Thursday, August 19, 2010

Empires of the Silk Road (2): the rise of the maritime empires

This is the second part of my review of Christopher I. Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Part one is here.

The rise of the maritime system
Around 1500, a new pattern in Eurasian and global history emerges: the European Atlantic states create various “coastal” empires based on maritime trade and spanning the globe. Meanwhile, Central Eurasia becomes dominated by various Central Eurasian “gunpowder” empires: the Ottoman Turks, the Safavid Iranians, the Romanov successors to the House of Rurik in Russia, the Mughals in Northern India and the Manchus or Qing dynasty in China and Eastern Steppes. Beckwith argues that the Portugese and Spanish empires effectively replicated the patterns of the nomad empires of the steppes in their search for trade, and seizure of trade nodes and territory, except using ships and cannon rather than horses and bows while, like the steppe empires, utilising local expertise as expedient (Pp204ff).

The great revolution in world history of the triumph of littoral states begins with the Spanish conquest of Granada and the Iberian expansion across the Atlantic and into the Pacific and Indian oceans:
The subsequent history of European colonial exploration and empire building is marked by the success of the major Atlantic littoral states—Portugal, Spain, Holland, England and France—to the exclusion of nearly all other contenders. There were to be no important Swedish colonies, German colonies, Austro-Hungarian colonies, Italian colonies, and so on. Even though all these were seafaring nations too, their maritime tradition was almost exclusively local in nature (p.207).
While that drama was being played out, a great age of empire building was underway in Central Eurasia, with the Ottomans essentially recreating the Eastern Roman Empire before the Arab Conquests (p.208) while the Safavids recreated the Iranian empire of the Parthians and Sassanids. The Mughals created, lost and then recreated an empire in Northern India. Meanwhile, the Muscovite destruction of their former “Tatar” overlords—having unified most of the Russian principalities—began Russian expansion across the northern forests (particularly in pursuit of the fur trade), avoiding the steppe peoples on their home ground. Ivan IV, descendant of the Paleologi had himself crowned czar (‘ceasar’) proclaiming Moscow to be the “Third Rome”, with all the imperial pretensions that went with that (Pp222ff). A little later, the Manchus overthrow the failing Ming dynasty, founding the Qing Empire (Pp225ff). It was this Romanov and Qing empire-building that was eventually to conquer the steppe and (brutally) extinguish the last of the steppe states, bringing a cycle of history that had started with the Scythians millennia before to a close.

When it came to brutality, duplicity and exploitation, the Europeans were hardly some moral low point. While modern accounts often portray folk such as Vasco da Gama fairly harshly, Beckwith points out that da Gama, and other European adventurers, were themselves preyed upon by those they interacted with (p.211). Indeed, the Europeans were often less violent and predatory against Asians than they were to each other, both in Asia and back in Europe (p.212). Many of the local outposts were established via agreement with a local ruler (again, replicating a Central Eurasian pattern). As Beckwith points out, the replication of such patterns is hardly surprising, since trade and taxation motivated both expansions. Indeed, for the first two centuries, European expansion in Asia was dominated by trading companies (Pp212-3).

Meanwhile, local traders were ruthless in their opposition to competition and mobilised their influence and, in the end, entire fleets to throw the Portugese out: an attempt that failed due to the superior European maritime technology and established a pattern that, despite local setbacks. led to increasing European maritime dominance (Pp214ff). (Or, as we have now, neo-European maritime dominance by the American fleet, which guarantees expanding global trade just as the Royal Navy did from 1815-1914.)

