The World-System(s) of the Indian Ocean

Christopher Chase-Dunn and Teresa Neal

Institute for Research on World-Systems

University of California-Riverside

v. 2-16-18; 4869 words

Forthcoming Hommage to Philippe Beaujard to be edited by Delphine BURGUET, Sarah FEE and Samuel F. SANCHEZ. This is IROWS Working Paper #123 available at


Finding a systemic relationship of trade and exchange in pre-modern times helps to establish a theoretical framework for studying world history and sociocultural evolution that is de-centered from European hegemonic history. The comparative evolutionary world-systems perspective does this a priori by analyzing small, medium and large whole human interaction networks to describe and explain the evolution of complexity and hierarchy in human societies and in interpolity systems (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997; Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2016). Conventionally the cases used for purposes of comparing whole world-systems focus on places where large settlements and polities first emerged (Inoue, et al 2012; 2015), but it is also useful to start by focusing on whole world regions such as the Indian Ocean. Influenced by Fernand Braudel’s study of the Mediterranean, K. N. Chaudhuri adopted a view of the Indian Ocean as a place where climate, geography, and the “everyday lives of people” merged to form a cohesive unit of analysis (Chaudhuri, 1985). The study and comparison of regions, especially seas and oceans, has a long pedigree in social science and world history. It focuses our attention on how small localized interaction networks expanded, merged and became fused into larger multicultural systems.[1] Studying the Indian Ocean as a world region provides a valuable jumping-off point for examination of how a great expanse of water containing islands and surrounded by important land-masses was the locus of the emergence of complex societies, their interactions with less complex societies and the development of large-scale multicultural interaction networks based on communications, trade and migration, diplomacy and warfare (Alpers 2009, 2014). Continental land masses surround the Indian Ocean, and, except for Antarctica, each has its own story of the evolution of human social complexity and hierarchy.  The Indic subcontinent (South Asia) pokes down into the Indian Ocean from the North, giving it its name, but in this multi-polar system, eastern Africa, the Islamic sultanates, Persia and China along with South Asia, drove systemic interactivities of trade, communications and political/military engagement.

The works of Philippe Beaujard make unique contributions to our knowledge of Afro-Eurasia and the Indian Ocean as well as to the processes of systemic expansion (and contraction) that have been going on since the emergence of horticulture. Beaujard’s insightful analyses of world-systemic issues such as core/periphery relations (2005; 2010) provide illuminating insights. His magisterial world history of the Indian Ocean[2] (2009, 2012, 2018) follows and was inspired by his earlier close ethnohistorical studies of East Africa and Madagascar where, over the last several decades, he has done ethnographic field work.  His world-systemic theoretical approach has produced a detailed summary and analysis of how local social structures have been influenced by the diffusion of biota, long-distance trade and migration.  And he proposes an insightful account of the rise of Neolithic and Bronze Age systemic interaction networks with special emphasis on the importance of long-distance trade for both reproducing and transforming social structures. His analysis of the importance of Indian Ocean luxury trades confirms the tradition in the anthropological literature that theorizes about prestige goods economies (Schneider 1991; Peregrine 1991),[3] but he also notes that the long-distance diffusion of important bulk goods crops, such as bananas, imply that prestige goods traders also carried bulk goods on their long voyages (Beaujard 2009; Robertshaw 2006). Beaujard also focusses on communication networks and the diffusion of religious ideas that generally followed trade routes. And he contends that core, peripheral and semiperipheral polities co-evolved with one another despite interpolity exploitation and domination.

Small Worlds in the Indian Ocean

Before the emergence of long-distance traders in the Indian Ocean there were very small world-systems. Nomadic foraging peoples moved in seasonal migration circuits and, before the emergence of horticulture, Mesolithic diversified foragers began living in winter villages, the precursors of sedentism. The emergence of planting allowed villages to be larger and small-scale trade and warfare networks linked shore-living fishing peoples with inland hunters, forming local interpolity spatial divisions of labor that were not hierarchical (Tosi 1986).  Shore-living peoples used boats and they expanded coastal exchange networks that connected regions with different resources. These world-systems were small because transportation and communication technologies were good enough to systemically link polities to their neighbors and the neighbors of their neighbors, but the effects of these interaction networks fell off as the down-the-line exchange connections became more indirect. As settlements got larger, longer distance trading across land and along coasts expanded these   networks.  As Beaujard (2009) recounts, it was in the early Bronze Age that cities and states emerged in Mesopotamia and then later in the Indus River Valley. The emergence of long-distance maritime trade connecting the core regions of Mesopotamia with the Indus (Harrapan) cities provided an opportunity for specialized trading states such as Dilmun (Bahrein) (Bibby 1969) and led to the development of larger and lighter plank-sewn ships (Alpers 2014:22). Dilmun may have been the first semiperipheral capitalist city-state (Chase-Dunn, Anderson, Inoue and Álvarez (2015)




