Transregional Trade in Early Modern Eurasia
- Matthew RomanielloMatthew RomanielloDepartment of History, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
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.
Patterns of Trade
A Florentine merchant, Francesco Balducci Pegolotti (1310–1347), produced a handbook about Eurasian trade just before the Black Death spread across the region. He travelled along the northern Silk Roads, arriving at Azov on the Black Sea, and then travelled overland to Astrakhan and eventually to Central Asia. His account depicts numerous goods available for purchase in these foreign markets, including silks and damasks, a wide variety of spices and medicinal drugs, and dried fruits and grains. In addition to the local commodities, foreign products were available in these markets, including rhubarb from China, soap from Venice and Cyprus, and henna from India. Pegolotti’s world was international, with merchants and commodities traveling great distances, transporting both luxuries and ordinary staples across the length and breadth of Eurasia.1
The establishment of the Mongol Empire reorganized trade both within the empire and outside its periphery. In just a few decades, Eurasia was unified in a single trade network that spanned from modern-day Russian and Ukrainian territory in the west to China in the east and linked the Middle East and northern India with trade traveling overland through the Fergana valley or by water via the Caspian Sea. A merchant such as Pegolotti could benefit from the security of Mongol trade routes while moving from the Black Sea into Central Asia. While the calamity of the Black Death in the middle of the 14th century led to an abrupt population decline in Eurasia and destabilized political authority within the Mongol sphere of influence, trade may have slowed, but it continued. While one historian described the outcome of the Black Death as a period when caravan outposts and oases “disappeared from the landscape forever,” other historians have demonstrated the trade networks’ persistence in the textual and archaeological records of the era.2 Indeed, it is far more reasonable to view the Mongols and the Black Death as two significant events that led to the establishment of new, “early modern” Eurasian trade networks. Political changes in the wake of the Mongol collapse, such as the establishment of the Ottoman Empire, particularly after its conquest of Constantinople in 1453, opened new Mediterranean markets where European merchants could purchase Asian exports.3 Rather than a decline or an abrogation of commerce, the early-modern trade networks across Eurasia were equally robust, if not superior, to medieval commercial exchanges in the region.
To understand early-modern Eurasian trade, however, it is not possible to envision trade only flowing from east to west and back again. Local markets and shorter travels emerged as equally important. Expanding political units, including the growth of the Muscovite Russian Empire or the changing relationships among the Central Asian khanates including Bukhara, altered older routes with the addition of new destinations and different merchants, customs, and commodities.
Diasporic communities were settled throughout the region and many members of these communities pursued commerce for their livelihood. Armenian merchants, some of whom remained inside the Safavid Empire, regularly travelled both north into Russia and Central Asia and west into the Ottoman Empire, settling as far away as the Netherlands early in the 16th century. They established diasporic outposts throughout the Mediterranean, enabling them to move goods and extend credit across Eurasia. Indian merchants travelled into the region across the Caspian Sea to the entrepot of Astrakhan, where they became a sizeable community, as well as through the Fergana valley into Central Asia. Various Central Asian communities continued to act as long-distance merchants, particularly the Bukharans, who travelled east into China and northwest into Russia in increasingly large numbers throughout the period. Siberian Tatars became a diasporic community dispersed throughout the Russian Empire, and maintained a trade among their own community that unified the Baltic Sea with China.4
The shifting political landscape of northern Eurasia continued to adjust the flow of trade throughout the region. The expansion of Russia from its original “European” home west of the Ural Mountain range into northern Asia (which Russia termed Siberia after a group of “Sibir” Tatars) was a major shift. After establishing a foothold in Siberia following the conquest of the Khanate of Sibir late in the 16th century, the Russian state established a series of outposts across the length of the region, reaching the Pacific by the 1630s. These new Russian outposts provided an opportunity for Russian, Tatar, and Bukharan merchants to rely on the Russian state and its security apparatus to protect their trade moving between China and Europe.
Concurrent with Russia’s expansion to the east in the 17th century, the new Qing dynasty in China began to move north. The Qing sought to secure its frontier from the threat of the Dzungar Horde as well as a persistent presence of other Central Asian nomadic populations. Military conflicts between China and the Dzungars created an unstable border by the 1680s, but a diplomatic treaty signed by Russia and China in 1689 theoretically settled the border between the two expansionist empires at the expense of Dzungar independence.5 While it would be nearly seven decades before the Dzungars were eliminated, increasing cooperation between Russia and China remapped the latitudinal flow of goods across Eurasia.
Neither Russia’s expansion nor its focus on the security of its outposts replaced the trade networks of the Mongol Empire, even if Russia claimed a substantial portion of its territory. Russia’s activities were complemented by Central Asia’s independent khanates that played a key role throughout the region. Philippe Avril (1654–1698), a French Jesuit who travelled across Siberia in the 1690s to begin his mission in China, documented the possibilities of assisting future travelers. After travelling down the Volga from Moscow to the Caspian port of Astrakhan, he reported five potential routes to China. The southernmost was through India, “which the great number of Robbers, and the vast Deserts that are to be cross’d, render[ed] very dangerous, and almost impracticable.”6 The next option was a route through Central Asia, “which the Merchants of Bocara take,” travelling through the “Cities of the Yousbecs.” Avril knew the Russians would take this route regularly, but he suggested that it was no better than the Indian route because of the danger posed by steppe nomads and “the Sands that are to be cross’d.”7 The remaining three options were various routes through Siberia. After travelling from Astrakhan to Tobol’sk, one option was to travel “along the Lakes that yield great quantities of Salt near Irticks [Irtysh] and Kama, after which you Travel for some time by Water upon the first of these two Rivers as far as a City call’d Sinkame [Omsk].”8 After Omsk, this route went overland south through the territory of the Dzungars until one of the gates of the Great Wall was reached. The second Siberian route involved travelling for a greater distance over rivers, until reaching the outpost of Seleginsk to the east of Lake Baikal. From Seleginsk, overland travel would be south through Mongol territory. A third option was to continue to the east from Seleginsk overland to Russia’s “official” entrance to China through Nerchinsk. A final option was to continue past Nerchinsk until reaching the Amur River; then travelling down the river until reaching the coast.9 Avril suggested the safest route for travel was the third option, as the number of merchants and security of the outpost offered the best path for reaching China.
