Trade Routes and Road Building in North India, c. 1820–1900

Monday, January 5, 2015: 9:10 AM
Central Park West (Sheraton New York)
Jagjeet Lally, University College London
In the early nineteenth century, caravan trade through the Afghan mountain passes continued to connect North Indian producers, consumers, and traders with markets in Central Asia. There was never a single set of routes: each season, the headmen could direct the caravans to particular passes and routes, so as to avoid raiders and robbers, avalanches and flooding, and to capture opportunities for profit in particular markets. If trade routes were in flux from season to season, patronage and political change also contributed to the longer-term shift from one set of routes to another, altering trade geography and the prospects for particular trading and commercial communities. This paper examines one such instance of political change: the expansion of the British East India Company and Crown governments across North India from the 1820s, and the impact of road-building on overland trade towards Central Asia. Following some early experiments in the 1820s and 1830s, which were largely ineffectual, the Company initiated the construction of the Grand Trunk Road towards Kabul in the 1840s. This scheme was based on the imagination of Kabul as the economic and political power centre of Afghanistan and the usefulness, therefore, of connections for commerce and the movement of armies in the case of foreign invasion. In fact, Afghanistan was much more polycentric; the construction of the Grand Trunk Road and, from the 1860s, railroads, actually served to shift economic activity associated with overland trade towards Kabul and the northwesterly corner of the ‘frontier’ between Afghanistan and British India. In turn, this increased the importance of Kabul and the patronage power of the Afghan Amir in the second-half of the nineteenth century, leading to a brief boom before the wider economy created and connected through overland trade became isolated from the rest of the Indian economy and, eventually, declined.
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