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.
Ottoman Commercial History
Slavery in Islamic Central Asia
By the late 19th century, when much of Islamic Central Asia was conquered by the Russian Empire, the region was home to tens of thousands of slaves. Most of these slaves were Shiʿa Muslims from northern Iran, though the slave trade also ensnared many Russians, Armenians, Kalmyks, and others. Slave labor was especially commonplace in the Sunni Muslim domains of Khwarazm and Bukhara, where enslaved people constituted a substantial proportion of all agricultural workers, domestic servants, and soldiers. Slaves also labored in many other roles, and an individual slave could be tasked with a variety of jobs. Slaves served, for example, as concubines, craftsmen, miners, herdsmen, entertainers, blacksmiths, calligraphers, and even, in rare instances, as government officials. Before the 16th century, the majority of the slaves in Central Asia—defined here as the region extending from the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea through Xinjiang, China, and from southern Siberia to northern Iran—seem to have been trafficked to the region from India. This changed in the 16th and 17th centuries, as a significant number of Iranian war-captives were brought north and enslaved during the course of numerous armed conflicts between the Central Asian Uzbeks and Iranian Safavids. Many of these slaves evidently labored on the region’s rapidly expanding agricultural estates. In the 18th and 19th centuries, frequent Turkmen raids into northern Iran resulted in tens of thousands of Iranian Shiʿas being captured and funneled into a booming slave trade in Khwarazm and Bukhara. Further north, a much smaller number of Russians were seized and sold into slavery by Kazakh nomads along the steppe frontier. The region’s slave trade declined in the late 19th century and seems to have remained dormant throughout the Soviet period. The post-Soviet period has witnessed a resurgence of human trafficking throughout Central Asia. In recent decades, local governments and international organizations have labored with mixed success to combat a new kind of slave trade, as Central Asian victims are trafficked by criminal cartels to neighboring countries, or to other regions of the world, for the purposes of forced labor or sexual exploitation.
African Diaspora in Asia
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.
The Dutch East India Company and Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean and Indonesian Archipelago Worlds, 1602–1795
Matthias van Rossum
Slavery and slave trade were widespread throughout the empire of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in Asia. The VOC was not only a “merchant” company but also functioned as military power, government, and even agricultural producer. In these roles, the VOC was involved in the forced relocation (and forced mobilization) of people in direct and indirect ways. This entailed commodified slavery and especially slave trade, in which persons were considered property and sellable, but also a wider landscape of forced relocations (deportation, non-commodified transfers) and coerced labor regimes (corvée, debt, and caste slavery). Much more research into the histories of slavery, slave trade, and wider coercive labor and social regimes is needed to shed light on the dynamics and connections of local and global systems.
The Cowrie World
For a long time cowrie shells originating in the Maldive islands had been used as a form of money in various Afro-Eurasian societies The use of cowrie shells as money was first adopted in Bengal around the 4th century, and cowrie money soon expanded into the Tai world, then into Yunnan province, on China’s southwestern frontier, where it became a legal currency. Local shell money was also adopted as early as the 10th century along the great bend of the Niger River in West Africa, and cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean were also shipped there by way of the Mediterranean. From the 16th century onwards, European merchants, led by the Portuguese, initiated the cowrie slave trade and the cowrie palm oil trade by shipping Maldivian shells through Europe to West Africa, thus reshaping the cowrie monetary zone in West Africa and creating a broad network that connected two oceans (the Indian and Atlantic oceans) and two worlds (the Old and New Worlds). The cowrie trade and cowrie money enabled the acquisition of Asian and African resources by Europeans and so promoted European dominance across the world, until a glut of cowrie shells destroyed this monetary system.The case of early China is different. While cowrie shells shared the same origin of the Indian Ocean, and played a significant role amongst the Chinese elite, they did not constitute a form of money.