Some time around the middle of the twelfth century, perhaps in AD 1160, the Welsh tenant of an English (or more accurately Anglo-Norman, and probably French-speaking) landlord agreed to pay an annual rent of three ivory dice for his holding of five acres.1 What, if you stop to think about it, an extraordinary agreement! Dice, the perennial remedy for human boredom, are commonplace enough. They turn up among the debris of frontier stations along the Roman Wall, and anywhere else, no doubt, where a dispirited soldiery is garrisoning a crumbling empire. But ivory dice are something different. Where in the backward, heavily wooded fastnesses of Gwent in AD 1160 did you find ivory dice to pay your rent? There was certainly no Harrods or Macy’s near at hand. And where did the ivory come from? Not from Zaire, of which the inhabitants of Gwent were blissfully unaware, but from Lapland, and not from elephant tusks but from walrus tusks. But how did it get from the walrus hunters of Lapland to the tenant farmers of Wales, across well over a thousand miles of wintry seas? And where on the way was the ivory made up into dice? Who, in short, were the manufacturers and middlemen, and how did they operate?

This is the sort of story I wish Professor Curtin had told us in his new book, because it casts a good deal of light on “cross-cultural trade,” if we explore it in all its ramifications. We had better, to begin with, be clear in our minds what we mean when we use the term “cross-cultural.” Is there any sense, for example, in which trade between Byzantium and China was cross-cultural and trade that linked Lapland and Wales was not? Not that Professor Curtin is unaware of the problems. “Local exchange,” he says, by which I imagine he means trade within one cultural area, “was more important than long-distance trade” everywhere in early times, and he cites as an example the trade across the African sahel between the meat and milk producers of the arid steppe and the grain producers further south. Nevertheless the greater part of his book is concerned with long-distance trade in the traditional sense, Phoenicians and Greeks in the ancient Mediterranean, the familiar story of the penetration of Muslim merchants down the east coast of Africa, Arab and Gujurati traders in the Indian Ocean, and the Portuguese drive to the East Indies. “Cross-cultural trade” as he interprets it seems to be essentially intercontinental trade, and it is not surprising that he has little to say about Europe, except when European traders reached out to Egypt or Persia, or along the famous “silk road” through Ferghana to China.

Anyone who has read Fernand Braudel’s impressive volumes2 may well feel that this interpretation is unduly restrictive. Perhaps we should be more careful when we draw a line between “local exchange” and “long-distance trade” in terms either of volume or of cultural influence. In the case of China, for example, there is not the slightest doubt that the cultural influence of trade between north and south, uniting Canton and the northern capital of Chang-an in a common Chinese civilization, far outweighed any cultural impact from external trade, to which China was notoriously impervious. It is easy to postulate that trade between “discrete cultures” led to “spreading areas of intercommunication,” and to some extent it must be true. But what sort of intercommunication? The Germans in the German steelyard in medieval London remained German, and the British in nineteenth-century Shanghai were more British than the British in London.

Professor Curtin devotes a great deal of attention to the way these and similar communities of foreign merchants living in an alien land regulated their relations with local potentates, native traders, and with each other. These “trade diasporas” (as he calls them) or networks of trading settlements were extraordinarily widespread, and Professor Curtin brings together much interesting information about them, ranging from the Aro merchants of southern Nigeria to the Bugis and Banians, and Armenian traders in Russia, France, Tibet, and Moghul India. Were they under the direct control of local authorities, or did they enjoy judicial and other immunity? Were they segregated in a special quarter like the Europeans in Alexandria, excluded from the city altogether like foreigners in Canton, or housed in a merchants’ town side by side with the ruler’s city as in ancient Ghana?

These are what we may call the mechanics of international trade, and no doubt they had a role to play. But I cannot help wondering whether Professor Curtin does not give them too much prominence. The interesting question, after all, is not how trade was organized, but what it amounted to as a factor “uniting an extremely diverse world.” The answer is rarely so straightforward as it seems. Eric Wolf has already given us a brilliant account of the deep (and disastrous) impact of the fur trade on Indian societies in North America.3 But when we move further away in time the influence of trade and traders is almost impossible to measure against other factors. Much has been written about the spread of Indian culture to Southeast Asia, and its influence is there for all to see in the great temples of Prambanan and Angkor Wat. But it is still an open question, as Professor Curtin frankly admits, how far that spread was due to “a trade diaspora of Indian settlements” and how far to migration and colonization, or to direct political and religious contact.


