To the 1st century BC

The market place

Trade provides mankind's most significant meeting place, the market. In primitive societies only religious events - cult rituals, or rites of passage such as marriage - bring people together in a comparable way. But in these cases the participants are already linked, by custom or kinship.

The process of barter brings a crowd together in a more random fashion. New ideas, along with precious artefacts, have always travelled along trade routes. And the natural Week, the shared rhythm of a community, has frequently been the space between market days.

Agricultural produce and everyday household goods tend to make short journeys to and from a local market. Trade in a grander sense, between distant places, is a different matter. It involves entrepreneurs and middlemen, people willing to accept delay and risk in the hope of a large profit. The archive found at Ebla gives a glimpse of an early trading city, from the middle of the third millennium BC.

When travel is slow and dangerous, the trader's commodities must be as nearly as possible imperishable; and they must be valuable in relation to their size. Spices fit the bill. So do rich textiles. And, above all, precious ornaments of silver and gold, or useful items in copper, bronze or iron.

As the most valuable of commodities (in addition to being compact and easily portable), metals are a great incentive to trade. The extensive deposits of copper on Cyprus bring the island much wealth from about 3000 BC (Cyprus, in Latin, gives copper its name - cyprium corrupted to cuprum).

Later, when the much scarcer commodity of tin is required to make bronze, even distant Cornwall becomes - by the first millennium BC - a major supplier of the needs of Bronze Age Europe.

Waterborne traffic: 3000-1000 BC

By far the easiest method of transporting goods is by water, particularly in an era when towns and villages are linked by footpaths rather than roads. The first extensive trade routes are up and down the great rivers which become the backbones of early civilizations - the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus and the Yellow River.

As boats become sturdier, coastal trade extends human contact and promotes wealth. The eastern Mediterranean is the first region to develop extensive maritime trade, first between Egypt and Minoan Crete and then - in the ships of the intrepid Phoenicians - westwards through the chain of Mediterranean islands and along the north African coast.

Phoenicia is famous for its luxury goods. The cedar wood is not only exported as top-quality timber for architecture and shipbuilding. It is also carved by the Phoenicians, and the same skill is adapted to even more precious work in ivory. The rare and expensive dye, Tyrian purple, complements another famous local product, fine linen. The metalworkers of the region are famous, particularly in gold. And Tyre and Sidon are known for their glass.

These are only the products which the Phoenicians export. As traders and middlemen they take a cut on a much greater cornucopia of precious goods - as the prophet Ezekiel grudgingly admits.

The caravan: from 1000 BC

In the parched regions of north Africa and Asia two different species of camel become the most important beasts of burden - the single-humped Arabian camel (in north Africa, the Middle East, India) and the double-humped Bactrian camel (central Asia, Mongolia). Both are well adapted to desert conditions. They can derive water, when none is available elsewhere, from the fat stored in their humps.

It is probable that they are first domesticated in Arabia. By about 1000 BC caravans of camels are bringing precious goods up the west coast of Arabia, linking India with Egypt, Phoenicia and Mesopotamia.

This trade route brings prosperity to Petra, a natural stronghold just north of the Gulf of Aqaba on the route from the Red Sea up to the Mediterranean coast. In the heyday of the kingdom of Israel, around 1000 BC, this important site is occupied by the Edomites - bitter enemies of the Israelite kings, David and Solomon.

In the 4th century BC the Edomites are displaced by an Arab tribe, the Nabataeans. They soon come into conflict with new neighbours in Mesopotamia, the Seleucid Greeks, who have an interest in diverting trade from the Gulf of Aqaba.

New routes to the west: from 300 BC

The presence of Greeks in Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean encourages a new trade route. To ease the transport of goods to Greece and beyond, Seleucus founds in 300 BC a city at the northeast tip of the Mediterranean. He calls it Antioch, in honour of his own father, Antiochus. Its port, at the mouth of the river, is named after himself - Seleucia.

Here goods are put on board ship after arriving in caravans from Mesopotamia. The journey has begun in another new city, also called Seleucia, founded in 312 BC by Seleucus as the capital of his empire. It is perfectly placed for trade, at the point where a canal from the Euphrates links with the Tigris.

Doura-Europus a frontier town: from the 3rd century BC

The first major stopping point for the caravans on the route from Mesopotamia to Syria is the old Babylonian town of Doura, on the west bank of the Euphrates. Rebuilt by Seleucus in about 300 BC, it is given the new name of Europus.

