From the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean: Medieval History in Geographic Perspective
By Andre Wink
Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 44, No. 3 (2002)
Introduction: It is widely acknowledged that Orientalist notions of political economy were marred by geographic determinism. From Marx to Wittfogel, generic concepts such as the “Asiatic mode of production,” the “hydraulic state” or “Oriental despotism” involved simplistic observations relating to climate and, particularly, the presence of large rivers and alluvial plains which were invoked to explain essential and persistent differences with the West. Considering its overwhelmingly important role in this earlier literature, it is remarkable that the historical geography of the rivers and riverplains of the Indian Ocean has not yet been explored in any depth. It is perhaps to avoid being stung by charges of determinism that historians of India and the Indian Ocean area in recent decades have, if anything, downplayed the importance of ge- ography. And, as W. A. McDougall has recently argued, it appears as if cur- rent thinking in general has become “suspicious of a subject [geography] that emphasizes distinctions among regions, invites unflattering comparisons and hierarchy among nations and cultures, and has been used in the past as an in- tellectual tool of empire.” By and large, what K. N. Chaudhuri observed in 1978 still holds true: “There can be few aspects of Indian studies more ne- glected than that of historical geography.” The aim of this essay is to re-introduce a geographic dimension in the history of the Indian Ocean area – one that is not overly deterministic and helps to account not only for continuities but also for changes in social and economic organization over an extended period of time.