Trade between Middle East Countries and China before 1500

A map showing the route and destinations of the seven voyages of Zheng He between 1405 and 1433 CE, acting as an ambassador and explorer of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 CE).

Some products were traded over very long distances indeed. In the thirteenth century date honey was produced in Bahrain and was much in demand in China by Buddhist pilgrims travelling to India. The great Chinese admiral Zheng He brought back to Beijing several giraffes, including one from Malindi and one from Bengal, the latter having apparently been given to the ruler of Bengal, Saifu’d-Din, by the ruler of Malindi. Most extraordinary, and mysterious, was the discovery in 1944 by an Australian radar team of five Islamic copper coins from Kilwa on a beach in the remote Marchinbar Islands, part of the Wessell Islands off Australia’s Northern Territory coast. None have dates, but from the inscriptions two may be tenth century, and three early fourteenth. We have no idea how they managed to travel clear across the whole Indian Ocean.

Long-distance trade was governed by the monsoons. One example was a route from the Gulf region to China around 1000 on the longest voyage sailed by any one ship. The Arab geographers claimed that a passage from Oman to China took about three months and ten days, though one exceptional voyage was completed in 48 days. These sound extraordinarily rapid, but they are only sailing times. Several stops were necessary on the way, partly to trade, and partly to wait for the right monsoon, so that the actual time from leaving the Gulf to reaching Guangzhou (Canton) was at least six months. The dhows sailed down the Gulf before it became too rough, in September or October, and then went on to Malabar on the northeast monsoon, arriving in mid-December. They stayed there while they traded, and waited for the cyclone season in the Bay of Bengal to end. In January they sailed to Malaya, and used the last of the northeast monsoon to get around the straits of Melaka and so catch the southern monsoon in the South China Sea and reach Guangzhou in April or May. The return voyage began in October to December when the northeast monsoon took them back to Melaka and over the Bay of Bengal to the west coast of India. The last stage, back to the Gulf, was sailed using the beginning of the southwest monsoon, reaching home around midyear.

Another example comes from five hundred years later. Very early in the sixteenth century Barbosa left us a compelling description of one of the major long-distance trade routes of this period, that is from Malabar, specifically Calicut, to the Red Sea. He wrote that the Muslim traders in Calicut from the Red Sea and Egypt:

took on board goods for every place, and every monsoon ten or fifteen of these ships sailed for the Red Sea, Aden and Meca, where they sold their goods at a profit, some to the Merchants of Juda, who took them on thence in small vessels to Toro, and from Toro they would go to Cairo, and from Cairo to Alexandria, and thence to Venice, whence they came to our regions. These goods were pepper (great store), ginger, cinnamon, cardamons, myrobalans, tamarinds, canafistula, precious stones of every kind, seed pearls, musk, ambergris, rhubarb, aloes-wood, great store of cotton cloths, porcelains, and some of them took on at Juda copper, quicksilver, vermilion, coral, saffron, coloured velvets, rosewater, knives, coloured camlets, gold, silver, and many other things which they brought back for sale in Calecut. They started in February, and returned from the middle of August up to the middle of October of the same year. In this trade they became extremely wealthy. And on their return voyages they would bring with them other foreign merchants who settled in the city, beginning to build ships and to trade, on which the King received heavy duties.

These two accounts point to a major change in the structure of long-distance sea trade in our period. Barbosa was describing a trade divided at south India, while the first account sketched a direct passage from the Gulf to China. What happened is that around the eleventh century the trade became segmented, with one merchant and ship doing the Arabian Sea part to south India, where the goods were exchanged, and then taken on by other ships and merchants to southeast Asia, where there was another exchange, and so to China. South India was always a place where there was a halt, and exchange, but the difference is that in the earlier time the same merchant and ship kept going beyond there, while later they did not.

In the earlier period, from say the eighth century, the very long-distance trade from the Gulf to China was handled by Persian merchants. In the Gulf Siraf, on the east bank, was the main centre, where were to be found goods from all over the Indian Ocean, including East Africa. Later Julfar, on the west coast up from Hurmuz, was important, and later still Hurmuz. Another old centre was Daybul, in present day Pakistan. Arabs also took part in this trade, and soon became more important than the Persians. Later some Chinese ships also, from the twelfth century and particularly in the fourteenth, traded into the Arabian Sea. However, from around the eleventh century the direct passage from Baghdad to Guangzhou declined, and we see the rise of emporia, that is shorter routes connecting the major port cities of Baghdad, Hurmuz, Cambay, Calicut, Melaka and Guangzhou, with many minor routes from, say, the Bay of Bengal feeding into this network. What evolved then was a basic change in the orientation of long-distance trade, which in the earlier period was on an east–west axis, from Baghdad to Guangzhou, and later was more north–south, that is Baghdad down to India, then an east–west segment to southeast Asia, and then north–south again up to China. We can even see here an early version of today’s divide between north and south, for the north, India and China, provided manufactures like cloths and porcelain, and the south unprocessed tropical products such as ivory, slaves, gold and spices.

