The presence of Africans in Asia and their migration around it is one of the least-studied subjects in all of Asian history. The same is true for studies of the African diaspora, but that does not mean that African migration lacks significance in either field. Existing scholarship reveals that Africans traveled to and settled in various regions in Asia, from the Arabian Peninsula to Nagasaki. While there were free African migrants in Asia, a larger number of them arrived as slaves, transported there by both local and European traders. Conditions for the forced immigrants varied and not all of them remained permanently un-free, with some even eventually coming to obtain political power. To understand their dispersal and presence in Asia does more than simply broaden our current understanding of the African diaspora; it also enables us to understand that the African diaspora is a global phenomenon. That improved understanding can in turn break down the geographical boundary of Asian history and connect it not only to African history but to European history too. To do that, the topic requires scholars to challenge the methodological limits of current historical studies.
African Diaspora in Asia
Chinese Buddhist Travelers: Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing
When Buddhism started to become part of religious life in China from the 1st century ce onward, the Chinese were confronted with several peculiar aspects of the first major foreign religion that took root in their century-old culture. They had to come to terms with the fact that the religion had been founded by an individual in distant India as clearly expressed in the different versions of the Buddha biography, but also with the constant and sometimes confusingly contradictory and apparently incomplete stream of Buddhist texts from India that were translated into Chinese. While Indian and Central Asian monks arrived in China very early and transmitted Buddhist texts and practices, Chinese monks from the 3rd century onward started to actively search for Buddhist texts, new teachings in the “Western Regions,” the ancient Chinese name for all regions lying west of the cultural or political boundaries of the Chinese Empire, which also included India. Some of them also wanted to visit and see the sacred places in the homeland of their religion in India in order to gain religious merit or to study Buddhist doctrine and practice in the monastic centers of learning in the “Middle Region” or Magadha, the heartland of Buddhism in the Gangetic plain. Although it is not clear, due to the lack of historical sources, how many of these Chinese monks, much less frequently Buddhist laymen, took the risk of the perilous journey through the deserts and across high mountain passes of Central Asia or across the ocean, there must have been hundreds of them between the 4th and 11th centuries. A number of these died during their journey while others decided to stay in India, the “Holy Land” of Buddhism. Some of those who returned to China left records about their travels or of the information they had gathered about the “Western Regions.” The most famous of these monks are Faxian (trav. 319–413), Xuanzang (trav. 629–645), and Yijing (trav. 671–695). The three monks represent the different routes taken by Chinese travelers to South Asia: Faxian went via the land route (Silk Road) and returned by sea, Xuanzang made both trips by the overland route, and Yijing traveled by the sea route via Southeast Asia. While Faxian’s and Xuanzang’s records are a kind of documentary description of the different regions they traveled through or heard about, mainly reporting on the situation of Buddhism, Yijing’s two reports comprise an anthology of Buddhist monks who had traveled to India in the second half of the 7th century and a record of Buddhism as practiced in India and on the Southeast Asian archipelago. The records and their translations had a strong influence on the emerging fields of South and Central Asian history and archaeology in the 19th century when most of the translations of the relevant texts were made.
