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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

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

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.

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

After a long decline beginning in the early 15th century, Sino-Central Asian trade witnessed an upward trend as of the late 17th century. The tea-horse trade between the Qing government and small Tibetan tribes in northwestern China was the first significant type of Sino-Central Asian trade during the Qing period. Despite the fact that the Qing largely discontinued this trade in the early 18th century, Central Asian and Chinese smugglers still carried on the tea trade. Meanwhile, the Zunghar Khanate forced the Qing to open tribute trade in the 1670s, expanding the venue for the Sino-Central Asian trade. The destruction of the khanate in the 1750s led to further expansion of the Sino-Central Asian trade, as the simultaneous expansion of the Qing and Russian Empires in Central Asia provided a stimulus. The Qing Empire’s initiatives to support its military in Xinjiang, including annual injections of silver into Xinjiang, provided a boost to the local agriculture and commerce there. The Russian expansion in Siberia along the Irtysh River and Russia’s decision to utilize Siberian towns as new bases for trade with China led to growth of trade between Xinjiang and Siberia. The long-standing pattern of Sino-Central Asian trade—the exchange of Central Asian horses and animals for Chinese tea and silk—remained dominant throughout the period. But Chinese rhubarb and Xinjiang jade emerged as new items of long-distance trade while the importance of staple goods in the overall trade increased steadily. The Chinese merchants emerged as the most dominant player in the trade, primarily due to their command of the supply of tea and rhubarb in the Central Asian market. Altishahri landlords and merchants made adjustments to advance their agricultural and commercial enterprises. Three groups of Central Asian merchants—Bukharans, Andijanis, and Kazakhs—thrived, as they facilitated the Sino-Russian trade.

Article

With its conquest of the Arab lands in the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire (1300–1923) came to control some of the major entrepots of the Indian Ocean trade in the west. This expansion, however, also brought the Ottomans into confrontation with the Portuguese, who were seeking to establish a monopoly of the lucrative spice trade. In the first half of the 16th century, Ottoman involvement was limited to the western half of the Indian Ocean, but in the later 16th century, the Southeast Asian sultanate of Aceh forged an alliance with the Ottomans, which, if short-lived in practice, was to attain considerable symbolic importance in later times. Ottoman involvement in the Indian Ocean resumed in the 19th century, again as a reaction to European colonial activities. In the meantime, both commercial and religious links, in particular the hajj, meant that the Ottomans had a prominent role in the Indian Ocean despite only controlling limited littoral territories.

Article

Vietnam’s Central Highlands—or Tây Nguyên—area is usually described as remote, backward, and primitive, but this region has played a central role in the history of the surrounding states and the wider East and Southeast Asia region. Far from isolated, the Central Highlands engaged in trade in precious forest products with lowland states and beyond since at least the emergence of the Hinduized Cham states from the first centuries ce onward. Lowland and coastal states needed the support of local leaders and traders in order to boost their trade and tax revenues. In addition, as a buffer between various rivalrous polities now known as Vietnam, Champa, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, the area occupied a strategic position in the wider mainland Southeast Asia region. With the emergence of a unified, neo-Confucianist Vietnamese state the region lost its centrality until the late colonial era, when its strategic value turned it into a battleground among various Vietnamese parties, France, and the United States. It was here that the outcome of the Indochina wars was determined, but at a terrible price for the local population. After the adoption of economic reforms in reunified Vietnam the Central highlands regained its economic centrality, predicated on the global prominence of its valuable cash crops such as coffee, tea, rubber, pepper, and cashew. This coffee boom was based on the labor of lowlander in-migrants, who displaced and dispossessed the highlanders in the process, turning the national and international integration of the Central Highlands and its renewed centrality into a tragic experience for the Central Highlanders. By taking the centrality of the Central Highlands seriously, I arrive at an alternative historical periodization.

