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Astrakhan and Orenburg were the Russian Empire’s two “official” entrances from Asia in the early modern era. Russia’s “Asia” was conceived broadly as the expanse of Eurasia from the Ottoman Empire to the shores of the Pacific. Russia’s control of the Volga River, culminating in the conquest of Astrakhan on the shores of the Caspian Sea in the 16th century, was intended to open direct access for Russia’s merchants to reach Asia. Throughout the 17th century, trade with the Middle East and Central Asia increased, followed by an important breakthrough in relations with China culminating in the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689. In the 18th century, Russia’s Asian trade increased; Astrakhan’s customs fees collected from Asian trade goods surpassed the revenue generated by Russia’s Baltic ports in the first half of the century. A growing trade with the Central Asian Khanates of Bukhara, Khiva, and Khoqand led to the creation of Orenburg as the entry point for overland trade from the steppe in 1753. In theory, the new outpost separated Russia’s “Asia” into separate zones for increased regulation: Astrakhan for goods arriving from the Caspian Sea, imported from Iran and India, and Orenburg for the increasing steppe traffic. This is not to suggest that increased regulation produced better control over Eurasia’s trade networks, but rather to reveal Russia’s significant investment in profiting from Asia’s trade as much as its competitors in Britain or the Netherlands did. While overland Eurasian trade remains plagued by a historiographical assumption of its decline in the 18th century, Astrakhan and Orenburg were vital centers of Eurasian commerce, revealing the robust overland trade that remained outside of West European observation.

Article

China’s history in the past one hundred to two hundred years has been full of dramas, changes, progresses, and setbacks. This article navigates China’s trial-and-error process regarding accepting incoming Western technology, trade practices, institutions, and ideology/cosmology, things that were genuinely attractive to the Chinese elite but were at the same time largely incompatible with China’s own age-old, well-entrenched, and highly functional traditions. This set the stage for a difficult birth for modernity in China in comparison with neighboring Japan, for example, despite the fact that most ideas of learning from the West originated in China before traveling to Japan. The more progressive party inside the Chinese establishment was made of enlightened individuals who understood the costs and benefits associated with learning from the advanced West. The real challenge came from the question of how to reduce the cost and thus tip the balance in favor of accepting good things from the West. Given that Qing China had a small and cheap Confucian state that commanded only a tiny proportion of China’s wealth, to build a larger state from within became the precondition for China to learn from the West, a point that has only recently been recognized with the rise of the progressive California School and the decline of the groundless Oriental Despotism Hypothesis. It has become clear that much depended on China’s domestic conditions and internal timing, rather than external persuasion accompanied with an increasing degree of political violence that stemmed from Western military supremacy. It is thus not surprising that the 1839–1840 Opium War merely woke China up while the 1850 empire-wide social unrest started to change China from within. What followed was a combination of state rebuilding and economic modernization with or without external threat, a national obsession that continued until Deng Xiaoping’s reforms after 1980.

Article

As early as the 1950s, a number of scholars in mainland China started to refer to the commercialization in late Ming China that appeared from the 16th century on as “the sprouts of capitalism.” Since 1990, ever fewer scholars use this term, but this does not that late Ming commercialization is not worth discussion; indeed, relevant research continues to accumulate. Considering the growth of agriculture, the expansion of long-distance trade, changes in the organization of the handicraft industry, material culture, and state economic policies, generally speaking, late Ming commercialization not only influenced the economy, society, and culture of the time but also the order in which the state prioritized interests in economic matters; its related policies also showed significant adjustments. Overall, these changes benefited merchants in that their property received greater protection. Furthermore, the phenomenon of late Ming commercialization provides another thought-provoking historical experience that contributes to a deeper understanding of the evolution of the market in the modern world.

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How did the introduction and spread of countless new commodities and their consumption shape modern Chinese history? The intersection of commodities and consumption provides the flipside to the better-studied history of production and underlies countless topics at the center of Chinese and world history since the 19th century, such as imperialism, trade, industrialization, revolution, social hierarchies, and the ascendance of China as a global manufacturing and export superpower. Consumption includes the introduction and spread of mass-manufactured consumer commodities, the proliferation of discourse about these goods in new forms of mass media, and an ongoing shift toward creating and communicating hierarchical social identities through the consumption of mass-produced commodities. While consumption is often viewed as an individual matter, one related to creating personal identities, a key theme that emerges throughout modern Chinese history is that the Chinese states and elites have long sought to link commodity consumption with ideas of patriotism and national strength, helping shape what it means to consume commodities right down to the present.

