Posts Tagged ‘warhorse’

Nomadic horsepower and agrarian expansion.

Some of the major political
developments of Asian societies for our period can simply be traced to their common ecological
frontier between the arid and semi-arid nomadic horse-breeding areas and the wetter grain-
and rice-producing centres. What really strikes the careful observer when focusing on
Central Eurasia is the contiguous belt of relatively dry deserts and steppes that extends from
northern Africa to northern China. Although desert and steppe are different ecological
zones, supporting different nomadic economies, this so-called Arid Zone roughly indicates the
natural habitat of nomadic-pastoralism in general, and nomadic horse-breeding in
particular, and, as such, also denotes the natural range of operation of nomadic armies.

It shows, for example, that Central
Eurasia and Iran are the most liable to repeated horse-based
nomadic incursions. What it does not show, however, is that the Middle Eastern
deserts cannot support as many horses as Central Eurasia or northern Iran, an ecological fact
that determined the natural, thirteenth-century boundary between Mamluk and Mongolian power.  For similar reasons, the Carpathians
marked the far western European frontier of
nomadic armies. From the ecological point of view the
sharpest frontier between the predominantly nomadic Arid Zone and surrounding
sedentary economies occurs in China where the Great Wall neatly demarcates the transition
from steppes to sown. On the Indian subcontinent, the two semi-arid extensions flow into
the open jungle and scrub of the far east and deep south and make the transition far more
gradual, but at the same time, far more intrusive. These eastern and southern extensions
of the Arid Zone never occasioned the building of a defensive system like the Chinese
one, but instead, facilitated the creation of India’s ‘longue-dure’ road axis of northern
(uttarapatha) and southern highways (dakshinapatha). As a result, through these inner
frontiers-cum-limites , the humid but very productive South and East in India are more closely
linked to (semi-)nomadic Central Eurasia than is the humid and equally productive South in

Finally taking a look at the other end
of the Arid Zone, the transition between
Europe and Central Eurasia was in ecological and historical terms the least rigid, the
more so since the deciduous forests of Eastern Europe did not yet support the rich economic
and demographic centres so characteristic of the Indian subcontinent. Thus in India the
encounter between agrarian prosperity and nomadic dynamism is comparable to China but it
is also much less restricted to some external border as it is almost omnipresent (with the
exception of the coastal regions of the Southwest and in Orissa).

The ecological circumstances of the
Arid Zone can explain much of the degree of havoc the nomads of Central Eurasia produced
in its surrounding sedentary societies: at its greatest in the arid Middle East, Iran and
Russia, at its least in the more distant parts of Europe and Southeast Asia.  Perhaps, the most interesting middle
position is taken up by India and China. Beyond a very dynamic nomadic
frontier, both cover the world’s two richest medieval sedentary economies. Even more than
in the case of the Middle East, the post-nomadic Mughal and Manchu conquerors of these
regions were probably the most sensitive to ongoing forces of assimilation – the
same for indianization as for sinification – and in response were perhaps the most keen in
maintaining as well as reinventing their nomadic outlook and organization. They knew
perfectly well that only such a post-nomadic stance would enable them to get both cultural
and material access to the Central Eurasian supply-lines of nomadic warriors and

Eurasian horse-economies

The warhorse was the one essential
element of warfare that both the Indian and Chinese states could not produce in sufficient
numbers for their own need. What they lacked most were extensive grazing facilities,
especially in India’s east, south and southwest and in China’s southeast; those areas that
had experienced a medieval agricultural breakthrough on the basis of more intensive paddy
cultivation. In addition, like most of the hot and humid parts of Monsoon Asia, these areas
possessed a hostile disease and reproduction environment for the horse. Insufficient
grazing was not compensated by sufficient quantities of alternative and equally nutritious
fodder crops such as oats in Europe or barley in the Middle East, both of which integrated
horse-breeding more tightly with the agrarian economy and stimulated the breeding of
relatively high quality warhorses such as the European destrier, a mixture of indigenous with
Spanish and Arabian stock.

From the Mamluk experience, Masson Smith, Jr concludes
that although nomads can produce more horses, sedentary people can produce better
ones. In the Indian and Chinese cases,
indigenous horses of adequate quality were bred in
the drier areas of northern and central India, and northern and western China – but the
quality of the Indian and Chinese breeds remained critically dependent on regular
crossbreeding with Central Eurasian horses.  In terms of quantities, Turkish and Mongolian warhorses
tended to dominate the market but in southern India there was, especially during the
Bahmani sultanate and Vijayanagara (1300–1500), also an important influx of more
expensive Arabian and Iranian horses from overseas sources.