Afghan Circulations in the Persianate World, c. 1000–1800
This article traces the movement of Afghan peoples across the Persianate world between 1000 and 1800 ce. Afghans rose to prominence with the rise of the Delhi Sultanate, the first Muslim-ruled polity in northern India. Over the following centuries Afghans moved throughout the Persianate world, a region stretching from the Ottoman territories in the west to the courts of Southeast Asia and as far north as the trading center of Astrakhan. In the territories of what is now the modern nation-state of Afghanistan, a series of Muslim dynasties, including the Ghaznavid (c. 977–1186) and Ghorid Sultanates (c. 1011–1215) as well as a Timurid court based in Herat (c. 1405–1507) and regional representatives of the Safavid and Mughal Empires, were all led by Turkic, Tajik, and other Turco-Mongol lineages. It was not until the 18th century with the Durrani Empire (c. 1747–1842) that an explicitly Afghan-led government came to power in Afghanistan itself. Instead, the main focus of Afghan society and activity was centered within the Indian subcontinent and its mountainous northwestern frontier. As with many other premodern communities, Afghans built their careers around mobility. From humble origins as pastoral-nomadic peoples based in the Sulayman Mountains and their environs, they built careers as peripatetic merchants and as soldiers, ruled as kings, and traveled India’s highways and byways as mendicants. Afghans also became specialists in frontier zones, cultivating relationships across cultural and political frontiers that helped to facilitate integration across regions. Their political interests were informed by their economic interests, and many moved fluently between roles as merchants and as courtly and military officials. Afghans served and eventually ruled the Delhi Sultanate, became nobility within the Mughal Empire and organized its opposition, and established regional centers of Afghan power across the subcontinent. At the end of the 18th century, it was the rising influence of the British East India Company authority and their efforts at controlling the circulation of peoples, ideas, and materials that eventually marginalized Afghans in Indian society, reconstructing them as outsiders.
Early Medieval Bengal
In the early medieval period (6th–12th centuries), diverse terrains of South Asia experienced the rise of regional political powers and the socioeconomic development that would later culminate in the formation of regions. Bengal was no exception and saw the plural strands of historical changes and developments, intertwined with each other. In terms of political process, the first phase of the strand consisted of the rise of subregional kingships after the collapse of Gupta rule in the mid-6th century and the growth of subordinate rulers under them in the subsequent centuries. It was followed by the emergence of regional kingships of the Pālas and the Candras traversing several subregions and the enhancement of their powers in relation to subordinate rulers in the period between the mid-8th century and the mid-12th century. The last phase was the integration of almost all the subregions under the Senas, with stronger control over subordinate rulers and rural society in the second half of the 12th century. In terms of social change, the emphasis was on the hierarchization of land relations from the cultivation of moderate plots by the family labor of peasant householders to the management of large landholdings with layers of overlapping land rights, of which the bottom consisted of actual cultivation by agrarian laborers. Social change also came about through the organization of hereditary occupational groups and the systematization of their mutual relations toward a jāti order. The growth of brahmins as a group—by establishing a clearer identity and imposing their authority in social reorganization—constituted another pillar of the historical process. Political and social processes conditioned, as well as were conditioned, by the economic processes of agrarian expansion and the commercialization of rural economy, which proceeded in the subregions of Bengal in different forms and paces.
Kachchhis in East Africa
With a distinct geographic setting encompassing the vast grassland of Banni, the white salty desert expanse, hilly mass, and a long coastline, the northwestern Indian region of Kachchh is a place of spellbinding landscapes. People residing in such a light-rain region are exposed to diverse cultures and distinctive ways of life, beliefs, and practices. Alongside a vast and diverse expanse on the northwest, Kachchh has a maritime history determined chiefly by centuries of deep-sea sailing and trading experience in the Indian Ocean. The mercantile age of this mystic region reached the height of its glory in the late 18th and 19th centuries. But way before such a fascinating historical stage was set, there was the process of transforming a geographically complex region to the most commercially connected state through the métier of the sea. This land, with its close links to the sea and to the rest of India in the mid-16th century, was brought under the centralized administration by the Jadejas. Ever since its inception, the Jadeja rule contributed to the entrepreneurship and the growth of trade through a wide range of policy measures including building up ports such as Mandvi (c. 1581). Being aware of the agricultural disadvantages, in different ways the state facilitated entrepreneurism and exploitable opportunities. In the 18th century, the rise of the new merchants of Mandvi coincided with the rise of Omani imperial expansion to East Africa: both groups exploited the shifts in their favor. The initial Omani reliance over the budding Kachchhi capital not only nurtured the rise of Muscat but also the ambitious East African expedition. The Omani inroads into the Swahili coast accelerated the trade