Article

Douglas E. Haynes and Tirthankar Roy

Business historians of colonial and postcolonial South Asia have not sufficiently studied internal trade and commercial institutions, a glaring omission considering that trade was one of the fastest-growing economic activities during the 20th century. While the historiography of the merchant has grown steadily, it remains focused on international trade or on non-economic issues like the relationship between ethnicity and commerce. One area that clearly requires more research is marketing. The involvement of producing firms in marketing activities, like sales and advertising, became much more extensive during the late 19th and the 20th centuries. Significant changes in the costs of transportation and communications made these tasks easier. Producers of goods, however, possessed imperfect information and needed to rely on intermediate figures—either various kinds of local actors or marketing “experts” who claimed local knowledge—to reach consumers. Sales and advertising in postcolonial India built on the legacy of this transformation in colonial India, rather than breaking sharply from it, even as technological change enabled more direct communication between the producer and the consumer.

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

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

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

Transactions between ancient communities across the varied ecological zones of Central Asia produced a complex commercial structure. Pastoral nomads on the steppe and farmers in the oases traded to supplement their livelihoods. Domestication of horses on the Eurasian steppe around four thousand years ago was a driving force stimulating interactions between the horse riders and settled farmers. Conflicts between horse-riding nomadic powers on the steppe and Chinese empires initiated the silk-horse treaty trade, which lasted until the end of the Tang Dynasty. Domestication of camels around 3000 bce enabled transportation across deserts and thus linked the oases to one another and to the outside world. Especially after the invention of a new saddle for the Bactrian (two-humped) camel, the caravan trade flourished as the major means of commercial interchange in the Central Asian deserts during the 1st millennium ce. Sogdian city states around the Syr and Amu Rivers prospered through farming, and the Sogdians became the agents of trade among Chinese empires, Persian empires, South Asian states, and various Turkic empires on the steppe. After the Islamic conquest of Central Asia, the Sogdians gradually submitted to Islamic rule, transforming themselves into Muslim traders and continuing to play an essential role in linking Central Asia to the wider Eurasian commercial world. Means of transportation and means of communication provided the infrastructure for trade. Governments and major trading communities such as the Sogdians were active in building trading networks, and religious movements such as the spread of Buddhism facilitated the formation of commercial networks.

Article

Before the 16th century, Southeast Asian trade within the Sinosphere (Laos and Vietnam) took place in a maritime trade network that drew together the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea (Eastern Sea). Land-based and maritime trade routes were interlinked across this region. Behind the maritime trade was the upland supply of forest products that included many of the items most desired by distant markets in China and Southeast Asian destinations. The upland access to trade items was as important as was control of the coastal ports. Westerners arrived in the early modern period, as others had, as traders, and were accommodated into established trading patterns. The general current of anti-imperialism was still to come in the 20th century.

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

Colonial Indonesia’s sugar industry, developed under Dutch and Sino-Indonesian auspices over a period of almost three centuries, beginning c. 1650, evolved into one which exhibited a unique configuration in which an industrialized sugar complex became embedded within much larger “peasant” economy of the farming of rice and “second” crops. It was on this agrarian and largely self-financed basis that Indonesia’s colonial sugar industry, located exclusively in the island of Java, became one of the leading sectors of the international sugar economy of the late colonial era, eventually even rivaling Cuba—the nonpareil of such producers—as an exporter to world markets. During the interwar Depression of the 1930s and subsequent decade of war and revolution, it lost much (and eventually all) of its international standing—yet managed to survive into Indonesia’s postcolonial era, albeit in an attenuated form. There were four main phases to the industry’s colonial-era history. The first, foundational phase, which saw the establishment of modern industrialized manufacture extended from the 1830s through to the 1880s. The second phase, from the 1880s to 1930, was the period of sugar’s peak expansion. The third phase, beginning in 1931 and ending in 1942, was one of retrenchment and (partial) recovery prior to the spread of the Second World War into Southeast Asia. The fourth phase, 1945–1958, was one of postwar reconstruction.