Avril’s willingness to rely on overland travel to reach Beijing from the West is only one sign of the success of the caravan routes across the continent in the early modern era. While many European travelers remained ignorant of the breadth of Eurasia’s networks, Chinese, Russian, and the Central Asian merchants actively utilized this arena for their own benefit. On the one hand, it was beyond the notice of most Western commercial interests, which became increasingly invested in new oceanic transit between Europe and Asia. On the other, diasporic communities of Armenians, Bukharans, Indians, and Persians prospered in the unique arena forged in the wake of the Mongol collapse.
The founder of the great early-modern Mughal Empire, Babur (1483–1530), was born in the Fergana Valley. When he began his quest to establish an empire for himself in the region, his first goal was the acquisition of Samarqand, the region’s most important market town. Eventually he lost his Central Asian foothold, and settled for the consolation prize of northern India. While few would consider the Mughal Empire he established “second best,” there was no doubt that the Timurids’ ancestral capital of Samarqand was far more important to him than distant India. Equally clear in Babur’s memoirs were his interests in Indian produce, medicines, and trade goods produced throughout the region. Amid sieges, retreats, and executions, Babur discusses the quality of local melons and apricots, most of which compare unfavorably to the ideal products of the Fergana Valley.10
Reaching Central Asia’s markets was a worthy destination for any merchant, and the region’s geographic location between China’s northern border and the land routes to the Middle East and Eastern Europe made it the center of a vibrant transit trade. In the wake of the Mongol collapse, the Central Asian entrepots, especially Samarqand and Bukhara, became major commercial centers. It was not only the appeal of exotic fruits and drugs as Babur noted but also manufactured silk and cotton textiles, leatherwork, engraved metalwork, weapons, and paper among other products.11 Undoubtedly, the changing political landscape in Central Asia’s cities combined with the shifting allegiances of steppe nomads could make navigating the region difficult. As a result, a prevailing interest in controlling Eurasia’s caravan trade fostered a persistent goal of shifting transit routes within one state’s borders, though it would be a lengthy and difficult undertaking for any state.
Political changes over the early modern period altered both networks and patterns of trade. Babur’s attempted conquest of Central Asia was one moment, but other military challenges, including the Chinese wars against the Dzungars in the 17th and 18th centuries, were equally disruptive. In uncertain political climates, stable governments worked to facilitate and regulate the caravan trade. New regulations could promise security benefits by offering shelter from steppe nomadic raids and moved the caravan trade into established routes for the collection of customs duties. Regulations were not merely to facilitate trade but also to enhance state profits.
The state interventions in the flow of silver throughout the region provides one mechanism for understanding the intersection of regulations and commercial opportunity. The introduction of paper money in China in the 13th century allowed the export of silver to Central Asia via the caravan trade, supporting the Mongol economic boom of the 14th century.12 However, the devolution of the Mongol Empire undermined its policies to support the overland trade. By the early 16th century, coins had largely vanished from China’s domestic economy. In 1520s, the Jiajing emperor began to reissue coins, initially with copper, to restart this aspect of the economy. With the arrival of American silver in the 1570s via overseas trade, China would witness the “monetization” of its economy over the next century. Furthermore, the silver flows did not stop at the border; instead, silver resumed its preeminent role in long-distance Eurasian trade shortly thereafter.13 The ability of states to direct silver into the economy through legislation facilitated long-distance trade.
As historian Richard von Glahn argued, the influx of silver in the 1570s led to “explosive commercial growth” in China.14 It facilitated a turnover of domestic production, from agricultural staples like rice to cash crops for export, including silk, sugar, and later tea and tobacco. China’s economic transition corresponded with the shift in dynasty from the Ming to Qing in the middle of the 17th century, which perhaps delayed new economic regulations until the new dynasty was more firmly in place. By the 1680s, however, the Qing government implemented fiscal and commercial policies to regulate its budget. The first policies imposed a new domestic tax system, but it would be followed by regulations on foreign trade. In 1662, the Qing banned maritime trade for Chinese merchants, but this was repealed in in 1683, which led to considerable trade between China and southeast Asia. The new laws of 1683 also allowed the resumption of trade with European merchants, but the European exports remained a small portion of China’s overall economy. By 1757, the Qing government restricted European merchant activities to the port of Guangzhou, and their trade was strictly controlled through a collection of designated Chinese merchant houses.15
China’s economic growth and its new commercial regulations paralleled other developments across Eurasia. The Russian government, for example, sponsored new markets and customs posts throughout its Siberian outposts in the 17th century. While smuggling goods to avoid its new tariffs continued, Bukharan merchants living in Siberia, for example, relied on the new state institutions to provide protection and facilitate their new trade. As historian Erika Monahan has demonstrated in her study of these merchants, living inside a Russian outpost did not preclude the opportunity to smuggle precious stones or medicinal rhubarb from China. Rather, merchants sought out a middle ground between the growing customs infrastructure and private opportunities.16
Russia’s attempts to facilitate improved commerce in Siberia reflected a broader process of state intervention in its economy. The state’s promulgation of the 1653 Commercial Code (Torgovyi ustav), for example, focused on preventing the export of specie from Russia, similar to China’s earlier policies. Its first clause required commercial transactions in Russia to be paid in specie rather than in kind; in other words, foreigners had to bring gold and silver into Russia to buy hemp, pitch, potashes, tar, fur, and silk. It clarified the restrictions on the movements of Western merchants to guarantee they paid the appropriate customs duties at various posts around European Russia. It specified that European merchants could only export goods purchased from Russians at Arkhangel’sk in the far north. Thus, transregional Eurasian trade was an exclusive privilege of Russia and its designated intermediaries, including Bukharans. Finally, the code made special provisions for merchants arriving from Russia’s southern border, particularly Greeks and Persians, to keep them away from Russia’s north.17
