Networks in the First Global Age 1400- 1800, edited by Rila Mukherjee: Book Review

If you do not know much about Kasimbazar, I, for one, will not hold it against you; after all its population is a mere ten thousand and lies in one of the neglected corners of state of Bengal. But when an authoritative world atlas, A Description of the World, was published in  London in 1688 it chose to feature Kasimbazar while ignoring Calcutta, Bangalore.  It was named after its founder Kasim Khan, a Mughal official and would have continued its obscure existence as a small mart town but for the fact that world events enrolled it into several different world social networks. First, it got enrolled in the trade to Agra, the Mughal centre and thus linked to the caravan trade networks that extended into Central Asia.

Then it found itself in the path of the transport network which carried saltpetre from Bihar to the Bengal coast and from there to Europe; demand for saltpetre had shot up in Europe as an essential ingredient in ammunition in the wars being fought there. Francois Bernier, the French physician and author of Travels in the Mughal Empire, an account of life in Aurangzeb’s court, notes that he was given a bill of exchange to be cashed in Kasimbazar which he visited, testifying to its role as a financial centre and where merchants from Gujarat, Lahore, Multan, Delhi, Agra and the Deccan settled there.

When the Maratha invasion of Bengal in the 1740’s disrupted some of these networks the Kasimbazar merchants enrolled themselves into another social network, that of the Dutch, English, French, Danish and Belgian merchants who had by then appeared on the horizon. This new network was global and spanned Europe, Africa and Asia. Kasimbazar became the hub through which saltpetre, sugar, rice, poppy and cotton cloth flowed.

Thus, the ‘small world’ of the Kasimbazar merchant was embedded within many different social networks: an Information Network that carried news about the impending arrival of ships and convoys and information about the reputation and credit worthiness of merchants, a Prestige Goods Network that dealt with luxury or prestige goods which could be transported over long distances because of their  high value to weight ratio, a more local  Bulk Goods Network which dealt with low value necessities like food  and a Political Military Network which dealt with the business of making and breaking of alliances.

The story of Kasimbazar’s networks is one of many networks described in a remarkable book, Networks in the First Global Age 1400- 1800, edited by Rila Mukherjee and published by the Indian Council of Historical Research. It contains contributions from Indian, French, Iberian and American scholars and studies networks such as the one centred in the Portuguese city of Porto which linked the Asian and Atlantic networks, the one in Ladakh which linked South and Central Asian markets, the social networks of Milanese merchants in Castile and many others.  Its central assumption is that to understand the flow of events of history you need to study the networks in operation and the nature of the connectivity in these networks. This is a dramatic departure from earlier historical methods which would have viewed, for example, events in in the ‘small world’ Kasimbazar, as deriving from its role as a small town in a larger empire, the Mughal or to view it as a participant in events in a period of history, the 17th and 18th centuries.

This use of the Network perspective is part of a larger movement that started out in France with the work of people such as Bruno Latour and Michael Callon and is now sweeping across many disciplines.  Actor Network Theory, as it is called, holds that human beings are not to be given a privileged status in the world being analysed but are seen to be one of the actors along with other objects. In the Kasimbazar case, the commodities being traded there, its location on the Ganges, the artefacts in use such as Bills of Exchange, the transportation systems such as oxen and river boats all pushed and pulled against each other in shaping the Small World of Kasimbazar and its role in the larger networks that it was embedded in.

Thus, a plan to improve a mathematics textbook, for example, looked at from the perspective of the Actor Network theory would be different from conventional efforts. A maths textbook can be viewed as an object that is embedded in a Curriculum Development Network, made up of policy makers, teachers, maths experts; a Publishing Network made up of writers, editors, printing machines, ink; and a Distribution Network made up of schools, textbook committees and so on. Attempting to produce better math textbooks would necessarily involve tracing the way a maths textbook comes together by the incentives and priorities of each of these networks.

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