Essay

Sunset ports on the new trade routes

WHEN ERNESTINE HILL, the pioneering Australian journalist, visited what she called the "ports of sunset" on the West Australian coast in the 1930s, travelling rough with her swag and typewriter, she encountered bits and pieces of Australia's maritime history that have since largely been overlooked. For when it comes to the geopolitics of Australia's oceanic surrounds, the Indian Ocean is lapping at the less-significant back door of the national imaginary, while for the east-coaster, every new day dawns over the Pacific, the sun shining from the direction of our all-important easterly neighbours.

"From 1907 to 1914, Whim Creek," Hill writes of a Pilbara port, "with hundreds of employees, shipped 50,000 tons of oxidised copper ores to London in the Singapore ships and its own fleet of three-masted barques." And further south, at Carnarvon, she walks on the jetty, "a mile and a quarter in length, [where] five or six ships a month call, to carry away the loading of the six-ton wool trucks, and sandalwood from the desert, that is shipped to the East from Fremantle ..." Here she spies "the weirdest vehicle imaginable, a railway trolley with a mast and sail, tangible evidence of a faux pas of long ago. When the Singapore ships are in, this sober little truck heaves up her square of canvas and, to the amazement of onlookers, goes sailing along the jetty, gay as a pearling lugger in the south-easter, to scatter the seagulls and come to her moorings in the railway yards beside the respectable freight engine."

Well before the roads were built to "open up" Western Australia, the ports were there, extending the colony from Fremantle to Wyndham. The trade was local, to be sure, but the main wealth was gained through the export of minerals, as well as pearl shell from Broome, horses for the Indian army from Australind, jarrah sleepers for railways and, more recently, live animals. The volume of this trade is not the point, and it was certainly exceeded by the other states; the point is that Australia has a history of cultural and trading links to the earlier-established colonies on the Indian Ocean. These ports linked Australia to Calcutta, Madras and Singapore in the early days of the colonies, so that we weren't all that isolated. Geoffrey Blainey's famous "tyranny of distance" depended on the cultural myopia that created the anxiety of separation from a far-distant "home" in Europe. This was hardly a problem if your last home was India, or if you were used to going backwards and forwards on one of those Singaporean ships from Western Australia.

The foundations of my argument lie, however, in the pre-colonial Indian Ocean. This thesis is based on global economic history and suggests a geopolitical reorientation: that Australia's place, in terms of proximity and the weight of demography, is more logically south Asian than it is Pacific; India's population is more than a billion, China's is 1.3 billion, South-East Asia and Indonesia are home to another four hundred million people.

In the future, this geopolitical logic may be underpinned by an economic network that is less in thrall to the "free-trade" rhetoric of the northern global corporations and more interested in an "alternative" global economy of this region, a global economy that harks back to the only one worth speaking about before the rise of the European empires. The Indian Ocean was the nexus of Chinese and Indian trade and a generator, as they were wont to say, of "fabulous wealth". Such wealth can be knocked for a six when a tsunami strikes, or when resources are exhausted, suggesting the need for a new economic order that embraces the significance of cultural and natural value. Few of the current discussions link the economy to the environment. As China and India are congratulated for opening up to world trade, their natural resources are treated as global raw material, and as if they are not already tied up in peasant 'eco-nomic' systems.

 

IN THE PRE-COLONIAL period, India was the centre of an inter-regional world system, in the sense that Emanuel Wallerstein used the term. For the Arab world and East Africa from the west, and South-East Asia and China from the east, India was the intersection of trade, the imaginary of wealth borne on the waves of the Indian Ocean. This imaginary was eventually shared by Spain and Portugal, and realised in the most concrete way by Vasco da Gama's arrival at Calicut in 1498 and his aggressive demand for a trade monopoly there.

The "fabulous wealth" of the East became less legendary and more attainable, however, when Spain pursued this centre of trade, India, via a western route and unexpectedly bumped into the Americas. Because of this, says Enrique Dussel, "The entire medieval paradigm enters into crisis ... and thus inaugurates, slowly but irreversibly, the first world hegemony. This is the only world system that has existed in planetary history, and this is the modern system, European in its centre, capitalist in its economy."

