Acceleration and Assurance: Why the Indian Ocean Shiptracks are the Opposite of the Eurasian Wheeltracks

Pamela Kyle Crossley

Critiques of the notion of a “maritime silk road” are well-developed and have established that not only was there no Silk Road on water, but there was no Silk Road anywhere as it had been imagined by nineteenth century Europeans. Yet point by point comparisons of the Indian Ocean to a reified “Silk Road” avoid discussion of why the Indian Ocean shiptracks were essential and transformative, in a way that land travel across Eurasia had never been. I will consider that commerce over land was made profitable by the strategic expenditure of time, as stopping points increased sales and profits; credit and security were built upon the idea of intermediate extraction along the route. Shipping commerce, by contrast, was based upon the strategic conservation of time, while credit and security were probabalistic ventures focussed on an endpoint. The land system was a product of the development of communications across Eurasia, and the ocean system was a force shaping the concepts, values and economic epistemologies from the Middle Ages on.