This settlement later becomes of great importance as a frontier post, when the Euphrates is the boundary between successive empires.

Doura-Europus becomes a Persian frontier town when the Parthians take it from the Seleucid greeks in about 100 BC. It is subsequently a Roman frontier town, being annexed for Rome in AD 165. It is abandoned after being overrun by the Sassanians soon after 256.

Buried in the sand of the desert and lost to history, Doura-Europus comes to light again after a British officer accidentally discovers wall paintings there in 1921. Excavation has revealed an archaeological site of extraordinary interest, providing evidence of the wide diversity of Middle Eastern themes and religions at this meeting place between east and west.

At this international crossroads there are remains of buildings devoted to the worship of the Greek Zeus, the Egyptian Adonis, the Persian Mithras, the Jewish Yahweh and the Palestinian Jesus.

The Mithraeum, the synagogue and the church are all extensively decorated with murals. The synagogue is particularly interesting, in that later Jewish tradition tends to accept the biblical ban on graven images. But here, in the 3rd century AD, there are detailed narrative scenes showing the crossing of the Red Sea, Elijah working miracles, and even the Ark of the Covenant being dragged along on its carriage by two oxen with gilded horns.

The Christian building is significant not only for its murals (more damaged than those of the synagogue) but for its very existence. It is a baptistery, consisting of a long rectangular room with a painted wooden roof and images connected with baptism on the walls.

This is in no sense a secret place, unlike the Christian Catacombs in Rome with their very similar murals. It is usually the practice, until the time of Constantine, for Christians to worship discreetly in private houses. But certainly in Doura-Europus, by the mid-3rd century, there is a building devoted specifically to the Christian cult.

Palmyra: from 300 BC

The other great staging post on the route to Antioch is also an important site, and today a much more visible one. It is Palmyra, famous as one of the great ruined classical cities.

From Doura-Europus, on the Euphrates, the caravans strike west through the desert to the Mediterranean coast. Palmyra is an oasis half way across this difficult terrain. Its wealth derives from its position on the east-west axis from Persia to the coast, in addition to being on the older routes up from Mesopotamia. In the 1st century BC, when Palmyra is on the verge of its greatest prosperity, a rich new supply of goods begins to arrive from the east along the Silk road. But by now neither Persia nor Mesopotamia are Greek.

A trade route from China: 2nd century BC

A tentative trade route is becoming established along a string of oases north of the Himalayas. They are very exposed to the broad expanse of steppes - from which marauding bands of Nomadic tribesmen are liable to descend at any moment - but protection by the Han dynasty in China is now making it reasonably safe for merchants to send caravans into this region. The goods are usually unloaded in each oasis and traded or bartered before continuing the journey westwards - where rich customers around the Mediterranean are eager for the luxury products of the east.

In 106 BC, for the first time, a caravan leaves China and travels through to Persia without the goods changing hands on the way. The Silk Road is open.

In the 1st century BC the Romans gain control of Syria and Palestine - the natural terminus of the Silk Road, for goods can move west more easily from here by sea. Soon a special silk market is established in Rome.

China, proudly self-sufficient, wants nothing that Rome can offer. And the Han rulers are unwilling to release silk - either as thread or woven fabric - except in exchange for gold. It has been calculated that in the 1st century AD China has a hoard of some five million ounces of gold. In Rome the emperor Tiberius issues a decree against the wearing of silk. His stated reason is the drain on the empire's reserves of gold. The Silk Road introduces global economics.

To the 15th century AD

World trade: from the 1st century AD

The Silk Road links east Asia and western Europe at a time when each has, in its own region, a more sophisticated commercial network than ever before.

The Caravan routes of the Middle East and the shipping lanes of the Mediterranean have provided the world's oldest Trading system, ferrying goods to and fro between civilizations from India to Phoenicia. Now the Roman dominance of the entire Mediterranean, and of Europe as far north as Britain, gives the merchants vast new scope to the west. At the same time a maritime link, of enormous commercial potential, opens up between India and China.

The map of the world offers no route so promising to a merchant vessel as the coastal journey from India to China. Down through the Straits of Malacca and then up through the South China Sea, there are at all times inhabited coasts not far off to either side. It is no accident that Calcutta is now at one end of the journey, Hong Kong at the other, and Singapore in the middle.

Indian merchants are Trading along this route by the 1st century AD, bringing with them the two religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, which profoundly influence this entire region.