Armed with his understanding of the Central Eurasian economic and rulership system, Beckwith is able to put European maritime dominance in context. Thus, he rightly critiques dismissive analysis of European commercial activity as “luxury goods”, since it is exactly the same massively-missing-the-point belittling of the Silk Road economy as concerned with “luxury goods” (p.216), which he also critiques, pointing out that much modern trade is also “luxury” goods for the same reason—high unit value makes them worth the effort (p.417n87).
Beckwith notes the vast difference in prices in the traded goods between Asia and Europe, hence the enormous potential profits to be made (p.216). Partly this was a relative goods-scarcity issue (due to distance and lower scarcity of Asian “luxury” goods in the Asian economic system) but it was even more due to the silver-scarcity issue in the other direction. Particularly after the Spanish and Portugese gained the silver mines of the Americas, silver was hugely more plentiful in the (smaller) European economic system than the (much bigger) Asian one, so Asian goods were silver-cheap and European goods silver-expensive. Beckwith points to the importance of silver in promoting the Spanish commerce with Asia:
They sent their galleons across the Pacific to Manila and on to China, where they spent as much as 20 per cent of their New World silver. This trade not only enriched the Spanish and paid for their empire’s European wars, it flooded China with immense quantities of silver (p.219)
Hence the Europeans could feed the apparently endless appetite of Asia for silver and profit off the apparently endless appetite of European markets for Asian “luxury” goods. The exchange was of precious metal for “luxuries” and yet it increasingly drove the global economic system.

The European dominance of the main medium of exchange (silver) gave them a great commercial advantage (even though it priced most of their manufactures out of Asian markets): which would simply have made them victims if they had not had the maritime technology to defend and utilise it. (It is typical of current Western academic prejudices that this exchange for mutual benefit can be dismissed as a sign of the “failure” of European manufactures: though a major economic historian labelling it as some sort of Asian “prejudice” against European goods is even more bizarre.)

Not that Europeans entirely failed to sell to Asia: cloth, glass products, clocks and other mechanical devices and firearms, swords and other weapons were sold into Asian markets (p.219)—goods where the European products were either much better, had no competitors, or much more plentiful in particular forms, than local products. The Europeans also took over the maritime traveling trade, selling goods from one Asian market to other Asian markets: particularly after the Ming Great Withdrawal from maritime activity eliminated Chinese competition (p.220).

As it was, Beckwith points out that there were plenty of attempts—both official and semi-official—to prey on the Europeans, who (just like the Central Eurasians) often had to resort of violence and threat of violence just to get diplomatic and commercial relations going (p.217):
In short, in order to be able to participate in international trade, the Europeans needed to stabilize the trade routes and port cities by establishing their political dominance over them, exactly as the Central Eurasians were forced to do over and over for the two millennia that the Central Eurasian economy flourished—the period of the existence of the Silk Road (p.218).
The Europeans settled for outposts until the decay of Asian rule opened the door to further expansion:
It was only when the peripheral empires became feeble, or actually collapsed, that the Central Eurasians attempted to set up new governments or otherwise stepped in to stabilise things. This is just what the Europeans did in India and China in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In both the Silk Road and the Littoral System cases, only gradually did the Central Eurasians and the Europeans, respectively, become involved in attempting to govern directly (p.218).
(Now, about Iraq and Afghanistan …)

While the Qing were consolidating their rule in China (the last legitimate claimant to the Ming throne not being caught and executed until 1662) and the Romanovs were still pursuing a forest-and-rivers strategy across the north of Eurasia, the Junghars had constructed the last great steppe empire by the 1670s (Pp226ff). There was also, from the C15th, a major cultural renaissance in Central Eurasia in art, architecture, poetry and philosophy (Pp229ff).

The road is closed
The Qing developed a careful strategy to achieve the power of their Jurchen ancestors that included destroying any Mongol threat by incorporating Mongols in their imperial system—to the extent of playing naming themselves ‘Manjus’ and adopting the same forms of Tibetan Buddhism. Warfare within the Mongols aided their cause, but spilled over into violence against the Junghars, who retaliated by smashing the Eastern Mongols, undermining Qing control.