between Kachchh, Arabia, and East Africa. As a result, the Portuguese intervention in the early 16th century in Asian trade paved the way to new patterns of commerce. Those who benefited the most from these inviting developments and major shifts in western Indian Ocean patterns were Kachchhis: by this period they had successfully established closer commercial ties with Muscat and Bombay. Also in this opportunistic time, the increase of the Omani interest at Zanzibar helped the entrepreneurs from Kachchh to retain the existing commercial ties and develop substantial commercial relations with East Africa. The increasing Kachchhi presence also threatened the dominant position of the traders, especially from Diu, as their trading activities on the east coast became quite noticeable from the 1820s and 1830s. Yet emergence of Mandvi as a significant port of trade and shipbuilding center during the declining importance of Surat in the mid-18th century set the stage for the Kachchhi mercantile activities in the western Indian Ocean. Kachchhis intensely exploited the early expanding coastal commerce in the region and managed to divert the flow of the trade from Zanzibar to Mandvi and Bombay by the early 19th century. The common element among these merchants was their close mercantile association with the expansive Bombay harbor. This kept the Bombay-based merchants of various communities commercially connected with the Kachchhi enterprise in East Africa. Without their commercial synchronization the Kachchhis would not have secured their commanding position overseas. In return, the Kachchhi entrepreneurs’ overseas commercial connections helped flood the Bombay market with high-value goods and transformed Bombay into a major reexportation center, which catered to the demands of the international market. Reciprocally, Bombay’s strategic location and trading contacts helped Kachchhi entrepreneurs flourish in many ports along the western Indian Ocean, including Mandvi and Zanzibar. Kachchhi capitalists managed to emerge as important economic players through a profitable and indigenous commercial system. These proto-capitalists eventually popularized fiscal transactions in the precapitalist society of East Africa, which considerably decreased the functioning of exchanges in kind. Their credit operations had also achieved complexity in terms of money and treasure transfer along with the alteration to the transitory and lasting forces. One such enduring force was neo-imperialism, which partially jolted the indigenous market economy. The effect was partial because the Kachchhi oceanic merchants quickly merged the Western trading practices with their own. These sophisticated trade and banking methods globalized the profile of the Kachchhi enterprise, especially in East Africa. The control over the bazaar economy, especially, allowed the Kachchhis to negotiate the favorable business deals. For instance, the ivory bazaar in Zanzibar was chiefly controlled by the Kachchhis, although the Euro-American capitalists were in fierce competition to capture it. The open bazaar economy empowered Kachchhis to carry out millions of transactions. Rajat Kanta Ray (1995) suggested that bazaars should not be seen merely as the peddlers joint. Though the Asian firms’ business practices were distinct from the Euro-American business practices, the success of the South Asian trading method, especially in high-value commodities, was quite visible. This effectiveness compelled the Western merchants to accommodate the South Asian business system. On many occasions, the efficient execution of the indigenous business practices did spin off a sort of business dependency for the Western counterparts. Such business dependency facilitated South Asian merchants’ firmer consolidation in the transnational trading world of the Indian Ocean and prepared them to play a global role. Kachchhi commercial practices, which are not widely recorded, represent the South Asian model of enterprise and debunk the idea that this model was subordinate to Western/European capitalist systems. Usually the foundation of markets, capital, and business dependency have been dynamic and produced a significant literature. Yet quite a few offer the nuanced study on the interplay between enterprisers and their social goals. The least consulted trust and will literature of these economic players sheds light on the shared social responsibilities of the commercial world. The complex capitalist enterprise of these merchants gravitated toward nafo (i.e., profit), chiefly when oriented toward the idea of migration to East Africa. However, this long-distance enterprise, which was closely connected with Bombay and Mandvi, was based, as Dungarshi Sampat (1935) emphasizes, on the cardinal maxim of trust. So even though the profit-minded trading operations of Kachchhis prompted their contemporaries to label them unconscionable men of money, their business ethics operated on the functional interdependency, which procured the best trading opportunities for all those who were involved in the trading world of East Africa. Their pursuance of certain conventional tacit and thoughtful approaches did much to facilitate quick global commercial deals. Casting a wide net over these varied histories, this article reflects on the potentially diverging themes surrounding polity and trade, merchants and migration, language of business, the structure of trade, the sailing tradition, the marine insurance, the system of apprenticeship, the mercantile community and guild dynamics, the unique banking houses, expanding textile production for the foreign markets, and the commercial connections between hinterland and merchants. Emphasizing, however, the importance of more diverse themes, this range of factors in turn weaves a single thread into the larger story of Kachchhi enterprise, which ties into the even wider story of the East African economy in the 19th century.