Article

The transformation from the open sea policies of the early Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) to the rise of the Guangzhou System was a process that took many years. It began with the capture of Taiwan from the Zheng family regime in 1683 and the opening of multiple Chinese ports to trade in 1684. Over the next four decades, Qing officials experimented with different ways of managing trade, and by about 1700, Guangzhou had emerged as one of the most successful at attracting foreign ships. The practices that were found to be most effective at maintaining control—while at the same time encouraging foreigners to return each year—were gradually incorporated into the city’s commercial policies. By the 1720s, all of the basic features of what came to be called the Guangzhou System were firmly in place. In 1757, the Qing government closed other Chinese ports to foreign trade, which guaranteed that Guangzhou would remain the center of commerce up to the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842.

Article

The export of silk products created a regional trade surplus for eastern Japan, centered on Tokyo. In producing raw silk, the people of eastern Japan created factories to lead rural industrialization. This regional trade surplus was used to fuel growth in the consumer economy of Japan, as it pushed western Japan, centered on Osaka, to develop its cotton industry. These two industries and the Yawata Steel Works in northern Kyushu transformed Japan from an agricultural country to an industrial country in the late 19th century. In this story, the role of government is both central and peripheral. Without the decision by the Tokugawa shogun’s government to open Japan to external trade, this development would never have happened. However, once Japan was opened to trade, the Tokugawa government did not do much to help the trade, while the Meiji government, though desirous of fostering trade, did not always succeed in its efforts. Ultimately, it was the producers and merchants, the people, who transformed the rural economy and the country itself.

Article

The history of Jewish merchants in the Indian Ocean trade is a story in two parts. Before the modern period the scarcity of surviving material and textual sources causes this community’s history to wax and wane depending on the place and the period. Historians are left to grapple with the question of whether such microhistories can be read as paradigmatic. After 1500 a plethora of documents and material remains allow a far more detailed history and analysis, as well as across an expanded area. Especially after 1700, Jews from Europe and the Middle East entered colonial flows, joining long-standing Jewish communities along India’s western seaboard and in the Yemen, and in time establishing new businesses across the Horn of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Far East. Academic research into these networks is sparse and quite dated until the colonial period, when a new wave of work integrating Jewish merchants into larger narratives occurred.

Article

Millions of Indians migrated internally within the British Empire during the 19th and 20th centuries. While some migrated as labor migrants, many others did so as merchants and other businesspeople. By the start of World War II, more than 200,000 Indians worked in trade outside of India. These merchants played key roles in the British Empire within India and the larger Indian Ocean economy. Several conditions facilitated and perhaps caused Indian merchant migration within the British Empire. First, precolonial Indian commerce continued and adapted to imperial trade patterns. Second, within India, British rule lowered transaction costs and opened markets. Third, British rule brought preferential access to British colonies outside India, access that was denied to merchants from outside the British Empire. Internal merchant migration within India shows the importance of distinct religious, caste, and linguistic groups, many of which were active before British control. Gujarati-speaking merchant migrants and Parsis were bulwarks of Bombay’s commercial class. Specific merchant communities migrated within trading networks across India as railroads connected the subcontinent. Outside India, merchants—often from these same groups—accompanied British expansion in Asia and Africa. In Burma and Malaya, Chettiars from the south formed banking and trading networks that tied these colonies closer to the Indian economy. Chettiar finance was crucial in the development of industry in both Burma and Malaya. Indian businesspeople dominated commerce in East Africa and played key roles in commerce. Indian businesses in Uganda developed local commercial agriculture and industry, and Indians in South Africa played a large role in commerce before legal restrictions reduced their involvement. Distant colonies in which indentureship was the dominant form of migration experienced a transition from labor to trade, with merchant migration playing a smaller role. These colonies do not fit the pattern of merchant migration seen in India and the larger Indian Ocean economy, but they illustrate the role of Indian tradespeople outside India.