Trading kingdoms of West Africa: 5th - 15th century AD

A succession of powerful kingdoms in West Africa, spanning a millennium, are unusual in that their great wealth is based on trade rather than conquest. Admittedly much warfare goes on between them, enabling the ruler of the most powerful state to demand the submission of the others. But this is only the background to the main business of controlling the caravans of merchants and camels.

These routes run north and south through the Sahara. And the most precious of the commodities moving north is African gold.

The first kingdom to establish full control over the southern end of the Saharan trade is Ghana - situated not in the modern republic of that name but in the southwest corner of what is now Mali, in the triangle formed between the Senegal river to the west and the Niger to the east.

Ghana is well placed to control the traffic in gold from Bambuk, in the valley of the Senegal. This is the first of the great fields from which the Africans derive their alluvial gold (meaning gold carried downstream in a river and deposited in silt, from which grains and nuggets can be extracted).

Like subsequent great kingdoms in this region, Ghana is at a crossroads of trade routes. The Saharan caravans link the Mediterranean markets to the north with the supply of African raw materials to the south. Meanwhile along the savannah (or open grasslands) south of the Sahara communication is easy on an east-west axis, bringing to any commercial centre the produce of the whole width of the continent.

While gold is the most valuable African commodity, Slaves run it a close second. They come mainly from the region around Lake Chad, where the Zaghawa tribes make a habit of raiding their neighbours and sending them up the caravan routes to Arab purchasers in the north.

Other African products in demand around the Mediterranean are ivory, ostrich feathers and the cola nut (containing caffeine and already popular 1000 years ago as the basis for a soft drink).

The most important commodity coming south with the caravans is salt, essential in the diet of African agricultural communities. The salt mines of the Sahara (sometimes controlled by Berber tribes from the north, sometimes by Africans from the south) are as valuable as the gold fields of the African rivers (see Salt mines and caravans). Traders from the north also bring dates and a wide range of metal goods - weapons, armour, and copper either in its pure form or as brass (the alloy of copper and zinc).

These various goods, travelling some 1200 miles from one end of the trade route to the other, rarely go in a single caravan for the whole distance. They are unloaded and packed on to new transport, as specialists undertake each very different section of the journey - to the edge of the desert (either from the Mediterranean coast or from the African forest and savannah) and then from oasis to oasis through the Sahara.

In the same way goods are likely to be bought and sold on the route by specialist middlemen, with whom merchants naturally establish their own regular contacts. In this way trading partnerships develop, often made up of members of the same community or even a single family.

Vikings in Russia: from the 9th century AD

Unusually for the Vikings, trade rather than plunder is the main reason for their penetration deep into Russia during the 9th century AD. The rivers of eastern Europe, flowing north and south, make it surprisingly easy for goods to travel between the Baltic and the Black Sea.

One spot is particularly well-favoured as a trading centre. Near Lake Ilmen the headwaters of the Dvina, Dnieper and Volga rivers are close to each other. Respectively they flow into the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Caspian. Goods ferried by water between these important trading regions converge on this area. By the early 9th century Viking tribes known as the Rus have a base on the site of Novgorod.

Although they are not Slavs, there is justice in the Rus giving Russia her name. Their development of trade, particularly down the Dnieper (a route which becomes known as Austrvegr, or the 'Great Waterway'), lays the foundation of the Russian nation.

In 882 a Viking leader, Oleg, moves his headquarters down the Dnieper, seizing the town of Kiev. Here, in 911, he negotiates a commercial treaty with the Byzantine empire.

A Viking successor of Oleg's in Kiev, two generations later, describes how this first Russian city is the centre of a triangular trade between civilized Byzantium in the south, the steppe lands in the middle, and the wild forests of the north.

In this place 'all goods gather from all parts: gold, clothes, wine, fruits from the Greeks; silver and horses from the Czechs and Hungarians; furs, wax, honey and slaves from the Rus'.

Pax Mongolica and the Silk Road: 13th - 14th century AD

By the middle of the 13th century the family of Genghis khan controls Asia from the coast of China to the Black Sea. Not since the days of the Han and Roman empires, when the Silk road is first opened, has there been such an opportunity for trade. In the intervening centuries the eastern end of the Silk road has been unsafe because of the Chinese inability to control the fierce nomads of the steppes (nomads such as the Mongols), and the western end has been unsettled by the clash between Islam and christianity.

Now, with the Mongols policing the whole route, there is stability. In an echo of the Pax romana, the period is often described as the Pax Mongolica.

