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The formation of armed caravans made possible commerce across vast stretches of inhospitable or unoccupied land, by offering safety to their members and dividing the costs of travel. Nonetheless, trade by caravan was expensive, and the proliferation of sea, rail, and truck transport replaced the caravan by the twentieth century.
Throughout much of human history merchants who moved goods overland across long distances minimized their risks of loss to plunderers by traveling in caravans and carrying arms for protection. The merchants shared provisions and endured hardships, and their numbers provided them, at times, some degree of immunity from predation. Caravanners who passed from the domain of one political authority to another depended upon local authorities to secure their protection, and in return they paid transit fees, which might be offered in the idiom of tribute or gift giving. In traversing stateless areas, armed caravans could be as imposing as a small army. This practice of armed group travel, rooted in the elementary logic of safety in numbers, is ancient. References in early Chinese literature and in the Old Testament indicate the existence of the caravan during the first millennium BCE, and it may be even older.
The cost of transporting goods by land was generally higher than by sea or river, and thus caravans were mounted only in regions where these alternatives did not exist. In Africa north of the tropical forest and across Eurasia, merchants loaded their wares onto the backs of draft animals or in carts to be pulled by draft animals because the transport of goods by draft animal was less expensive than by human carriers. Across dry deserts such as the Gobi, the camel was the only pack animal that could survive the rigors of the crossing. In the intense cold of the Himalayas, the yak was the pack animal par excellence. Along the southern coast of the Sahara, the ox and the donkey were preferred.
Caravans were highly vulnerable to the elements, and merchants first and foremost had to take into account the physical needs of their draft animals. These needs could mean nighttime and early morning travel to avoid searing daytime temperatures when crossing the arid desert or travel during only the temperate months in order to avoid snow and ice. This type of travel could necessitate days of rest in order for the animals to recuperate from strenuous marches between watering points and to consume nutritious pasturage. With many uncertainties en route, caravanners developed organizational strategies to minimize their risks. They recognized the need for centralized decision making. Typically, they chose a caravan leader to handle diplomacy, arbitrate disputes, and manage logistics and a guide to negotiate the terrain. Individual caravanners generally traded on their own accounts.
The best-known and most-researched traditions of caravanning are those of Afro-Eurasia. The longest and oldest overland trade route in the world was known as the Silk Roads, which stretched from China to the Byzantine Empire. It was in use during the early years of the first millennium CE. The merchants of the Silk Roads bought and sold along the length of the route, and their commerce was critically important to communities situated along it. Communities at various points along the Silk Roads—particularly in southwest Asia—maintained caravan rest houses, known as caravanserai, in order to encourage the commerce. The slow-moving, armed commercial markets were the principal arteries of cross-cultural communication between the distant Eurasian civilizations. Along the manifold routes and spurs of the Silk Roads traveled ideas, goods, inventions, and techniques.
The caravan routes that stretched across the Sahara, dating from the first millennium CE, likewise played an important role in world history, linking the societies of northern Africa with those along the southern coast of the Sahara. By the beginning of the second millennium CE, along these desert routes, negotiable only by camel, flowed the knowledge of Islam and literacy, as well as ivory, gold, and large numbers of slaves.
Beyond the Saharan and Central Asian basins, merchants also moved goods over great distances. In tropical Africa no indigenous beasts of burden existed, and the tsetse fly, the insect that carried sleeping sickness, killed off the domesticated draft animals of Eurasia that tried to penetrate the open woodlands and forests. Thus, caravans in tropical Africa were typically composed of long lines of human beings, rather than pack animals and carts, and slaves rather than free people were generally put to this labor. With human porterage, transport costs (measured in food requirements for the laborers) were high, and consequently goods that had a low value-to-bulk ratio—such as grains or foodstuffs— generally were not transported even moderate distances.
Mesoamericans (people of the pre-Spanish culture area extending from Mexico to northern Central America) used a similar pattern of using slaves to carry goods. In the Andes, by contrast, goods of up to 45 kilograms in weight could be mounted upon the backs of llamas. During the sixteenth century the Old World draft animals established themselves in the New World and came to bear the burden of long-distance overland transport where feasible.
Although the caravan has long been associated with long-distance trade, most caravanners likely took part in the regional exchange of goods and services. One pattern linked nomadic societies with sedentary societies around the Central Asian and Saharan basins. In the Sahara, for example, a larger percentage of caravanners transported Saharan salt into West African villages and on return brought back grain for consumption in the desert than ever engaged in long-distance trade across the Sahara. The same was true of the nomadic trade in animal products from the Central Asian steppe (a vast, usually level and treeless tract) into China. A second pattern of caravan use was the relatively short-distance provisioning of urban centers with foodstuffs, such as in the massive system of ox-driven caravans that fed the city of Delhi, India, during the Mughal Empire.
Through the early modern centuries the increase in the volume of maritime trade and the coincident decline in per-unit transport costs put economic pressure on the overland trade routes. The caravan trade survived into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries only in interior regions where geographic isolation protected it from competition from the maritime sector. However, later during the twentieth century the caravan trade died off, outcompeted by the lower cost of transporting goods overland by truck or railroad. During the same period the nomadic world dramatically contracted in size and influence.
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- Bulliet, R. W. (1975). The camel and the wheel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Curtin, P. D. (1984). Cross-cultural trade in world history. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Habib, I. (1990). Merchant communities in pre-colonial India. In J. D. Tracy (Ed.), The rise of merchant empires, long distance trade in the early modern world 1350–1750 (pp. 371–399). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Rossabi, M. (1990). The “decline” of the Central Asian caravan trade. In J. D. Tracy (Ed.), The rise of merchant empires, long distance trade in the early modern world 1350–1750 (pp. 351– 370). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Webb, J. L. A., Jr. (1995). Desert frontier: Ecological and economic change along the western Sahel, 1600–1850. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
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