This article endeavours to challenge the notion that eighteenth-century Central Asia was an isolated backwater, removed from the broader currents of the emerging global economy. The article begins with a brief survey of the historiography of early modern Central Asian decline, which generally assumes that the rising European commercial interests in the Indian Ocean usurped the ‘latitudinal’ Central Asian caravan trade, thereby relegating Central Asia to the ‘margins of world history.’ Focusing on the ‘longitudinal’ trade routes connecting India and Russia, the author endeavours to demonstrate that, throughout the eighteenth century, Central Asia continued to function as an important conduit for overland Eurasian commerce. He produces evidence to demonstrate a substantial exchange in commodities produced in both India and Central Asia, and argues that these two regions continued to enjoy a vibrant commercial relationship that lasted long after the decline of the Mughal Empire.
The author recognises that Central Asia’s role in Eurasian commerce during this period was, indeed, transformed by changing Eurasian commercial dynamics and that this had negative repercussions on some formerly great Central Asian urban centres. But rather than indicating a general socio-economic decline, he argues that these transformations can, to some extent, be attributed to Russia’s emerging role as an important economic and military power in the region and a corresponding increase in Russian demand for Indian commodities. The author argues that this new trade dynamic brought new opportunities for economic growth and cultural development in other, formerly peripheral, parts of Central Asia. This article has been reprinted in the author’s edited volume, India and Central Asia: Commerce and Culture, 1500–1800, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007 (to be reviewed in Central Eurasian Reader 2).