In 1340 an Italian guide book is published giving merchants practical advice on the journey. They should let their beards grow, to be inconspicuous in Asia. They will be more comfortable if they hire a woman near the Black Sea to look after their needs on the journey. The assurance that the road is safe has an alarming ring to our ears: 'If you are some sixty men in the company, you will go as safely as if you were in your own house.' But the list of commodities changing hands on the route can be guaranteed to quicken the pulse of any ambitious trader.

Trade with the Mongol east is best known through the adventures of three Italian merchants - Marco polo, with his father and uncle.

Hanseatic League: 12th - 17th century AD

In 1159 Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony and Bavaria, builds a new German town on a site which he has captured the previous year. It is Lübeck, perfectly placed to benefit from developing trade in the Baltic. Goods from the Netherlands and the Rhineland have their easiest access to the Baltic through Lübeck. For trade in the opposite direction, a short land journey from Lübeck across the base of the Danish peninsula brings goods easily to Hamburg and the North Sea.

Over the next two centuries Lübeck and Hamburg, in alliance, become the twin centres of a network of trading alliances known later as the Hanseatic League.

A Hanse is a guild of merchants. Associations of German merchants develop in the great cities on or near the Baltic (Gdansk, Riga, Novgorod, Stockholm), on the coasts of the North Sea (Bergen, Bremen) and in western cities where the Baltic trade can be profitably brokered - in particular Cologne, Bruges and London.

It suits these German merchants, and the towns which benefit from their efforts, to form mutual alliances to further the flow of trade. Safe passage for everyone's goods is essential. The control of pirates becomes a prime reason for cooperation, together with other measures (such as lighthouses and trained pilots) to improve the safety of shipping.

The rapid growth of Hanseatic trade during the 13th century is part of a general pattern of increasing European prosperity. During this period the towns with active German hanse gradually organize themselves in a more formal league, with membership fees and regular 'diets' to agree policies of mutual benefit. By the 14th century there about 100 such towns, some of them as far afield as Iceland and Spain. Their German communities effectively control the trade of the Baltic and North Sea.

But economic decline during the 14th century takes its toll on the success of the Hanseatic towns. So do political developments around the Baltic.

In 1386 Poland and lithuania merge, soon winning the region around Gdansk from the Teutonic knights. On the opposite shore of the sea, the three Scandinavian kingdoms are united in 1389; the new monarchy encompasses Stockholm, previously an independent Hanseatic town. A century later, when Ivan III annexes Novgorod, he expels the German merchants.

Such factors contribute to the gradual decline of the Hanseatic League. What began as a positive union to promote trade becomes a restrictive league, attempting to protect German interests against foreign competitors. But great enterprises fade slowly. The final Hanseatic Diet is held as late as 1669.

Ups and downs in the economy: 12th - 14th century AD

Throughout Europe the period from about 1150 to 1300 sees a steady increase in prosperity, linked with a rise in population. There are several reasons. More land is brought into cultivation - a process in which the Cistercians play an important part. Rich monasteries, controlled by powerful abbots, become a significant feature of feudal Europe.

In tandem with the improvement in rural wealth is the development of cities thriving on trade, in luxury goods as well as staple products such as wool.

Prominent among the trading centres of the 13th century are the coastal Italian cities, whose merchants ply the Mediterranean; Venice is particularly prosperous after the opportunities presented by the Fourth crusade. In a similar way the cities of the Netherlands are well placed to profit from commerce between their three larger neighbours - England, France and the German states. And the Hanseatic towns handle the trade from the Baltic.

Together with this increase in trade goes the development of Banking. Christian families, particularly in the towns of northern Italy, begin to amass fortunes by offering the financial services which have previously been the preserve of the Jews.

In the 14th century this economic prosperity falters. Land goes out of cultivation, the volume of trade drops. There are various possible reasons. There is an unusual run of disastrously bad harvests in many areas in the early part of the century. And social structures are painfully adjusting, as the old Feudal system of obligations crumbles.

The final straw is the Black death, which not only kills a third of Europe's population in 1348-9; it also ushers in an era when plague is a recurrent hazard. The 14th century is not the best in which to live. But in the 15th century - the time of the Renaissance in Europe, and the age of Exploration - economic conditions improve again.

The economic troubles of the 14th century are reflected in disorder and unrest throughout much of Europe. This is true both at a grassroots level, in a series of peasants' revolts, and among great institutions of state. The Papacy is unsettled, in exile in Avignon. France and England are engaged in the futile rivalry of the Hundred Years' War. The condottieri wreak havoc in Italy.