From the twelfth century or slightly later we have three segments: the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the South China Sea. Chinese and Indians went to Melaka, Persians and Arabs only to India. It is significant that the account by Wang Dayuan, who travelled extensively in the 1330s, finds a western ocean and an eastern one, with the division at the Straits of Singapore. This important move towards segmentation may have been a result of traders realising that the direct passage in the same ship was inefficient, given that they had to wait for monsoons at several places, but it was probably also a result of the rise of important Indian trading communities in south India associated with the powerful Cola dynasty. We will turn to the influence of politics on trade presently, but we can remember here that the wealth and stability of the Abbasid empire from 750 CE, and of T’ang China, 618–907, certainly fostered this long-distance and quite perilous trade. The effects of the rise of the Cola empire in South India from the late ninth century has been less investigated, but it may be that the Colas, and the powerful merchant organisations, akin to guilds and associated intricately with state power, had two results. First, the stability provided by this state had the same effect as the equivalent in Baghdad and Guangzhou, that is a wealthy and stable state which had a large demand for foreign luxuries, and second merchants based in this state could trade both east and west, and especially to the east, to southeast Asia, where they met up with the powerful Sumatran-based trading empire of Srivijaya, which benefited from controlling the Melaka Straits up to the thirteenth century. South India seems to act as a fulcrum in this very long-distance connection. Later in our period other Indians joined in, this time Muslims based in the many emporia on the west coast, and in the major Islamic state of Gujarat from the thirteenth century. Increasingly the trade beyond India was controlled by Indian Muslims, while Arabs, and a few Persians, were restricted to the Arabian Sea.

We can start our survey of routes, trade and ports in the east, in China. We have noticed that Chinese products, especially porcelain, were traded all around the Indian Ocean from very early times. We have already quoted Ibn Battuta’s valuable description of the ships he saw in Calicut. His account dates from the early fourteenth century, but Chinese products have been found in the Arabian Sea from much earlier. Chinese pottery has been found on the Swahili coast from at least the eighth century, and a little later in Mauritius also. These goods were transshipped many times in a relay fashion, and some no doubt came overland to the Gulf and then were sent on by sea. An actual Chinese trading presence seems to date only from the twelfth century.

Many of the vast Chinese ships had both economic and political functions. We refer to the famous tribute system. Ostensibly this was a matter of foreign rulers accepting the superiority of the Chinese emperor, and sending tribute to signify this. However, much of the tribute was actually trade items, and the system then was a method of fostering exchange as much as a matter of political dominance. In the later thirteenth century the new Mongol dynasty, the Yuan, was keen to expand trade. In 1286 either the sons or younger brothers of the rulers of ten kingdoms ranging from Malabar to Sumatra came to pay tribute.88 Marco Polo got part of the way back home accompanying one of these politico-trade missions. Around 1290 a Mongol princess was sent by sea to Persia to become the consort of the local ruler, Arghun Khan, and the Polos went with her. She travelled with 600 sailors and officials, in a fleet of fourteen ships. They left from Zaiton, of which more in a minute, and touched at Champa and the Malay peninsula. Reaching Sumatra, they were forced to wait for five months to avoid monsoon storms. They then travelled near the Nicobar Islands to Sri Lanka, the west coast of India, and so to Hurmuz. However, Arghun had died by this time, and the princess was handed over to his son, Mahmud Ghazan, instead. This sort of voyage has been described in Chinese sources also. They said that it took forty days to get from China to Sumatra. One spent the ‘winter’ there and then took thirty days to get to the Malabar coast. This information again points to the good sense of the rise of the emporia trade, which meant that ships travelled shorter distances and did not have to wait for a change in the monsoon. Rather they could sell their goods and return home.

Kulke claims that in the thirteenth century there was a large Indian settlement, complete with temple, in south China, and Chinese settlements in Cola south India. Chinese traded to India, but it seems that many more Indians traded to China. Indeed Polo makes clear that Indian traders had by his time replaced Arabs and were an important community at the main Chinese port, which now seems to be Zaiton, that is modern Quanzhou, rather than Guangzhou (Canton). In a famous passage he wrote that Quanzhou is

frequented by all the ships of India, which bring thither spicery and all other kinds of costly wares. It is the port also that is frequented by all the merchants of Manzi [the surrounding province], for hither is imported the most astonishing quantity of goods and of precious stones and pearls, and from this they are distributed all over Manzi.