In this period, Ming China also
imported horses by sea – mainly from Southeast Asia but also from Bengal and further
west – but the quantities were far from sufficient to make a real impact on the total demand
for good warhorses.  Moreover, longer-distance overseas transport meant higher death
tolls and prices for horses; this was a problem even for India, and more so for China.
Anyway, during both Mughal and Manchu times the over- seas importation of horses declined
significantly.  The most important difficulty facing
sedentary horse breeders in India and China was the competition with other agrarian
activities that supported large populations. In India, for example, the busy agrarian
seasons allowed little time for haymaking. In northern Song China, a region of low economic
productivity and high population density, peasants tended to chip away at the fringes of
the government’s grasslands.

In the mid-Ming period many of the pastures earmarked for
horses were converted into manors and other private estates involving a shift from
pasturage to stable-breeding, which was accompanied by an increased burden of expenses for fodder
– rice- or millet-straw, black- or yellow-beans and other low-quality substitute forage
– which caused the quality of horses to deteriorate.  In general, the state authorities
proved reluctant to stimulate private production as they, for obvious reasons of security,
preferred to keep a close eye on both the production and the imports of warhorses. For this reason,
the Song and Ming, for example, tended to prefer a policy of self-sufficiency by
attempting to produce as many indigenous horses as possible. This policy usually failed, mainly
because limited space and bad climate prevented the production of a sufficient quality and
quantity of warhorses. During the Ming period, despite territorial control that encompassed
the most northern parts of China, the policy of private stock-farming that at first provided
the foundation of the dynasty’s horse supply was transformed in about a century into a
monetary tax used to buy horses from the Mongols. Thus, following the conclusions of Paul J.
Smith, ultimately any dynasty that did not possess substantial tracts of steppe land was
forced to buy horses from the pastoralists who did.

In and along the semi-arid extensions
of northern and central India, private, nomadic and semi-nomadic horse breeders often
had more favourable breeding conditions; these included better grazing facilities and
more contact with the breeding centres of Central Eurasia, Iran and the Middle East.
These mostly Afghan or west-Indian breeders supplied the studs of the political courts,
sometimes as revenue or tribute paid in kind but mostly through trade at market prices.
Although the Indian governments shared the horse anxieties of their Chinese counterparts,
horse-breeding remained closely associated with nomadic and semi-nomadic free grazing and,
nonetheless, remained a more durable and far more integrated part of the Indian agrarian
economy than in the case of China.

It should be noted, though, that
compared to any other part of the world, India and China not only imported but also
required far more warhorses – about 25–50,000 a year – as both regions encountered a far
more immediate nomadic threat. In both cases, there is no doubt whatsoever that the most,
and the best, warhorses came from abroad. Even more than breeding, however, the
interregional trade in warhorses involved enormous security risks for the settled political
authorities. For example, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb warned his purchasing officers in Kabul
to take care that the horse-traders imported their horses without riders. He knew
perfectly well that India had a tradition of large and small Afghan horse-traders leading armed
caravans eastwards and southwards across India, carving out principalities of their own,
or as in the case of the Lodi Afghans, perhaps even creating a true

In India, horse-traders could easily
turn into warlords and warlords easily turn into sultans. This is
also shown by the fact that many of the Delhi sultans started their careers as so-called
wardens of the marches ( marzban), i.e. as governors of the north-western border districts, which
not only had easy access to the horse-markets of the northwest but also experienced a
marked improvement of the horse-stock thanks to the recurrent Mongol incursions of the
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. For the same reason, the Indian capital of Delhi
itself, in this case not unlike the Chinese capital of Beijing, developed as a kind of
frontier town that remained strategically close to these marches. For the sultans in Delhi, as for the
later Mughal emperors, the outside borders of the empire were relatively porous. What
they really controlled was not a well-defined external border but, at best, the main urban
centres, the agrarian heartlands surrounding and the main routes connecting these centres.
All this accounts for the specific Indian pattern of the horse trade: only at times of
relatively tight imperial control, horses were bought at border towns by imperial officers but,
in general, there always remained a vigorous private market, or actually a string of markets
which, following India’s two semi-arid extensions, stretched from the far northwest deep
into the east and south of the subcontinent, where the seasonable supplies of mostly
Afghan and, in the south also, Portuguese horse-traders could meet the combined imperial,
regional and local demand.