Bohemia is an exception, enjoying a period of stability under Charles IV. But the most significant political development, from the later part of the 14th century, is the accumulation of territory in the hands of the dukes of Burgundy.

The Portuguese slave trade: 15th - 17th century AD

The Portuguese expeditions of the 15th century bring European ships for the first time into regular contact with sub-Saharan Africa. This region has long been the source of slaves for the route through the Sahara to the Mediterranean. The arrival of the Portuguese opens up another channel.

Nature even provides a new collection point for this human cargo. The volcanic Cape Verde Islands, with their rocky and forbidding coastlines, are uninhabited. But they contain lush tropical valleys. And they are well placed on the sea routes between West Africa, Europe and America.

Portuguese settlers move into the Cape Verde islands in about 1460. In 1466 they are given an economic advantage which guarantees their prosperity. They are granted a monopoly of a new Slave trade. On the coast of Guinea the Portuguese are now setting up trading stations to buy captive Africans.

Some of these slaves are used to work the settlers' estates in the Cape Verde islands. Others are sent north for sale in Madeira, or in Portugal and Spain - where Seville now becomes an important market. Africans have been imported by this sea route into Europe since at least 1444, when one of Henry the Navigator's expeditions returns with slaves exchanged for Moorish prisoners.

The labour of the slaves in the Cape Verde Islands primes a profitable trade with the African region which becomes known as Portuguese Guinea or the Slave Coast. The slaves work in the Cape Verde plantations, growing cotton and indigo in the fertile valleys. They are also employed in weaving and dying factories, where these commodities are transformed into cloth.

The cloth is exchanged in Guinea for slaves. And the slaves are sold for cash to the slaving ships which pay regular visits to the Cape Verde Islands.

The labour of the slaves in the Cape Verde Islands primes a profitable trade with the African region which becomes known as Portuguese Guinea or the Slave Coast. The slaves work in the Cape Verde plantations, growing cotton and indigo in the fertile valleys. They are also employed in weaving and dying factories, where these commodities are transformed into cloth.

The cloth is exchanged in Guinea for slaves. And the slaves are sold for cash to the slaving ships which pay regular visits to the Cape Verde Islands.

This African trade, together with the prosperity of the Cape Verde Islands, expands greatly with the development of labour-intensive plantations growing sugar, cotton and tobacco in the Caribbean and America. The Portuguese enforce a monopoly of the transport of African slaves to their own colony of Brazil. But other nations with transatlantic interests soon become the main visitors to the Slave Coast.

By the 18th century the majority of the ships carrying out this appalling commerce are British. They waste no part of their journey, having evolved the procedure known as the Triangular trade.

This African trade, together with the prosperity of the Cape Verde Islands, expands greatly with the development of labour-intensive plantations growing sugar, cotton and tobacco in the Caribbean and America. The Portuguese enforce a monopoly of the transport of African slaves to their own colony of Brazil. But other nations with transatlantic interests soon become the main visitors to the Slave Coast.

By the 18th century the majority of the ships carrying out this appalling commerce are British. They waste no part of their journey, having evolved the procedure known as the Triangular trade.

Jacques Coeurmerchant: AD 1432-1451

The career of Jacques Coeur vividly suggests the opportunities open to an enterprising merchant in the 15th century. The greatest source of trading wealth is the Mediterranean, linking Christian markets in the west with Muslim ones in the east - known at this time as the Levant, the land of the rising sun.

Jacques Coeur enters this trade in 1432. He soon has seven galleys taking European cloth to the Levant and bringing back oriental spices. At Montpellier he builds a great warehouse to form the centre of his trading operation.

Agents promote Jacques Coeur's business from a string of offices which link the Mediterranean source of his wealth with the markets of western Europe. He is represented in Barcelona, Avignon, Lyons, Paris, Rouen and Bruges.

Rapid commercial success and a marked political talent soon bring Jacques Coeur influence in government. Master of the mint in Paris from 1436, he is put in charge of royal expenditure three years later. In 1441 he is ennobled. In 1442 he becomes a member of the king's council.

These are heady years in which to be close to the French court, as Charles VII recovers his kingdom in the closing stages of the Hundred Years' War. The king returns at last to Paris in 1437, the year after Jacques Coeur's appointment to head the royal mint in the capital city. When Charles wins Normandy in 1450, he is financed by a large loan from his commercial friend. Jacques Coeur enters Rouen in pomp and ceremony beside the king.