With the precious metal wealth extracted from the Americas, Europe was able to buy its way into the Indian Ocean market and start working towards the "northern" hegemony we know today. Once much poorer than India, and perhaps more driven and less complacent, these European maritime states would cleverly continue to combine military power with trade as they competed with each other and forced new trading relationships, thus inaugurating the great European colonial period and the annexation of lands all over the world. Now that this period is over, and world capitalist hegemony is becoming more evenly networked, the Indian Ocean is re-emerging as a trading bloc. In the wake of the East Asian surge, even a tiny Indian Ocean country, Mauritius, a free-trade zone, can dub itself hopefully as a "little tiger". Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) countries contributed about ten per cent each to world exports and imports over the past decade, economists of the Australia South Asia Research Centre report. The figures for current trade with Australia are minuscule compared with the Indian Ocean of the 1400s when China and India together accounted for more than half of the world's gross national product (GNP). Even as recently as 1820 – in the middle of the colonial period – China accounted for 29 per cent of the global economy and India for another 16 per cent. Today China's share of the global economy is about five per cent and growing rapidly.

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn have written of the great Chinese admiral Zheng He (originally a Muslim captured as a boy) in China Wakes (Random House, 1995). Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng He led seven expeditions, commanding the largest armada the world would see for the next five centuries. The fleet included 28,000 sailors on 300 ships, the longest of which were 120 metres, majestically ploughing the waves with nine masts carrying red silk (by way of contrast, Columbus 50 years later had three ships, each about 25 metres, and only 90 men). Zheng He travelled to East Africa to trade for ivory, spices, medicines and exotic wood. He was probably not interested in trading with a backward Europe with only beads, wine and wool to offer. Paris probably had a total population of about 100,000 in the fifteenth century, while Guangzhou in China appears to have had twice as many foreign residents: Arabs, Malays, Indians, Africans and Turks, evidence of very early merchant diasporas. In 1986, excavations in Guangzhou unearthed the remains of a large Hindu temple of the Yuan dynasty. The archaeologists who made the discoveries referred to this era as one in which "people from every country lived in harmony ... [and] made great contributions to the prosperity, economy and culture of Quanzhou".

 

WHERE DOES AUSTRALIA stand in relation to this history? We were never part of the old global economy of the Indian Ocean, except for the limited indigenous trade with Indonesians and Chinese as Regina Ganter described in "Turning the map upside down" (Griffith REVIEW 9Up North). Australia's trading orientations started off strictly colonial, and only in the latter half of the twentieth century did Australia begin to acknowledge the autonomy and significance of Chinese and Indian markets.

Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, these two countries are rivals in the computer and software industries and as the global factory supplying manufactured goods to a world of greedy consumers; they talk up their co-operation in terms of a new "Asian century". When, in April 2005, they settled a long-standing border dispute and signed an agreement designed to double trade over the next five years, the rest of the world began to take notice. As global attention focuses on the importance of China and India and concern about climate change mounts, pursuing an alternative economic model becomes more pressing.

Last year, the Pakistani foreign minister and the Indian commerce minister visited Australia, and the chairman of China's National People's Congress pursued a free-trade agreement. Prime Minister John Howard travelled to India in March 2006 and there have been numerous state and federal trade missions focusing on information technology, minerals (Western Australia), tourism and creative industries (Queensland), and coal, tourism and creative industries (NSW). In 2003-04, Australia-India bilateral trade was $5.86 billion, an increase of more than 50 per cent over the previous year. As journalist Geoffrey Barker has noted: "The trade opportunities in both countries [China and India] mesmerise the Federal Government."

The population of South Asia, led by India, will soon exceed the ageing population of China; India has a huge middle class that is attracting Australian exporters. The Australian diplomatic mind-set will have to change, to accommodate a realisation that Australia can be part of the return of Asian economic power. This could make the colonial period of the seventeenth to the twentieth century look like a temporary interruption in traditional global trade.

In 2001, the Economic Analytical Unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade released a report,India: New Economy, Old Economy. Its analysis shows that, while India was only picking up just over one per cent of Australian merchandise exports at that stage, growth in trade had been increasing by about twelve per cent a year, so that India moved from Australia's twenty-fifth to twelfth largest export destination. The pace has since accelerated.

Pitched in the language of neo-liberal economic reform, this report is addressed to businesses wanting to get in on this market. It is a challenge that has been accepted and is the new focus of corporate expansion. The neoliberal language is nothing new, being another northern ideological product that both India and Australia have come to share. It has effectively lubricated the gears of Indian business exchange ever since the country floated its currency exchange (devaluing the rupee) in 1991 in response to a serious balance of payments deficit. At that moment, India seriously went global, opening the economy to international trade and finance, and reducing export tariffs and regulations.

This is the context in which India has embraced the global economy. It is a second wave of reform, because the post-independence period saw the subcontinent modernising with a series of Soviet-inspired five-year plans. In the 1950s and 1960s, India sought assistance from foreign investors to gear up its industries for global competitiveness. As India played a supporting role in the global power struggle of the Cold War, its economic capacity was overlooked in the West, which continued to focus expansionist dreams on China. Now that China has become an indispensable part of the global economy, the factory of the world, attention has switched to India. The scale of the domestic market, the capacity to integrate with the global economy and the importance of fostering a (democratic) regional counterweight to China have combined to restore India at the crossroads of global trade. It is being restored to its traditional role.

