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,
(click image to enlarge)
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
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
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
The VOC trade in Persia: Sugar for Silk
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
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.