In principle, the Commercial Code announced Russia as a mercantilist state, acting to protect its interests against Western competitors, but it took effort and time to enforce smoothly. In 1657, for example, the governor of Tobol’sk wrote to Moscow seeking advice on the status of Bukharan and Tatar merchants in his city, particularly their role in the profitable rhubarb trade from China.18 Neither China nor Central Asia had been mentioned in the 1653 code. To close these loopholes and refine the system, the Russians promulgated a new code in 1667. The New Commercial Code (Novotorgovyi ustav) was a dramatic expansion of the 1653 law with one hundred and one clauses explicating the operation of the toll system as it affected foreign merchants. Every time a merchant moved from any town to another, he was required to once again allow an inspection of his baggage by a customs officer. Furthermore, foreign merchants were only given a few routes they could legally travel. Merchants could seek permission to travel to Moscow, but they were not allowed to purchase any goods there. All commerce would be maintained under the watchful eye of border customs, and the subsequent inspections were to prevent smuggling within the kingdom.19
By the end of the 17th century, both Russia and China had developed new legislation to regulate overland commerce in northern Eurasia. The Russo-Chinese Treaties of Nerchinsk (1689) and Kiakhta (1727) formalized the ongoing trade between the two states. Each treaty fixed the border between the two, establishing a permanent customs post for both sides of the border, and set a fixed number of Russian caravans allowed to travel to Beijing where Russia’s merchants were allowed to purchase Chinese goods. The customs duties guaranteed state profits for each empire, and the regulated caravan travel promised improved security.
The Russo-Chinese treaties were agreements signed by two expansionist empires who shared an interest in controlling commerce to profit from customs duties and tariffs. These treaties, however, could not regulate the remaining “open spaces” of northern Eurasia. Lake Iamysh, a salt lake near the Irtysh River in modern Kazakhstan, is an excellent example of the fluidity of merchant spaces and the effort of a mercantilist state to regulate the economy. While the extraction of salt may have been the initial attraction to the lake, over the course of the 17th century, it hosted an annual summer market where Russians, Kalmyks, Tatars, and Bukharan merchants could purchase leather, furs, silk, tobacco; rhubarb, ginseng, and tea from China; dried fruits from Central Asia; and Indian textiles and spices.20
The final transformation of the region in the early modern era was the result of the Qing expansion west into Central Asia in the second half of the 18th century. China’s success led to its diplomatic agreement with the fledgling state that would soon become the Khoqand khanate in 1759, connecting the Qing dynasty overland with India through the khanate’s position in the Fergana Valley.21 A new tariff for goods crossing the border between the two states quickly followed.22 At almost the same time, the Qing government promoted agricultural development along its new northeastern border, supporting this investment with new agreements with Kashgar Muslims.23 By the end of the 18th century, China’s comprehensive border agreements along its extended northern frontier created an appearance of a “closed” space, but these arrangements were designed to promote trade, not restrict it.
While the example of Lake Iamysh indicates that markets could still prosper outside of state regulations, by the 18th century such an opportunity was increasingly difficult to find as China, Russia, and even the new Central Asia khanates invested in further controls. Regulating merchants’ travel or which commodities could be exchanged, however, did not prevent opportunities for those merchants beyond these states’ control, who continued to travel across Eurasia in significant numbers. Mercantilist reforms were not intended to restrict the economy, but rather to promote economic growth through directed channels. Independent merchants could exist within these growing legal frameworks. Transregional trade across Eurasia was no less affected by this phenomenon than other arenas of the global marketplace.
The observations of merchants such as Pegolotti in the 14th century and customs records from Lake Iamysh in the 17th century demonstrate that early modern Eurasians produced and consumed a broad range of goods. This panoply of products included both transit goods produced in Europe, China, and India moving through the region and locally produced commodities, including livestock from the steppe, cotton textiles, furs and leather, tea, dried fruits, and materia medica, silver and metalwork, and much more. Obscure rarities were also extracted from northern Eurasia, including mammoth bones (sold as ivory in some markets) and minerals such as asbestos, which was finding a broad variety of uses by the 18th century.
Historians have uncovered the high volume and value of goods moving across Eurasia in the early modern period. Several recent studies have highlighted the importance of Indian cotton textiles to the process of early-modern globalization, but the primary market for this cotton was Asia, which consumed approximately two-thirds of Indian exports in the 17th and 18th centuries.24 Cotton was only one of several large volume commodities that brought massive profits to the region. India, for example, received tens of thousands of Central Asian horses each year—estimates run as high as one hundred thousand—and Indian imports of between forty-five thousand and fifty thousand horses in the late 18th century were valued at perhaps two or three times as much as the total volume of imports arriving in India from Britain and France in the same period.25 Khoqand, in its strategic position in the Fergana Valley, produced grains and rice; imported tea, silk, pepper, and ceramics from China, which could be resold to India and Russia, and imported furs and manufactured goods from Russia that would in turn be exported to China. The early-modern world’s most robust and diverse markets were located in Asia, even as commercial exchanges with Europe steadily grew.
Considering the diversity of goods, it is difficult to evaluate the cultural, economic, or social significance of these commodities. Each product had its own unique history, and consumption patterns shifted as markets and tastes changed. However, it is possible to situate overland exchanges in Eurasia with the broader process of globalizing products that occurred in the early-modern period in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds. Two important features of early-modern globalization merit further consideration: bioprospecting and the localization of commodities among different societies.