Meanwhile in Bourges, where for so many years Charles VII held his court, the merchant has built himself a house fit for a king. The Palace of Jacques Coeur, still surviving, is a spectacular example of 15th-century domestic architecture.

Such conspicuous wealth and power in an upstart brings its own dangers. Jacques Coeur has lent large sums to many in court circles. Greed and envy alike prompt his ruin. The king is persuaded that Jacques Coeur is guilty of various financial crimes and may even be responsible for the death of Charles's mistress, Agnès Sorel, in 1450.

Jacques Coeur is arrested and imprisoned in 1451. He escapes two years later and makes his way to Rome to serve the pope. All his possessions have been confiscated. Nothing survives of the mighty merchant's kingdom. Jacques Coeur's story reflects the dangers of the age - but also, even more abundantly, its opportunities.

Chinese sea trade: 15th century

The greatest extent of Chinese trade is achieved in the early 15th century when Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch, sails far and wide with a fleet of large junks. At various times between 1405 and 1433 he reaches the Persian Gulf, the coast of Africa (returning with a giraffe on board) and possibly even Australia.

Typical Chinese exports are now porcelain, lacquer, silks, items of gold and silver, and medicinal preparations. The junks return with herbs, spices, ivory, rhinoceros horn, rare varieties of wood, jewels, cotton and ingredients for making dyes.

Europe's inland waterways: 15th-17th century AD

Trade up and down great rivers and in coastal waters is as old as civilization. Trade across seas develops as soon as adequate boats are built, most notably by the Phoenicians. The natural next stage is to join river systems and even seas by man-made canals. Pioneered in Egypt and China in very ancient times, this development does not occur in Europe until the 15th century AD.

With prosperity beginning to pick up after the depression following the Black death, merchants have need of cheap and reliable transport. Europe's roads are rutted tracks, the use of which is slow and dangerous. There is good commercial reason to connect the rivers, the arteries of trade. The merchants of Lübeck take the first step.

From 1391 the Stecknitz canal is constructed southwards from the city of Lübeck. Its destination is the Elbe, which is reached early in the 15th century. The new waterway joins the Baltic to the North Sea.

This canal rises some 40 feet from Lübeck to the region of Möllner and then falls the same amount again to reach the Elbe, all in a distance of 36 miles. This must be about the limit which can be safely achieved with Flash locks. With Mitre locks, from the 16th century, anything is possible. And the most ambitious projects are undertaken in France.

The Briare canal, completed in 1642, joins the Seine to the Loire; at one point it has a staircase of six consecutive locks to cope with a descent of 65 feet over a short distance. Even more remarkable is the Canal du Midi, completed in 1681, which joins the Mediterranean to the Atlantic by means of 150 miles of man-made waterway linking the Aude and Garonne rivers. At one point this canal descends 206 feet in 32 miles; three aqueducts are constructed to carry it over rivers; a tunnel 180 yards long pierces through one patch of high ground.

The potential of canals is self-evident. It falls to Britain, in the next century, to construct the first integrated system of waterborne traffic.

16th - 18th century

Portugal's eastern trade: AD 1508-1595

The profitable trade in eastern spices is cornered by the Portuguese in the 16th century to the detriment of Venice, which has previously had a virtual monopoly of these valuable commodities - until now brought overland through India and Arabia, and then across the Mediterranean by the Venetians for distribution in western Europe.

By establishing the sea route round the Cape, Portugal can undercut the Venetian trade with its profusion of middlemen. The new route is firmly secured for Portugal by the activities of Afonso de Albuquerque, who takes up his duties as the Portuguese viceroy of India in 1508.

The early explorers up the east Africa coast have left Portugal with bases in Mozambique and Zanzibar. Albuquerque extends this secure route eastwards by capturing and fortifying Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf in 1514, Goa on the west coast of India in 1510 (where he massacres the entire Muslim population for the effrontery of resisting him) and Malacca, guarding the narrowest channel of the route east, in 1511.

The island of Bombay is ceded to the Portuguese in 1534. An early Portuguese presence in Sri Lanka is steadily increased during the century. And in 1557 Portuguese merchants establish a colony on the island of Macao. Goa functions from the start as the capital of Portuguese India.

Rivals in the overseas trade: AD 1555-1595

With this chain of fortified ports of call, and with no vessels in the Indian Ocean capable of challenging her power at sea, Portugal has a monopoly of the eastern spice trade.

Indeed the English, now developing interests of their own in ocean commerce, consider that their only hope of trade with the far east is to find a route north of Russia. One of the first joint-stock enterprises, the Muscovy company chartered in 1555, results from early efforts to find a Northeast passage.

