Jun 30, 2008

Book Review: Port Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Modern Era

Pearson, Michael N.

Publisher: Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998

Pearson is Emeritus Professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, and is the author of a number of influential texts on European expansion and indigenous cultures in and near the Arabian Sea, which he alternately describes in this text as the “Afrasian Sea.” Influenced by the work of such writers as Immanuel Wallerstein and Kirti N. Chaudhuri, Pearson set out in Port Cities and Intruders “to look at the Afrasian Sea and its coasts in its own terms,” sketching a broad outline of early modern life in and along the Afrasian Sea, in particular the peoples of the Swahili coast. Though not as comprehensive as l'histoire totale of Fernand Braudel and the Annalistes, Pearson’s book nonetheless considers the peoples of the Swahili and Malabar coasts as part of a distinct regional economy in which European interlopers such as the Portuguese were merely late entrants in an existing and thriving sea-based economy. Yet, in a way, this is a book that asks more questions than it answers, and Pearson discussed a number of shortcomings in research that has been widely accepted as definitive.

The importance of littoral zones is an important theme that runs through Pearson’s book, and the author emphasized that the also littoral serves to connect the coast with inland regions. Moreover, noted Pearson, lakes and large river systems should also be included in any consideration of a littoral zone, as they serve to extend the zone of coastal commerce and culture. The importance of littoral zones, added Pearson, owes much to the fact that shipment by sea is the most cost-effective method of the transport of goods across distances:
If both land and sea transportation were available, all else being equal the sea would be chosen. Sea navigation at this time had a cost advantage over other forms of transport… it has been calculated that a dhow (lateen-rigged boat) can travel the same distance as a camel caravan in one-third the time; each boat would carry the equivalent of a thousand camel loads, and only one dhow crew member was needed for several cargo tons, as compared with two or more men for each ton in a camel caravan.

1572 map of the Swahili port city of Kilwa by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg from their Civitates orbis terrarum; click for larger image

Finished cloth, noted Pearson, was one of the most important commodities traded along the Swahili coast, and he observed that in “this nonmonetized world, [cloth], along with weights of gold, often served as currency.” Much of the imported cloth came from Gujarati merchants, while ivory and gold were the principal exports in the centuries prior to the rise of the international slave trade. Yet the east African coast, reminded Pearson, represented only a small fraction of the total export trade of western India.

Drawing from the discipline of geography, Pearson described terms for zones that help explain the relationships between port cities and the sea and land that surround them. The author defined umland as “the immediate surrounding area, directly connected to the city, frequently because it provides foodstuffs to the city.” The foreland, as defined by Pearson in this schema, represents regions overseas that are connected to the port city through shipping, trade, and the traffic of passengers, while the hinterland “radiates out from the port city inland and so begins at the end of the umland.” Pearson used these concepts to debunk traditionalists in African history and archaeology, such as Neville Chittick and James Kirkman, who downplayed connections between the peoples of the Swahili coast and peoples of the African interior.

Despite differences in language, as well as geographic barriers on the continent, Pearson argued that the port cities of the Swahili coast shared considerable economic and cultural connections with their African hinterlands. Most importantly, added Pearson, the Swahili need to be seen as “intrinsically African, not foreign,” a notion that today fails to resonate with the practitioners of “corrupt nationalist politics” in places like Kenya. The Swahili port cities, summed up Pearson, differed from Asian commercial entrepôts such as Melaka and Aden - which focused on repackaging, redistribution, and re-export - and instead should be seen as centers of both local and regional trade with significant cultural and trade connections to their hinterlands.

1572 illustration of the Portuguese fort at Sofala by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg from their Civitates orbis terrarum

Pearson argued against Marxist interpretations of trade in the Afrasian Sea as representing “economically advanced foreigners shamefully exploiting naïve Africans,” acknowledging that a number of studies have demonstrated that Gujarati, Arab, and Portuguese traders sometimes recorded astronomical profits in dealings with Swahili traders. Instead, Pearson posited that any analysis of regional trade needs to first consider use and relative values of trade goods. Interior Africans, in largely non-monetized economies, had little use for gold and ivory, both of which were highly prized by regional trading powers, but this did not mean that Africans were somehow swindled or bamboozled by foreign traders:
Overall, the advantage lay with Africa. Most of the products they received were discretionary rather than necessities I their agricultural and hunting lives, except for cloth on the [Zimbabwean] plateau, though even for this there were local substitutes. For the trader, however, a sale or exchange was obviously essential, for this was his raison d’être. Thus Africans could work as much or as little as they wanted.
Not by chance does Pearson save until the end of the book a discussion of the Portuguese presence on the Swahili coast in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Pearson argued that the Portuguese were not an “all-powerful, all-successful people of a quite different genus from what had gone on before,” but instead should be seen as “people who were constrained in a great variety of ways by the milieu I which they operated.” While the author agreed that the Portuguese possessed a “relatively coherent underlying strategy” in commandeering strategic points in the Indian Ocean basin from which to try to control trade, Pearson argued that they were ultimately unsuccessful in trying to “impose a hierarchy de novo in the Indian Ocean,” despite their early financial gains. Pearson attributed the Portuguese failures on the Swahili coast to a variety of factors, including inefficiencies and corruption in the Estado da India, an inability of the Portuguese to understand the “well-integrated trading system” they attempted to take over, the tolls taken from diseases to which the Portuguese lacked immunities, and the fact that Portuguese strategy to control gold production in the Zimbabwean plateau through “military force was both impossible and unnecessary.”

Port Cities and Intruders raises questions about a great deal of existing research into the early modern history of the Swahili coast, and Pearson identified a number of areas in which future research could be directed, such as a comparative examination of the similarities between port cities along the entire Indian Ocean littoral. Undergraduate students might struggle a bit with the more abstract portions of the text, especially if they are unfamiliar with world-system theory, but scholars at all levels and from a wide variety of disciplines will benefit from a reading of this subtly provocative book, which still shakes academic trees a full decade after its release.

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