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The influence of war on trade, and vice versa, is a constant in human history. In the mid-fifteenth century this relationship produced one of human history's great watersheds. In 1453 the Orthodox Christian city of Constantinople (Byzantium or Istanbul), heir to the Roman Empire, fell to Sultan Mehmet II (1429–1481) and his Ottoman armies. The capture of Constantinople, on the boundary of Europe and Asia, was followed by a series of conquests that established the Ottoman Empire. Although Constantinople had been in decline, the loss of a great Christian metropolis was still a shocking blow to the crowned heads of Europe. Its connection to European trade patterns was even more significant than the loss of one city, however. Since it lay at the crossroads of east-west trade, the fall of Constantinople forced European merchants and statesmen to explore new avenues of commerce with the Far East, especially by sea.


For many years after 1453 the Ottoman Empire (and Mongol civil wars) barred Europe's overland access to Asia. This was no small matter. Far Eastern spices were essential for the flavoring and preservation of meat, and the trade itself was an important part of Europe's Renaissance economy. Following advances in ship design, charts, and navigation, the Portuguese were already venturing along the African coastline searching for sea routes to Eastern commodities. The Ottoman conquests provided further incentive, eventually opening the world to a global system of trade centered on and largely benefiting Europe. It was no coincidence that during this era many explorers such as Columbus and Magellan set off in search of new trade routes to East Indian spice islands.

Renaissance warfare did not just encourage new trades negatively by blocking established routes. Mehmet used a huge siege cannon to batter Byzantium's walls, and this period saw the real beginning of gun warfare. Sulphur, saltpeter, and wood for carbon were all extensively traded as ingredients for gunpowder. Armies were growing larger, and armed with artillery and handguns; they needed greater quantities of metals, especially iron, copper, and tin. When the Spanish Armada embarked on its planned invasion of England in 1588 they imported gunpowder from Germany and Italy, copper from Hungary, and (ironically) English tin. There was also an exchange of human skills as Genoese carpenters and caulkers arrived to prepare the Spanish vessels.

Commercial concerns sometimes led rulers to avoid conflicts. Fear of losing Levantine trade privileges made the Venetians reluctant to confront the Ottomans after 1453. In 1509 a French-led coalition attacked Venice's mainland territory. England's Henry VIII (1491–1547) was tempted to join but declined, fearing his traditional enemy France would gain at the expense of Venice, an important trading partner. Still, trade was not always an excuse to avoid war in the Renaissance. In the case of some Baltic conflicts, and when Genoa fought Aragon for control of the western Mediterranean, wars were mainly based on economic motives. To many rulers of the period, though, commercial warfare carried a stigma. Following war with the Duke of Savoy, France's Henri IV (1553–1610) asked for territorial concessions on the basis of profitability, not status. The action was considered shameful because it supposedly put Henri's purse above national honor.

This attitude was changing. Led by Spain and Portugal, Europe expanded outward following the Ottoman conquests. Wealth poured into the Continent. Gold and silver arrived from Spain's new American territories, while spices flowed in from Asia, and slaves from Africa. Financial endeavors were increasingly linked to the pursuit of "civilized" life. As early as 1479 Spain and Portugal signed the first treaty concerning European trade in non-European waters. Other powers coveted the Iberian nations' commercial empires. By the late sixteenth century economic issues became a central motive behind conflict. In the 1600s a series of true trade wars developed. At their center was the new nation of Holland.

Holland itself grew out of conflict. As part of their battle for independence from Spain, the Dutch took to the seas. They eventually replaced Portugal as the leading maritime power, following that nation's union with Spain in 1580. Spain was also weakened after its unsuccessful Armada invasion of England in 1588. Making profits at the expense of their former masters was a guiding principle of the Dutch—an effort spearheaded by their Dutch East India Company. In the early seventeenth century they swept down on Portugal's old Eastern empire, replacing them as the principal traders to Japan and Ceylon. The Dutch goal was domination of the spice trade to Europe and the East Asian trades. Through to the eighteenth century they were largely successful, even if this meant the destruction of local shippers and elimination of rivals. Relying on their naval might, the Dutch became the dominant European trader in the Indian Ocean and Indonesia, while maintaining a strong presence in the China seas.