Origins of a Modern Indian Capitalist Class in Bombay
In India, as in much of the world, the 19th century witnessed the emergence of urban capitalist classes, effected by the rapid growth of global mercantile capitalism and, later, industrial manufacturing. As a colonial city, Bombay—like its eastern counterpart, Calcutta—developed two connected, but distinct business communities: one, a European community with foreign, imperial connections, and the other, an Indian community with roots in long-standing regional networks. In Bombay, the latter took the form of a class known as the “Merchant Princes,” who capitalized on long-standing commercial traditions in western India and their ability to command both Indian and colonial networks to establish themselves as commercial powerhouses. These commercial networks and patterns of behavior, established before the arrival of the British, had an indelible impact on the character of Indian business in colonial Bombay. The business community brought such traditions with them when they migrated to Bombay at the end of the 18th century and used them to build the famous mercantile firms of the early 19th century. The Indian business elite likewise built collaborative links within their own community to expand their business interests; when barriers erected by the colonial establishment sought to limit their expansion, Indian businessmen used the resources at their disposal (both in the Indian hinterland and within the city itself) to circumvent them. Class identity similarly began to emerge as they cooperatively campaigned for particular agendas, intended to improve the fortunes of the entire community. They fought for greater influence in the Bombay government—in line with the wealth they then commanded—and used their financial resources to mold the physical and intellectual landscape of the city in their favor.
The Mughal Empire
Michael H. Fisher
Founded in 1526, the Mughal Empire expanded during the late 16th and 17th centuries across almost the entire Indian subcontinent (except for the southern peninsular tip). At its peak, the empire contained roughly 1.24 million square miles and about 150 million people (half of western Europe in size but double its population). The imperial dynasty was originally Turco-Mongol. But, especially under Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605), the dynasty established the Mughal Empire by incorporating Hindu and other Indian cultures and mobilizing India’s human and natural resources more effectively than any previous state there. Nonetheless, emperors almost constantly faced rebellions and revolts by rival members of the dynasty, imperial administrators, army commanders, regional rulers, and popular movements. By the early 18th century, the empire fragmented into successor states, but the dynasty remained on the throne until 1858 when the British Empire finally displaced it. Throughout, the imperial court patronized extensive histories and literature (in Persian and a range of Indian languages) and works of architecture and representational arts. The imperial administration compiled detailed records, including about the court, army, and the lands it ruled. Historians, from the time of the empire onward, have used these diverse source materials in their own analyses.
The Aesthetics of Decolonization in South Asia
Often subsumed within narratives of political “transfer of power” from colonial empires to postcolonial nation-states, decolonization was a longue durée sociocultural process that traversed the long 20th century. Its trails were global and intertwined with parallel metapolitical processes like the Cold War, and it cast long shadows that revealed the afterlives of political decolonization beyond the events that marked the arrivals of independence. South Asia is a particularly fertile ground for studying such expanded temporalities, sociocultural structures, and shadows of decolonization. While the late 1940s saw the retreat of the British Empire from India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka after 1972), as well as the climactic partition of India and creation of Pakistan, decolonization itself remained an unfolding process. It manifested in continuing struggles around cultural sovereignty and the liberation war of 1971 that birthed Bangladesh from the former East Pakistan, and continued in unresolved ethnic conflicts and regional struggles for autonomy and social democracy. The cultural field offers a unique lens for reading the more quotidian and less spectacular sites where such longue durée trails of decolonization were experienced, negotiated, and imagined via artistic forms. Aesthetics of decolonization can be read as the sensorial, imaginational, and ethical negotiations of postcolonial freedom, as well as the micropolitical and contradictory dynamics that lay therein. It can loosen the metaframe of the nation-state and the nation-form to reveal both locational and subnational differences, as well as the multiple ways in which the global itself was filtered, invoked, or negotiated from below. Aesthetics of decolonization, in other words, is the imagination of a new historiographical modality for thinking through how freedom was visualized in the postcolonies, how such visions produced new cultural modernities unique to such transitional polities, and how such modernities can be read in their transnational trails in the long 20th century.
