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Article

Magnus Marsden and Benjamin D. Hopkins

Afghanistan has long been conventionally regarded as a remote space peripheral to the wider world. Yet scholarship produced in the 2nd decade of the 21st century suggests its multiple connections to a wide array of regions and settings. Such connections are especially visible when viewed through the lens of the trade networks originating from the territories of modern Afghanistan. Scholars have come to recognize that Afghan traders have long been active players in many contexts across Asia and beyond. Such traders and the networks they form play a critically important role in connecting different parts of Asia with one another, including South Asia and Eurasia, as well as East and West Asia. The connective role performed by Afghan caravanners and religious minorities in the trade between India and Central Asia are especially well documented by historians. Increasingly so too are the activities of Afghan merchants in Ottoman territories. The trading networks Afghan traders have participated in are historically dynamic. Their orientating values shift across time and space between various forms of religious, ethno-linguistic, and political identity. The capacity to adapt to changing circumstances is helpful in understanding the continuing relevance of Afghan traders to 21st-century forms of globalized capitalism, in contexts as varied as the former Soviet Union, China, and the Arabian Peninsula.

Article

When the Mongol Empire expanded across Eurasia in the 13th century, it not only established a new political order but also unified the trade networks that spread across northern Eurasia, connecting China, Central Asia, the Middle East, and the East Slavs in Eastern Europe within one system. The collapse of Mongol rule and the rise of new states and dynasties, including the Ottoman Empire, Muscovite Russia, and Qing China, adjusted trade routes throughout Eurasia, but the commercial networks remained robust until the modern era. Historians have debated whether there was a notable “decline” of the overland caravan trade along the historic “Silk Roads” in the 18th century, as European maritime traders in Asia carried many of the goods that had traveled across Eurasia. The perception of a decline, however, is challenged by the robust intra-Eurasia trade among Russia, Central Asia, India, and China throughout the 19th century. This dynamic region was influenced by the maintenance and expansion of regional networks across Eurasia, the consequences of the involvement of state interests, and increasing economic regulations in the early modern period, and the variety of commodities exchanged east and west, which were far more than just a silk trade.

Article

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

Pierre-Yves Manguin

Southeast Asian polities were destined to play an active role in the world economy because of their location at the crossroads of East Asian maritime routes and their richness in commodities that were in demand in the whole of Eurasia. For a long time, historians restricted their role to examination of regional peddling trade carried out in small ships. Research on ships and trade networks in the past few decades, however, has returned considerable agency to local societies, particularly to Austronesian speakers of insular Southeast Asia, from proto-historic to early modern times. As far in the past as two thousand years ago, following locally developed shipbuilding technologies and navigational practices, they built large and sophisticated ships that plied South China Sea and Indian Ocean routes, as documented by 1st-millennium Chinese and later Portuguese sources and now confirmed by nautical archaeology. Textual sources also confirm that local shipmasters played a prominent part in locally and internationally run trade networks, which firmly places their operations into the mainstream of Asian global maritime history.

Article

The Bay of Bengal has had long history of commercial and cultural circulation across its maritime space, a lesser-studied region in the emerging discourse of Indian Ocean Studies, and extended much beyond, in both eastern and western directions. However, this maritime space has conventionally been regarded as separating contours of peoples, cultures, and economies, particularly in the realm of area studies which has been deeply embedded in academic scholarship as well as political discourses. On the contrary, the region presents us with fascinating stories of integration through family trees, kinship networks, family firms, financial exchanges, intra-community and inter-ethnic bonding, and other facets of circular movements around the Bay. The political and economic narrative of Asia transformed into one of Western colonial dominance in the 19th century, a process that had begun about almost two centuries earlier. The British emerged as the most powerful of the Western powers in this space having gained strong political footing in India, their most prized possession in the East. The long years were marked by consolidation of their political conquests and economic prowess not only in the Indian subcontinent but also in and around the Bay of Bengal region. The technological innovations and inventions further facilitated their economic aspirations. The 20th century brought about different kind of changes. The ideal of laissez-faire along with the geopolitical discourse on rising maritime powers unleashed a new direction of policies, collaboration, conflicts, and negotiations. An important feature of the century was the dynamic rise of the ideology of nationalism, which worked differently in Europe and Asia. While it led to the world wars in Europe, for Asian powers, it opened doors of opportunity to break the fetters of several years of colonial domination. In the framework of a narrative of subjugation and domination, a macro-view of the Bay brings forth several circuits of circulation in the maritime space. While some of these circuits had been visible and dominant, others existed on the margins, connecting to the larger circuits obliviously, or existing in independent and almost invisible circulatory loops that did not find any place in Western historiography. This article attempts to provide a broad overview of different circulatory movements under four subthemes—acquisition and development of port cities that facilitated the circulatory process, merchants, banians, and capitalists—as both visible and also invisible actors of circulation in the Bay. It also discusses communities that were displaced, integrated, or acculturated around the rim of the Bay, and intellectual exchanges that motivated, influenced, and incorporated participation of a large number of people all over Asia. There is a focus on the mobile Indian communities in particular, both voluntary and involuntary migrants who were the dominant participants in the colonial economic narrative on both sides of the Bay. The legacy of these long years of exchanges and interactions has often been undermined in the postcolonial nation state centric discourses and needs to be revisited with a fresh perspective in view of the increasing geopolitical significance of the Bay in the 21st century.