Much later, when he got to Malabar, he again wrote, ‘Ships come hither from many quarters, but especially from the great province of Manzi. Coarse spices are exported hence both to Manzi and to the west’.

Quanzhou was located north of the modern port of Amoy, or Xiamen, opposite Taiwan. Muslims had traded there very early on, even from the seventh century, and in 1350 there were six or seven mosques in the town. Among the products they imported was rhinocerous horn, which establishes a connection between East Africa and China. Fujian merchants began to venture out only from the late tenth century. Indian merchants had been in Guangzhou by at least the early sixth century.93 From the twelfth century the Kling merchants from south India began to concentrate on Quanzhou, where in the mid fourteenth century they built a large Siva temple modelled on that back home in Madurai. By this time however Chinese traders were taking over the trade between China and Melaka from both Hindus and Muslims. This trade may have been fostered by the awe-inspiring state-directed expeditions of the eunuch Zheng He, to whom we must now turn.

Zheng He erected a tablet which gives a flavour of his pride and sense of superiority. He had inscribed:

We have traversed more than one hundred thousand li of immense waterspaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapours, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly as] a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare….

This chauvinism is reflected even more in another inscription, where he claims that during his voyages ‘those among the foreigners who were resisting the transforming influence of Chinese culture and were disrespectful, we captured alive, and brigands who indulged in violence and plunder, we exterminated. Consequently the sea-route was purified and tranquillised and the natives were enabled to pursue their avocations.’ So also with many modern authors: Mills claims in his introduction to Ma Huan’s account of Zheng He’s 1433 expedition that the representatives of sixty-seven foreign states, including seven kings, came to China to pay tribute and render homage. At this time, at the height of Ming power in the 1420s, Yong Le’s fleet had 400 warships of the fleet, 2,700 coastal warships, 400 armed transports, and the pride of the Ming fleet, 250 treasure ships, each carrying 500 men. Throwing caution to the wind, Mills enthusiastically claims that ‘China enjoyed a hegemony over a vast arc of land which extended from Japan to the east coast of Africa.’

Comparisons have often been made with Portuguese activities at the same time in the early fifteenth century. When the Chinese were travelling all over the Indian Ocean, say in 1422, the Portuguese had not even got to Cape Bojador, 26° N. Zheng He’s greatest ships were 400 feet long, while Vasco da Gama’s were between 85 and 100 feet. Many senior historians have speculated that Zheng He’s fleets had the ability to round the Cape of Good Hope (indeed maybe they did) and proceed north to discover western Europe. World history would have been stood on its head.

The reality is a little less exciting than this. There were a total of six expeditions between 1403 and 1433, sponsored by the Yong Le emperor of the Ming dynasty. These vast fleets travelled all around the littoral of the Indian Ocean, going as far as Jiddah, and far down the Swahili coast. Each had between 100 and 200 ships, and forty to sixty of these were the famed huge treasure ships, which could be 150 metres long. There were maybe 27,000 men in each fleet. However, most of the ships were much smaller, some for example being water carriers. Barker tentatively claims that even the size of the great treasure ships has been enthusiastically overestimated: they may have been only about 230 feet long (though this is still very large for the time). They are to be seen as a continuation of the tribute system, with its characteristic mixture of tribute and trade. However, the fleets also engaged in essentially pedling trade in the Indian Ocean, that is, they took goods from one place to another quite apart from any association with tribute. They took southeast Asian sandalwood and Indian pepper to Aden and Dhofar, Indian pepper to Hurmuz, sandalwood and rice to Mogadishu, and rice, probably from Bengal, to the Maldives.

Perhaps the most important point is that Zheng He (perhaps understandably) has bewitched historians, and led to their ignoring three important matters that place his voyages in context. First, his activities were really a continuation of a long tradition, albeit writ large. Second, the tribute system, so-called, hardly meant Chinese suzerainty all over the Indian Ocean. Third, for much of the time the expeditions engaged in humble Indian Ocean trade alongside many other merchants. We described Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo travelling in private, and very large, Chinese ships, and generally Chinese merchants, often ignoring official prohibitions on overseas trade, dominated the trade from their coast to southeast Asia, and at least up to the middle of the fifteenth century, well after the end of major state expeditions, participated fully in trade from Melaka to the west coast of India but not beyond.

Overall then Chinese merchants, and state expeditions, played a rather small and transient role in the Indian Ocean proper.