Article

The building of the global oil industry in the Middle East served as the occasion for one of the largest political projects of technical and economic development in the modern world. Scholarship has long associated an abundance of natural resources such as oil with autocracy in the Middle East while overlooking the sociotechnical ways in which oil operations were built with political consequences for the shape of the state and the international oil corporations. The early period of oil development was marked by oil abundance up to World War I, when demand for oil started to increase rapidly with the invention of the internal combustion engine. The cheapest source of production was in the Middle East. From the perspective of the largest transnational oil corporations to emerge in this period, the energy system needed to be built in a way that demand and overabundance were managed. Oil industrialization enabled the production and large-scale consumption of this new and abundant source of energy but was also connected with striking oil workers and controlling or blocking processes of industrialization in rival sectors such as the coal and the chemicals industries. In the first three decades of the 20th century, the process was made possible through the building of an international oil economy that took the form of production quotas and consortium agreements to restrict new oil discoveries in the Middle East. Oil industrialization projects intensified after World War II due to a flood of petrodollars into OPEC countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Rising oil revenues and sovereign control achieved through oil nationalization triggered the execution of five-year development plans of industrial and infrastructural expansion. The birth of environmental activism in the 1960s–1970s coincided with the end of oil abundance and the fear of the planet’s destruction, spurring the passage of legislation to place limits on the hydrocarbon economy in which the machinery of oil industrialization had thrived.

Article

The Ottoman empire, which at its height stretched around the Mediterranean from Albania to Morocco, from Egypt in the south to Crimea in the north, and from Iran in the east to Hungary in the west, represented an enormous trading bloc. Its internal trade, which was always much greater than its external trade, consisted largely of agricultural products with some manufactures, in particular textiles, which were traded both locally and to distant parts of the empire. External trade was dominated by agricultural products, which were exported to the West, and manufactured goods such as textiles, carpets and ceramics, and the import of textiles from the West, silk from Iran, spices from the East, and coffee from Yemen. Many of these commodities transited through the empire. There was also a significant trade in slaves into the empire from the Black Sea region and from sub-Saharan Africa. Commerce, which influenced Ottoman conquest policy, brought considerable revenues to the state, and Ottoman rulers invested heavily in infrastructure to support trade and to protect traders. They also attempted to control commodity exchange, imposing trade embargoes, fixing prices, and establishing a system of provisioning. The expansion of the world market in the 19th century affected the nature of Ottoman commerce. The empire became an exporter of raw materials and importer of manufactured products. Controls on internal trade were removed, allowing foreign merchants to operate freely, and its markets were opened up to an influx of goods from Europe, in particular from Britain.

Article

The history of postwar development in the Middle East began with a commitment by states to achieving national economic growth, industrialization, and the provision of social welfare. After some early experiments, state-led development began to gather pace across the region in the mid-1950s. Although conservative and revolutionary states stood on opposing sides of the Cold War, many of them pursued remarkably similar paths of agrarian reform, industrial development, and state bureaucratization. By the 1970s, republics facing political and economic pressures began to abandon their “socialist experiments,” while the oil revolution empowered Gulf states on the regional stage, hastened the adoption of neoliberal policies, and helped transform the global financial system. Since the late 1980s, war, debt and austerity, and the expansion of Gulf capital and influence again transformed the Middle East by exacerbating regional conflicts, reshaping local economies, and fostering new forms of social, economic, and geographic inequality.

