Trade is the exchange of goods that must be transported from one place to another. In ancient times, transporting commodities over any significant distance was an expensive and risky endeavour. This restricted commerce mainly to local markets. As transportation networks improved, however, commerce expanded considerably. Regions began oceanic trade and the whole world seemed to shrink as technology advanced.
Trade patterns could only expand as time went on from the classical period onwards through the medieval era and even more so through the early modern period. Growth may have been similar throughout these periods, however, the means by which trade was conducted differed.
Long-distance trade played a major role in the cultural, religious, and artistic exchanges that took place between the major centers of civilization on trade routes in Europe and Asia during antiquity. Some of these trade routes had been in use for centuries, but by the beginning of the first century A.D., merchants, diplomats, and travellers could in theory cross the ancient world from Britain and Spain in the west to China and Japan in the east.
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The trade routes served principally to transfer raw materials, food, and luxury goods from areas with surpluses to others where they were in short supply. Some areas had a monopoly on certain materials or goods. China for example supplied West Asia and the Mediterranean world with silk, while spices were obtained principally from South Asia.
These goods were transported over vast distances most commonly on foot with pack animals along the Silk Road, which was likely the main artery of contact between the various ancient. Cities along a trade route such as the Silk Road grew rich providing services to merchants and acting as international marketplaces. They also became cultural and artistic centers, where people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds could meet and swap ideas.
The trade routes were the communications highways of the ancient world. People moving from one place to another to conduct business transmitted new inventions, religious beliefs, artistic styles, languages, and social customs, as well as goods and raw materials. Compared to later eras of trade, the classical period was no doubt rather primitive and its technique ineffective, likely because trade was only possible on foot.
Which such a difficult and expensive enterprise such as land-based trade, the only possible reason for the trade was simply for profit. The idea of supply and demand was widely embraced and certain regions with either surplus of goods or exclusive production of certain goods looked to regions with low stocks of their product to trade with and make a profit off, an appealing incentive indeed.
After a decline following the breakup of the Roman Empire, European commerce expanded gradually during the Middle Ages during the 12th and 13th centuries but found itself growing at a previously unimaginable rate during the 15th and 16th centuries. The main long-distance trade routes were from the Baltic and the eastern Mediterranean to central and northern Europe. From the forests of the Baltic came raw materials: timber, tar, furs, and skins. From the East came luxury goods: spices, jewelry, and textiles.
In exchange for these goods, Western Europe exported raw materials and processed goods. A monumental turning point in the history of medieval trade was the rise of the Mongol Empire. Being the largest land empire in world history, it encompassed the majority of the territories from Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe. During its existence, the Mongol Empire facilitated great cultural exchange and trade between the East, West, and the Middle East during the time between the 13th century and 14th century.
Mongols prized their commercial and trade relationships with neighbouring economies and they continued this policy of trade during the process of their conquests and during the expansion of their empire. All merchants and ambassadors, having proper documentation and authorization, travelling through their territory were protected. Consequently, this increased overland trade. During the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, European merchants, numbering hundreds, perhaps thousands, made their way from Europe to the distant land of China.
Well-travelled and relatively well-maintained roads linked lands from the Mediterranean basin to China. Nonetheless, throughout the Middle Ages, commerce between Europe and Asia was limited, because overland transport was expensive and because Europe possessed little value for export to the East. The development of oceangoing warships and efficient merchant ships in the 15th and 16th centuries led to a rapid expansion of commerce. As the cost of transporting bulky cargoes over long distances fell, grain was imported on a large scale from the Baltic to The Netherlands and other parts of Europe. New ocean routes between Europe and the East allowed imports from Asia at lower prices and in greater volume than had been possible by overland caravan.
The discovery of the Americas created a trade in new commodities such as tobacco. Spanish exploitation of the rich gold and silver deposits in Mexico and Peru transformed the character of international commerce. Europe finally possessed a commodity, precious metal, for which ample demand existed in East Asia. In return for Asian imports, Europe exchanged silver coin minted in Mexico, Spain, Italy, and The Netherlands. Using technology and skills developed in transoceanic navigation, the Europeans captured the Asian shipping trade. European vessels transported Japanese copper to China and India, Indian cotton textiles to southern Asia, and Persian carpets to India.