The Dutch were determined to fight for their position as the globe's greatest traders. In the first half of the 1600s the Netherlands battled the Spanish-Portuguese fleets for control of commodity trades such as sugar. Dutch commercial priorities then brought on war with the English Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658). The First Dutch War (1652–1654) was fought almost solely for reasons of trade. The English, determined to match Dutch maritime power, passed a Navigation Act in 1651 that restricted the delivery of imports to vessels from either England or the commodity's place of origin. Also, colonial exports could only be transported in English ships. Holland's prosperity, especially its carriage of Baltic goods, was threatened. The two nations went to war, and the English navy, for the first time organized into a disciplined force, bested the Dutch. The next round of the conflict, which erupted in 1665, was also commercially based, especially on disputed trade to the Guinea Coast of Africa, and a new Navigation Act (1660). For the victorious Dutch (who fought with French and Danish aid) the war's outcome secured a reduction in English import duties. A third Anglo-Dutch conflict (1672–1674) was fought with few lasting consequences.


Cromwell's naval reforms were retained by his successors under the restored English monarchy, largely because they protected shipping and colonial trades. These trades were now worldwide, with the beginnings of English commerce to India and the Far East established. In the Eastern Hemisphere, Europe, and North America, England's main rival was no longer the Netherlands: most of Europe's eighteenth-century wars involved France's bellicose "Sun King," Louis XIV (1638–1715), and his successors. Although these were not trade wars per se, commercial factors were important.

From 1689 through 1783 Anglo-French warfare, with a shifting cast of allies, was almost constant, with a notable break from 1714 to 1739. One goal of these wars was to prevent French domination, both in Europe and abroad. On the other hand, they were fought with an eye to expanding English (British from 1707) colonial holdings and thus its overseas trade. British business interests largely supported the wars, which increased domestic industries such as shipbuilding and armaments. The wars also opened up new territories to British commercial exploitation, as King George III (1738–1820) admitted in 1762. Until 1775 most of these wars benefited England at France's expense. The War of the Spanish Succession (1702–1714) left Britain with new territory and trading privileges. Acadia (Nova Scotia) was taken from the French, along with a number of other possessions. Spain granted Britain a limited right to ship slaves to its colonies, and allowed a British merchant vessel to trade there annually. (A dispute over these privileges led to another war in 1739, which soon involved France). The War of the Spanish Succession also weakened Britain's old commercial rivals, the Dutch, who had since become military allies. Britain's own trade actually increased, due in no small measure to the Royal Navy's role, set out in 1708, of protecting merchant vessels against enemy action. Britain reached a high-water mark during the Seven Years' War (1756–1763): the "miracle year" 1759 saw the capture of Quebec by General James Wolfe (1727–1759), and a spectacular naval victory at Quiberon Bay, France. Another theater of war was India, where British interests were upheld by the East India Company, a private trading monopoly. With peace in 1763 Britain gained a number of territories such as New France (part of modern Canada), which had a great fur trade, and the West Indian islands of Dominica, Grenada, Saint Vincent, and Tobago. Given the success of their arms some Britons felt let down by the peace. France kept many of its possessions, including those in India, plus their valuable share of the Newfoundland fishery. France had its revenge twelve years later when they helped Britain's American colonists win their independence in the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783; French phase, 1778–1783).

The American War of Independence marked the beginning of the French Bourbon kings' last struggle against their old rivals. In 1789 the monarchy was overthrown and a French Republic proclaimed. From the 1790s until 1815 France, first under revolutionary governments, and after 1804 as the empire of Napoleon Bonaparte, waged almost constant war against Europe's monarchies. The nations fighting for and against France (or those that tried to remain neutral) varied, but Britain remained its constant enemy. In what was a truly global conflict, trade was less a cause than a weapon. As in the earlier Dutch wars, the main commercial aspects of the conflict were resolved at sea. Both France and Britain knew that destroying the other's trade would be critical to winning the war. Napoleon's solution was the Continental System, which tried to prevent the French, their allies, and neutrals from trading with Britain. Britain responded with the Orders in Council, which imposed a counter-blockade. Both systems were economically disruptive, but French industry suffered more. In the end, the most serious consequence for Napoleon was his disastrous invasion of Russia, which had initially joined but later withdrew from the Continental System. After a series of British naval victories ending with that at Cape Trafalgar in 1805, the French were reduced to a hit-andrun war at sea against British trade. Following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 Britain gained even more colonial territories with captive markets and raw materials. Controlling the seas and a vast landward empire, Britain became the undisputed master of world trade for almost a century.

