07 Dec 22

Although no-one has ever been able to establish where, or even if, he actually said it, Mahan is commonly supposed to have argued that the Indian Ocean of his day would turn out to be the main driver of international development. This remarkable and fascinating book explores and confirms that view, starting way back at the end of the Ice Age and the time of the Great Flood that submerged part of the Indian sub-continent that was ultimately responsible, culturally, politically and economically, for what happened.  The focus is on the development and dominance of sea-based trade as an agent of change which the book claims originated there. In itself, this emphasis on the shaping influence of sea-based trade is a fairly familiar argument, and certainly not one with which I would argue. Its treatment in this book benefits a great deal from the author’s own background and career in Clarkson Platou, the world’s largest shipping services company. Collins makes the point that there’s a lot more to maritime trade than cargo ships going from A to B. The web of human interactions, the exchange of ideas, information, attitudes, as well as goods, linked to the passage of merchant ships that result from trade all help shape human outcomes. If anyone doubts that, they have only to look at the interactions between the current Ukraine War and the world economy.

The challenge in this particular book is the sheer scale of the canvas the author seeks to cover. This is History with a capital H. It dives straight into the vast ambiguities of the Ice Age and the Flood (dated to around about 5600 BC). In effect it aims to cover the whole world, since the focus is by no means exclusively, or even mainly on the Indian Ocean. Because there is so much material to get through, we are conducted at lightning speed through virtually the whole of human endeavour, a part of which at least is still shrouded in disputed interpretation. For the reader, the result is a kind of a machine-gun fusillade of data, delivered in short sentences, that require real concentration and, unless you are an expert in the innumerable subjects under review, a certain degree of faith since the referencing system used is necessarily limited.  The author’s capacity to make effective use of archaeological and scientific data, alongside the economic, cultural, literary and linguistic is impressive and suggests that such a degree of faith is justified.

So what should we make of it all? Firstly, the emphasis on the importance of maritime trade as a fundamental driver of human development, even though not an original point, is very well made. The author quotes Seneca who makes the essential point: “We have been given winds so that the wealth of each region might become common”. This is the basis of the drive towards globalisation, and increasing homogeneity that we see all around us today. This early globalisation was the product of a process of diffusion which “…as a historical mechanism by seafaring merchants crew has been of crucial importance to cultural development in many parts of the world” (p 15). This book takes us through all this and serves as an invaluable quarry of ideas and observations that support the proposition, are hard to dispute, and fascinatingly told. There is, just for one example of the resultant diffusion of experience and ideas, some really stimulating discussion of linguistic similarity between the Sanskrit, Iranian, Latin, Greek and Celtic languages together with some extraordinary ‘coincidences’ between the Greek Illiad and Odyssey and the Indian Ramayana and Mahabharata. (p132)

But, secondly, how did this process of diffusion actually work, and critically where did it start? Nick Collins approvingly quotes Oxford’s famous economic historian Professor George Unwin: “The serious student of history must learn as his primary duty to question all conventional views and values”. His particular target is the standard view that this process of diffusion began in the much more continental ‘Mesopotamian cultural heartland’ rather than the more maritime Indian sub-continent, and in particular what is now the Rann of Kutch. Here the problem is disposing of the alternative theoretical possibility of multiple simultaneous sources of diffusion rather than just one, a process Collins doesn’t really deal with. Continuing uncertainty about dating, and the order in which things happened, further complicates the issue. The author’s speculations sometimes hover worryingly near the Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc fallacy, ‘afterwards, therefore because of’. Readers should read the evidence presented and make up their own minds.

Nonetheless, this book is a remarkable achievement well-worth investigating, but is arguably better understood as a stimulating review of the early history and development of globalisation, rather than as an argument about the relative centrality in world affairs of the Indian sub-continent. The news that this is but the first in a projected three-part history of the development and role of maritime trade, perhaps rather underlines the point. For that reason alone, this reviewer at least will be looking forward to the appearance of the next two volumes. An unusual book, but definitely recommended.