The Shipping News

An overview of maritime nations works more as intellectual entertainment than serious history.

Written by Ashok V Desai | Updated: November 12, 2016 12:53 am
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Book Name – Waves of Prosperity: India, China and the West — How Global Trade Transformed the World

Author – Greg Clydesdale

Publisher –Robinson, London 2016

Pages – 432

Price – 599

This book traces the world’s most successful civilisations, but rather indirectly. It claims to cover the history of shipping. But ships cannot float in the sea forever; they have to visit ports once in a while. And they would not be viable unless they carried something between ports. So, it becomes a history of trade. And trade reflects the comparative advantage of traders and the consequent prosperity of coastlines. That is how it becomes a history of maritime nations.

It begins with the Chinese. They were hardly a maritime nation; their rulers often prohibited foreign trade. But they go back millennia, and were long the world’s most prosperous and best governed people, so they had to be covered. They are followed by the Gujaratis, who were masters of a number of trades that drew buyers from all around the Indian Ocean, including textiles, spices and jewelry; their crafts made their coastline the fulcrum of Indian Ocean trade till the 16th century.

Then came the Spaniards and the Portuguese. The Pope divided up the world between them in 1494. They were too small to rule the world, but they destroyed its peace. The Portuguese, to whom their holy father handed over the East, disrupted trade in the Indian Ocean, both as robbers and policemen.

By the 17th century, they were overtaken by the Dutch, who colonised Bantam, and then, in the 19th century by the British, whose steel-made steamships gave them supremacy over many distant parts of the world. The Chinese then woke up to their decline, but it was too late. The Japanese, who had no illusions of imperial grandeur, tried instead to learn from the west, and slowly did.

In the 19th century, the Americans invented the corporation, and used it to develop large-scale industry. Britain lost its supremacy, but continued to do well with its combination of coal, steel, machine technology and steamships. By this point, the book has crossed 125,000 words, and Clydesdale wraps it up with brief reflections on the future of globalisation.

Clydesdale has chosen his subject well; there is no doubt that ships and maritime movement shaped the global economy for centuries. Advances in shipping and port technology reduced the costs of maritime trade and thickened the ties of regions across the seas.

But that was not all that was happening. Land transport technology also advanced, from caravans to carts, carriages, trains and motor vehicles. They changed continental economies. Clydesdale cannot ignore this entirely; he devotes a long chapter to the development of the United States, which had hardly any maritime history before World War I.

But that was not the only continent that was transformed. Europe was unified by railways; Hitler used railways extensively in his conquest of Europe. India became a country thanks to railways; because it does not have a maritime story after the mediaeval Gujaratis, Clydesdale largely ignores it. But the British once made hay by growing tea, jute and opium in India and selling it across the seas.

Countries are land-based, and governments think in terms of integrating and defending territory. It is impossible to make a story of Brazil or Mexico without bringing in their territorial dimension; so Clydesdale completely ignores them. There is nothing wrong in that; every writer has to choose, and decide where to stop. But if one stops where land begins, one misses out much of interest.

And then, there is the question of choosing seas. It is surprising that Clydesdale ignores the Mediterranean, which was the centre of the European civilisation for millennia. The Baltic, home of the Hanseatic states, had a fascinating story until nation-states arrived and put an end to it in the 19th century. The Europeans got spices and Indian luxury goods through the Turks for centuries until the Portuguese ended their dominance of the Indian Ocean.

Thus, Clydesdale misses out some important and fascinating stories. He could not have included everything; his book already runs beyond a hundred thousand words. But there is one omission that he would be well advised to repair in his next edition. He ignores Indian Economic and Social History Review, History Today, and other journals; presumably he used what he found in Antipodean libraries. He is often casual about references. If he wants to write authoritative history, he has to spend more time in the great libraries of Europe
and India.

This book is more of intellectual entertainment than serious history; taken in that spirit, it is quite fun.

Ashok V Desai is an extinguished economist and aspiring wordsmith