Of the other Atlantic maritime powers, Spain is mainly occupied with its American responsibilities. And the Dutch enjoy a direct benefit from Portugal's trade. Their ships have a monopoly in ferrying the precious eastern cargoes from Lisbon to northern Europe.

The situation changes suddenly in 1580, when the Spanish (perennial enemies of the Dutch) occupy Portugal.

The Spanish leave control of the Portuguese empire to Lisbon, but the political change in itself does damage to Portugal's trading interests. Deprived now of their share of the eastern trade, The dutch resolve to build up a commerce of their own. Like the English, their first instinct is to look for a Northeast passage (a task which takes Willem Barents into uncharted waters). But in 1595 they decide that their best course of action is to challenge the Portuguese on the southern route.

It is a decision which will lead to major changes in the eastern trade. But in the short term, the greater volume of trade is now being carried out by Spain across the Atlantic.

Trade winds: from the 16th century AD

The development of ocean travel in the 16th century brings with it an increasing knowledge of wind patterns. The phrase 'trade wind' is ancient. Deriving from an old use of 'trade' to mean a fixed track, it is applied to any wind which follows a predictable course. Since such winds can be of great value to merchant ships making long ocean voyages, the term becomes understood in the 18th century to mean winds which favour trade.

The best known trade winds are those in the Atlantic which blow from the northeast in the northern hemisphere and from the southeast south of the equator. This predictable pattern explains why ships sailing between Europe and the Cape take a wide curving course through the Atlantic.

Even more useful as trade winds are the monsoons which blow in the Indian Ocean. Their particular benefit to long-distance merchantmen is a change of direction at different seasons of the year. The northeast monsoon blows from October to March and the southwest monsoon from April to September.

East indiamen therefore schedule their journeys to arrive at their eastern destination before the spring, and to depart for Europe again during the summer.

Spanish silver: 16th century AD

The wealth of Spain's new colonies in Latin America derives mainly from silver. In 1545 a prodigious source of the metal is discovered at Potosí, in modern Bolivia. This region, high in the Andes, is so rich in both silver and tin that it eventually has as many as 5000 working mines.

In 1546, a year after the discovery at Potosí, silver is found at Zacatecas in Mexico. Other major new sources of the metal are found in Mexico in the next few years. At the same time sources of gold are being tapped, though in much less quantity.

Convoys of Spanish caravels, after delivering to Portobelo the European goods needed in the colonies, carry back to Spain the precious bullion with which the colonists pay for it - together with the 20% of all gold and silver due to the Spanish crown.

These treasures attract privateers from northern Europe - meaning privately owned vessels operating, even if informally, on behalf of a government. Their captains are drawn to the Spanish Main (the mainland of Spanish America, where the ships dock) like wasps to a honey pot. Sailors from England, such as Francis Drake, prey on the Spanish fleets in what is effectively a programme of national piracy.

At the Spanish end, all trade has to be channelled through the official Casa de Contratación (House of Trade) established in Seville in 1503. This monopoly brings great wealth to Seville, and an increase in prosperity from this flow of bullion spreads outwards through Europe. The region of Seville, and indeed the whole of Spain, cannot provide all the goods required by the colonists. Raw materials and manufactured goods from far flung regions make their way to Seville for transport to America.

Europe in the 16th century is already experiencing, for other reasons, an inflationary pressure. The Spanish bullion has an added effect in pushing prices up.

The Atlantic cod trade: AD 1497-1583

The voyage of John Cabot in 1497 directs European attention to the rich stocks of fish in the waters around Newfoundland. Soon fishing fleets from the Atlantic nations of Europe are making annual visits to catch cod. They bring with them large supplies of salt. Summer settlements are established, on the coasts of Newfoundland, to process the fish before it is transported back to European markets in the autumn.

England plays a leading role in the trade, and in 1583 Humphrey Gilbert formally annexes Newfoundland on behalf of the English queen. It is a claim which does not go undisputed - particularly by France, whose fleets are the main Rivals of the English in these waters.

Dutch trade in the east: AD 1595-1651

The first Dutch expedition round the Cape to the far east, in 1595, is captained by Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, a Netherlands merchant whose only knowledge of the orient comes from trading in Lisbon. The survivors of this journey get back to Holland two years later. They bring valuable cargo. And they have established a trading treaty with the sultan of Bantam, in Java.

