History International Relations

The Historic India-Europe Maritime Trade Route

The G20 unveiled the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, which owes its historical roots to an ancient maritime trading route connecting the Indian subcontinent and Europe.

India-Europe Trade Route: A Glimpse of History

  • Early Encounters: Early excavations established the trade between Rome and India during antiquity. Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s research at Arikamedu throughout the 1930s and 1940s established the existence of Indo-Roman trade in the first century CE.
  • Recent excavations: Ongoing archaeological excavations in Kerala and Egypt, such as those at Muziris and Berenike, continue to produce new evidence.
  • However, early interpretations frequently missed the agency of Indian merchants and ship owners in this commerce. Recent finds have helped to broaden and rectify our knowledge of this ancient commerce network.
  • Astonishing Scale: Recent estimations, backed up by the Muziris Papyrus, demonstrate the enormous scope of Red Sea trade. Customs duties on Indian, Persian, and Ethiopian commodities may have generated up to one-third of the Roman exchequer’s revenue.

Muziris Excavations reveals details

  • Custom Taxes: The Muziris Papyrus recorded the value of a cargo, emphasising its great importance, with one cargo alone being worth the purchase of excellent farmland in Egypt or a renowned home in central Italy.
  • The import duty collected on one consignment alone exceeded two million sesterces, according to Roman Revenue. Based on these numbers, Indian imports into Egypt were likely valued more than a billion sesterces each year, with tax authorities earning 270 million sesterces.
  • The importance of this commerce route in sustaining the Roman Empire’s extensive conquests and legions is highlighted by the fact that its income exceeded those of entire subject countries.

Specifics of the transaction

  • Peak Period: A maritime roadway connected the Roman Empire with India across the Red Sea during the first and second centuries CE. Every year, hundreds of ships go in both directions along this path.
  • Traded Goods: The Romans were very interested in Indian luxuries such as perfumes, ivory, pearls, gemstones, and exotic animals such as elephants and tigers. Pepper, India’s main export, was in high demand, making its way into Roman cuisine.
  • Trade from Rome: There was a limited flow of goods from Rome to India, with gold being a notable export. One significant exception, appreciated by Indians, was Roman wine.

Trade in the Pre-Common Era

  • Early Indian Diaspora: Evidence implies that an Indian diaspora existed in the Middle East during the Indus Valley Civilization (c. 3300-1300 BCE). This early trade was limited to the coast and comprised lesser quantities of products.
  • Expansion During the Roman Period: Trade developed substantially during the Roman period, aided by enormous cargo ships directly connecting the subcontinent and the Roman Empire. The Romans were instrumental in industrialising this trade.
  • Post-Conquest Peak: The Roman conquest of Egypt in the first and second century CE opened up the route to India, resulting in a significant increase in trade.

Journey Organisation and Duration

  • Contracts were created between Indian merchants in Kerala and shippers in Alexandria, resulting in highly organised trade. Goods were carried in containers, as is common in modern practise, with insurance references.
  • Understanding Monsoons: Indians recognised the seasonal patterns of the monsoon winds, allowing them to traverse the route more efficiently. Depending on favourable wind conditions, the journey to Egypt took between six and eight weeks.
  • Extended Stays: The Indian diaspora rented residences at Egyptian ports while waiting for wind patterns to shift, allowing Indian culture to be integrated into these areas.

Indians’ Roles in the Trade

  • Indian Seafaring Culture: Ajanta paintings and early Indian coin designs depicting ships imply that Indian dynasties were interested in seafaring.
  • Graffiti left by Indian seafarers, especially Gujaratis from Barigaza (modern-day Bharuch), was discovered in the Hoq caves on the island of Socotra, demonstrating their active participation in the trading network.

In comparison to the Silk Road,

  • Indian Centrality: The Indian subcontinent, especially its ports, were a historic economic and cultural hub of Asia, and they played an important part in maritime East-West exchange. The concept of the “Silk Road” is relatively new and misrepresents old trading routes.
  • The Silk Road notion was invented in the late nineteenth century and did not exist in ancient or mediaeval times. It rose to prominence in the twentieth century, creating romanticised notions of East-West connectedness.
  • Recent Politicalization: Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative has politicised the Silk Road, elevating it to the forefront of Chinese foreign policy.
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