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Merchant councils & abandoned crossroads

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history & science... so I wind up putting notetaking software like Obsidian & Readwise thru their paces.

2 min read.
Photo of spices on brown measuring spoons by Miguel Á. Padriñán
The novella I'm working on is centered around accusations of excessive trade. The lactating egglayers live on an isolated island, and due to limits of their physiology, can only trade when the winds undergo a temporary, El Niño esque shift. It's a fairly dangerous endeavor, so only the priesthood travels. As is my habit, I did a little research to see if I could flesh out some of the details.

Quick Facts

  • I wasn't able to find many examples of historical oligarchies ruled by a leaderless council, but in Lamu (founded around the thirteenth century) the merchant oligarchy itself governed outright.
  • Aksum, located in modern Ethiopia, was a major trading center; coins minted there were found as far away as India, and they even built monuments in trade tongues like Greek; the state was even mentioned in a 1st century Greek merchant’s guide.
  • As of 2014, only two ancient shipwrecks have ever been discovered in the western Indian Ocean, although the region is a major Old World trade hub.
  • Frankincense and myrrh are native to the southern Arabian Peninsula; the domestication of the camel allowed it to be transported to the Mediterranean, where it was a valuable trade good mostly because of its use in burial rituals.
  • The most dangerous ancient trade route was probably the "Tea Horse road," thanks to the many rivers it crosses in the Hengduan Mountains.

Quality Counts

A lot of ancient Near Eastern trade was done under the facade of being gifts between pseudo-brothers, particularly during marriage negotiations, which could drag on for years. Most of what we know about this comes from the Amarna letters. Some of the most famous examples include very angry letters along the lines of "why did you try to send me such low-quality copper when you promised me only the best?"

Changing Fortunes

Located roughly between Yemen and Somalia, present-day Socotra is one of the most isolated places in the world. A thousand years ago, though, it was a major Indian Ocean crossroad where all sorts of things were traded — aromatics, spices, textiles, gems, glass, metal, slaves, grain, timber, etc. At least one man still lives in an island cave there; he's a fisherman whose wife lives in the nearby village.

Symbols of Stability

Stone houses are often a symbol of stable trade; for example, Swahili merchants knew when to expect monsoon wind shifts, which let them predict when dhow fleets would arrive and depart. This, in turn, made it safe to arrange for cargoes in advance, even if they needed to buy on credit or go into debt to do it.

Spice Speakers

The Banda Islands (also known as the "Spice islands" because they were a source of cloves, nutmeg, etc) were organized into communities led by rich men in relatively constant, violent conflict with one another. What's particularly interesting is that this constant state of low-level warfare didn't stop them from speaking with one voice when it came to trading with European colonial powers, for example refusing to grant any monopolies.

📗 If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy the edition that explores why the lactating egglayers do so well on their isolated island.

💚 If you learned something from this overview, consider forwarding it to a friend and encouraging them to sign up for more overviews of my research into obscure history and science.

💰 Do you have a favorite story about ancient trade? Please reach out — I'd love to hear about it, either via email or in a comment where other readers can see.

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