Luxury Products. Because of the difficulty of transport, the luxury trade was the most conspicuous part of long-distance trade in medieval Europe. Traders had to expect large profits for the things they imported or there would be little point in assuming the risks. There were two varieties of luxury trade in Europe in the fourteenth century. The first variety was internal to Europe itself. A few regions specialized in high-quality manufacturing in traditional European products. The most notable were the woolens and silk industries in the towns of Northern Italy and the Low Countries (present-day Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg). This internal European luxury-trade made cities such as Bruges and Florence prosperous beyond the usual standards of manufacturing centers. The second variety of luxury trade was in products that were not manufactured in Europe. This long-distance trade was the most visible in creating great wealth.
World System. The European economy was already linked to the economies of other parts of the world in the Middle Ages. For example, Marco Polo’s famous journey to China began around 1270. He traveled a familiar route for merchants between the Middle East and China, though one that was seldom used by Europeans. Spices were the most desirable products from Asia because they were comparatively easy to transport and were in demand. Pepper was in particularly high demand because it added variety to a monotonous diet and helped preserve meats that had started to spoil. It has been estimated that up to a million pounds of pepper entered the European market in some years. Europe had comparatively little of luxury value other than gold and silver to offer China and India in return for their products, so there was a considerable trade imbalance.
Levant Trade. At the beginning of the Renaissance, the key to long-distance trade was in the Mediterranean. Access to the Chinese and Indian markets passed through Muslim lands controlled by either Arabs or
Turks. Europeans called all of the trade that flowed from that direction the Levant trade, their term for the Middle East in general. The situation made shipments precarious, since Christians and Muslims had been fighting in the Middle East since the Crusades in the eleventh century. Until 1450, there was only one Christian outpost in the eastern Mediterranean, Constantinople (now Istanbul). When that city fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, many Europeans feared that they would be permanently cut off from important luxury goods.
Venetians. On the European side, the primary carriers of the Mediterranean trade were the Venetians. The city-state of Venice was noted for its strong naval power and astute merchants. In the fifteenth century, there were 42,000 seamen and shipbuilders in the city. In the 1370s, the rival merchant city-state Genoa tried to break Venice’s dominance of the Eastern Mediterranean trade but was defeated and forced to turn its attention westward. As the Turks were subduing Constantinople, the Venetians were cementing control over a network of islands in the Aegean, right up to the gates of Constantinople, as well as extending their control in the Italian peninsula. Thus, Venice had one of the greatest concentrations of wealth in all of Europe. It was a crossroads of trade and had a reputation for both the positive and negative attributes that this implied: it was exciting, at the cutting edge of culture, and prosperous; but it was also filled with price-gougers, thieves, and prostitutes, offering nearly any vice that could be imagined. In the second half of the fifteenth century, Venice fought against the Turks to maintain its privileged position in the eastern Mediterranean.
Portuguese. Venice’s near monopoly of the luxury trade in the Mediterranean made it the object of envy and com-petition from other parts of Europe. In 1415 a small principality took the first step toward trying to break that monopoly. King John of Portugal captured the Moroccan fortress of Ceuta, just across the Strait of Gibraltar, from the Arabs. This act began a century of exploration and economic expansion westward and southward. In the 1430s Portugal, now ruled by Prince Henry the Navigator, began to settle the Atlantic islands of Madeira and the Azores. The Portuguese used these islands as staging areas for voy-ages along the African coast. The Spanish kingdom of Castile, not wishing to be outdone, occupied the Canary Islands. The immediate goal of such exploration was to find a way to the source of African gold in the Senegambia, which, up to that point, was available only from long routes run by Muslim merchants through the Sahara Desert. Prevailing wind conditions, sail technology, the desolation of the African Sahara coast, and complete ignorance about what the South Atlantic might be like all made exploration dangerous. However, by 1446 the Portuguese had reached the mouth of the Senegal River and had begun to set up trading posts. The explorations proved profitable and gold began to flow back to Portugal. Africans also grew a kind of pepper, which, while not as coveted as East Indian pepper, formed an adequate substitute and created competition for the Venetian spice merchants. In addition the Portuguese began to cultivate the Atlantic islands to produce cash crops such as sugar. In the 1430s, Henry the Navigator authorized Portuguese shippers to trade for slaves on the African coast. Some of these slaves were transported to Madeira and the Azores to work in plantations, and this slave trade was the beginning of what was to become a big business in later centuries.
Sea Route to India. Portuguese success in exploring the west coast of Africa opened the possibility for an even greater source of profit. The African trade was still not as lucrative as the spice trade that flowed through the Indian Ocean, but perhaps it was possible to sail to the Indian Ocean around Africa. For the rest of the fifteenth century, Portuguese explorers sailed down the African coast, hoping to find a route to India. All the while, they set up new trading posts, drawing more of Africa into the European trade network. When Bartholomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in Southern Africa in 1488, he proved that a sea route to the Indies was possible. The decline of the Mediterranean economy was set in motion.
Discovery of the Americas. The shift from the Mediterranean economy to an Atlantic economy became even more pronounced with the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Although Europeans were intrigued by new products discovered in the Americas, such as tobacco, potatoes, and maize, those products had relatively little impact on the European economy before 1600. The most important import from the Americas in the first decades was gold. Conquistadores captured centuries of accumulated gold from the Aztec and Inca empires as plunder. Not long after that initial influx of precious metals, the Spanish established silver mines in present-day Mexico and Bolivia, which became the main source of revenues from colonies for the rest of the sixteenth century.