Article

Barbara Watson Andaya

Southeast Asia includes eleven countries, although this contemporary configuration disguises significant differences, especially in regard to religion and economic status. Theravada Buddhism is dominant in the “mainland” countries of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, while Vietnam is influenced by the religious and intellectual traditions of China, including Mahayana Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. In the “island” areas (Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, and Timor Leste/Timor Lorosae), the dominant faiths are Islam and Christianity (the latter a majority in the Philippines, Timor Leste, and parts of the eastern Indonesian archipelago), with Bali retaining a localized form of Hinduism. There are also marked economic differences. Singapore and Brunei are among the world’s richest countries, with Laos and Timor Leste among the poorest. Despite this diversity, a regional theme concerns the interaction between religious change and commerce. A chronological and comparative approach that moves from early times to the present day shows that ideas about relationships to the cosmos have developed in tandem with expanding commerce. Although this relationship has never been static, the aim of establishing a beneficial interaction with the supranatural world remains a basic human goal. During the 1st millennium ce the rise of new polities, combined with increasing overland and maritime trade, encouraged the adoption and adaption of incoming religions, notably Hinduism and Buddhism. The 13th century marks the beginning of a new phase with the spread of Theravada Buddhism on the mainland and Islam and subsequently Christianity in the island world. The commerce-religion nexus, though still present, is less evident from the mid-19th century to World War II, when all of Southeast Asia except for Thailand was under colonial control. From the late 20th century transnational trade has allied with religious resurgence, generating new and dynamic forms of engaging with nonhuman forces.

Article

Rudi Matthee

Safavid, Iran, was a modest economic player in West and South Asia in terms of population numbers, productivity, and resources. Yet its strategic location at the crossroads of Asia’s commercial arteries allowed it to punch well above its weight in terms of trade—especially trade in transit. The reign of Shah ‘Abbas I (r. 1587–1629) represents the high-water mark in this development. His forward-looking policies, beginning with his choice of Isfahan as Iran’s new capital and the subsequent resettlement of a large number of Armenians, expanded the ambit of the country’s commerce. Most importantly, he established a viable maritime alternative to the overland trade route by facilitating the maritime connection via the Persian Gulf, with the aim of depriving the Ottomans of revenue. In the process, Iran became more firmly connected to the wider Eurasian market, with commodities like silk and porcelain moving into the center of a hemispheric commercial network. In this, South Asia was clearly the regional “world economy,” manufacturing goods that were coveted by people all over West Asia and beyond, while the inhabitants of Europe, and to a lesser extent of the Ottoman Empire, Central Asia, and Russia, functioned as consumers who were generally forced to pay for their tastes and desires with hard cash.

Article

Regine Spector and Aisalkyn Botoeva

Since 1991, commerce and trade in Central Asia have changed significantly. Prior to 1991, Soviet Central Asia had been incorporated into centralized production, distribution, and retail networks, and regional borders were formally closed to many outside products and exchanges. Upon independence in 1991, these integrated production, distribution, and supply chains collapsed, and the new Central Asian countries—to varying degrees—liberalized their economies and opened their borders to flows of goods and people. Domestic manufacturing and production slowed dramatically. Citizens of these countries initially turned to barter and trade of basic consumer goods as a survival strategy to feed themselves and their families in the midst of evaporating wages and disappearing jobs. While traders forged regional and global trading networks connecting local villages and cities in Central Asia with manufacturing and re-export hubs in China, India, United Arab Emirates, and Turkey, among other places, over time, the new post-Soviet elite gained ownership and control over lucrative bazaar land, cargo companies, airline agencies, and other logistics nodes. Soviet-era roads and railways initially dominated trade networks; later, airline routes and new land-based infrastructure built through intergovernment agreements and international development projects afforded new commercial possibilities. China became one of the central nodes in trade networks for consumer goods and has invested significantly into building regional infrastructure, while Russia has remained an important supplier of hydrocarbon and other commodities. Amid these changes, self-understandings of trade have shifted; for example, as Soviet-era stigmas against trade have receded, religious-based and other moralities condoning trade have ascended. While commercial activity was a significant survival strategy and served as a launch pad for other businesses in the region, trade and commerce patterns have been subject to financial crises, political upheavals, and border closures in the 1990s and 2000s, and in 2020, to a global pandemic, illuminating the precarity of reliance on trade and commerce in contexts that do not otherwise have robust state-based social support mechanisms.