The dissemination of botanical and medical knowledge across cultures is one of the hallmarks of early modern globalization. Botany was a central component of both Western and Eastern medical traditions, and the discovery of new plants brought the promise of the discovery of cures for both old and new illnesses. While this pursuit was scientific in principle, the possibility that materia medica could stimulate a profitable drug trade made any discoveries as much a commercial opportunity as a medicinal one. Londa Schiebinger termed this process “bioprospecting.”26 One of the prominent medicinal plants of the early modern world was Chinese rhubarb, which reached its peak as a trade good in the period between 1760 and the first quarter of the 19th century. Although China’s medicinal rhubarb had been included in Western pharmacopoeias since the classical era, it would take a combination of improved diplomatic relations with Russia and an era of peace among the Baltic trading nations for it to thrive as a valuable commodity. In a century when the popularity of traditional Western herbal treatments declined, rhubarb reached its apex.27
Rhubarb illustrates the value that transregional trade across Eurasia still held in an era when oceanic transit was growing. While merchants were among those who pursued the potential profits in “green gold” in Eurasia, they were not alone. Embassies, scientific expeditions, and individual travelers produced numerous narratives, letters, illustrations, and studies of potential goods throughout the region in hopes of uncovering a new product for export. Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1716), for example, was a German physician who entered Swedish service and became the secretary to the Swedish ambassador embassy to Iran in 1683. He took extensive notes on the plants along his route, traveling through Russia, down the Volga River to Astrakhan, and then across the Caspian Sea to northern Iran. The embassy, in other words, followed the established trade route connecting Iran to the Baltic Sea through Russia. Astrakhan also served as Russia’s entry point for Asia, with a variety of Caucasian, Central Asian, and Chinese goods available in its markets.
Kaempfer published his study of “Asian” plants in Latin in 1712.28 Among his “discoveries” were the first European observations on the cultivation and harvesting of Ferula asafoetida (also known as asafetida). Europeans had been aware of asafetida as a medicine in the West since at least the 14th century, when it was mentioned as a cure for colic in infants and as a “stimulating expectorant” for a variety of respiratory ailments.29 Kaempfer’s notes revealed the region in Iran where the drug was gathered, and raised the possibility of establishing a new trade in the drug through Russia, bypassing the potential competition from the East India companies from Britain, the Netherlands, or France. Although asafetida never fulfilled its promise as a large-volume trade good, unlike medicinal rhubarb, European interest in the drug remained strong. The British physician Matthew Guthrie shipped seeds of the plant from St. Petersburg to the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh in 1777. Guthrie mentioned that in Siberia the roots of the plant were brewed as a beer that “produced a singular sort of intoxication,” but Siberians also roasted the plant’s seeds as a substitute for coffee.30 As long as the potential for profit existed, there was no reason to exclude Eurasia from this sort of botanical espionage.
Eurasia remained an important space for bioprospecting efforts as much as the Americas or Africa in the early-modern period. It is not a surprise, therefore, that consumption of new and old commodities also followed an early-modern pattern of “localizing” among different communities as these products were refashioned within their own cultural contexts creating distinct patterns of consumption.31 Tobacco serves as one of the signal products of early modern globalization, first encountered by Europeans in the Americas at the end of the 15th century, and consumed across the world by the beginning of the 17th. By the early 18th century, it appeared throughout northern Eurasia, but in distinctive patterns reflecting local trade networks and regional differences among various communities.
Unlike China or India, the Russian government banned imports of tobacco from being sold anywhere inside its European possessions for most of the 17th century, though it did allow the tobacco trade to continue in Siberia. However, European merchants sought access to Russia’s markets to export their colonial product. Both English and Dutch merchants would sell tobacco to Swedish merchants in the ports along the Baltic Sea, and some of this product would be smuggled across the border into Russia. The Ottoman Empire supported a trade route northward through Moldova, introducing tobacco to Polish Ukraine, where its consumption and production were legal. Ukrainian farmers had established tobacco production in those regions that would become part of Russia following the union with left-bank Ukraine after the Thirteen Years’ War (ending in 1667). By the middle of the 17th century, both the Indian and Persian merchants arrived in Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea with cargoes of Asian tobacco. Bukharan merchants resold tobacco throughout Central Asia, which left Moscow’s customs agents a puzzling treaty problem, as Moscow had granted the Bukharans special caravan privileges within Muscovy’s borders. Following the Treaty of Nerchinsk, Chinese records demonstrate that Russian traders purchased “ball” tobacco in China, which was tobacco rolled and bound together with some type of sweetener, which became the preferred tobacco product in western Siberia.32
Viewed from the perspective of the commodities exchanged across Eurasia, the region reflects early modern globalization as much as the economies of the Atlantic or Indian Oceans. Across northern Eurasia, tobacco was consumed as a variety of products, as Western rolled cigars, sweetened Chinese balls, or as a mixture of tobacco and henbane for a water pipe imported from India. These supplies were produced around the globe, from the Americas to China, arriving through different regional trade networks. It may have been the “Old World,” but naturalists still found value in bioprospecting for new products as much as in the Spanish American colonies. The region produced high-value and large-volume commodities like horses, furs, silk, and tea, and consumed products like cotton textiles on a scale that outdistanced Western Europe. While it is true that the silver influx from the Americans fostered an economic boom in China and India, Eurasian territory north of the Himalayas was as much transformed by the new global economy as any place in the world in the early-modern period.