With respect to the horse trade the
Indian case appears to be somewhat similar to the Russian one. For Muscovy the Nogai –
a purely nomadic confederacy extending east from the Volga to the Irtush River in
Siberia – were an important source of warhorses; Muscovy being the main source of income for the
Nogai. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Nogai horse trade appears to have
been strictly controlled by the Russian authorities and took place at a designated site
near Moscow or in several Russian towns along the Volga. At this time, the Nogai traders
brought as many as 30–40,000 horses to the capital annually.  Hence, compared to the Indian
situation, the Nogai trade appears to be more centrally supervised, based on a more
direct, tribute-like, exchange between nomadic breeders and the government. By
contrast, in India we see well-functioning market-forces dominated by specialized
transfrontiersmen acting as intermediaries between nomadic supply and sedentary demand. It should
be no surprise that these wealthy intermediaries turned out to be far more threatening
to the political establishment than the Nogais, giving rise to that enduring Indian rivalry
between Afghans and Mughals.

Returning to the Chinese situation, the
contrasts are indeed striking. As indicated already with regard to breeding,
Chinese governments always attempted to confine the trade in horses to the place where they were
most needed, the western and northern frontiers. This trade mainly involved Chinese tea for
Mongolian horses. But the Chinese transported the tea from the interior to the borders
instead of having the barbarians bring their horses to the interior
(mainly Szechwan and Shensi). In this way, the government not only
anticipated tremendous security risks but also
avoided the expenses of lodging and feeding the barbarians on their trip through the interior.
After purchase, the horses were sent directly to the frontier garrisons. Under the Song,
horses from as far as Tibet were transported along a belt of relay posts that ran parallel
to the border. At the northern frontier, imported mares were transported to the royal pastures
or, in Ming times, to the non-governmental studs near Beijing and, sometimes, as far
south as Nanking. For reasons of security, the Manchus, who almost entirely depended on
imports, declined to procure their warhorses from the Zunghars, their main Mongol rivals, and
instead preferred to purchase their horses from the smaller Mongolian tribes
immediately beyond the Great Wall. The biggest security problem of the trade was only solved at
the second half of the eighteenth century when, following the conquest of modern-day
Sinkiang and Mongolia, these tribes were incorporated into the empire.

What is really striking in the Chinese
case, however, is not only the degree of supervision and command mobilization
through endless government bureaux, agencies and offices but also the rigid
demarcation between nomadic supply and sedentary demand along a relatively well protected
border. Most of the breeding and trade of warhorses was concentrated at the very edge of
empire, girdling the perimeter of the realm. As a consequence, in China there was much less of
a chance that horse-traders would turn into mounted warlords, infiltrate the empire
and take power in Beijing from inside.

In sum, comparing the various
horse-economies, we first encountered the Central Eurasian, Iranian and Middle Eastern
situation where states were faced with a practice of internal, mostly nomadic
horse-breeding. Although it made the states of this so-called Saharasia extremely dynamic and
powerful, it also made them extremely unstable as it remained very difficult to keep the
military power of the horse-breeding tribes at bay.  This situation contrasts sharply with
that of western and central Europe, where horse-breeding is equally internal but also much more
integrated into the sedentary world that allows neither much agency nor political clout
to breeders and traders. Again different, we came across Russia, India and China, all of
which imported huge numbers of warhorses from Central Eurasia and, in the case of
India, to a lesser extent, from Iran and the Middle East. Despite this resemblance, the
differences stand out more clearly. China confined its horse-economy entirely to the frontier,
Russia closely supervised supplies into the interior, and India, finally, allowed a great
deal of leeway to commercial intermediaries.”

– Jos Gommans, “Warhorse and post-nomadic empire in Asia, c . 1000–1800.* Journal of Global History, London School of Economics and Political Science. (2007) 2, pp. 1–21. 

Top, left: Portrait of a Stallion. Opaque watercolor, silver, and gold on paper, mid-19th century. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Museum Collection, 38.17

Top, right: Reza Shah Jahngir, Noble on horseback. Miniature painting, mid-17th century.

Above: Wild Horses. After Chokha [Deogarh, North India]. Opaque pigments on paper, 1810-1820. Source


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