An Indian Trading Ecumene? On the Global Ecology of South Asian Commerce
The circulation of merchants between South Asia and the rest of the world combines a unique temporal depth, as a continuous presence of South Asian merchants outside the subcontinent is attested since at least the 9th century ce, and an impressive spatial range, as by the late 19th century Indian merchants, mostly Gujaratis and Sindhis, were to be found practically across the entire globe. Ecological factors, including the contrast between, on the one hand, the vast “dry zone” of northwestern South Asia and, on the other hand, riverine areas of permanent moisture in the rest of the subcontinent, played an important part in its genesis; they remained important as the movements of South Asian traders were extended beyond the subcontinent before the colonial era. In the colonial period, while political factors also became significant, the role of ecological factors was somewhat residual but still visible.
The Dutch East India Company in South Asia
Guido van Meersbergen
The Dutch East India Company (VOC, 1602–1799) developed into Europe’s largest commercial and colonial power in 17th-century Asia. Within its extensive intra-Asian trading network centered on Batavia (Jakarta), the Indian subcontinent and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) occupied a pivotal position. The VOC’s desire to tap into the exchange of Indian cloth for fine spices from the Maluku Islands first drove the Dutch to the Coromandel Coast, while Surat’s position as the preeminent maritime hub of the western Indian Ocean and Bengal’s status as a major exporter of silk and cottons attracted the Company to the Mughal Empire. Between 1638 and 1663, the VOC also displaced the Portuguese from their colonial holdings in Ceylon and the Malabar Coast, the world’s only source of high-quality cinnamon and an important producer of pepper, respectively. In Mughal India, the Dutch presence was limited to trading posts from which it conducted trade on conditions set by the imperial authorities, whereas along the Coromandel and Malabar Coasts the VOC possessed fortresses, and in Ceylon it acted as a territorial power exercising colonial rule over several hundred thousand Sinhalese and Tamil inhabitants. In all parts of South Asia, the Company’s position relied on and was maintained through diplomatic relations with local rulers. The various commercial, diplomatic, and colonial interactions gave rise to important forms of cultural exchange and knowledge production in the realms of art, religion, language, and botanical science, which testify to significant cross-cultural connections and mutual influences. The VOC maintained a dynamic trade in South Asia until the final quarter of the 18th century, when its Indian possessions were captured by the British first during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780–1784) and again in 1795 to 1796 during the French Revolutionary Wars.
Trade in the East and South China Seas, 600 CE to 1800 CE
Tamara H. Bentley
In the period from 600 ce to 1800 ce, the countries bordering the East and South China Seas were in frequent maritime communication, sharing in the process cultural practices and commodities. This article focuses on Chinese trade, with some attention to Japanese, Korean, Ryūkyūan, and Southeast Asian trade as well. In the early 7th century, Chinese Emperor Sui Yangdi expanded Chinese diplomatic connections in a variety of ways and overtook central Vietnam. During the ensuing Tang dynasty, south and west Asian maritime traders dominated the importing of aromatics, rare goods, and foodstuffs into China and the westward export of Chinese goods such as ceramics and silks. South Chinese ports such as Guangzhou were thriving international emporia. In the Five Dynasties, Song, and Yuan periods, Chinese shipping increased, and trade between China and Japan, as well as between China and Koryŏ, Korea, flourished. At the start of the Ming dynasty, a maritime trade ban was enacted, which led to an increase in tribute trade to China (which was not banned), as well as a high degree of contraband shipping. In 1567 the Chinese ban was lifted, and a period of vibrant China Seas trade ensued, which included Japanese red seal ships to Southeast Asia and Korea, and an increasing number of European merchants. In the mid-17th century, the Zheng family played a major role in intra-Asian trade, negotiating for advantage with both Japan and Spain, and largely competing with the Dutch VOC. With the consolidation of Qing dynasty power, China reopened her ports in 1684 and eventually established a central location for European trade in Canton, while allowing for Asian trade from other ports.