Continuity can be seen here with the classical period with the notion that trade personified interaction between countries by facilitating the exchange of raw goods, food, luxury items, religions, and cultural and ethnic ideals such as language and art. However, the means by which trade was conducted changed immensely. The rise of the Mongol Empire and the establishment of the Pax Mongolia enabled merchants to travel the distance between Europe and Asia securely and facilitated trade overland. Also in contrast to the classical era, oceanic trade became the principal means of trade beginning in the 1400s.
The most likely reason for the vast advancement of naval travel was Europe’s necessity for participation in foreign trade. The fall of the Mongol Empire in 1306 effectively removed the Pax Mongolia territory from the face of the Earth, consequently making trade over land even more expensive and dangerous once again. European countries had grown dependent on trade with Asia during their beloved strolls through Asia for a market in which to sell their products and a market where they can purchase the sought after luxuries of Asia, Chinese silk for instance.
The realization that the comfort of coming and going as they pleased was no longer an option likely forced them to seek another method of travel to farther away Asian countries, that method being oceanic travel. New ship technology was developed and the advancement of the naval industry had been fully swung. Europeans now travelled to Asia over the sea and continued trade with Asian countries.
By 1750 the trade for luxury products had been far surpassed in importance by trade in primary products. In the years that followed, commerce was transformed again, this time by the Industrial Revolution. Because the first Industrial Revolution occurred in Europe, that continent was at the center of the global commercial network for much of the 19th century. European economies depended on foreign markets to supply raw materials and to demand manufactured goods.
The growth of industrial production, therefore, was accompanied by a rapid expansion of commerce. Between 1750 and 1914, world trade increased immensely. European merchants carried the bulk of this trade. Industrial growth affected commerce in numerous ways. Initially, the increased production stimulated trade in raw materials. For instance, the mechanization of European textile production was responsible for a dramatic rise in demand for cotton from the United States. Another important aspect of industrial growth was the revolution of inland transportation.
The development of the steam engine and the construction of railroads promoted commerce between coast and interior on many continents. By the end of the 19th century, primary producing regions were no longer the most important outlets for the products of European and North American industries. Increasingly, industrial nations became each other’s principal customers, and commerce between the Americas and the European countries took on a multi-sided character, with more and more trade between the Americas and Europe happening on a normal basis.
The opposite was true for the primary producing regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Many became part of European colonial empires, and nearly all came to depend heavily on foreign markets. It’s seen here that the growth of international trade is common from the medieval period to the early modern period. Throughout all three periods, it was only natural that international trade would expand and become increasingly essential to any major country. Once again though, in contrast, both the classical and medieval periods, the means by which trade was conducted changed.
The Industrial Revolution was yet another monumental turning point in the history of trade with almost all methods of production receiving some sort of mechanization that allowed for less human input and more production output. Along with production being industrialized, transportation was also industrialized with the introduction of the steam engine. Steam engines were implemented in both naval travel and land-based travel with the invention and establishment of the railroad. So while both naval trade and land-based trade continued, the speed, convenience, efficiency, and most likely cost all increased.
In any effort to explain why the Industrial Revolution took place, the globalization of the European economy is a compelling explanation. European trade and manufacture stretched to every continent except Antarctica. This vast increase in the market for European goods in part drove the conversion to an industrial manufacturing economy so as to make the process by which products are made and distributed easier. Why other nations didn’t initially join this revolution could be explained by the monopolistic control that the Europeans exerted over the global economy. World trade at this point was about making Europeans wealthy, not about enriching the colonies or non-Western countries, and Europeans could manipulate their market to their benefit however they saw fit.
International trade is one of the predominant factors that determined the manner by which different nations in the world today interact. However different the classical, medieval and early modern periods may have been, they all seemed to be similar in the sense that trade was an ever-growing practice that led to the further advancement of global interaction. At the same time, however, they each seemed to be different as far as how trade was carried out.
First, trade in the classical period relied solely on land-based travel to haul goods to new places. Following the classical period, trade in the medieval period saw a major increase in land-based trade with the establishment of the Pax Mongolia, a somewhat trading paradise where merchants could come and go as they pleased through Asia and later a major increase in oceanic trade with the end of the Pax Mongolia.
Lastly, trade in the early modern period skyrocketed with the Industrial Revolution, with Europe becoming the new trading capital of the globe and the industrialization of production and distribution, spewing trade in all directions to the rest of the world over land and over water.
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Through positive and negative experiences, trade has advanced to the degree that it seems as though we’ve reached the peak of advancement with global interaction, however, it’s been seen that as time goes on, technology will only improve and make life easier and busier.
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