On 6 July 1860, a British consul by the name of George Whittingham Caine arrived at the nondescript port of Swatow, today’s modern Shantou. He “disembarked from a warship to the cacophony of a seven-gun salute” and, following the obligatory hoisting of the Union Jack atop the improvised consulate building, “triumphantly declared the treaty port of Chaozhou ‘open’.” Yet unlike other treaty ports scattered along the maritime fringes of the tottering Qing empire, the British found themselves from the outset outflanked by established Chaozhouese (otherwise known as Chiuchow or Teochew) trading communities and failed to gain a foothold in the profitable local commodity trade in rice, sugar, beancake and, most remunerative of all, opium.

In 2015, the  Paris Climate Agreement hinged on a recalcitrant India. Prime Minister Modi knew that restricting coal could imperil the promises he’d made to the 300 million Indians still living without electricity. Nonetheless, he assented to the Agreement after a meeting with US President Barack Obama. Modi wasn’t won over with arguments over climate models, green energy, or ethics. Rather, Obama offered Modi a narrative that tied his personal experience to India’s colonial history: “Look, you know, I get it. I’m black, I’m African American. I know what it’s like to be in an unfair system where a bunch of people got rich on your back… but I also have to live in the world that I’m in, and if I just made decisions based on that resentment, then I actually would never catch up.” 

When we think about modern trade, we tend to think about the sea: port cities and large ships carrying goods back and forth. It’s a story that tends to put Europe at the center, as the pinnacle of shipping and maritime technology. Jagjeet Lally’s India and the Silk Roads: The History of a Trading World corrects this narrative.

Opium’s role in the history of East Asia has been well-documented, most notably perhaps in Julia Lovell’s definitive 2011 book The Opium War. This, and others like it, deal with the issue mostly from the perspective of the consuming countries, in particular China; Thomas Manuel’s Opium Inc. is noteworthy in focusing just as much on the producer: India.

Seaways and Gatekeepers: Trade and State in the Eastern Archipelagos of Southeast Asia, c.1600–c.1906, Heather Sutherland (NUS Press, May 2021)
Seaways and Gatekeepers: Trade and State in the Eastern Archipelagos of Southeast Asia, c.1600–c.1906, Heather Sutherland (NUS Press, May 2021)

The eastern archipelagos stretch from Mindanao and Sulu in the north to Bali in the southwest and New Guinea in the southeast. Many of their inhabitants are regarded as “people without history”, while colonial borders cut across shared underlying patterns. Yet many of these societies were linked to trans-oceanic trading systems for millennia. Indeed, some of the world’s most prized commodities once came from territories which were either “stateless” or under the very tenuous control of loosely structured polities. Although individual regimes sought to control traffic, exchange between trans-regional or even trans-oceanic shippers and local communities was often direct, without mediation by overarching authorities.

Spectators at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 1611 thrilled to the scenic realism of the Tempest. In the opening scene, a ship founders to the cries and alarms of her drowning sailors. But among those spectators some would nevertheless invest their private fortunes in the first ships to be sent by a  newly chartered trading company to the farthest known seas. They were the initial investors in the East India Company and their ships were destined to reach Japan.