Dilmun in Sumerian cuneiform script

While Philippe Beaujard’s periodization of the rise of Afroeurasian and Indian Ocean interaction networks is based on a thorough review of the recently available evidence on trade and diffusion, it may be fine-tuned in the future as new evidence emerges from archaeological and genetic studies. This said, his approach is far superior to that of the “ancient hyperglobalists” who depict a single global system as already existing in the Paleolithic Age. Several eminent scholars have claimed that there has been a single global (Earth-wide) system for millennia (Lenski 2005; Frank and Gills 1994; Modelski 2003; Modelski, Devezas and Thompson 2008, and Chew 2001, 2007). Beaujard and Janet Abu-Lughod (1989) have agreed with Immanuel Wallerstein that, as we go back in time there were multiple regional whole systems that should be studied separately and compared. The ancient hyperglobalists are correct that there has been a single global network for millennia because all human groups interact with their neighbors and so they are indirectly connected with all others. But this ignores the issue of the fall-off of interaction effects mentioned above. When transportation was mainly based on individuals carrying things on their backs or in small boats, the effective size on systemic interaction networks was small.

 Frank and Gills (1994) contended that there had been a single global system since the rise of cities and states in Mesopotamia, though later they admitted that the Americas were largely disconnected from Afroeurasia before 1492 CE.[4] They also raised the important issue of the evolution of modes of accumulation, claiming that there had been a “capitalist-imperialist” mode in the Bronze Age with alternating periods in which tribute-taking and market based profit-making had been predominant (see also Ekholm and Friedman 1982). While it is important to understand that capitalism only became a predominant logic of accumulation with the rise of the West, the insights from those who see continuities with Bronze, Iron Age and early modern processes of commercialization and state formation are also useful.

A System of Balances

Indian and Indonesian commerce made the Indian Ocean a very busy place from the Roman Empire times on. The Roman Empire had a huge spice trade from India and Indonesia.  India and Indonesia had huge voyaging and trading enterprises. East Africa was explored by Indonesians during Roman times, and Madagascar was colonized from Borneo and other Indonesian islands by 500 CE. 

Related imagePhilippe Beaujard’s view of the medieval Indian Ocean network can best be characterized as a system of balances and uneven development that included upwardly mobile semiperipheries. Just as the merchant ships on the Indian Ocean were balanced between luxury goods cargo and bulk goods ballast, the entire system, with its co-evolutionary core/periphery relationships, was balanced between utilitarian trade and prestige goods (see also Chaudhuri,1985: 203-204; Neal 2014). Beaujard (2005) makes good use of the semiperiphery concept in his study of the emergence of world-systems in the Indian Ocean. He found interesting instances in which the emergence of regional settlements that connected hinterlands with core areas were facilitated by the presence of merchants and religious elites who were migrants from core regions (2005:442). His study of the emergence of unequal exchange between the coastal East African Swahili cities and the interior of the East African mainland notes that immigrants from the Arabian core helped to form commercial ties, intermarried with local elites, and converted locals to Islam, thereby promoting a process of class-formation that led to the emergence of semiperipheral polities along the coast. Beaujard (2005:445) also affirms the idea, which is asserted in the literature on semiperipheral development (Chase-Dunn et al 2015) that important institutional and technological innovations often occurred in semiperipheral polities.

When formerly disconnected regional networks became linked with one another, cycles of urban and polity growth tended to become synchronized (Beaujard 2005, 2010; Lieberman 2009). Philippe Beaujard (2005) contends that core, peripheral and semiperipheral polities co-evolved with one another despite interpolity exploitation and domination. Strong and direct political/military systemic links tended to emerge later than systemic links based on trade.  Alexander of Macedon conquered part of the South Asian subcontinent but, after the subsequent Greek states were expelled, there was only sporadic direct political/military interaction between the Mediterranean interpolity system and the South Asian (Indic) system of states until the Portuguese established colonies in South Asia in the sixteenth century CE. David Wilkinson studies and spatially bounds interaction networks in which states are engaged in warfare, diplomacy and alliances with one another.