Baltic Trade. The gold and silver of the Americas flowed into Spanish ports, bringing wealth to one strata of merchants, but Spain was often just a way station in the circulation of wealth. The reorientation toward an Atlantic economy created a new crossroads for merchants and goods: the city of Antwerp in the Low Countries. Gold and silver flowed into Antwerp to support another long-distance trade in bulkier commodities throughout northern Europe.
Herring Merchants. In the late Middle Ages, control of the Baltic trade in timber, iron ore, and grain had been in the hands of an association of German towns called the Hanseatic League. By 1500 the towns of the Low Coun-tries had taken over leadership of that Baltic trade, with Antwerp gaining the most from that dominance. Dutch towns could rely on a steady supply of wheat and rye shipped from Prussia and Poland. In exchange, Dutch traders sent woolen cloth and fish to the East. They perfected their shipbuilding techniques for merchant vessels operating in the northern environment. In the North Atlantic, fishing banks proved to be dependable sources of profit, as were the silver mines of Spanish America. The Dutch were disparaged as “Herring Merchants,” but their prosperity became the envy of the rest of Europe. Antwerp’s position declined in the course of the Dutch Revolt (1568-1648), to be replaced by Amsterdam as the pivot of the North Atlantic and Baltic trade.
Below is an account taken from Tome Pires’s Suma Oriental (1515). Pires was contador (accountant) of the royal factory at Malacca and is generally recognized as the best early Portuguese observer of East Indian trade.
China is a profitable voyage, and moreover whoever loads up . . . sometimes makes three for one, and in good merchandise which is soon sold.
And because this loading of the junks is a very profitable matter, as they sail in regular monsoons, the king of Malacca derived great profit from it. They gave the king one third more than they give to others, and the king made the man who dealt with his money exempt from dues, so that it was found that from this loading of the junks a great store of gold was brought in, and it could not be otherwise. And here come the kings of Pahang, and Kampar, and Indragiri, and others, through their factors, to employ money in the said junks. This is very important for anyone with capital, because Malacca sends junks out, and others come in, and they are so numerous that the king could not help but be rich. And the said merchant who dealt with the king’s money had a share; he got pride and freedom, and they welcomed him gladly and paid him In due time. For this the king had officials to receive the merchandise and grant the said rights, and this was attached to the custom house, in charge of Ceryna De Raja, the Bamdara’s brother.
If when the time is up the said merchant has no gold to pay with, he pays in merchandise according to the vale in the country, and when he pays in merchandise it is more profitable for one settled there. This is the custom if you have not contracted to be paid in gold. But the merchant prefers merchandise to gold, because from day to day the merchandise goes up in price, and because trade of every kind from all parts of the world is done in Malacca.
And should anyone ask what advantage to his exchequer the King our Lord can derive from Malacca, there is no doubt that—once the influence is finished that this ex-king of Malacca still exercises, and also once Java has been visited, to win the confidence of the merchants and navigators, and of the kings who still trust the false words of the king of Bintang, who does more mischief among relatives in one day than we can undo in a year—there is no doubt Malacca is of such importance and profit that it seems to me it has no equal in the world.
Anyone may note that if someone came to Malacca, capable of sending each year a junk to China, and another to Bengal, and another to Pulicat, and another to Pegu, and the merchants of Malacca and for the other parts took shares in these; if a factor of the King our Lord came to tax money and merchandise so much per cent as aforesaid; and if someone else with officials came to take charge of the custom house to collect dues; who can doubt that in Malacca bahars of gold will be made, and that there will be no need of money from India, but it will go from here to there? . . . Malacca should be well supplied with people, sending some and bringing back others. It should be provided with excel-lent officials, expert traders, lovers of peace, not arrogant, quick-tempered, undisciplined, dissolute, but sober and elderly.... Courteous youth and business life do not go together; and since this cannot be had in any other way, at least let us have years, for the rest cannot be found. Men cannot estimate the worth of Malacca, on account of its greatness and profit. Malacca is a city that was made for merchandise, fitter than any other in the world. . . . Wherefore a thing of such magnitude and of such great wealth, which never in the world could decline, if it were moderately governed and favoured, should be supplied, looked after, praised and favoured, and not neglected.... And it is true that this part of the world is richer and more prized than the world of the Indies, because the smallest merchandise here is gold, which is least prized, and in Malacca they consider it a merchandise. Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice. As far from Malacca, and from Malacca to China, and from China to the Moluccas, and from the Moluccas to Java, and from Java to Malacca and Sumatra, all is in our power.
Source: J. H. Parry, ed., The European Reconnaissance: Selected Documents (New York: Walker, 1968), pp. 109-122.
Networks. By 1600 there were three distinct trade net-works that were beginning to become interconnected. The Baltic and North Atlantic trade was dominated by the Dutch, but the English and French also began to take an active interest in it, which led to the settling of North American colonies in the 1600s. The Caribbean trade was dominated by the Spanish, but in the course of the Dutch Revolt, the Dutch became serious rivals because of privateering. The Indian Ocean trade also passed from the hands of the Portuguese to the Dutch, who took the initiative in establishing colonies in modern Indonesia. The full implications of the Dutch role in all three of these trade circuits would only become apparent in the seventeenth century, when the Netherlands were widely recognized as the wealthiest part of Europe.
James D. Tracy, ed. The Rise of Merchant Empires: Long Distance Trade in the Early Modern World, 1350-1750 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System, volume 1: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Academic Press, 1974).