In the interim, British trade sanctions contributed to the War of 1812 (1812–1814) with its former colonies, the United States. War was declared by the U.S. Congress in response to British impressment of U.S. sailors, and to defend the United States's right to freely trade as a neutral nation. The war almost split the republic. The New England states were bitterly opposed to disruption of their trade with Atlantic Canada, and they considered seceding from the union. In the end, neither nation profited from the contest, and most contentious issues were left as they stood in 1811. The only real losers were Native American Indians, some of whom had been crucial military allies and trading partners of Europeans in North America.

The later nineteenth century was notable for the absence of large-scale conflicts, in Europe although smaller wars broke out frequently. Only the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865) matched or exceeded the devastation of the European conflicts of 1689 to 1815, and it was limited to one nation. The Civil War was mainly fought over the slavery question, but its combatants used the lessons of the Napoleonic era by making war on trade. The Northern (Union) forces blockaded Southern ports, and the Southern Confederates responded by outfitting blockade runners to bring in valuable imports—not only arms, but even luxury goods. They also commissioned commerce raiders, mainly in Britain, to attack Union merchantmen and whalers. Ultimately, Northern resources and manpower brought them victory.

The Opium Wars (1839–1841, 1857–1858) developed from Chinese attempts to suppress British trade in the drug, which had been conducted out of India since the eighteenth century. Used to buy Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain, the opium trade reached about 25,000 chests (each containing 130–160 pounds) per year by the 1830s. With its superior firepower, Britain twice bested China. British victory ensured that the profitable, if immoral, commerce continued, and it opened up new Chinese "treaty ports" to European traders. To defend these interests, Japan, Russia, Great Britain, the United States, Austria, and Italy fought united for the only time in their history under a one (German) commander to subdue their Chinese opponents during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.


The twentieth century witnessed the two most devastating conflicts of all time, World Wars I (1914–1918) and II (1939–1945), both of which had a strong commercial aspect, especially at sea. Britain remained a leading maritime trader, and as an island nation was reliant on seaward imports and exports. Its principal opponent in both wars, Germany, was unable to directly match the mighty Royal Navy, so Germany's strategy in both wars was to attack the maritime lifelines that supplied Great Britain. Surface raiders such as the well-known Bismark, along with submarines (U-Boats), threatened to strangle Britain's—and later, the United States's—trade. In both cases they nearly succeeded. World War II's massive bomber campaigns were also partly directed at industry and trade.

From 1941 to 1945 the United States fought a second front, against imperial Japan. Surprisingly, Japan had become Asia's leading power after the U.S. naval squadron forcibly opened the nation to trade in 1854. By the late 1930s Japan was engaged in a war of conquest aimed at China. The United States had long supported China's national integrity as a free-trade area under the so-called "open-door policy." Japan's 1941 Pearl Harbor attack was brought on by a U.S. threat to close their markets to Japanese goods and cut off the oil supplies essential to a mechanized army. During the conflict the United States waged its own successful submarine campaign against Japanese commerce and supply lines.

In the end the Allies, as the United States, Britain, and their colleagues were known, won both world wars. Especially in World War II, this was accomplished by a large contribution in lives and materials from Russia (Soviet Union). The result was an economically and ideologically divided world. The West represented free-market capitalism and democracy, whereas the Communist East defended state-controlled economies and societies. Two major wars involving the United States and (indirectly) the Soviets erupted, in Korea and Vietnam. Both wars were as much a battle for markets as they were for minds.

Warfare is still endemic and at least partially governed by trade concerns. The two Gulf Wars (1991, 2003 and after), in which the United States and its allies fought Saddam Hussein's Iraq, were of this nature. In the first, an Iraqi invasion of its neighbor Kuwait was motivated—and resisted—largely by a desire to control the smaller nation's oil reserves. The second Gulf War, though launched to dismantle Hussein's destructive capacity and failure to comply with United Nations resolutions, was also grounded in a need to provide stability in the oil-rich region. These fairly recent conflicts, with their trade connections, are certainly not the last of their kind.

SEE ALSO Arms, Armaments; Blockades in War.


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David J. Clarke