 

THE DIFFERENCE IS that the emerging power of India is occurring at a time when a new paradigm of trade is emerging, one that values the local and seeks a balance with natural resources. The development of South Asia has the potential to pull these strands into the development mix in a way that has not happened before.

An example from the Goa-Kerala areas on the south-west coast of India, of the fishing industry, demonstrates this potential. The compiler of the activist sourcebook on Goan ecology, Fish Curry and Rice(Goa Foundation), Claude Alvarez is anti-global through long experience, and forceful in his support of local traditional practices. For instance, with the "mechanisation" of fishing in the regions, of a total population of 1.3 million in the state of Goa, he estimates that 50,000 people make a living from fish harvesting on the hundred kilometre coastline. But he notes that when the West started to "help" in the early 1950s by increasing the fish catch with new technology, the real motive may have been to create a market for the technology.

The West is not the only villain for Alvarez, who identifies an ideology of mechanisation enshrined in the gospels of Indian development policy – the famous Nehruvian five-year plans. But he concludes the whole exercise was disastrous. Even the Indian Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute shows a much greater return on investment for peasant fisheries than for mechanised fishing with trawlers. So Alvarez's strictly local activism means he can't, or won't, factor in macro-economic pressures associated with globalisation and reform. It is hard to trade off the national need to be in the global economy by devaluing the rupee and going for export markets against the need for locals to continue a peasant economy.

This contradiction played itself out in local politics as fisherfolk opposed the introduction of power boats and trawlers with mass rallies and alternative candidates. While many mobilised to save their livelihoods, others got into the trawling business. In terms of the management of coastal cultures, mechanisation was a monoculture mentality: a massive technology harvesting one product in which any fine-tuned interchanges between coast and hinterland were irrelevant. Perhaps the era of the peasant farmer quietly trading rice for fish on the coast is over, as the people by the beach in Goa rent out shacks to the huge numbers of foreign tourists coming each year. But the tourists, too, must eat, and even if the best fish and shrimp find their way to their tables at inflated prices, the local ecology is under pressure. Indeed, fish stocks in the whole of the Indian Ocean are declining to the point of crisis, like they are in the North Sea, where sustainability strategies are now firmly in place.

Sustainability is not something that most official economic reports factor into their calculations of wealth. Partha Dasgupta, professor of economics at St John's College, Cambridge, on the other hand, helps us think about the relations of economies to ecologies grounded in local places, not floating free in the abstracted realm of reform policy as dictated by corporate globalism: "Economists ... have moved steadily away from seeing location as a determinant of human experience. Indeed, economic progress is seen as a release from location's grip on our lives." In this context, the macro-economic story contradicts the local stories about the love of homeland, as well as travellers' tales about the beauty of place. Each story is told about some "good" (value), crafting a narrative of a place that is in some sense algebraic; a set of calculations working towards a positive outcome, that values production and place. Dasgupta wrote in the New Statesman in November 2003: "Economic statisticians interpret wealth narrowly. Wealth should include not only manufactured capital (roads and buildings, machinery and equipment, cables and ports) and what is nowadays called human capital (knowledge and skills), but also natural capital (oil and minerals, fisheries, forests and, more broadly, ecosystems). I use the term 'inclusive investment' for this broader definition of wealth and contrast it with the narrower scope of 'recorded investment'."

The logic of natural capital is one of complexity and interconnectedness, and this logic is destroyed by the imposition of the grid pattern of ownership of parcels of land, where the "free services" provided by nature, as in a stream flowing through a number of properties, or the bounty of the sea, do not enter into the calculations of economists. He writes: "Those who destroy mangroves in order to create shrimp farms, or cut down forests in the uplands or watersheds to export timber, are not required to compensate fishermen dependent on the mangroves, or people in the lowlands whose fields and fisheries are protected by the upland forests. Economic development in the guise of growth in per capita GNP of improvement in the Human Development Index can come in tandem with the decline in the wealth of some of society's poorest members. Rural communities in poor countries recognised the local connectedness of nature's services long ago and devised mechanisms to cope with the problems created by it. A pond or woodland is a system of organic and inorganic material, offering multiple services. This feature of ponds and woodlands makes them unsuitable for division into private property."

