Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Jorge Flores on The World of Port Cities

European University Institute history professor and Vasco da Gama chair Jorge Flores visited Abu Dhabi this week to deliver one of NYUAD's public lectures. It was more of a reading, as he read from one of his texts, occasionally stopping to briefly comment or contextualize. The topic, titled "Between Hormuz and Malacca, circa 1600: The World of Port-Cities", was the major ports of the Indian Ocean - specifically Portuguese-held or -frequented ones - in the 1600s or thereabouts.

Flores began by talking about the perception of the era itself; noting that associating it with any one nation or faith was not appropriate, he emphasized the diversity of peoples plying the trade routes around the ocean. He spoke of the role of coffee and spices in driving the trade, and provided examples of cultural cross-fertilization, such as sacred cows and paan-chewing in Hormuz, and the fad of Persian-influenced attire taken up by the Siamese king (minus the turban).

We were treated to a lot of slides of old maps, engravings and illustrations, depicting the layouts of and lives in the old port cities. Some of these included visual poetry, the attempts of contemporary artists to portray the strange and novel things they saw to their people back home.

Flores spoke of the Portuguese arc of Hormuz, Goa and Malacca being clipped by the former's fall to the Anglo-Safavid alliance, and the latter's fall to Dutch-Johor alliance. The Inquisition among Portuguese communities in the Indian ocean was relatively subdued, due to local sensitivities. Still, there were (often valid) concerns back in the homeland that living abroad for long periods while exposed to foreign ways would change the merchants and those they took with them.

Eventually, the competition among the various port cities vying for the traders' patronage got so intense that a sort of meritocracy emerged, wherein the talented could find employment in even high places regardless of race or creed. Portuguese buccaneers even participated in the regional piracy scene. Their maritime prowess (and dependency) was so well-known that, as Flores described, they were thought of as being practically a nation of born sailors. As far as other Asians farther east were concerned, they were, variously, Malaccans, Indians or even "white Bengalis" - a testament to their integration into the trading culture around the Indian ocean.

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