Waves of Prosperity: India, China and the West — How Global Trade Transformed the World
by Greg Clydesdale (Hachette New Zealand, $39.99)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan
Greg Clydesdale, a lecturer in business at Lincoln University, has written a comprehensive account of global trade from the seventh century to modern times. The book is a monument to the extent of Clydesdale’s reading, as evidenced by the copious footnotes and a lengthy bibliography.
Clydesdale identifies some key underlying factors accounting for the rise and decline of successive trading empires. Prosperity increases when people specialise, for example, separating the farming of silk worms from the making of the cloth. With specialisation, people become better at their tasks and hence more productive creating surpluses to trade and sometimes the potential for mass production. Specialisation requires co-operation and appropriate infrastructure and hence a degree of political stability with support for, or at least tolerance of, international trade. Successful innovation is a key driver for newcomers (sometimes preceded by imitation) or for continuing dominance, particularly in shipping, navigation, and the means of production. The ability to raise capital is another factor.
I found the level of detail about people and places in China (the world’s most prosperous country for some 800 years, with a sophisticated bureaucracy) and Gujarat (heart of the Mughal empire) rather overwhelming. Many of the places mentioned were not on any of the book’s three maps: it is a pity there were not more of them. One claim that is not sourced is that Marco Polo’s thirteenth-century account of his travels to China was the most widely read book in Europe in the Middle Ages. One wonders how it compared to the Bible, admittedly mainly read only by clergy. Nevertheless Marco Polo’s book was clearly very influential in alerting Europeans to the fact that China was a vast, progressive, prosperous country and enticing voyagers like Columbus. The extent of Gujarat’s international trade, especially in the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, was a revelation to me. These chapters are a useful reminder that even by the “Age of Discovery”, Europe was not as dominant in the world as many of us had assumed.
Once the story reached Europe, I enjoyed it more, as I had sufficient historical knowledge to place the information in context and cope with the numerous people and places mentioned. The progression of trade dominance in Europe from Italy to Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and Britain is well known and Clydesdale draws attention to some key reasons why this occurred, such as the Dutch, and later British, innovations in shipping; and of course the Industrial Revolution. But given the book’s size (360 pages) and its broad scope, it is surprising that he does not deal with the Hanseatic League, nor even mention why he does not do so. The later chapters on Japan and the United States also put Europe in perspective.
If you are interested in world history, have a basic knowledge of the subject and can avoid getting bogged down in detail, you will find a lot to admire in this book.