Their return prompts great excitement. Soon about ten private vessels are setting off each year from the Netherlands to find their fortune in the east. The States general of the newly independent Dutch republic decide that this unlicensed trading activity, in distant and dangerous waters, needs both control and protection.

In 1602 the States general form a Dutch East India Company, with extensive privileges and powers. It is to have a tax-free monopoly of the eastern trade for twenty-one years. It is authorized to build forts, establish colonies, mint coins, and maintain a navy and army as required.

With these powers the company takes only a few decades to deprive Portugal of the spice trade. A capital is established at Batavia, in Java, in 1619. The Portuguese are driven out of Malacca by 1641 and from Sri lanka by 1658. But the main focus of Dutch attention is the Moluccas - the Indonesian islands of which the alternative name, the Spice Islands, declares their central importance in the eastern trade.

The Moluccas are the source of the most valuable spice of all, the clove, coveted for many different purposes - as a flavour in food, as a preservative, as a mild anaesthetic, as an ingredient in perfume, even to mask stinking breath. In pursuit of Moluccan cloves, and also nutmegs, the Portuguese make local treaties as early as 1512.

In the early decades of the 17th century the Dutch East India Company gradually excludes the Portuguese from trade in the Moluccas. The Dutch also take on, and oust from the islands, another European nation attempting to get a foothold in the region - the English East India Company.

The Dutch control the trade in cloves with ruthless efficiency. During the 17th century clove trees are eradicated on all the Spice Islands except two - Amboina and Ternate - to limit production and keep prices high. Strict measures are taken to ensure that plants are not exported for propagation elsewhere (a restriction successfully maintained until the late 18th century).

The Portuguese never recover their trading strength in the east. But in expelling the English from the Moluccas, the Dutch unwittingly do them a favour. The English East India Company decides to concentrate its efforts on India.

Meanwhile the Dutch company has taken a decision, small in itself, which has momentous results. Dutch sea captains have discovered that it is feasible to sail directly northeast across the Indian Ocean from the southern tip of Africa. This makes The cape a very important port of call for taking on water and fresh supplies.

In 1651 the company decides to meet this need by establishing a small Dutch settlement on the bay beneath Table Mountain. By now there is also a thriving Dutch colony on the other side of the Atlantic.

This History is as yet incomplete.

English trade in the east: 17th century AD

On the last day of the year 1600 Elizabeth I grants a charter to a 'Company of Merchants trading into the East Indies'. Early voyages prove successful; by 1614 the East India Company owns twenty-four ships. But competition with the Dutch in the Spice islands leads to violence, culminating in a massacre of English merchants at Amboina by their Dutch rivals in 1623.

This disaster causes the company to concentrate on its interests in India. In 1613 a factory (meaning a secure warehouse for the accumulation of Indian textiles, spices and indigo) has been formally established on the west coast, at Surat. The first English vessel with a cargo of these Indian goods sails from Surat in 1615.

Surat remains the English headquarters on the west coast until it is gradually replaced, between 1672 and 1687, by Bombay (given to Charles ii in 1661 as part of the dowry of his Portuguese bride, Catherine of Braganza, and leased by him to the company in 1668).

Meanwhile the English are establishing secure footholds on the east coast. Fort St George is begun at Madras in 1640 and is completed in 1644. Calcutta is eventually selected, in 1690, as the best site for a trading station in the Ganges delta; it is fortified, as Fort William, in 1696. By the end of the 17th century the three English presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta are securely established.

Triangular trade: 18th century AD

The triangular trade has an economic elegance most attractive to the owners of the slave ships. Each of the three separate journeys making up an expedition is profitable in its own right, with only the 'middle voyage' across the Atlantic involving slaves as cargo.

Ships depart from Liverpool or Bristol with items in demand in west Africa - these include firearms, alcohol (particularly rum), cotton goods, metal trinkets and beads. The goods are eagerly awaited by traders in ports around the Gulf of Guinea. These traders have slaves on offer, captured in the African interior and now awaiting transport to America.

With the first exchange of merchandise completed, the slaves are packed into the vessels in appalling conditions for the Atlantic crossing. They are crammed below decks, shackled, badly fed and terrified. It is estimated that as many as twelve million Africans are embarked on this journey during the course of the Atlantic slave trade, and that one in six dies before reaching the West indies - where the main slave markets on the American side of the ocean are located.

The most valuable product of the West indies, molasses extracted from sugar cane, is purchased for the last leg of the triangle. Back in England the molasses can be transformed into rum. And so it goes on.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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