Transformation or Decline
At the beginning of the 18th century, transregional trade in Eurasia was robust, with important entrepots for commerce across the expanse. Jan Federick Bernard (d. 1752), a Swedish prisoner of war living in Siberia in the 1720s, wrote a lengthy narrative describing the wonders of “Grand Tartary,” a region be defined that ran from the Volga River in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the East, and bound along the southern edge by the Himalayas. He observed that Siberian Tatars traded in furs from a wide variety of animals, along with “rhubarb, ginseng root, elk wool & musk.” These Tatars had an “abundance of Camels, Horses, Oxen, Sheep, Pheasants & other Birds.”33 Siberian Tatars were not the only exceptional merchants in the region. The Bukharans “subsist only by commerce & the Trade that they exercise. They go to trade into China, the Indies, Persia & Siberia where they make considerable Profit. Astrakhan received particular notice “as it is situated on the Frontiers of Asia & Europe, The Armenians, Indians, Persians, Mahometan Tartars, Calmucks, Georgians & Russians drive a considerable Trade there.”34
Despite the evidence of men such as Bernard, several historians have argued that the Silk Road trade declined in the early modern period, perhaps even collapsed in the 18th century. This concept raises multiple issues, beginning with the challenge of defining a “decline.” Decline is a relative term that requires, at a minimum, some ability to analysis the overall scale and structure of the trade and how it changed over time. If goods moved out of the hands of Indian or Armenian merchants, and into the hands of authorized Russian-state agents, was this a decline in the trade or a realignment of its patterns? Scholarship produced by Russian historians revealed that the peak of the Russo-China trade was the 19th century. Despite interest in the importance of the Treaty of Nerchinsk in the 17th century or Kiakhta in the 18th, it would be more than a century before profits and the volume of goods “peaked.”
One part of the perception of a decline is the remapping of trade created by the shifting territorial landscape of Eurasia. Beginning the early modern era under Mongol auspices, the first realignment occurred as the Mongol state devolved. Rather than a unified trade zone spanning Ukraine to the Pacific, and from the Russian taiga to South Asia, multiple polities emerged with competing interests and regulations. On the one hand, the early modern period was defined by the growing importance of diasporic networks of merchants. Armenians traveled from Iran through Russia into the Baltic. Bukharans traveled from Central Asia east to China and west to Russia. Indian merchants moved across the Caspian Sea and into Central Asia. While the movements can be traced, assessing the scale of this trade is quite difficult. Russia only established Astrakhan as its point of entry from Asia (with customs officers) in the 17th century, and even then, we do not have a complete set of customs records. The Russo-China trade was first regulated at the end of the 17th century, and there is still no single study of its customs records. The Central Asian khanates do not have customs records for this era. How then can the scale of trade be assessed?
Trade regulations, border controls, and competing tariff systems created may have created an impediment to trade. There is a longstanding attitude among historians that “mercantilist” regulations restricted trade, and that notion has only been challenged recently.35 There is no doubt that the latter half of the 17th century saw the first of these new treaties implemented, and the 1760s saw a flurry of new agreements between the Qing government and Central Asian states and peoples. However, as historian Giorgio Riello argued concerning the textile trade, protectionist regulations did not alter the existing trade as the quality of certain goods overrode attempts to foster new markets or production.36 Indeed, the late 18th century was a particularly robust period for the textile trade, as discussed above. If anything, certain trades like cotton only prove the growth of the market.
Geopolitical conflicts created another serious issue. Goods crossed Eurasia and entered the West either through the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania or the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries. Russia’s recurring wars with Poland, followed by its acquisition of a large portion of its territory by the early 18th century, rerouted significant trade. Wars between the Ottoman and Safavid dynasties caused similar problems in the 17th and 18th centuries. Merchants may have been protected as a valuable resource to produce specie for the state, but smuggling, banditry, and even piracy on the Caspian Sea increased in wartime. If conflicts obstructed caravan traffic, or prevented any goods from traveling, did trade decline steadily over an extended period or was it simply interrupted on a shorter basis? The latter seems more logical. When conflicts on Russia’s western border disrupted trade in the early 18th century, Safavid Iran became its major foreign trading partner. For a period in the 1730s and 1740s, more of Iran’s goods traveled into Russia than to its own ports to be purchased by European oceanic traders.37 China closed its northern border to trade with Russia on three separate occasions in the 18th century, but evidence shows that industrious merchants simply turned from direct China-Russia travel toward the still viable China-Fergana-Russia route, using mobility to counter-act state attempts to regulate transit.38 In the 19th century, much of China’s tea trade across its northern border was smuggled, especially into Central Asia, suggesting that “legal” trade may have declined but the commercial opportunities persisted.39
Another challenge to understanding the possible strands of a Eurasian decline is the nature of changing consumption patterns. The spice trade across Eurasia, like silk, was one of the traditional pieces of commerce. Recent studies have shown, however, that it was not the disruption of trade patterns or limits on potential supplies, but rather changing tastes.40 Some Central Asian merchandise simply fell out of fashion. Products across the region were important parts of Europe’s pharmacopeia, this included rhubarb from China, asafetida from Iran, sal ammoniac from Central Asia, among many others. However, medical knowledge continued to advance beyond early modern understanding of the body, producing a natural decline of traditional remedies. Slavery was a key trade throughout the region in the medieval era, but Eurasia’s slave trade by the 18th century was both practically and politically undesirable.41 Considering these trades indicates a “decline,” but the overall volume of goods such as textiles or horses challenges any such notion.