Article

Ceramics are the most abundant types of artifacts made by human beings in the last 12,000 years. Chinese potters discern two types of products: earthenware (tao), which is porous and does not resonate when struck, and wares with vitreous bodies (ci), which ring like a bell. Western potters and scholars differentiate stoneware, which is semi-porous, from porcelain, which is completely vitrified. The earliest ceramics in the world are thought to have been made in China around 15,000 years ago. By the Shang dynasty, potters in China began to decorate the surfaces of their pottery with ash glaze, in which wood ash mixed with feldspar in clay to impart a shiny surface to the pottery. The first ash-glazed wares were probably made south of the Yangzi in Jiangnan. In the 9th century, China began to export pottery, which quickly became sought after in maritime Asia and Africa. Pottery making for export became a major industry in China, employing hundreds of thousands of people, and stimulating the development of the first mass-production techniques in the world. Much of the ceramic industry was located along China’s south and southeast coasts, conveniently located near ports that connected China with international markets. Chinese merchants had to adapt their wares to suit different consumers. For the last 1,000 years, Chinese ceramics provided an enormous amount of archaeological information on trade and society in the lands bordering the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, contributing a major source of data to the study of early long-distance commerce, art, technology, urbanization, and many other topics. Statistics are presented from important sites outside China where Chinese ceramics have been found.

Article

For historians of the Indian Ocean, the stakes in thinking about law and economic life are very high. As a key arena of world history, the Indian Ocean world has emerged as a site for reflecting on issues of connectivity and circulation, and for writing histories that cover broad spans of space and time. Many of these histories—and indeed, the pioneering works in the field—have focused on matters of trade and empire, the twin pillars of world history more broadly. Since around 2000, research has taken on different forms of migration as well as matters of ideology, culture, epidemiology, and more, but many of these discussions are still built on foundations of trade and empire: people, books, ideas, and diseases primarily circulate through networks forged via trade or through imperial channels. All of it, however, requires a rigorous engagement with questions of law, which undergirded production and trade in the region. The history of law and economic life in the Indian Ocean might be mapped onto three arenas. First, law played an important role in the politico-economic constitution of empires (Muslim or otherwise) in the Indian Ocean. Beyond that, though, one must consider the legal dynamics of trade networks within this world of empires, examining the intersecting private-order and public mechanisms that merchants drew on to regulate their commercial affairs. And finally, the histories of law, empire, and economic life all intersected in courtrooms around the Indian Ocean world, as economic actors took their disputes to different tribunals, shaping the contours of the legal history of the region.

Article

South Asia is the home of natural blue dye extracted from the indigo plant species indigofera tinctoria. Its production for commercial purposes began very early and peaked during the early modern period. Growing Asian and European demand for indigo in the 16th and early 17th centuries raised its status as a major commodity in Asian and Eurasian trade. Indigo production in South Asia increased, and Indian and other Asian merchants exported large quantities of it to West Asia from where some of it was re-exported to Europe via the Levantine trade of the eastern Mediterranean. From the mid-16th century, the Portuguese Estado da India exported large quantities of indigo to Lisbon. By the early 1600s, when the English and Dutch East India companies began trading with India, indigo had become a highly sought-after commodity in the markets of England and the Dutch Republic. Consequently, the English East India Company (EIC) and Verenigde Oost-indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company or VOC) exported large quantities of it to Europe in the first half of the 17th century. With the rise of new indigo commodity chains in Europe’s transatlantic colonies, such as Guatemala, Jamaica, South Carolina, and Saint-Domingue, exports from South Asia declined. However, there was a substantial local demand, which kept the industry going well up to the end of the 18th century when indigo production would expand on an unprecedented scale in Bengal and some other parts of colonial India.

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

In the latter half of the 19th century, India built the fifth-largest railway system in the world. At the same time, domestic and foreign trade grew rapidly. By the turn of the century, India was the largest exporter in Asia and the ninth largest in the world. The growth in railways played a critical role in that expansion of trade. This growth is highly correlated with several trade-related phenomena, including lower temporal price variability, increased market integration, and falling spatial price dispersion. Measuring the rail’s precise impact though is challenging, because many other relevant factors were changing too, at home and abroad. Trying to control for some of them seems to bring estimates of the contribution of railways to trade down to more modest levels. Additional research is needed to better understand this relationship. Fortunately, there is extensive data on railways, trade, prices, and production. More data are being discovered and assembled. Some of the estimation has become quite sophisticated. Endogeneity issues are being addressed. There has been a greater focus on controlling for other variables to demonstrate causality. Many hypotheses have yet to be tested. This is a rich area for future work.