These days the phrase ‘Maritime Silk Road’ is used a lot when talking about medieval trade on the Indian Ocean. It crops up in the titles of books and articles, including recent work on shipwrecks and archaeological sites in island Southeast Asia, and it’s used by the Chinese government in an attempt to link China’s current expansion into the South China Sea with supposed historical precedents. The term even has a Wikipedia article. If you work on this kind of thing you can’t miss it.
I get the feeling ‘Maritime Silk Road’ has been adopted in the absence of decent alternatives rather than because of any positive advantages that it might have. (1) The problems with it seem obvious:
- The term implies a kind of Lesser Silk Road. ‘Maritime Silk Road’ is like ‘sweet potato fries’: Normal fries are made of potatoes so on your average menu ‘potato fries’ are unmarked — we just call them ‘fries’. Sweet potato fries are more unusual, so they’re marked: we have to call them ‘sweet potato fries’. Likewise, the overland ‘Silk Road’ is unmarked and therefore normal. ‘Maritime Silk Road’ is marked and therefore less normal. (2)
- Maritime trade probably involved a much greater quantity and range of goods than overland (‘Silk Road’) trade in the Middle Ages.
- The sea is not a road.
- While silk was definitely traded by sea, it was only one of many commodities traded on the Indian Ocean and silk was in any case being manufactured outside China from a fairly early period (in Java and India — and even Europe from the eleventh century on). (3)
I think the term should be abandoned. I’ll go into a little more detail below but that’s the gist of my argument.
Was medieval maritime trade less important than the ‘Silk Road(s)’?
The main thing that strikes me about the phrase ‘Maritime Silk Road’ is that it makes it sound as if ancient and medieval maritime trade was subordinate to overland trade. That seems a bit silly.
Although precise figures are naturally hard to come by, the volume of maritime trade in the Middle Ages probably massively outstripped trade over land. This is because ships could carry more cargo more safely, quickly, and directly than overland caravans could (Figure 1). Ships could also carry more armaments and travel in larger convoys. Monsoon winds made journeys across the Indian Ocean and South China Sea relatively fast and predictable, and the same ships could (and did!) travel all the way from Yemen to Guangzhou and from Tuban to Gujarat, something that cannot often be said of caravans across mainland Eurasia.
A wider array of products could be trafficked by sea alongside the more famous high-value spices and perfumes (and, yes, silks), including enslaved human beings, heavy iron ingots, and fragile things like porcelain, which could be safely stowed in the ships’ holds. You may note that a great deal more porcelain made its way to East Africa than to Europe in the Middle Ages, perhaps because merchants hoping to sell Chinese porcelain in France or Hungary would have had to have carted their wares a long way over bumpy tracks, risking breakages and cracks.
Most of the famous spices and perfumes came to western Afro-Eurasia from southern Asia by sea — to Europe usually by way of Alexandria in Egypt. Aloeswood, benzoin, black pepper, camphor, cinnamon, cloves, cubebs, frankincense, galangal, ginger, mace, and nutmeg were among the luxury goods of the sea trade; it is harder to come up with a similar list of goods with mainland Eurasian origins, although there were a few, like rhubarb and musk. Marco Polo, who travelled along the ‘Silk Road’ and across the Indian Ocean in the thirteenth century, singles out Çaiton (or Zaytun, modern Quanzhou) in southern China as one of the two preeminent trading centres of the world known to him (Alexandria is another — Figure 2). There is no indication in his account, or any other that I have come across, to suggest that trade across Central Asia was more important than trade across the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to continue using a term that implies otherwise. (4)
The overland and maritime trade was of course linked, and it might seem like a good idea to use a term that unites them somehow — ‘Maritime Silk Road’ could be seen in that context. But ‘ancient/medieval long-distance trade/exchange’ (take your pick) would do the same thing without the implication that Indian Ocean/South China Sea trade was the Lesser Silk Road.
What other term is there?
‘Maritime Silk Road’ is a marketing term and I’d say we don’t really need to use it at all. I’m sympathetic to arguments that terms like this help anchor our understanding of the pre-modern world — I am, after all, adamant that we shouldn’t abandon the word ‘medieval’ — but this one just doesn’t seem useful. When I look at the literature that uses the term ‘Maritime Silk Road’ it always seems like it’s been shoehorned in. It’s a fairly new term.
As I’ve mentioned before, I rather like the phrase ‘Monsoon Marketplace’, which I first encountered in, of all places, a YouTube video on Indian Ocean trade from 2012 by young adult fiction author John Green (go to 01:43). ‘Monsoon Marketplace’ is a term that emphasises the vital role of monsoon winds in the trade and doesn’t apply landlubber language (‘Road’) to the Ocean. It seems like a good marketing term to me — and that is after all what we’re talking about here. And I’ve never heard Xi Jinping use it, which is a plus.
(1) Its popularity may have something to do with Chinese political influence, but that’s an issue for another time.
(2) Obviously sweet potato fries aren’t as good as normal fries.
(3) I mention this because it seems that a lot of people think silk was an exclusively Chinese product until modernity. That’s not the case.
(4) I suspect the reason we see the maritime trade subordinated to overland routes in modern discourse is for the simple reason that the overland trade left much more in the way of physical evidence, particularly the fascinating multilingual manuscripts from Dunhuang and elsewhere. When it comes to Indian Ocean trade this is really only true of the eastern and western termini — archives like the Cairo Genizah and the detailed accounts of trade through the southern Chinese ports. We have much more in the Central Asian landscape and in the extant mainland Eurasian historical record on which to hang our romantic fantasies of pre-modern travel and trade.