The Qing had some frontier military clashes with the Russians. These were resolved by a 1689 treaty which set boundaries and trade relations between the two empires until the mid C19th (p.235). With relations towards Russia regularised to both empires mutual satisfaction, the Qing now had great freedom of manoeuvre against the Junghars. The result was a pattern of periodic Qing assaults, with very unsettled Tibetan politics providing much of the excuse for conflict (both realms acknowledged the spiritual authority of the Dalai Lama). The Junghars, as per normal for steppe empires, promoted trade. But, in the mid C18th, natural disasters (particularly a smallpox epidemic) and civil war weakened the Junghar state. The Qing intervened, establishing their dominance. Attempts to re-establish Junghar independence were treated as rebellion. The Chi’en-lung emperor ordered the effective extermination of the Junghar people in 1756-7. With destruction of the Junghar people, and the subjection of Kalmyks, Qing dominance of the Eastern steppes was established (Pp233ff).

Qing dominance coincided with the economic decline of the steppes. With Qing, Russian and British expansion—including tight border control—Central Eurasia effectively disappeared. Trade dropped precipitously after the destruction of the Junghar Empire, impoverishing Central Eurasia. But the global economic system had an alternative structure of goods transmission—the Littoral maritime system, no matter how little the continental powers may have understood it. Asian economic activity became increasingly dominated by great port cities that fed into, and were part of (sometimes the creation of) the European-dominated maritime system, which became the sole operating international economic system (Pp241ff). The forced opening of Japan, and its decision to join the European Littoral system—aided by high levels of literacy, the slow assimilation of European learning through the “open port” of Nagasaki and that Japan was already a maritime society—completed the maritime dominance of the Asian economic system (Pp243ff).

Maritime trade
While economic activity increasingly centred in the great Asian port cities, the Middle Eastern economy declined, if not as disastrously at the Central Eurasian economy. The Ottoman Empire was in slow decline while, after the collapse of the Safavids, Iran became resolutely reactionary (as it has remained, with the brief exception of the Pahlavi dynasty). Eurasian inland cities generally became centres of conservative or reactionary movements, while the port cities became increasingly integrated in the global maritime economy (Pp 245ff).

This division, indeed dominance, of trade and commercial activity by maritime centres was very much a new departure in Asian affairs. The traditional focus of rulership was control of land—focused around fortified cities—generating a region of control. Merchants preferred to function at the frontiers, away from official attention and control (p.254).

Geography discouraged the creation and maintenance of large empires in some regions (Western Europe, Arabia Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia) creating more frontiers and encouraging maritime trade. But large maritime empires were not a feature of such regions. So, while littoral trading routes had existed for millennia:
they were politically and culturally unimportant … It was only when the Europeans established trading posts and began reaping huge profits from international trade that the Littoral zone became truly significant (p.255)
The bulk of the maritime trade before the Europeans was relatively local.

The Silk Road system
The same was true of the Silk Road, with Sogdia dominated by local city-states rarely under unified rule:
Rarely did any of the little kingdoms consist of more than one important city. Left to their own devices, therefore the politics and commerce of the Central Eurasian towns were as unimportant and unconnected as they were in the towns of the Littoral. That is why the cities shrank physically and in every other way, and the Central Eurasians passed out of historical consciousness, several times in premodern history. The cause of this loss of connectedness, and resuling economic decline, is evidently that there was no steppe-empire suzerain. Without the steppe peoples’ infrastructure and careful tending and nurturing, the Silk Road tended to wilt (p.257).
Trade through the Silk Road flourished when a strong steppe nomad suzerainty was established, and withered when it was absent.

So, when the peripheral empires:
became too powerful and conquered or brought chaos to the Central Eurasian nomadic states, the result for Central Asia, at least, was economic recession (p.257)
The peak of this pattern was the Romanov-Qing conquest and division of Central Eurasia:
the economic devastation they wrought within Central Eurasia itself was so total that even at the turn of the millennium in AD 2000 the area had not recovered (p.258).
The only reason, Beckwith argues, that the entire Eurasian economic system did not collapse as a result is that the European-managed Littoral system could, and did, replace it. (Though one could reasonably argue that both the Romanov and Qing imperial systems weakened their own positions, since they thereby destroyed the one international economic system where they were geographically advantaged.)

The steppe empires were not pure nomad states: agrarian and urbanites were indispensable parts of all steppe empires. This structure the peripheral empires did not understand and, when they finally succeeded in eliminating the system’s owner-operators—the steppe nomads—they killed it.

