, and business procedures. Ships carried all types of merchandise, but spices from the “Spice Islands” (now the Moluccas, part of Indonesia) and other parts of South and Southeast Asia were the most important luxury product. Spices – pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger – served not only as fl avoring for food, but also as ingredients in perfumes, love potions, painkillers, and funeral balms. In an era before refrigeration, spices also helped preserve meats and masked the taste of meat that was slightly spoiled. By the fi fteenth century, ships carrying spices sailed directly across the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal on the two sides of India, using compasses and astrolabes for navigation and a variety of sails for maneuverability. Many of these ships also carried Muslim pilgrims going to Mecca and other Muslim holy places. The spread of Islam in the Near East, East Africa, and South and Southeast Asia had encouraged trade in other ways as well, for merchants could count on the same laws applying wherever they bought and sold merchandise. Indian, Arab, Malay, Persian, and Turkish merchants, many of them Muslim, controlled the trade in spices and other luxuries in Asia and the Near East. Once goods reached Cairo or Constantinople they were often handled by Christian merchants, whose families had stayed in the Near East after the Crusades were over, or by Jewish merchants who had lived in these cities for centuries or recently migrated to them because of Christian persecutions in Europe. The Christian merchants came especially from northern Italian cities such as Venice, Genoa, Pisa, and Florence, and used new types of business procedures to spread risks among investors and keep better track of their ventures. Venetian merchants set up permanent offi ces in Cairo, where they dealt in spices traded up the Red Sea, while Genoese merchants went to Constantinople and the Black Sea, where they met caravans carrying goods over the silk roads. (A Genoese ship may have carried the fi rst wave of the plague to Europe in 1347.) A few Italians went to the coastal cities of western India, which were becoming cosmopolitan mixtures of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Christians, all intent on expanding their profi ts. Wherever they came from and wherever they went, merchants bought and sold slaves along with other merchandise. Italian merchants bought young women in Russia and North Africa to be household slaves in Venice, Genoa, and other Mediterranean cities. Spanish and Portuguese merchants bought North African men captured in war, and sold them to the military for use as galley slaves, when they rowed merchant vessels and warships. In the last sentence of his 1493 letter, Columbus offers help in this regard, “I promise, that with a little assistance afforded me by our most invincible sovereigns, I will procure them … as many men for the service of the navy as their Majesties may require.” 2 Turkish merchants bought Russians, Ukrainians, and Poles who had been captured in eastern Europe, selling them for use as household slaves, soldiers, textile workers, or in the sultan’s palace. Arabic and African merchants crossed the Sahara Desert in both directions with slaves – West Africans going to the Mediterranean, eastern Europeans going to West Africa. Indian and Arabic merchants bought slaves in the coastal regions of East Africa, taking them to the west coast of India or further eastward. Because they were often taken far from home, slaves in many places were outsiders, differing from their owners in terms of religion, language, or physical appearance. They were defi ned as “Other,” though this did not prevent sexual relations between male owners and their slaves. Laws usually forbade owners to kill their slaves, and religious teachings advised owners to treat them kindly, or (in Islam) to free them in their wills, but in no part of the world was slavery itself seen as wrong.