Article

Since the seminal publication of Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence (2000), there has been a continuing upsurge of writings on the possible reasons behind the rise of the West from a “global perspective.” Most of these studies focus on comparisons between Western Europe and China. Yet, in recent years works on India and the great divergence have followed suit, taking up research questions that have not been as prominent since the proliferation of debates on the subcontinent’s pre-colonial potentialities for capitalist development in the 1960s and 1970s. As of now, the paucity of quantitative data complicates endeavors to compare pre-colonial India with Europe and explore the underlying reasons behind the great divergence. Case studies examining the socio-economic history of a number of South Asian regions are still needed in order to conduct systematic comparisons between both advanced and underdeveloped regions of the subcontinent and those of Europe. The existing evidence, however, suggests that some of the "core areas" of 16th- to 18th-century India had more or less comparable levels of agricultural productivity, transport facilities (during the dry season), military capabilities in terms of ground forces (e.g., Mysore and the Marathas), commercial and manufacturing capacities (especially in textile, ship, and metal production), and social mobility of merchants (e.g., in Gujarat). Moreover, Indian rulers and artisans did not shy away from adopting European know-how (e.g., in weapon and ship production) when it redounded to their advantage. On the other hand, South Asia possessed some geo-climatic disadvantages vis-à-vis Western Europe that also impeded investments in infrastructure. India seems to have had a lower degree of consumer demand and lagged behind Western Europe in a number of fields such as mechanical engineering, the level of productive forces, higher education, circulation of useful knowledge, institutional efficiency, upper-class property rights, the nascent bourgeois class consciousness, and inter-communal and proto-national identity formations.

Article

Southeast Asia’s colonial ports often supplanted early trading emporiums within Asia, and by the 19th century a number of ports played important roles in European imperial networks, making them significant hubs not only regionally but also in global networks. Such ports included the British-administered Straits Settlement of Singapore, Penang, Malacca (now more commonly referred to as Melaka); the Dutch-administered Batavia, Semarang, and Makassar (in the Java Sea); the French-administered Saigon; and the Spanish (later American) administered Manila (in the South China Sea). Importantly, some of these ports had earlier histories as trading emporiums, but reached a highpoint of connectivity with global networks in the 19th and 20th centuries. These colonial port cities were not only hubs for trade and travelers but served as gateways or imperial bridgeheads connecting maritime centers to the peoples and economies of the port hinterlands, drawing them into a global (imperial) economy. The economic, political, and technological frameworks in colonial ports served to reinforce European control. Colonial port cities also played a role in knowledge circulations and the introduction of technologies, which changed transport and modes of production and urban planning. The colonial port cities of Southeast Asia were also important in terms of the strategic defense of European interests in the region. Regarded as entry points for technology and colonial capitalism, and often modeled with elements of European aesthetics and design, port cities could also be sites of urban development and planning. The development of residential enclaves, ethnic quarters, and commercial districts served to shape the morphology of the colonial ports of Asia. Colonial port city communities were oftentimes regarded as important sites of cultural exchange and hybridity. These port cities were often built on existing indigenous trading centers or fishing villages. Cosmopolitan in nature, and open to the movement of trading diasporas, port cities served as entry points for not only commercial communities, but in the 19th century saw the increased movement of European colonial administrators, scientists, writers, and travelers between ports. Another important influx was labor (convict, indentured, and free) throughout Southeast Asia’s ports. By the early 20th century, colonial ports were sites of new intellectual and social currents, including anticolonial sentiment, in part driven by the circulation of news and press and also, by diasporic community influences and interests. Following World War II, many colonial ports were revived as national ports. By exploring the colonial port cities of Southeast Asia along a number of themes it is possible to understand why scholars have often described the colonial port city as a “connecting force” (or bridgehead) linking ports and port communities (and economies) to the European imperial project and the global economy. An examination of the colonial port city of Southeast Asia offers scholars the potential to bridge numerous historical fields including, but not restricted to, imperial history, Southeast Asian history, maritime history, urban and sociocultural histories, and economic and labor histories.

Article

Southeast Asia has been a critical nexus of the economic interactions between the Indian Ocean, China Seas, and the Pacific Ocean littoral. Trade and commerce developed from the early first to late second millennia involving shipping and commercial networks both within Southeast Asia and from further afield. Accompanying these networks were the region’s port cities, which held these networks together, pulling the subregional networks of trade and commerce into one regional economic sphere. The nature of trade and commerce was affected by the different ecological and economic zones of Southeast Asia. This in turn affected the types of products that were traded and the communications links that connected the different subregions to the outside world. In addition, economic interactions with regions further afield and the geopolitical changes that these regions underwent also determined the types of products that flowed into and through Southeast Asia, as well as the way in which commerce was conducted.