As some products lost their market, new commodities that could be supplied by the region were not easily found. Russia’s discovery of Siberian silver was a key product in the region in the 18th century, but largely flowed into Chinese coffers rather than outside of the region.42 Iron ore would become an increasingly important commodity from the Ural Mountains and Siberia as well, but it alone could not replace the diversity of the products that had been transported through, and out of, the region in the earlier period. Growing Western involvement in China in the 19th century, the expanded role of the British in India, and Russia’s entry into Central Asia altered the connections between northern and southern Asia. There was a quantifiable decrease in Eurasian trade starting in the 1850s, but it did not originate in the expansion of oceanic trade in the Indian Ocean in the early modern period as much as it did in from modern colonial systems that disrupted the traditional trade routes.43
Discussion of the Literature
The preeminence of overland Eurasian trade has been noted by Western merchants and travelers since the Middle Ages.44 There has never been any question that trade flowed across Eurasia, carrying a variety of luxury goods as well as scientific and medical knowledge, religious beliefs, and diaspora communities. Since the 1970s, however, northern Eurasia was framed as belonging to the “semi-periphery” of global economic development. This argument supported a longstanding belief in the “decline” of the Silk Roads that may have begun with the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, or following Vasco da Gama’s arrival in the Indian Ocean in 1498, and definitely by the 17th and 18th centuries, depending on the scholar. In the 1990s, a group of revisionist scholars argued for the supremacy of Asia’s economy in comparison to the West, suggesting that Asia was the central region of the world’s development at least until the 18th century, if not later.45 The Asian “reorientation” of the economy suggested the idea that the caravan trade across Eurasia remained vibrant much later than earlier scholars suggested, leading to a growth in interest in studying the region in new ways.
Studies of the merchant communities living and traveling across Eurasia opened new avenues for considering the role of transregional trade, especially the portion of this commerce that existed beyond the vision of Western observers. Important works detailing the roles of Bukharan merchants throughout the region, demonstrated the vibrancy of this large merchant diaspora.46 An Indian merchant diaspora played a central role in the Eurasian entrepot of Astrakhan, as well as traveled throughout Central Asia.47 Recent studies highlighted the importance of China’s frontier regions, and its engagement with merchants from Central Asia in particular, complimenting earlier studies of the Russo-China trade that had been one glance at the eastern end of the Eurasian trade network.48 Considering the variety of merchant communities acting in early modern Eurasia, it is no wonder that a Chinese envoy described Siberia as the “unfrequented and desert regions” of Eurasia but that “traders and merchants are many.”49
Alternatively, there has been growing interest in complimenting these studies of the traders operating within Eurasia with studies of the commodities crossing the region. Silk, perhaps ironically, was not the primary commodity moving across the early-modern “Silk Roads.” Commodities studies borrow methodologies from historical anthropology, economics, and sociology to understand the value of “things,” as Arjun Appadurai termed it.50 Rhubarb is the iconic commodity of early-modern Eurasia. Mongolian nomads gathered rhubarb for its roots, which was sold for its gastrointestinal health benefits to Europeans. It moved from China to Russia to the ports on the Baltic Sea before it reached Western markets.51 The volume and value of rhubarb has been of interest to historians for decades, but recently scholarship has added to our knowledge of Eurasian commodities by examining the value of cotton textiles, the history of silver in the region, the arrival and dissemination of tobacco, and the growing market for Central Asian drugs, leatherwork, and horses.52 And while silk may have lost its dominant role in Eurasian trade, certainly interest in the product has not diminished.53
The records available for early-modern Eurasian trade are plentiful, but researchers will face challenges of access to material and the multiple languages required for a truly transregional approach. Scholars relying upon English-language material will find greater difficulties than those with facilities in multiple foreign languages. Customs books and other state trade records exist in great volume, both in published editions as well as in archives throughout the region. Scholars including Saguchi Toru and James Millward have made excellent use of archival sources to recover the previously “hidden” history of northern Eurasia. However, without access to the regional archives, this type of research will be more challenging. The Russian and Soviet government supported several major publication projects to produce comprehensive, if edited, accounts of its economic relationships with the Ottomans, Indians, the Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as with China.54 Only one short edition of the Russo-Indian material has been translated into English.55 While some of the material from the customs records for Astrakhan have been published in some of these collections, the complete records for the city, which served as Russia’s official entry from all of Asia from the Ottoman Empire to the Pacific, until the middle of the 18th century, are available in the Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts in Moscow. The Chinese customs records for Kiakhta reside in the state archives in Mongolia, but have not been accessed by Western historians to date.
Travel literature creates another window into this world, and several important accounts have been produced both in English and in translations, primarily from Russian. As historians Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam noted in their study, Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries, 1400–1800, there is a rich wealth of travel narratives produced in Persian for the early modern period, but most of this literature is untranslated.56 Russian merchants who traveled to the Middle East, including Afanasii Nikitin in the 15th century and Fedot Kotov in the 17th century, have both been translated into English.57 By the 18th century, travel narratives from Russians and the foreigners in their employ become numerous, with numerous accounts published in English, French, and German, as well as Russia. There are fewer published accounts available from other parts of the region. There is one translation of a Chinese embassy traveling into Russia in the early 18th century, which included observations on Eurasian trade across Siberia, but this text is more of an exception rather than a rule.58 There remain far more narratives available for those with the necessary language skills.
Numerous narratives were produced by foreign visitors in the region, beginning in the Mongol Era with the Frenchman William of Rubruck and the Florentine Francesco Balducci Pegolotti. By the 17th and 18th centuries, the volume of texts is substantial. British merchants working for the British “Russia Company,” as well as Dutch and German merchants frequently traveled into Russia to pursue information on its access to Asian goods. Several made trips to Iran through Russia in the 16th and 17th century, and traveling across Siberia and into Central Asia became more common in the 18th. Many of these men published travel narratives upon their return to Western Europe, but many more left records held in national and local archives in Britain, the Netherlands, and northern Germany.
To produce a complete narrative of Eurasian trade, a greater attempt to include extant sources from Central Asia, Iran, India, and Turkey would be necessary, but issues of access remain difficult. Many scholars pursuing the study of these regions turn toward the more readily available English and Russian materials to frame an understanding of the region. With new digitization projects underway, it is possible that previously inaccessible material will play a greater role in future scholarship.