None of this is meant to dispute the fact that “trade diasporas” had a part, and sometimes a considerable part, but only to suggest that it may be too easy to assume and exaggerate their cross-cultural influence. The problem with trade of all sorts, before the modern age of statistics, is quantification. Professor Curtin tells us at one point that “8,000 traveling merchants” were moving back and forth over the trade routes from Egypt to Tunis and Sicily at the close of the eleventh century—a quite remarkable number, if true, even by today’s standards. But how many were peddlers with a pack on their backs, or with a single mule or camel? What quantities of merchandise, in other words, were involved? One problem in assessing trading contacts is that we are so dependent on chance anecdotal sources, like the Spanish Jew Benjamin of Tudela, or the Polos, or Tome Peres, on whose reports Professor Curtin places much store. No doubt they did not deliberately mislead, but it is hard to know whether what they tell us, even if not exaggerated, was or was not typical.

On the other hand, the impact of trade cannot be measured solely by quantities or by a somewhat nebulous assessment of influence, and here it might have helped if Professor Curtin had been able to spread his net a little wider. Take for instance the case of the date palm, which he tells us almost incidentally, was first domesticated in ancient Mesopotamia, and yet had, and still has, a key place in the economy of Algeria and Morocco. When, and how, and through whom, did it reach North Africa? The fact is that sufficient breeding stock for most plant crops can be transported in a single trader’s pocket. They do not need a largescale trading network, and yet in many instances their “cross-cultural” effects far outweigh those of any number of tons of pepper shipped from the Indies to Europe. Think only, if you have any doubt, of the humble potato and its immense social impact,4 or of the single coffee plant brought from Java to Amsterdam in 1706, which is the parent of all the coffee in the New World today.5 Professor Curtin has some thirty maps of trade routes and trade diasporas, but the most striking (and most neglected) maps published in recent years are in the atlas of the migrations of food crops.6 They get little, if any, attention in histories of cross-cultural trade, but there is no doubt that their migrations “utterly transformed the agricultural economy of the world.”7

It may seem unfair to criticize Professor Curtin for not doing what he did not set out to do. That is certainly not my intention. The fault of his book, if it is a fault, is that he has taken for granted the traditional view of cross-cultural trade, instead of criticizing it. I suspect that the time has come for a critical reconsideration, and I suspect also that cartographers and map-makers, including myself, must take a considerable share of the blame. It is too easy to draw lines on a map without asking what of substance they amounted to, to raise the famous “silk road,” for example, to a prominence which nothing I know of warrants. It also fits in with modern fashion, which plays down the Western contribution to world trade and seeks to show that an active trade was in existence before the Europeans appeared on the scene. To question this new orthodoxy is sure to provoke loud protests, but here also I think the time has come for reconsideration.

Not, of course, that anyone would deny that extensive trading networks were in existence long before what we call the European era. It is also abundantly clear—here again Eric Wolf has assembled all the necessary material—that European traders, in Africa and elsewhere, simply took advantage of these existing trade diasporas, which (in Professor Curtin’s words) “fed them with gold, slaves, ivory, and other products for export in return for European and Asian manufactures.” When he insists upon this Professor Curtin is banging on an open door. But the problem is to assess their significance in world history. Professor Curtin believes there has been an “overemphasis on external initiative” in long-distance trade, and particularly that it is an error to suppose that Europeans were “the dynamic factor” at any time before the middle of the eighteenth century.


That is not my reading of his book. In East Africa, for example, it was only after the Portuguese appeared on the scene “that a complex pattern of penetration from the interior to the coast, and from the coast to the interior, came into existence,” and we can see the same happening elsewhere. Professor Curtin is undoubtedly right when he describes the Portuguese impact as “revolutionary.” No doubt improvements in shipping in the thirteenth century had already increased both the quantity and types of goods traded, but it was the voracious appetite of Europe that gave a sudden impetus to this slow development. We can see it at work in the old established African ivory trade, where European demand and the consequent rapid increase in price immediately created “new trade diasporas.” “They may have existed earlier,” Professor Curtin comments, “but they now became important enough to enter the historical record.” No statement, perhaps, could better summarize the way the impact of Europe transformed the scene.

But if it seems that I am putting Europe back on its pedestal, there is, of course, another side to the story. Trade is a twoedged sword. As heirs of Adam Smith, we in the West like to think of it as beneficial; the greater the interchange of goods, the better for all concerned. But it has a negative, and even destructive, side as well, and with the assertion of European control the negative aspects too often came to the fore. You may say that Africans and North American Indians were willing accomplices—and that may be true—but it was the Europeans who were responsible for the shocking excesses of the ivory trade and the fur trade, which resulted, as Professor Curtin reminds us, in the virtual extermination of the Rocky Mountain beaver population in a matter of only ten years. It is difficult to believe that any pre-European trading diasporas wreaked ecological havoc—or other havoc as well—on a comparable scale. Trade did not make the European interlopers better liked, particularly when they came with guns, and those who like to think of trade “uniting an extremely diverse world” have only to cast their eyes over the contemporary scene. Many causes contributed to the rejection of the West and the revolt against the West, but who can doubt that two centuries of Western trading predominance played their part?

This Issue

February 14, 1985