Gift and Tribute in Early Modern Diplomacy: Afro-Eurasian Perspectives

Birgit Tremml-Werner, Lisa Hellman and Guido van Meersbergen

Gifts and tribute are a hot topic in studies of early modern diplomacy, resulting in much stimulating new work on diplomatic exchanges particularly in a global context. The special issue “Gift and Tribute in Early Modern Diplomacy: Afro-Eurasian Perspectives” expands on this ongoing shift towards a global, multicentric perspective by using gift-giving as the lens through which to analyse a diverse set of inter-polity relations spanning the continents of Africa, Europe and Asia. It illuminates the role of gifts and tribute as key agents in imperial expansion, conflict management, and the negotiation of protection and patronage in different parts of the world. It also emphasises that to achieve a truly global perspective on the development of diplomatic norms and practices, concerted collaborative analysis from scholars with different linguistic, disciplinary, and subject expertise is needed.

The idea behind the special issue developed over a multi-staged process of dissemination and collaboration. Already in 2015, Lisa and Birgit – then as postdoctoral researchers in Japan, exposed to an enormously stimulating scholarship on pre-modern foreign relations and surprised by the lack of cross-cultural and inter-disciplinary dialogue – began to plan to bring historians of Europe and Asia together. Whilst the workshop held at the University of Tokyo in December 2016 tried to approach topics of intercultural diplomacy beyond conventional time frames, it became obvious that there was a strong case to be made for studying diplomatic processes and inter-polity relations in the period before 1800. Thus, when Guido, Lisa and Birgit gathered in Berlin in summer 2018 the idea was born of a network for future project collaboration among historians studying diplomatic exchange in the early modern period beyond a single region and beyond a unified set of practices. Diplomatic gifts seemed the most fruitful common ground to start engaging scholars from different research agendas. A few months later we presented our ideas at the New Diplomatic History Conference in Middelburg and in December of the same year we organized a small workshop in Venice.

Following the global turn in the history of diplomatic relations, the special issue of Diplomatica discusses early modern examples of Afro-Eurasian foreign relations. All examples have a long-distance dimension, or to use Zoltán Biedermann’s term, are cases of ‘transcontinental diplomacy’. The special issue raises a variety of novel aspects, stressing two major aspects: it portrays the truly global nature of diplomatic exchange between the fifteenth and the late eighteenth century, and rethinks the functions of gifts by addressing them under five headings representing a range of common functions: vessel of authority, vehicle of commerce, lubricant of relations, agent of conflict, and sign of submission. 

Rémi Dewière’s article demonstrates how the Borno Sultanate of present-day Nigeria was both commercially and diplomatically linked to the wider Islamic world all the way to the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Using the analytical category of gifts, Dewière shows that through these networks of exchange distinctive commodities including Christian slaves and Chinese porcelain moved across the Sahara and beyond. These examples moreover underline the overlapping monetary and symbolic values of items presented, a common characteristic of most diplomatic gifts at the time.

Two articles in the issue address the global diplomatic network of Habsburg Spain. These diplomatic episodes also have a religious dimension. Ruben Gonzalez-Cuerva’s study reveals the role and type of gifts in Spanish exchange with non-Christian powers from Asia and one that was a multi-sited process of negotiations staged in Europe, Mexico and the Philippines. He argues that gifts were used to project a hegemonic image of the Spanish king. Zooming in on the involvement of the sultanates of Ternate, Tidore, Aceh, and Johor, Jose Miguel Escribano-Páez proposes to understand material objects as part of a Southeast Asian system of tributary relations – in which the Spanish actions were often motivated by their rivalry with other European trading nations. The Moluccan sultans integrated diplomatic exchange in the all-encompassing spice trade, thus turning cloves into gifts or tributes that facilitated but also complicated negotiations with the Portuguese and Spanish.

Guido van Meersbergen’s article details how in the seventeenth century the English East India Company (EIC) became incorporated into a system of material and symbolic exchange with the Mughal dynasty and local Mughal powerholders. He argues that the Mughal dynasty expressed hierarchical relations through gift-giving and that religion played a subordinate role in these processes. His contribution emphasizes how the Mughal rulers controlled their relations with the EIC through a mutual discourse of service and protection, with East India Company agents duly acknowledging their inferior position as ‘Intirely the Kings Vassalls’ through rhetorical addresses and material exchanges.

Highlighting gift-giving as a widely shared and broadly translatable practice in Afro-Eurasia, the different examples introduced in the special issue showcase the importance of adopting a global perspective on the development of diplomacy in the early modern period. As Christian Windler suggests in the issue’s afterword, the ‘polysemy of the gift’, that is the capacity of material transfers to carry multiple meanings that could productively co-exist, helps explain why gift-giving so often facilitated diplomatic relations despite real differences between the partners involved. This is not to smooth over such differences, or the tensions and conflict that gift-exchange could also engender. Indeed, we suggest that future scholarship will need to look deeper into the conceptual frameworks and terminologies that informed early modern actors’ plural, shifting, and contested understandings of political relations and the role of gift-giving in shaping them. The articles in this issue will doubtlessly encourage further discussion on the different repertoires of managing interactions between political entities across the early modern world.