- Alam, Muzaffar. “Trade, State Policy and Regional Change: Aspects of Mughal-Uzbek Commercial Relations, c. 1550–1750.” Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient 37 (1994): 202–227.
- Blanchard, Ian. Russia’s ‘Age of Silver’: Precious Metal Production and Economic Growth in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Routledge, 1989.
- Burton, Audrey. The Bukharans: A Dynastic, Diplomatic and Commercial History, 1550–1702. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
- Dale, Stephen Frederic. Indian Merchants and Eurasian Trade, 1600–1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
- Foust, Clifford M. Muscovite and Mandarin: Russia’s Trade with China and its Setting, 1727–1805. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969.
- Haidar, Mansura. Medieval Central Asia: Polity, Economy and Military Organization (Fourteenth to Sixteenth Centuries). New Delhi: Manohar, 2004.
- Hansen, Valerie. The Silk Road: A New History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Kim, Kwangmin. Borderland Capitalism: Turkestan Produce, Qing Silver, and the Birth of an Eastern Market. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016.
- Kotilaine, Jarmo T. Russia’s Foreign Trade and Economic Expansion in the Seventeenth Century: Windows on the World. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005.
- Levi, Scott C. The Indian Diaspora in Central Asia and its Trade, 1550–1900. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002.
- Matthee, Rudi. The Politics of Trade in Safavid Iran: Silk for Silver, 1600–1730. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
- Millward, James A. Beyond the Pass: Economy, Ethnicity, and Empire in Qing Central Asia, 1759–1864. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.
- Monahan, Erika. The Merchants of Siberia: Trade in Early Modern Eurasia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016.
- Parthasarathi, Prasannan. Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600–1850. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
- Pomeranz, Kenneth. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
- Rosenthal, Jean-Laurent and R. Bin Wong. Before and Beyond Divergence: The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
- Rossabi, Morris. “The ‘Decline’ of the Central Asian Caravan Trade.” In The Rise of Merchant Empires. Edited by James D. Tracy, 351–370. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
1. See Herni Cordier, ed., Cathay and the Way Thither, vol. III, Missionary Friars, Rashiduddin, Pegolotti, Marignolli (London: Hakluyt Society, 1914), 137–171.
2. See Xinru Lu, The Silk Road in World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 126. The medieval “decline” is challenged by Nicola di Cosmo, “Black Sea Emporia and the Mongol Empire: A Reassessment of the Pax Mongolica,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 53 (2010): 83–108.
3. Céline Dauverd, “Cultivating Differences: Genoese Trade Identity in the Constantinople of Sultan Mehmed II, 1453–1481,” Mediterranean Studies 23.2 (2015), 94–124.
4. Stephen Frederic Dale, Indian Merchants and Eurasian Trade, 1600–1750 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Audrey Burton, The Bukharans: A Dynastic, Diplomatic and Commercial History, 1550–1702 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997); Scott C. Levi, The Indian Diaspora in Central Asia and its Trade, 1550–1900 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002); Vahé Baladouni, “The Armenian Silk Road: An Economic and Politico-Cultural Landscape,” Journal of European Economic History 33.3 (2004), 687–705; Sebouh Aslanian, “The Circulation of Men and Credit: The Role of the Commenda and the Family Firm in Julfan Society,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 50.2–3 (2007): 124–171; and Erika Monahan, The Merchants of Siberia: Trade in Early Modern Eurasia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016).
5. Peter C. Perdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Asia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), esp. 174–299.
6. Philippe Avril, Travels into divers parts of Europe and Asia (London, 1693), 142.
7. Avril, Travels into divers parts, 142–143.
8. Avril, Travels into divers parts, 143–144.
9. Avril, Travels into divers parts, 144–146.
10. The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor, trans. and ed. Wheeler M. Thackston (Washington, DC: Freer Gallery, 1996).
11. Mansura Haidar, Medieval Central Asia: Polity, Economy and Military Organization (Fourteenth to Sixteenth Centuries) (New Delhi: Manohar, 2004), 455–495.
12. Akinobu Kuroda, “The Eurasian Silver Century, 1267–1359: Commensurability and Multiplicity,” The Journal of Global History 4.2 (2009): 245–269.
13. Richard von Glahn, Fountain of Fortune: Money and Monetary Policy in China, 1000–1700 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 97–133; Om Prakash, “Precious-Metal Flows into India in the Early Modern Period,” in Global Connections and Monetary History, 1470–1800, eds. Dennis O. Flynn, Arturo Giráldez, and Richard von Glahn (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2003), 149–158.
14. Richard von Glahn, The Economic History of China: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 308.
15. von Glahn, Economic History, 312–322.
16. Monahan, Merchants of Siberia, 149–152, 160–164.
17. Sobranie gosudarstvennykh gramot i dogovorov khraniashchikhsia v gosudarstvennoi Kollegi inostrannykh del (SGGD), 4 vols. (Moscow: Tipografiia selivanovskii, 1813–1828), III, 490–493, 25 October 1653.
18. SGGD, IV, 27–30, 1657.
19. Polnoe sobranie zakonov Rossiiskoi Imperii, Series 1, 45 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1830), vol. I, #408, 22 April 1667, 677–691.
20. Monahan, Merchants of Siberia, 184–195.
21. Scott C. Levi, The Rise and Fall of Khoqand, 1709–1876: Central Asia in the Global Age (Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh University Press, 2017).
22. Toru Sagachi, “The Eastern Trade of the Khoqand Khanate,” Memoirs of the Research Department of the Toyo Bunko no. 24 (1965), 70–71.
23. Kwangmin Kim, Borderland Capitalism: Turkestan Produce, Qing Silver, and the Birth of an Eastern Market (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016), 60.
24. Sushil Chaudhury, “The Inflow of Silver to Bengal in Global Perspective, c. 1650–1757,” in Global Connections and Monetary History, 1470–1800, eds. Dennis O. Flynn, Arturo Giráldez, and Richard von Glahn (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2003), 164.