Beckwith’s thesis is that Central Eurasian nomads managed trade across “the sea of grass” just like the Europeans came to manage trade across the oceans of the world. This is why there turns out to be so many parallels between trade-driven European maritime imperialism and trade-driven steppe nomad continental imperialism. In both, merchants were central to the system, and the interests of the ruling elites, and were seen to be so (Pp258-9).

Being at the intersection of the transcontinental and maritime trade systems supported imperial orders in Iran, Egypt and Anatolia down the millennia, from the Achaemenids to the Ottomans. It was only with the coming of the Europeans that the maritime system supported imperial orders directly: prior to that it was always an adjunct to the wider trade system (Pp259-60).

Local colonial officials reporting to distant capitals far away from Central Eurasia were a pathetic shadow of the local elites who had previously managed trade and stimulated demand (p.260). Neglect led to collapse leading to more neglect. Qing war and mismanagement ruined everything it touched in the region: an imperialism of arrogant failure that remains largely un-noted. Romanov and Soviet performance was hardly much better (p.262).

Beckwith denies that the Central Eurasian collapse was caused by the rise of the Littoral system:
deprived of its independence and its commercially minded local rulers, Central Eurasia suffered from the most severe, long-lasting economic depression in world history. It declined into oblivion, while the coastal regions of Eurasia, nurtured by the commercially minded European navies, prospered as they never had before (p.262).
It makes one appreciate the value of the American navy—and the Royal Navy before it—and makes one aware of how much the disastrous period 1914-1945 was the gap between the fading of one maritime hegemony and the rise of another.

The Silk Road was not, like the maritime trade prior to the European expansion:
an interconnected system of regional transportation networks … the Silk Road was … the entire Central Eurasian economy, or socio-political-cultural system, the great flourishing of which impressed itself upon the people of Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and the records and remains of which impress even the people of today (p.264).
A structure that was the equal to anything else that existed across the globe.

Living as we do in the time after Central Eurasia’s long disaster under Romanov, Soviet, Qing and Maoist rule, it is hard to grasp its achievements. But that disaster, and Central Eurasia's role in the origins of Western civilisation, as well as the problems with the concept of 'barbarians', are covered in the third, and final, part of my review.


  1. You talk of a gap in western maritime hegemony between 1914 and 1945. There was none really, except 1942-3.

    The Royal Navy - with allies - won the First World War handsomely, and the postwar settlement guaranteed it's continuance. (Though the Japanese were rightly annoyed at the American insistence on the abandonment of the Anglo-Japanese alliance which had made it even more secure. This would eventually cause a two ocean failure of the type that had only threatened in parts of the North Atlantic in wartime in 1917.)

    Even the Second World War did not challenge this global free trade all that effectively until late 1941, when the combination of Japan finally destroying the Asian system almost led to the Royal Navy losing the Atlantic system (mainly through the disastrous 'second happy time' along the US East Coast).

    By mid 1944 the Anglo-sphere had regained control, and all is set to continue as usual. (Note - the USN and it's allies, from the RN in the forties to NATO, the Commonwealth navies and Japan more recently.)

    I would also note that even the RN in the 19C did not have the power to stop all piracy and war problems. (Look at the greatest block on free trade - the US civil war!) Any more than the US navy now has the power to simultaneously intimidate China, North Korea, the Gulf, the East African Coast, and the problem states in the Mediterranean. (Let alone a resurgent Russia or an angry India.) The problem is the same it always was. Not that the US navy, or RN, could not do it if they wanted to, but that the US, or British, taxpayer was never willing to let them.

    Nevertheless the only serious challenge to ongoing western naval hegemony is the two year period when the West is in conflict with itself, and AT THE SAME TIME as the East explodes.

  2. Nigel, your comment misses my point. It is not that the Royal Navy and the US Navy combined did not have naval dominance, it was that there was not a single hegemonic navy. American and British policy in the 1919-1942 period was simply not sufficiently coordinated for there to be a joint hegemony, so it was the period between the fading of one naval hegemon and the rise of another.