Curtin, Philip D. Cross-Cultural Trade in World History (Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge and New York, 1984). 293 pp, $34.99.
Philip D. Curtin is one of the founders of the field of world history as
we know it. In contrast with the champions of world systems, he did not
propose a general theory offering a master narrative. Instead he emphasized
a method: comparison through a series of case studies. Whether writing monographs
or essays, he favored trans-regional topics.
Unlike most of the other members of his pioneer
generation, Curtin helped train many historians who in turn have contributed
to world history (for instance, Ross Dunn and Patrick Manning at Wisconsin
and Lauren Benton at Johns Hopkins). One of his students, Craig A. Lockard,
identifies Curtin as the leader of a Wisconsin school of comparative world
Although Curtin's own graduate school training
emphasized European history, his first book dealt with Jamaica. Not content
to be a Caribbean specialist, he then spent much of the rest of his long
career studying West Africa. Curtin placed Africa within a larger story.
For instance, he wrote books on the demography of the slave trade and on
the impact upon Europeans of tropical diseases.
Although many of his books can be viewed as
world history, the first explicitly presented as such did not appear until
he was in his sixties. It is the subject of this retrospective review, Cross-Cultural
Trade in World History.
Culture, not trade, was central to the book.
More precisely, Curtin focused on the alien merchants whose encounters with
their hosts encouraged cultural diffusion. Borrowing from anthropology,
he popularized trade diaspora as a term and a concept. Trade diasporas were
networks of foreign merchants who might live briefly or for many generations
in a host society. For the most part, they lived physically segregated from
the native population, and often were marked off by language, religion,
and ethnicity or race. Trade diasporas varied enormously, particularly in
their relationship with their hosts, but they all acted as cross-cultural
brokers. Individual trade diasporas disappeared when once foreign merchants
became assimilated or irrelevant. By the mid-nineteenth century Western
institutions of international trade marginalized trade diasporas. Foreign
merchants remained but not as trade diasporas.
Curtin irrefutably established the diversity
and ubiquity of trade diasporas. After a general introduction, he devoted
two chapters to Africa, one to the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean
(with a few pages on pre-Columbian trade in the Americas), five chapters
that focus on Asia, one on the North American fur trade, and a final chapter
on the twilight of the trade diasporas. For most readers, the details about
Africa will be new, the chapter on the Armenians fascinating, and the story
of the Bugis in maritime Southeast Asia a complete surprise.
| The underlinings
and marginal notes in my own copy written many years ago remind me how much
I learned when I first read this book. An early passage (3) pointed out
that a trading diaspora was more than a group of foreign merchants and that
it was inherently unstable. "In the search for testable hypotheses about
the way people have conducted cross-cultural trade through time, one immediately
striking generalization is that trade diasporas tend to work themselves
out of business. They began because cultural differences created a need
for mediation, but centuries or even decades of mediation reduced cross-cultural
differences and hence the need for cross-cultural brokers."
| I should add that
with about thirty maps, Curtin grounded his work in geographical space,
and, although his bibliography shows that he relied mostly on English-language
scholarship, it includes a substantial number of titles in French and two
or three in German.
| In writing this
retrospective review, I visited earlier reviews. For me, the most interesting
was that by William H. McNeill, published in the August 1985 number of the
Canadian Journal of History. Although McNeill praised the book, he
criticized its incompleteness. Supposedly, Curtin "makes far too little
of China's pre-eminence in commerce between about 1000 and 1450 A.D. for
example, and, above all, fails to present an adequate portrait of the caravan
world as a whole." Since Curtin's preface thanked McNeill for critiquing
a draft of the book, it is reasonable to assume that Curtin had heard this
complaint before publication and at the time dismissed it as irrelevant.
Curtin had no intention of completeness. He wrote enough case studies to
make his point, that the trade diasporas existed throughout history on every
continent until they ceased to be useful in the mid-nineteenth century.
| How does Cross-Cultural
Trade hold up after more than twenty years? I think that its most important
limitation is its success. Since 1984 the concept of the trade diaspora
has been thoroughly assimilated into the writing and teaching of world history.
Scholars have moved on. Now they are more concerned with how trade diasporas
facilitated cultural exchange. Although Curtin was not silent about cultural
interaction, he focused on the preliminary task of establishing the existence
and nature of trade diasporas.
| Another problem
for a book written from secondary sources is twenty-odd years of fresh scholarship.
In his preface Curtin pointed out most of the books and articles that he
used for his 1984 book appeared after the early 1970s. At this time historians
had begun to pay attention to individual trade diasporas, and they have
continued to do so. Thus, for instance, Curtin wrote too early to consult
Stephen Dale's Indian Merchants and the Eurasian Trade, 1600-1750
(1994). For generalists, there remains a wealth of descriptive data to extract
from Cross-Cultural Trade, but specialists can point out that many
chapters aren't up to date.
| After more than
two decades Cross-Cultural Trade in World History remains in print
as a paperback, but for whom? Many of its readers likely are graduate students
who sample it while working their way through lists of recommended books.
Although Curtin is an accessible writer, I would be hesitant to expect undergraduates
to read Cross-Cultural Trade in its entirety. In part, the problem
is its detail, an unending parade of names of people and places and local
terminology. Moreover, its broad chronological scope doesn't fit most world
history courses. For undergraduates, a better introduction to Curtin's comparative
method might be The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex (1990,
revised 1998), a splendid example of Atlantic history, or The World and
the West: The European Challenge and the Overseas Response in the Age of
Empire (2000) which addresses one of the major questions for recent
David M. Fahey
Miami University (Ohio)