Online Research Resources for South Asian History
Aruna Pulipaka Magier
Because so much of South Asia’s archival and primary source materials as well as precolonial and colonial-era published sources traditionally referred to by historians reside in physical archives and libraries that are difficult to access, the work of individual historians until recently had often been limited to resources they could access only from significant collections outside of South Asia, such as those at the British Library and at some major US research libraries. Research travel to South Asia to consult domestic collections there has always been expensive, impractical, and too often an exceedingly challenging endeavor because of the local limitations on access. But with the growth of the internet since the 1990s, and the relative ease of putting materials online, there has been an explosion of small- and large-scale efforts at digitization and online publishing of more unique and previously inaccessible treasures from South Asia. As of the early 2000s, a wealth of valuable open-access as well as commercially produced and distributed content is available online to scholars of South Asian history. However, this profusion itself has created new challenges. The lack of selectivity, peer review, or other quality evaluations for much internet publishing, the dearth of standards for long-term website continuity and presentation, the absence of centralized pathways for structured discovery of these resources, the bewildering array of user interfaces, the increasing monetization of online access to primary source content, and the inadequate attention to digital preservation all make this universe of digital content a far from ideal setting for historical research. To enable historians more effectively to identify authoritative online sources that meet their research needs and how to access them, collaborative endeavors by South Asia librarians and academic institutions are beginning to yield useful results and to create orderly oases in the general chaos of the internet.
Qubilai’s Maritime Mongols
Paul Buell and Francesca Fiaschetti
The Mongols, creators of the largest continuous land empire in history, who initiated an unprecedented era of international exchange, are mostly known for their land conquests and contacts, but, they also actively participated in maritime and land trade. The key event in this development was a Mongol commercialization ongoing with the Mongol conquest of key coastal areas in China and Iran that brought them face to face with the trading world of the South Seas and Indian Ocean. There was a military aspect of this, starting in Japan, Southeast Asia, and Java, and there was the diplomatic and informal initiatives of Qubilai-qan to expand Mongol influence over the seas as far as the Red Sea and Africa, in ways not achievable with military means alone. A thesis is that the Mongols in China ended by creating, with the help of the Mongols in Iran, a first maritime age, paralleling those established by the Portuguese and others that came later.
Transnational Film in East Asia
To most Western scholars, “East Asian cinema” calls to mind either a small number of globally recognized art house auteurs or specific genres that have found cult audiences in the West. However, this overlooks the enormously complex history of the popular film industries in the region. The tendency to group together films from the region as East Asian cinema can elide some important differences in the film industries and cultures in individual parts of the region, but, at the same time, the “national cinema” framework fails to appreciate the interconnectedness of these cinemas both to each other and beyond the region. The earliest film screenings in China, Japan, and Korea were in the last decade of the 19th century, within a few years of the Lumière Brothers’ first demonstration of their new invention in Paris in 1895. Japan and China both developed robust popular film industries by the mid-1920s. Colonized by Japan in 1910, Korea nevertheless also developed a popular film industry by the mid-1920s, albeit one that was dominated by business interests (if not necessarily talent) from Japan, and subject to the censorship laws of the colonial government. It is impossible to extricate the networks of commodity and artistic exchange from the history of colonialism in the region—both the colonial designs of Western powers on East Asia, and the reach of the Japanese Empire, whose ascendance coincided precisely with the first half-century of film history, and whose shadow has continued to have implications for cultural exchange within the region ever since. Major geopolitical events such as World War II and the Cold War have also played an important role in shaping film production, and its circuits of exchange, in the region.