We tend to believe that commerce between Asia and Europe began with the creation of the Silk Road. Prof David Abulafia argues, instead, that trade between the two continents goes further back in time than the Mongol Empire, to 250BC. At that time, merchants from the Persian Gulf traded with the Meluhha civilisation based in the Indus Valley.

The Ancient Greeks and Romans learnt how to navigate during the monsoon season and sold wine to Indians while bringing back spices. Later on throughout the Middle Ages, maritime republics such as Amalfi, Venice, and Pisa sprung and imported spices from Sumatra, Chinese silk and luxurious commodities from the East African Coast. Depending on the balance of power at the time, this luxurious trade would pass either through the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea.

Despite significant political and social upheavals, such as the fall of the Roman Empire and the Black Death, Abulafia noticed “a remarkable degree of continuity” in levels of trade. Peoples continued to exchange goods via sea and land routes and new trade centres appeared. Contrary to Lila Abu-Lughod’s claim that commercial links were restored with the Pax Mongolica, Abulafia believes that trade remained constant during this period.

Furthermore, traders were not the only individuals who encapsulated a globalised vision of the world. Travel writers from the 13th Century wrote fascinating accounts about their trips, and Arab geographers, such as Al-Idrisi, who described the world and included China in their observations.

This interconnectedness also manifested itself in migration patterns. This can be illustrated with the city of Aden which had a tremendously mixed population composed of Arabs, Hindus, Africans and Jews. Additionally there were Chinese communities in Sumatra, Java and the islands of Japan; some Arab traders had established themselves in Zanzibar while Malays were lived in Madagascar.

Yet the globalisation that existed at the time had limits; there was no spread of institutional models or global norms. Abulafia stressed that institutions remained local and traders tended to resolve conflict of interests within their communities and through religious courts.

We can speak about a global system, Abulafia concluded, even though the extreme ends of the trade routes, the Mediterranean and the South China Sea, rarely met. The sea route was “divided into sections, but they closely related to one another”.


Lecture Transcript

About the Speaker

David Abulafia is Professor of Mediterranean History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College. Professor Abulafia's interests embrace the economic, social and political history of the Mediterranean lands in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. His most recent book, The Great Sea, published by Penguin, explores the history of the Mediterranean from 22,000 BC to AD 2010. In 2011 Professor Abulafia received the Mountbatten Literary Award from the Maritime Foundation for this book, and in 2013 he was awarded a British Academy Medal for the ‘landmark academic achievement' which the book represents.


  • Mettlesome Merchants and Rapacious Rulers, by Stephen Clarke, 3 March 2015 (View)
  • A Global Transition: From the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, with David Abulafia, 15 May 2014 (View)

About the History of Capitalism Series

This series of lectures, which forms part of the Legatum Institute's 'The Culture of Prosperity' programme, investigates the origins and development of a movement of thought and endeavour which has transformed the human condition. Capitalism's characteristic emphasis on freedom of trade and market expansion has encouraged social mobility, global exploration and intellectual curiosity. Wherever and whenever it has appeared across the world's continents capitalism has undermined monopolies, economic protectionism and restrictive practices. Our lecturers will therefore be assessing case studies in business history and the individual biographies of thinkers, writers and inventors as well as describing particular periods in the histories of cities, states and nations. Further information available here.