Dasgupta, by adding another variable ("nature's services") to the formula for an inclusive calculation of wealth, comes up with a result that contradicts the misplaced optimism about the rise of wealth in developing economies. India, for example, is supposed to be growing at a healthy 2.3 per cent of GNP a head – on Dasgupta's figures – but on the inclusive calculation the average Indian is getting poorer at a rate of half a per cent each year. The warming of the Indian Ocean, with its effect on reefs and fish, has produced an immediate reduction in natural capital. This is going beyond the simple reduction in fish stocks; the crisis is pushing the ocean into an unfamiliar eco-system.

Future trade should sensibly see itself as sustainable, passing on to the next generation at least the "wealth" we still cling to. Economists and business leaders henceforth should invite a new partner to the summit talks, to make nature a signatory to the contract, as French philosopher Michel Serres advocates in his book The Natural Contract (University of Michigan Press, 1995).

 

THERE IS A fairly recent post-humanist philosophy where man more modestly assumes a less central philosophical position in the world. European Enlightenment, though, had man looking up to a singular god, and down to lower species and to nature. In the central and mediating position, between god and nature, he embarked on a global adventure, a forward-marching triumphant modernity. But now nature – or rather 'natures' in the plural -are arguing back, putting forceful arguments about the finitude of resources. Suddenly, the value of local places, villages and streams, coasts and islands, comes to the fore. "Are our thoughts, until recently rooted exclusively in their own history, rediscovering geography, essential and exquisite? Could philosophy, once alone in thinking globally, be dreaming no longer?" Serres asks.

I take my cue from him and seek to integrate value as a cultural and economic term. It is worth bearing in mind that both Australian and Indian thinkers – philosophers and economists – can, and have already, thought outside the "box" of the European Enlightenment, and can embrace both the traditional peasant farmer's concerns and the notion of "alternative modernities". In traditional Indian Ocean trade, commodity value is obviously crucial, and it governs the movement of goods.

The trade in ivory is a stunning case study. Ivory was in abundance in Africa in the pre-colonial period. It was not treated as a precious substance. Resistant to termites, it was used for palisades or cattle yards in villages. This meant that traders from India could do good business, distributing ivory in the then global economy centred in the Indian Ocean, where it would be transformed into a luxury item, worth many times its original value. So a natural material, abundant in certain areas, is converted through the addition of cultural value into a precious material. Now a new set of values asserts itself via the argument that is put by elephants, so to speak, through their human advocates. The arguments trumpeted by the suffering elephants are about sustainability and ecological balance in Africa. By integrating the concept of value, cultural values (an appreciation of the beauty of a carved ivory artefact or, conversely, the compassion for elephants criminally slaughtered) need not contradict or compete with the corporation's need for profit. The corporation and its shareholders must be convinced, though, about the unsustainability of a purely exploitative relationship with nature where the value flows only one way and is assumed to be limitless.

Another example, as I try to rejig the system of values in this narrative of a natural contract, is to think again about competition, which is taken to be "second nature" in business. Indeed, let us admit that here, too, in the "culture" of business, there is also "nature", for in a post-humanist perspective it is far from productive to have strict separation between cultures and natures as if only the former can act, while the latter is passive, unadaptive and without its own histories.

In early Indian Ocean trade, the peaceful practice of the Jains and Banians has been noted by the historians, who have also gone on to point out that the Europeans brought another kind of configuration to trade when they started to blockade ports to force monopolies: their ships had cannon. Henceforth, trade competition was a war, and it still is (as in Iraq, with oil, an inert substance, but a major player). "If we move from war to economic relations," says Serres, "nothing notable changes in the argument."

After the economic battles have been waged, with all of their waste and inefficiency, a contract might be signed between the warring parties to divide the remaining spoils. But nature is only just starting to be present as a signatory to this social and economic contract.

The tsunami in the Indian Ocean is a case of the natural at its most forceful and catastrophic. Normally, the ocean is known and "read" by its coastal peoples in its complex, chaotic and rhythmic patterns. The deep knowledge of monsoons, currents and tides has underpinned a living for millennia for the peoples now unceremoniously ousted from the coast by tsunami and tourism developers.

The ocean literally connects us to our north-western neighbours. The connection was made compassionately by many Australians at the time of the tsunami and may help shape future relations as Australia takes its place in a new global trading order. As the international studies commentator and academic Anthony Burke has commented: "On maps the oceans are crisscrossed with borders, but their liquid depths have no concept of them, and nor do the earth and atmosphere with which they form a dynamic system ... The oceans that connect us – especially in times of desperation and tragedy – show us the way forward. Our fates are linked; let's make a better fate, a common fate."

Let us hope that the compassion towards suffering can also moderate and refine the language of politics and commerce, so that these, too, can include a much greater measure of the health of living things and the environment, creating a wealth that can be shared and passed on. 

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review