Journal of World History 14.4 (2003) 566-568
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The Indian Diaspora in Central Asia and Its Trade 1550-1900. By Scott Levi. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2002. xiv + 319 pp. $93.00 (cloth).
One of the major projects of recent world history scholarship has been the attempt to see the history of the last five hundred years through less Eurocentric eyes. Works by Ken Pomeranz,R.BinWong, Andre Gunder Frank, and many others, incorporating the burgeoning research on the economic history of Asia, have shown that Europeans did not dominate world commerce before the nineteenth century. Other scholars, such as Stephen Dale and Audrey Burton, have begun to study Asian commercial networks that existed in parallel to the emerging European networks, and often preceded them and exceeded them in scale. What they have shown is that commercial networks as sophisticated and far more extensive than those of early modern Europe had flourished in Asia for hundreds of years. Scott Levi's book is a worthy contribution to this emerging tradition of scholarship.
At the center of Levi's account is the history of Indian caste-based trading firms trading with Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Russia from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. Levi shows that from the sixteenth century there existed a large diaspora of Indian merchants in the large cities and even in the rural areas of these countries. At any one time, he estimates that the diaspora numbered as many as thirty-five thousand individuals. Most were agents of Indian firms. So many of these firms were based in the city of Multan, in modern Pakistan, that they were widely referred to as "Multani" before the nineteenth century, when many firms relocated to Shikarpur in Sind, and their agents began to be described as "Shikarpuri." Agents received extensive training in commercial techniques in their home town before being given advances of goods and cash and sent off to one of the many diaspora communities. Normally, their families stayed behind, providing [End Page 566] a sort of informal surety for their good behavior. In the host countries, the merchants normally lived with other Indian merchants, often in special Indian caravanserais. It was, Levi argues, their clear cultural separation that helped them maintain their distinctive financial and commercial role in the host societies and negotiate effectively with local rulers. The huge volume of trade in India and the extensive Indian experience in handling rural credit explains why they were so successful in their host countries, playing a crucial role not only as traders but also as suppliers of credit in both urban and rural areas. The important financial services they supplied are one more reason why they were usually well protected by local rulers. Levi argues forcefully that the success of the diaspora disproves the old argument that Central Asia went into a period of economic and political decline after the Timurid era, largely because of the success of European seaborne trading ventures. On the contrary, he argues, "it is a central argument of this book that early modern Central Asia was not economically isolated and that, in fact, the commercial relationship between Central Asia and India during this period continued at an escalated level" (p. 1). This claim is developed in detail in chapter 1, "The Growth of Indo-Turanian Trade in the Early Modern Period." However, the concluding chapter shows that the Indian diaspora, which had sustained these vigorous trading relationships since the sixteenth century, collapsed at the end of the nineteenth century as industrialization turned the terms of trade against India (particularly Indian textiles) and as Russia seized control of Central Asia and began excluding Indian traders from the region.
This is a superb account of an important theme. It is based on extremely wide reading of secondary sources and travelers' accounts, as well as on archival sources, primarily from Uzbekistan. In addition to an apparently exhaustive account of the Indian merchant diasporas, it offers the reader the bonus of brief surveys of Indian trading history with the lands to its north...