25. Scott Levi, “India, Russia, and the Eighteenth-Century Transformation of the Central Asian Caravan Trade,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 42.4 (1999), 526–528.
26. Londa Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).
27. Matthew P. Romaniello, “True Rhubarb? Trading Eurasian Botanical and Medical Knowledge in the Eighteenth Century,” The Journal of Global History 11.1 (2016), 3–23.
28. Engelbert Kaempfer, Amoenitatum Exoticarum Politico-Physico-Medicarum Fasciculi V (Lemogoviae: Typis and Impensis Henrici Wilhemi Meyeri, 1712).
29. Robert W. Carruba, “The First Report of Harvesting Asafetida in Iran,” Agricultural History 52.2 (1979): 451–461.
30. National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh, GD253/144/2/1, “Letter from Matthew Guthrie,” 16 August 1777, f. 1.
31. On localization, see Peter Jackson, “Commodity Cultures: The Traffic in Things,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 24 (1999): 95–108.
32. This is a summary of Matthew P. Romaniello, “Muscovy’s Extraordinary Ban on Tobacco,” in Tobacco in Russian History and Culture: From the Seventeenth Century to the Present. Edited by Matthew P. Romaniello and Tricia Starks (New York: Routledge, 2009), 9–25.
33. Wellcome Library, MS.1143, J. F. Bernard, A Relation of Grand Tartary, drawn up from the Original Memoirs of the Suedes, who were Prisoners in Siberia during the War between Sueden & Russia, trans. William Farrington, 1738, ff. 12–13.
34. Bernard, Relation of Grand Tartary, ff. 177, 372–373.
35. For a thorough discussion of the changing ideas of “mercantilism,” see Steve Pincus, “Rethinking Mercantilism: Political Economy, the British Empire, and the Atlantic World in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” The William and Mary Quarterly 69.1 (2014): 3–34; and Lars Magnusson, The Political Economy of Mercantilism (New York: Routledge, 2015), esp. chap. 2.
36. Giorgio Riello, “Asian Knowledge and the Development of Calico Printing in Europe in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” The Journal of Global History 5.1 (2010): 1–28.
37. A. I. Iukht, “Uchastnie rossiiskogo kupechestva v torgovle Rossii s Zakavkaz’em i Iranom v 1725–1750 gg.,” in Torgovlia i predprinimatel’stvo v feodal’noi Rossii, eds. L. A. Timoshina and I. A. Tikhoniuk (Moscow: Arkheograficheskii tsentr, 1994), 230–251.
38. Levi, Rise and Fall, ch. 2.
39. Toru, “The Eastern Trade,” 75–77.
40. Stefan Halikowski Smith, “‘Profits sprout like tropical plants’: A Fresh Look at what went wrong with the Eurasian Spice Trade, c. 1550–1800,” The Journal of Global History 3 (2008): 389–418.
41. Mikhail B. Kizilov, “The Black Sea and the Slave Trade: The Role of Crimean Maritime Towns in the Trade in Slaves and Captives in the Fifteenth to Eighteenth Centuries,” International Journal of Maritime History 17.1 (2005): 211–235.
42. Ian Blanchard, Russia’s “Age of Silver”: Precious Metal Production and Economic Growth in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Routledge, 1989).
43. For a parallel argument, see K. N. Chaudhuri, “Markets and Traders in India during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in Economy and Society: Essays in Indian Economic and Social History, eds. K. N. Chaudhuri and Clive J. Dewey (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1979), 143–162.
44. For an overview of the earlier period, David Christian, “Silk Roads or Steppe Roads? The Silk Roads in World History,” The Journal of World History 11 (2000): 1–26.
45. Andre Gunder Frank, ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); R. Bin Wong, China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); and Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).
46. Burton, The Bukharans and Monahan, Merchants of Siberia.
47. Dale, Indian Merchants and Levi, Indian Diaspora.
48. Clifford M. Foust, Muscovite and Mandarin: Russia’s Trade with China and Its Setting, 1727–1805; and James A. Millward, Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).
49. George Thomas Staunton, translator. Narrative of the Chinese Embassy to the Khan of the Tourgouth Tartars, in the Years 1712, 13, 14, & 15, by the Chinese Ambassador (London: John Murray, 1821), 135 and 209.
50. Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 3–63.
51. Clifford M. Foust, Rhubarb: The Wondrous Drug (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).
52. Blanchard, Russia’s “Age of Silver”; Matthew P. Romaniello, “Customs and Consumption: Russia’s Global Tobacco Habits in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in The Global Lives of Things: Materiality, Material Culture and Commodities in the First Global Age, eds. Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello (London: Routledge), 183–197.
53. Rudi Matthee, The Politics of Trade in Safavid Iran: Silk for Silver, 1600–1730 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
54. For example, K. A. Antonova and N. M. Gol’berg, editors, Russko-Indiiskie otnosheniia v XVII v.: Sbornik dokumentov (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Vostochnoi literatury, 1958).
55. Surendra Gopal, Indians in Russia in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Calcutta: Naya Prakash, 1988).
56. Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries, 1400–1800 (New York: Cambridge, 2007).
57. “Of a Journey to the Kingdom of Persia, from Persia to the Land of Turkey and to India and to Hormuz where the Ships Come,” in Russian Travellers to India and Persia (1624–1798): Kotov, Yefremov, Danibegov, trans. and ed. P. M. Kemp (Dehli: Jiwan Prakashan, 1959), 1–42; “Afanasy Nikitin’s Journey across Three Seas,” in Russia’s Medieval Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, trans. and ed. Serge A. Zenkovsky (New York: Meridian, 1963), 333–353.
58. Staunton, Narrative of the Chinese Embassy.