THE ARABIAN SEAS

WHIRLPOOL OF TRADE




Letter of the Sultan at Constantinopel who demands that the VOC will not trade in the Ottoman empire; the signature in gold was restricted for letters to Christian authorities, 1615
(click image to enlarge)

escending from the central plateau with its thin atmosphere through successive mountain ranges, travelling through mist and hailstorms, passing by green terraces and wadis, my journey ended in a sweltering hot, barren coastal plain, where drift sand drawn upwards coloured the sun yellow. Only a desolate field of ruins, with scattered remnants of mosques and bastions. No bustling people, no chaotic activity, only abandonment and the skeletons of vessels (.).' This is how one scholar of the region described his first journey from the Yemeni highlands to the ancient port town of al-Mukha (Mocha). His aim was to bring the once brightly flourishing port to life again, if on paper only. It soon turned out that VOC documents and charts were the richest sources of all.

A Vibrant World

he archives originating from the VOC settlements in Iran and Yemen are important to understand the vibrant world of the ArabianSeas region.The VOC offices in al-Mukha (Yemen) and in Gamron (modern Bandar 'Abas, Iran) were both directed from the main VOC office in Surat (Gujarat). Much valuable information on trading competition in the Arabian Seas region - the coastlines surrounding the Arabian Sea and the interiors of the Red Sea and the Persian or Arabian Gulf - was gathered here. Since ancient times, the littorals of the Arabian Seas have attracted a great number of trading vessels from western India. Peddling, the small-scale coasting trade to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, was the most important element of the regional economy. Every year, thousands of Indian merchants sought to do business with their fellow merchants in the Gulf and the Red Sea. Entire armadas of small vessels were constantly delivering a variety of goods - textiles, pepper, sugar, wood, rice, and slaves - to Arab traders who were every bit as busy as their Indian colleagues. The shipping network of al-Mukha in the early seventeenth century included no less than 27 major port towns in western India, located roughly from Sind to Cochin.

The VOC sought to profit from this existing 'archipelago of trade' by selling, for instance, Indian textiles in Yemen, and Javanese sugar in Persia, but was not very competitive in the highly refined but small-scale coastal trading network. The Dutch preferred large ships and investments and therefore focused primarily on long-distance deep-sea navigation, the precise antithesis of the port-to-port coasting trade in the Arabian Seas.

Fortunately for historians, VOC sources on the Arabian Seas region provide not only accounts of Dutch trading activities, but also information concerning the aforementioned Arab-Persian-Indian trading network from Jidda to Bombay and from Basra to Cochin. When cross-checked with other sources, VOC documents may thus help to further our understanding of the region's autonomous history.

The VOC trade in Persia: Sugar for Silk

ike many other European, Arab, and Asian traders, the Dutch also traded in the Persian Gulf. The VOC appointed a Director for Persia who kept an office, several warehouses, and even a pleasant garden in Gamron. His agents closely monitored the silk markets in Kirman, Shiraz, and Isfahan. Initially, raw silk purchased in Safavid Persia could be sold in Europe for a good price. Neither the British nor the Dutch were able to monopolize the silk trade, however. In the Shah's realm one could either accept the terms of trade dictated by Persia's strong and effective government or risk being shut out of the trade altogether.

When the sale of raw Persian silk to the international market became less profitable, the VOC shifted its attentions to the purchase of Persian gold. The annual fleet from Batavia to Persia was usually loaded with pepper, cloves, and nutmeg and a great quantity of Batavian sugar. Although Afghan armies toppled the Safavid dynasty in 1722, the VOC remained active in the region until 1766.

The long VOC presence in Iran from the height of Safavid power until well after the dynasty's fall has resulted in an invaluable collection of historical documentation on local trade, politics, and economics. Through the prism of the silk trade at the great bazaar at Isfahan, a more complete picture of Safavid society may be gleaned.


View on the town of Gamron, Persia, 1704
(click image to enlarge)

 

al-Mukha: A Forgotten Arabian Port-town

he Arabian side of the Red Sea coast was among the first targets of the Portuguese. Portuguese traders sought in the late 16th century to intercept the Asian trade that brought wealth to Aleppo and Alexandria, but Afonso de Albuquerque failed to turn Aden into a Portuguese bulwark for controlling the Red Sea trade. Instead, these lands were eventually conquered by the Ottomans and ruled as Turkish provinces.

The Yemeni seaport of al-Mukha nevertheless proved a good place to purchase precious metals and later coffee. At the beginning of 1621 the VOC opened an office in al-Mukha, after having received a favorable firman (decree) from the Imam of Yemen, a vassal of the Ottoman Sultan.

The Dutch traders quit the port again in 1684, unable to compete with the English, who sent their ships directly from London to al-Mukha in order to purchase the finest coffee from the Yemeni mountain ranges and the Ethiopian Highlands. But when coffee prices in Europe tripled between 1693 and 1695, the VOC hastened to send its ships back to Yemen. European rivalries, instability in Yemen, the competitiveness of other coffee markets such as Cairo and Jeddah, and the seasonal variance in prices all complicated the purchase of coffee. By 1720, however, the Arabian coffee boom was over. Coffee plants had by then been distributed all over the world, from Java to the Caribbean, and in 1739 the office in al-Mukha was finally closed.


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