Christians And Spices: European Expansion into Asia: There Goes The Neighborhood: Critical Analysis 2008

HIST 480 Christians and Spices: Western Impacts on Asia    Dr. Porter    2/14/08

Essay 1: Europe vs. Asia: George Sansom and Philip Curtin       Timothy Sipp

A critical analysis:

Cross Cultural Trade in World History by Philip Curtin
The Western World and Japan by George Sansom

Philip Curtin tells a chronological tale of expansion driven by innovation in thought and artifact, technique and technology with a nod to religious motif in the pursuit of profit. George Sansom reveals the bad manners and ill-conceived religious and financial conquests inflicted on the multi-faceted diversity that was the Indian Ocean and South East Asian trading communities.

Curtin’s presentation of this portion of world history, the 15th century to the 19th century, is distinctly Euro-centric in its treatment. Specifically, he addresses the history of trade in the Indian Ocean and South East Asia from the perspective of European powers. Curtin begins with the Portuguese and Vasco de Gama in 1498 and takes us through to the “European Age” when the Dutch and English East India Companies vied for equality with each other and domination of Asia.

George Sansom’s rendition of this history is Indo-Asian-centric and highlights the relative peace of the region before Europeans arrived. He discusses the established etiquette of cross-cultural trade and rich diversity of the trading diasporas that were disrupted by the arrival of the Portuguese.

However confrontational they were, Sansom reminds us that the Portuguese and later Europeans were simply some of many exogenous influences felt by the numerous states of India and countries of South East Asia. According to Sansom, Portuguese Christians had less influence than the Muslims, who, in conjunction with Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and other indigenous peoples, had already established orderly trading throughout the region. It is this perspective of Sansom’s I would like to address next in terms of the emphasis of his work.

For Sansom this epoch in history is marked by bloodlust meets wanderlust for profit as manifest through the instruments of choice of Portuguese conquest, religion and force. For the Portuguese, the grocers of Europe, spreading Christianity and destroying Islam wherever it was encountered was as important as establishing trade monopolies, collecting revenue from protection services and last but not least, piracy.

This misguided faith-based directive often interfered with business to the detriment of all parties involved and permanently altered the known world. No longer were the seas relatively free, save the occasional pirate looking for some booty. The age of armed commerce had arrived in Indo-Asia and it was there to stay. The same could not be said for the Portuguese god.

Catholic Christianity had met its match in the refined ancient beliefs and traditions of the region. Christianity took hold along the coastal regions of India as almost a polite thing to do to welcome newcomers. This was possible because Muslim and Hindu rulers were tolerant and permitted religious and cultural freedoms. Christianity did not flourish in South East Asia where India’s exports of Hinduism and Buddhism were firmly entrenched. Islam enjoyed a greater acceptance than any other belief in the islands of modern day Malaysia and Indonesia. But even with all of these highly structured belief systems the indigenous traditions remained prominent in many more remote locales.  

Curtin, on the other hand, describes the same period in terms of the technology used, the innovations realized and the administration required to keep the store open. From details of the discovery of additional trade winds to bookkeeping methods, Curtin paints a picture, not of brutal conquest, but of a natural development of European interests in the region commensurate with their abilities and political wills.

He does point out the obvious fact that because of the Portuguese’s introduction of widespread violence in the area that all subsequent adventurers came ready for a shootout. The other major regional powers eventually acquiesced as a new balance of power formed with each new European arrival.

Curtin credits the Dutch and the English with a business first and last approach foregoing the costly derision of religious enmity in a region rife with opportunities to exact revenge. Instead they focused on avoiding the Portuguese when possible and coalescing to defeat them when necessary. 

As time passed, the Asians assimilated some of the shipbuilding technologies from Europe and began launching ships crewed by Asians that could compete with those of the European fleets. This, in addition to the low ratio of ships that actually returned to European ports, due to the immense dangers, served as one of the only reverse exchanges of real measurable value from Europe to Asia. As Asians had little need of European goods and rounding the Cape of Good Hope was so dangerous, the Europeans shifted to controlling intra Indo-Asian trade for profit instead of relying mostly on European sales of Indo-Asian goods.

This evolution is what led to further penetration of Europeans into Asia and their establishment of more permanent bases of operation, facilitating eventual empires. These fortified ports of call became the toll booths, weigh stations and garrisons of the day, a further refinement and civilizing of the extortion rings in operation.

Curtin’s conclusion was, “Plunder is an effective, but potentially very expensive way to acquire wealth. It was a lesson the European trading companies were slow to learn, but they did gradually learn.”(Curtin.1984. p.157) For Sansom, “…each saw the other as backward in the arts of living and misguided in things of the spirit.”(Sansom.1973. p. 87). In the end, “Asiatic thought was little disturbed by Western influences, but events in Asia started new movements in the intellectual life of Europe.”(Sansom.1973. p. 113). The most important of which, arguably, is the idea of international law as a prerequisite in the conduct of transnational commerce.

Curtin’s assessment of the facts is no more or less correct than Sansom’s. Theirs is a difference of intent and understanding. For one, a diverse and diplomatic commercial diaspora existed in balance until the equilibrium was eradicated and usurped by marauding men of low character and malevolent method. For another, the wanderlust superseded the bloodlust as the extension of grasp was realized by innovative minds and strong men in the natural pursuit of more.

Regardless of debating which center is more centered, the inevitable remains historical. Portuguese traders became European raiders forcing a permanent and irreconcilable evolution away from civility and tolerance towards lasting and intricate resentments among many nations and faiths, while subsequently laying the foundation of understanding for international law. This dichotomy is our inheritance: Our heritage.

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