Wilkinson has estimated the time periods in which smaller state systems (interpolity systems) became strongly and permanently linked with one another (Wilkinson 1986). The larger state system that was formed when the Mesopotamian and Egyptian state systems merged around 1500 BCE is called “Central Civilization” by Wilkinson, but he is talking about a system of fighting and allying states. Regarding the incorporation of the South Asian (Indic) state system into the expanding Central state system, Wilkinson does not count the Alexandrian conquests in India because that linkage was temporary.  The South Asian state system was again temporarily connected to the Central system in CE 1008 when Mahmud of Ghazni conquered North India.  Wilkinson (forthcoming) says: “I feel the need to re-examine connections, especially the Central-Indic connection, with respect to three sorts of cases: 1) temporary connections like Alexander's that lasted longer than his (some fuller sense of the distribution of the durations of connections seems needed);  2) Central invaders/conquerors of Indic who then moved their political base into Indic; and 3) whole peoples (Yuezhi?) who pulled up stakes and moved between civilizations, thus decolonizing  their old home and neocolonizing their new (e.g. Indic) abode, and perhaps disconnecting from a former network while making new political connections.”  His conclusion is that the South Asian state system did not become tightly and permanently connected to the Central system until Britain and France established colonies and eventual control over the South Asian subcontinent in the 18th century CE.  The sixteenth century incursions in India by Portugal are not seen by Wilkinson to have been geopolitically systemic, though a plausible case could be made that the establishment of Portuguese India (Estado da India) did constitute a long-lasting and consequential connection between the Central and South Asian geopolitical systems.

Indian traders ranged far to the East toward “Indochina” and island Southeast Asia. Even though Brahmins were theoretically forbidden to travel overseas (to avoid pollution by contact with foreigners), many did. Wheatley (1975) described the Indianization of Southeast Asia by traders and priests, the latter imported by local rulers to sanctify the creation of divine kingships. The main stimulus that spurred Southeast Asian state formation was trade with Indian merchants. This was not tributary exchange or reciprocal gift-giving.  Indian merchant entrepreneurs brought highly valued goods across the sea to trade for scarce metals and forest products that the local economies could provide. Control over access to the Indian goods enabled local leaders to organize redistributive states and provided the motivation for increased production for exchange in the overseas trade. The multicentric nature of the Indian ocean trade network made commerce competitive.  Both Indian and Chinese core areas traded with the Southeast Asian periphery, and important groups of trading middlemen emerged. Specialized trade diasporas developed to service the local bulk sea trade (Curtin, 1984) while Chinese and Indian merchants kept the importation of core commodities in their own hands (Meilink-Roelofsz 1962).

Indian Ocean and Southeast Asian city-states and some larger states sometimes specialized in trade, and the maritime shipping routes and choke-points provided ample opportunities for piracy, but the relatively successful regulation of trade in the Chinese trade-tribute system discouraged the emergence of strong and successful semiperipheral capitalist city-states. Malacca, a regional Chinese ally, was a partial exception. This is an important difference between the Eastern and Western trajectories of economic development. The east commercialized, but states with capitalists wielding state power did not emerge their (at least until recently).

It is now more generally recognized that the science of international relations should compare the Westphalian system that emerged in Europe with other state systems to examine the extent to which structural processes such as the balance of power are similar or different across systems (e.g. Wohlforth et al 2007).  Philippe Beaujard discusses power relations as imbricated in unequal economic exchange and religious hierarchies, but a full comprehension of the Indian Ocean world-systems can also benefit from a focus on geopolitics. George Modelski’s (1964) discussion of the nature of the Indic state system during the Mauryan Empire, based on texts attributed to Khautyla, Chandragupta Maurya’s political advisor, portrays a system in which horizontal (equal) relations between states was a theoretical impossibility. This was an obstacle to the formation of alliances and it inhibited the operation of the balance of power mechanism, though ideological formations and the formalities of diplomatic institutions were often overlooked or side-stepped in practice.

