Ivory box made in Sri Lanka for King of Portugal
Ivory box made in Sri Lanka for King of Portugal

Sri Lanka is essentially an island and is advantaged by having an excellent location at the crossroads of many of the international sealanes. In the Indian Ocean few countries can boast of a better location, close to some of the fastest growing countries in Asia, the world economic powerhouse and to other regions such as the Persian Gulf, Africa and Oceania.

This idea of being a hub has always been deeply ingrained in the psyche of the Sri Lankan people and has indeed shaped the island’s history and its world view.

In today’s global context, many outside observers see the Sri Lankan population as being very cosmopolitan, adaptable, tolerant, and capable of absorbing concepts and ideas from many parts of the world - a truly globalized people.

Records of foreign travellers

Historically, this openness to the outside world had resulted in considerable wealth from trade with the region and beyond. There is considerable evidence from the discovery of ancient Chinese porcelain, from coins and other objects and the records of foreign travellers such as Pliny, Ptolemy, FaHien, Ibn Battuta and Marco Polo, that the island interacted commercially with Ancient Greece, Imperial Rome, the Arab caliphates, imperial China and Sassanian Persia.

The large quantity of these objects found in the island has led many observers to theorize that Sri Lanka was indeed an entrepot for trade with much of the ancient world. As a trading nation Sri Lanka enjoyed considerable wealth which is visible in the form of stupas barely less tall than the great pyramids of Egypt, gigantic irrigation tanks and palaces, which were no doubt built with the exports of trade in spices, ivory, elephants, peacocks and even steel.

However to understand this wealth it is necessary to really see Sri Lanka not in isolation but as part of a highly complex trading system connecting countries and cities in Asia and beyond.

Regional trading community

In many ways there are modern parallels as we currently seek to develop the country as a logistics hub and to connect it successfully to the global supply chain.

This idea of a regional trading community connecting countries and resulting in the sharing of knowhow, technology and indeed of ideas is the subject of a very fine exhibition that this writer was privileged to view at the Museum of Asian Civilizations in Singapore.

The exhibition which is titled “Port Cities” deals with the emergence of trading hubs in the Asian Region.

The cities in question featured in the exhibition included not just Temasek, (the old name for Singapore) but also a number of cities dotted throughout Asia such as the booming Chinese port city of Xiamen, which this writer also visited recently, and linked together through an extensive and highly complex network of international trade.

What make these cities distinctive was not just their location which are highly strategic but also their wealth, their very cosmopolitan culture and non-typical environment.

Ethnically speaking they are booming markets that acted as gathering points where Chinese, Malays, Indian, Arabs and later Europeans were actively engaged in exchanging goods through trade. However the exhibition focused not just on the trade of goods but also examined the exchange of knowhow and ideas. It would be correct to say that the Port Cities are among the first megapolises.

One characteristic of the port cities was the emergence of populations of mixed ethnicity with very distinctive hybrid cultures, cosmopolitan ideas and also what could be considered a global world view.

Western maritime powers

The port cities of Asia had an ancient history but they would undergo major upheavals with the emergence in Asia of the western maritime powers: the Portuguese and Spanish followed by the Dutch and the British.

From being on the periphery of the trading system and essentially traders seeking to bring back to Europe rare spices and other treasures, the European powers would through superior military technology and a ruthless exploitation of local divisions, emerge as the key players in the trading systems through colonialism.

In spite of this they would still have to contend with the elephant in the room, Asia’s oldest culture and leading power, Imperial China.

Interestingly in those times, like today, the Middle Kingdom was the centre of production of consumer goods and was undoubtedly the cornerstone of the trading system. These goods such as silk, porcelain and tea were traded to the known world through Asia’s port cities. And only China seemed capable of meeting the growing demand.

In fact Imperial China even produced goods aimed at different, distinctive markets. There were porcelain goods with western designs that went to Europe, while others with Arabic calligraphic inscriptions were shipped to Asia’s other global power, the Ottoman Empire and porcelain decorated with Persian miniatures found their way to the Savafid Empire.

This was proof of the existence of a highly sophisticated the market but also of one where the products reflected the fusion of different cultures.

This rich mixing of style and cultures was not restricted to products from China.

One exhibit of interest to the readership of this article is an exquisite carved ivory chest, made by Sinhalese craftsmen but in a European, Christian style. The object, which was part of the exhibition, had been the personal property of the King of Portugal.

Hence it would be correct to say that many of the ideas which we have about developing Sri Lanka into an economic hub, of strengthening her links to the leading markets of the world through a comprehensive network of Free Trade Agreements or even for that matter China’s ambitious One Belt One Road Strategic initiative to integrate Asia, Africa, the middle East and Europe in a modern day silk route, have historic origins that go back to the very early times when port cities traded acted as meeting points for many cultures which traded in spices, tea and porcelain and exchanged know how and ideas. 

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