Article

Amar Farooqui

For more than a hundred years, from the end of the 18th century to the eve of the First World War, opium was the main commodity exported from India to China. During most of this period, it was the second largest source of revenue, after land revenue, for the British Indian Empire. The article was sold for narcotic use in the Chinese market. Opium was produced in Gangetic eastern and northern India, and the central Indian plateau region of Malwa. The produce of the former zone was a monopoly of the colonial state. The production, processing, and sale of the drug was directly controlled by the government. Malwa was entirely under princely rule. Princely states were administered indirectly, had a measure of autonomy, and were subject to the overall authority of the British. Indirect rule made it difficult for the colonial government to regulate the opium trade of central and western India effectively. It pursued a different policy with regard to the opium produce of Malwa, permitting transit of the commodity for export from Bombay on the payment of a duty. The worldwide campaign against the opium trade that gathered momentum in the late 19th century contributed to the decline of the trade. Between the first decade of the 20th century and the end of the First World War, the British withdrew from the trade. International agreements for drug control led to rigorous imposition of restrictions on production and sale, terminating official involvement in the export of opium other than that for medical use. This brought to an end the career of Indian opium as a major colonial commodity.

Article

Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) consists of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, East Timor, and the Philippines and was the midway point in the vibrant East–West international maritime trade route that stretched from Europe, Middle East, East Africa, and South Asia to its west; and China, Ryukyu, Japan, and Korea to its east. The favored stop was along the Straits of Melaka, a calm haven protected from the force of the northeast and southwest monsoon winds. The stream of traders in the Straits enabled local ports to develop into international port cities, whose inhabitants created mixed communities and cultures: commodities were re-fashioned or re-packaged into hybrid forms to accommodate the distinctive tastes of different groups, while frequent and lengthy sojourns by traders resulted in liaisons that produced mixed offspring and cultures. Enhanced economic opportunities encouraged mobility and establishment of diaspora communities in the littoral. More sinister were the forced mobility through wars and slavery that produced reconstituted ethnic communities and new ethnicities and identities in the early modern period (c. 1400– c. 1830s).

Article

Although the political and military aspects of Japanese imperialism have received ample attention from historians, other dimensions of the country’s expansionist experiment with total war have been left largely untouched. Nevertheless, technologies of “soft” power played a very substantial role; in many ways, they predated and prefigured many of the repressive and militarist hallmarks of Japanese expansionism. Gold standard adoption, for instance, was directly related to Japan’s geopolitical positioning. It was a tool for projecting financial power abroad and establishing enclave economies in the colonies, for example through the creation of gold-exchange standards, the direction of the colonies’ central banks and financial institutions, and so on. Nevertheless, the adoption of the gold standard was not an aim in itself. It was a means to a yet higher end: the very establishment of the yen as a “vehicle currency” comparable to the British pound or, after World War I, the American dollar. For that reason, policymakers in Tokyo fostered distinctly mercantilist ideas about trade and, in particular, the share of Japan’s banking institutions and the Japanese yen in financing international trade and settling international trade transactions. The institution in the vanguard of this project was the Yokohama Specie Bank (hereafter: YSB), a bank with the explicit mandate of insuring trade among regions or countries on different currencies and, by extension, different metals (gold and silver). Soon after its creation in 1879, it was made to team up with the Bank of Japan (hereafter: BOJ) and put in charge of the international aspects of the country’s financial and monetary policy. In that role, 1. It financed the bulk of Japanese imports and exports. 2. It collected specie, part of which was added to the BOJ’s currency reserve. 3. It underwrote Japan’s sovereign loan issues. 4. It represented the BOJ abroad. 5. It even issued currencies in Japan-occupied territories before and during World War II. In view of its controversial role in Japanese imperialism (especially because of point 5), the General Headquarters of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) ordered its dismantling in 1946. Its assets were transferred to the newly formed Bank of Tokyo. Although it is still heavily understudied in both Japanese and Western languages, it is key to understanding in the vanguard of Tokyo’s expansionist economic project(s)