Chase-Dunn Manning and Hall (2000), comparing the sequence of the rise and fall of large polities in South Asia with East Asia and the Central interstate system, noted that the Indic sequence was distinct in that, after the fall of the Mauryan Empire, there was a long hiatus before the rise of another sub-continent-wide empire in South Asia (so-called Indic Exceptionalism).[5]  

Ravi Palat’s (2015) comparative study of economic and political evolution considered the ways in which regional differences based on the social and political characteristics of wet-rice agriculture interacted with other historical forces to produce political-economic outcomes in the Indic sub-continent. Palat’s original research on textual evidence from the Vijayanagara Empire supports the idea that the class structures and state organizations of South Asia were importantly shaped by constraints (and opportunities) imposed by the nature of agricultural production –rice cultivation. Palat also contends that nomadic incursions were important factors shaping the Indic class structure and he contrasts the different histories of Europe, India, China, Japan and Southeast Asia in terms of the structural implications of different agricultural and incursion histories. He concludes that these factors caused the South Asian development of a world-economy without developing full-on capitalism. Palat’s examination of how commercialization had different causes and effects in Europe and Asia corrects Immanuel Wallerstein’s dismissal of “preciosities” as inconsequential, agreeing with Beaujard in this respect. Palat makes a convincing case that the emergence of the Indian Ocean world economy was the outcome of the confluence of rice-cultivation with a military surge of nomads during a time of metal coinage scarcity. This produced a more integrated commercialized but non-capitalist world-system from 1350-1650 CE.

Palat’s study also invites consideration of the contentious issues regarding Eurocentrism and coloniality that continue to rile the waters of social science and world history. A good overview of the issues of Eurocentrism, post-structuralism, post-coloniality and subaltern studies is contained in a review symposium on Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital organized by Ho-Fung Hung (2014) (with valuable contributions by George Steinmetz, Bruce Cumings, Michael Schwartz and Bill Sewell). Though it has been beaten hard for decades, the big horse that is Eurocentrism continues to provide inspiration for new rejections of the heritages of European social science.  Afro-centrism, Sino-centrism, South East Asia-centrism; Third Worldism, Indian Ocean-centrism and Islam-centrism have challenged the claimed universality of Eurocentric social science. Many of the anti-Eurocentrists provide corrections to the stories told by Eurocentrists or seek to give the “people without history” a voice. But some try to assert an alternative universalistic social science to replace the discarded Eurocentric universalism. Dependency theory and the world-system perspective emerged in the 1970s as efforts to overcome the Eurocentrism and core-centrism of modernization theory, but they too have been disparaged as Eurocentric. Vivek Chibber’s spirited defense of a class struggle, point-of-production version of Marxism provides an entirely plausible explanation of class politics in India in response to the subaltern theorists who contend that Indic civilization cannot be comprehend by theories developed to explain class struggles in Europe. Chibber’s critique provides a useful distinction between those aspects of social science theories that erroneously assume that European institutional and cultural characteristics are universal from those that well-describe and explain non-European social change. Cosmocentrism provides a stance for scientifically making such distinctions (Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2014: 206-207), and an alternative to throwing the baby out with the bath. Philippe Beaujard’s contributions to the comparative world-systems perspective carry the ball far down the field toward a cumulative science of human social change.


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[1] For the study of both sociocultural and biological evolution, islands in the middle of large bodies of water such as the Indian Ocean are natural experiments because of their selective histories of invasive species and relative isolation from external influences (Kirch 1984; Singh 2003).

[2] A translation to English of Beaujard’s work on the Indian Ocean is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

[3] The model of prestige goods systems usually posits a situation in which elites reproduce their own prestige and control by monopolizing the importation of prestige goods that they use to reward subalterns. But the function of prestige goods exchange is different in less hierarchical systems in which prestige goods are used to facilitate interpolity exchange that allows polities to obtain food during periods of scarcity, substituting for raiding (Chase-Dunn and Mann 1998:141-146).

[4] But if we read Frank and Gills as studying the important continuities of the regional systems that emergeed in Mesopotamia and Egypt their analyses of core/periphery (which they call center/hinterland) relations are quite valuable.

[5] David Wilkinson (1996) has coded the changing power configurations of the Indic state system in 10-year intervals from 550 BCE to 1800 CE.  He does not find an unusually low degree of hierarchy (multicentricity) on the Indian subcontinent, but support for the Indic exceptionalism hypothesis is found in the studies of largest cities and states in India (Inoue et al 2012; 2015).