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Book Review


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. 1
     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 history. 2
     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. 3
     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. 4
     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. 5
      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. 6
     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." 7
     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. 8
     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. 9
     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. 10
     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. 11
     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 world history. 12
David M. Fahey
Miami University (Ohio)

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